How to Avoid Sounding Naive in Your Personal Statement

doctor_office_premed_shadowing

By: Ryan Kelly

Consider the following introduction to a personal statement:

“It’s time to get back on the horse,” Rosie said, referencing her earlier days as champion rider. “I’ve handled bigger hurdles than this.”

Rosie winced in pain as she gripped her walker, but her grimace quickly turned into a smile. She glanced down at her knees, and then lifted her head to look around the office. She beamed at me and the nurse, but she reserved the most heartfelt look for Dr. Jones.  

Rosie had just taken her first steps in two years. Not only had Dr. Jones successfully replaced her knee, but he had also directed the therapy that gave her the strength to once again move on her own. “Thank you so much,” she said, hugging him. “You’ve given me a second chance.”

Months later, Dr. Jones showed me a holiday card from Rosie, posing with her prize horse. Rosie represents the rewards and joy of medicine. To me, nothing would be more fulfilling than to help people on a daily basis, alleviate their pain, and get them “back in the saddle.”           

What’s wrong with the excerpt above? There’s plenty to like about it: the use of a personal anecdote, the decent writing, and even the detail. But it makes a classic mistake that you should avoid if you can: the “why medicine” is naive. It only focuses on the positive outcomes of being doctor, which - while incredible - aren’t typically an accurate depiction of a day in the life of a doctor.

 

Step 1: Understand the Downsides of a Life in Medicine

We must first acknowledge just how hard it is to be a doctor these days. Why is it so hard? Most doctors are burned out. Pressure is increasing to see more patients in less time (undermining the patient-physician relationship). Many doctors (and many pre-meds) are perfectionists who refuse to admit mistakes but inevitably make them anyway. Add to that a huge debt load from medical school and precious little time with family and friends, and it’s easy to see why doctors want out of their profession.

The statistics are telling:

9 of 10 physicians do not recommend becoming a physician.

Less than half of all doctors would choose medicine if they could make the decision again.

Approximately 300 physicians commit suicide every year.

 

As a result, medical schools are actively looking for students who know what they’re getting into, so that they don’t drop out when they realize that being a doctor is not the same as it used to be. Be sure to acknowledge these downsides so that medical schools are convinced that your reasons for becoming a doctor are realistic.

 

Step 2: Get Quality Exposure to the Field of Medicine.

  • The remedy is to get quality exposure to the profession. What counts as exposure?
  • Shadowing physicians in different fields
  • Clinical volunteering, with meaningful interactions with patients (not just answering phones)
  • Becoming a medical technician (such as an EMT, a medical scribe, or a phlebotomist)
  • Clinical research
  • Working as a medical assistant
  • Assisting at a free clinic

Really, you can’t have too much exposure to the field. Successful applicants typically log 300+ hours of the above activities. Most importantly, they can answer the question “why medicine” without sounding naive.

 

Step 3: Openly Acknowledge Medicine’s Problems in your Personal Statement

Let’s consider the earlier anecdote about Dr. Jones, Rosie, and her horse. The problem is that the writer used an overly positive experience to represent medicine as a whole, when in reality the job presents a range of emotions, complications, and limitations.

The writer doesn’t need to focus strictly on the negative, but he or she definitely needs to show the other side of medicine.     

“It’s time to get back on the horse,” Rosie said, referencing her earlier days as champion rider. “I’ve handled bigger hurdles than this.”

Rosie winced in pain as she gripped her walker, but her grimace quickly turned into a smile. She glanced down at her knees, and then lifted her head to look around the office. She beamed at me and the nurse, but she reserved the most heartfelt look for Dr. Jones.  

Rosie had just taken her first steps in two years. Not only had Dr. Jones successfully replaced her knee, but he had also directed the therapy that gave her the strength to once again move on her own. “Thank you so much,” she said, hugging him. “You’ve given me a second chance.”

But for every Rosie in Dr. Jones office, there were several patients whom he simply could not help. Whether it was insurance issues, surgical complications, or irreparable conditions, I watched him turn people away, refer them elsewhere, and deliver terrible news. Several patients gave him hugs, but he was met with just as many tears and angry accusations.

Every patient’s hurdle is different, and some hurdles are impossible to jump over, no matter what medications or treatments a doctor prescribes. Each case presents its own disappointments, and hopefully, its own lessons and rewards. I see medicine as an opportunity for lived experience, both miraculous and tragic, where every moment is a chance for redemption, peace of mind, and genuine human connection. Medicine is an emotionally-charged career with much at stake, but that’s precisely why I am so drawn to the field.

As you can see -- same essay, different “why medicine” statement. Is the second one perfect? No. But it presents a deeper, fuller view of medicine and removes the red flag of naivete. It shows that the student is not only prepared for the challenges, but also recognizes the hidden reward of those challenges.

 

Want to sound more like the second essay? Then get as much experience as you can, especially in challenging situations like free clinics, psychiatric wards, oncology departments, etc. Try to interact with a variety of patients -- old and young, abled and disabled, senile and non-responsive, terminal and despondent. A nuanced, original “why medicine” statement will emerge as you expose yourself to the grittier, less glamorous side of the healthcare field.