3 Foolproof Ways to Make Your Personal Statement Memorable

memorable_personal_statement_medical_school

By: Ryan Kelly

Since the dawn of time, there have been many different cultures and societies with various beliefs on medicine.

Ugh. Scratch that.

What exactly is ‘medicine?’ Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “the science and art dealing with the maintenance of health and the prevention, alleviation, or cure of disease.”

Oh god no.

As the great thinker Paracelsus once said, “Medicine is not only a science, but also an art.”

Alright I’m going to have to stop us right there.

These hooks are bad - more likely found in English 101 papers than medical school personal statements. In fact, they’re inspired by my time teaching clueless freshmen how to write.

If you scoffed at these lines, then good, your instincts are spot on.

But what if I challenged you to write your own hook right now? Think you could do better? Go ahead - I’ll wait - take all the time you need:

Write your own personal statement hook:

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Maybe you came up with one, maybe you didn’t. But my guess is that it wasn’t easy and that you didn’t feel satisfied.

 

Why are personal statement hooks so challenging to write?

1. Getting started feels daunting.

You often don’t know where you’re going or where you’ll end up. Discussing medicine in relation to your entire life story feels impossible. No hook feels good enough for the perfect, all-encompassing essay that you envision.

“I want to talk about translational research, but I also want to mention the free clinic for the underserved. Oh, and my three weeks in Ghana. How can I tie that together with my grandma’s cancer and my brother’s mental problems? Is there a hook for all of that?”

Every year, I watch perfectionism and self-consciousness cripple pre-med writers. They “pre-write” things in their heads for weeks, maybe months, never getting anything down on the page. They ponder ways to somehow combine all the different angles or ideas they want to explore, rather than writing one solid, focused essay. They forget that the personal statement is just one element of the primary application (and the last one that admissions officers read!).

Don’t get me wrong, outlining and pre-writing are great strategies - they might help you figure out a way to callback to your hook at the end, or how to make its theme emerge throughout.

But DON’T be fooled into thinking that the muse will suddenly strike and you’ll knock the personal statement out in one brilliant sitting. Writing is a process, and most personal statements take three or four revisions. Sometimes your hook won’t even reveal itself until you’ve warmed up and word-vomited a few paragraphs.

Your hook doesn’t need to be all-encompassing (which is impossible anyway). As we’ll see, most good hooks rely on their specificity and narrowed scope.    

2. Every idea sounds cliche. Especially the ideas that feel most honest or authentic.

Ever since doctors cured my grandfather’s cancer, I have wanted to pay forward that same service to other patients and their families.

Even as a child, I had medical aspirations. I remember using my toy stethoscope on my three younger siblings as we ‘played doctor.’

Family illnesses and childhood dreams are important, but they’ve become cliche due to their overuse. I’ve written about these cliches before:

THE 5 MOST OVERUSED SENTENCES IN PERSONAL STATEMENTS

3 TECHNIQUES TO AVOID SOUNDING CLICHE IN YOUR MEDICAL SCHOOL PERSONAL STATEMENT

It’s frustrating to realize that your motivations towards your life’s calling are cliche, unoriginal, run-of-the-mill. But it’s okay. Most pre-meds have similar reasons for choosing medicine (helping people + using science), so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to make it your wheel by figuring out what makes your story/application distinct.      

3. Every intriguing or creative idea feels too risky. You’re not writing the next experimental novel, after all.

“I was thinking about comparing medicine to the ingredients and layers of a burrito. Like an extended metaphor. I could also compare the healthcare system to an open wound - that’s attention-grabbing, right?”  

Okay, there is such a thing as TOO risky. Fancy extended metaphors or blatant shock value might not be the way to go.

But most of the time, pre-meds play it too safe. Playing it safe might mean straying away from “frivolous” storytelling or “tangential” information that could actually be the most memorable or unique aspect of their experiences.

Pre-meds don’t have many opportunities to write about themselves, and their academic and research experiences don’t always encourage risk-taking. They never have to worry about grabbing the reader’s attention in their lab reports. So playing it safe might also mean sticking to the expository writing that they’re accustomed to in academia (all telling, no showing).

You have to change your mindset when writing a hook.

Imagine you’re a journalist writing a feature story about your life. Or you’re writing a memoir about your pre-med journey. You need to make a good impression right away and compel the audience to continue reading. For example:

Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. Our research team in the Philippines had taken every precaution. But somehow a rogue mosquito had managed to venture into the booties designed to protect my feet. When I looked down at the angry inflammation on my foot, I couldn’t believe the damage inflicted by such a tiny creature. The gruesome edema around my ankle served as a direct reminder of the mosquito-borne diseases that ravaged this community.

In general, it’s smart to open your essay with a problem, a failure, an unexpected challenge, a surprise, an ethical dilemma, an unsolved mystery, etc. All of these strategies create a “narrative question” that the reader wants answered. You might be worried about sounding too negative, but trust me, it’s okay. The conflict and tension are what make it interesting.

 

Regardless of the content, here are three qualities of a good hook:

1. Good hooks are counterintuitive.

If something on your pre-med path has surprised you or upended your expectations, it might be a great thing to use as a hook. Chances are, it will surprise the reader too.

Cotton candy. Heavy metal music. American Ninja Warrior. Not what you’d expect to encounter in palliative care. But then I met Jimmy, a teenager with terminal cancer. A few months earlier, the words “children’s hospice” almost seemed like an oxymoron…
I’ve always been known for my sweet tooth, but I never expected that all the gummy worms and peanut butter cups would lead me to medicine. Growing up, I was resented for my lightning-fast metabolism, never gaining weight despite my sugary indulgences. On the outside I seemed healthy, but my sweet tooth had a secret cavity. At 18, I was diagnosed with secum diverticulitis and told that I had the digestional tract of a 60-year-old…

2. Good hooks are contrarian.

To illustrate this idea, let’s take one of our previous example hooks and make it better.

Even as a child, I had medical aspirations. I remember using my toy stethoscope on my three younger siblings as we ‘played doctor.’

This type of narrative is expected. It could benefit from a reversal:

When my six-year-old nephew told me he wanted to be a doctor, I didn’t give him a high five or tell him “that’s awesome.” Instead, I asked, “Are you sure? That’s a pretty tough job.” I know it sounds harsh, but it’s the same question I was asked growing up. There are several doctors in our family, but they never push the career on their children. Instead, the career choice is more of an interrogation.  

3. Good hooks are morally ambiguous.

Again, let’s take one of our previous examples and make it better.

“Ever since doctors cured my grandfather’s cancer, I have wanted to pay forward that same service to other patients and their families.”

This type of narrative is too straightforward. It needs more tension and ambiguity:

I couldn’t understand my grandfather’s decision to give up. When he looked the doctor in the eye and refused treatment, my heart sank. The prognosis was grim, and he did not want to endure more chemo with such a low recovery rate. To me, the 5% was worth the agony, but I was being selfish. My family pleaded with the doctors to help change his mind, but they had to respect his decision.
It took me years to realize this was the humane thing to do.       

Remember the hook you wrote earlier? With these qualities in mind, take a shot at revising it:

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Getting started can be the toughest part of the writing process, but hopefully my advice helps you jumpstart your essay with a memorable hook that feels authentic and distinct.