Finding Your Angle in the Personal Statement (Part 1)

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By: Ryan Kelly

Have you ever saved someone from drowning? What about rescuing a baby from a burning building? How about a cat stuck in a tree? Anything?

Alright, so you didn’t save anyone. But surely you could, right? Especially with your tri-cultural background and fluency in six languages! No? Not even close?

Not a problem. We’ll just fall back on your experience as a classically trained flautist? Or your brief stint as a circus acrobat? What’s that? I have the wrong file?

For many pre-meds, this brainstorming session from hell will sound all too familiar. They are determined to tell amazing stories that impress the admissions committees. But when they sit down to write, they end up feeling unoriginal. Or worse, their minds go completely blank.  

I’ve designed this article for pre-meds who feel stuck and need some direction. Hopefully one of my angles can serve as the springboard you need as a writer.

Why do you need an angle? I firmly believe that you don’t want to scatter the reader’s perception of you. You want your readers to walk away from your personal statement (and overall medical school application) with a clear picture--a certain association in their minds that makes you memorable.  

With that said, these angles aren’t meant to pigeonhole you. In fact, you should take them with a grain of salt, since each has the potential to be either cliche or masterful, depending on the execution. As we examine each angle, I’ll give tips to guide you away from cliches and towards mastery.   

 

Angle #1 - Personal Hardships

Do you consider yourself disadvantaged? Did you endure unusual hardships while growing up? Were you raised in a poor community, or a broken/abusive family? Are you an immigrant or non-native English speaker? Are you a member of an underrepresented or marginalized group?

Yes? Keep reading. No? Move on to Angle #2.

Examples:

  • Being raised on a strawberry farm and working in the fields

  • Immigrating from Korea and learning English on the fly in school

  • Working and paying one’s own way through college

  • Member of LGBT community

Some students hesitate to take this angle because they think it’s exploitive, but they forget that their disadvantages are part of what gives them merit as a candidate. Most of the time, they’re doing themselves a disservice by avoiding the topic.  

When writing about the hardship, put the readers in your shoes to illustrate the experience. Let your circumstances speak for themselves, rather than dramatizing a “woe is me” narrative. Show, don’t tell. Your response to the hardship is the most important part. Use examples, like countless nights at the public library filling out scholarship applications, to convey your persistence in the face of obstacles or limitations.   

The hardship angle is meant to convey perseverance, fortitude, etc, but it can also segue easily into empathy and sensitivity as a caregiver for patients who feel overwhelmed, ignored, lost, confused, vulnerable, etc. In the personal statement, you must answer “Why you?” and “Why medicine?” Discussing your past hardships can help answer both questions simultaneously.   

 

Angle #2 - Outside Expertise

Do you have any special expertise outside of medicine, such as art, music, culinary, wilderness, technology, athletics, or business?

Yes? Keep reading. No? Move on to Angle #3.

Examples:

  • Military personnel

  • Violinist

  • Wilderness responder

  • Lyft driver

Unique experiences outside the realm of medicine are a great way to make your personal statement more memorable. Pre-meds with these experiences typically fall into three categories:

1. A student who switched majors during college and started the pre-med path later than most.

Great. This automatically gives you a specific way to discuss medicine by comparing it to your former path and elaborating on why medicine will be more fulfilling or stimulating.  

2. A non-traditional candidate who has worked in a non-medical or medically-related field and wants to make a career change.

Even better. As long as you can show that you don’t have academic rust, you’ll stand out in a good way as a diverse candidate. You automatically have a distinct and compelling way to show your dedication to medicine.

3. The rare pre-med who had the time and gumption to pursue a non-medical endeavor strictly out of passion/commitment.

These pre-meds have worked smarter, rather than working harder, to open more time in their schedules for personally meaningful activities. They might create software, make music, perform spoken word poetry, double major in anthropology, run for student government, compete in speech and debate tournaments. The list goes on.    

All of these can be great angles for your personal statement, even if they seem too tangential or disparate from medicine. Think of them as running parallel to medicine, rather than working in opposition. Software complements the analytical side of a doctor’s work. Student government complements efforts in public health and policymaking. Speech and debate offers an objective viewpoint on medical ethics and ensures articulate bedside manner. Use your outside expertise to differentiate you from more generic candidates.  

 

Angle #3 - The Mini-Specialist

Do you have extensive experience in a particular area of medicine? Do you have enough depth in the area to call it your “pre-med niche?”

Yes? Keep reading. No? Move on to Angle #4.  

Examples:

  • Co-founder of a bioengineering start-up

  • Extensive experience in palliative care

  • Thoroughly published researcher with MD-PhD aspirations

  • Contributed to multiple clinical trials about addiction therapy

Mini-specialists are some of my favorite pre-meds. Why? Because their application activities have synergy and show trends in their motivations and choices. This personal relevance is rare among pre-meds, who often grasp at any activities they can acquire and end up with a hodgepodge of unrelated, disjointed experiences.

If you’re a mini-specialist, you’ll find the whole application process easier, including the personal statement. Depth always trumps breadth, despite claims people make about needing “a wide exposure.” Range is nice, but it’s not unique. Having a specific vision and the experiences to back it up - that’s far more impressive.

Mini-specialists also have an easier time executing a “capstone experience” that tops off their applications. If they’ve mini-specialized throughout college, then they’re usually in a good position to execute a significant, specialty-related project during their upperclassmen years. These capstone projects can be brought up near the end of the personal statement as a culmination of their pre-med paths, while also showing key qualities like initiative, follow-through, and leadership.

The only risk of being a mini-specialist is coming across as one-dimensional. But this fear is a tad misguided. You can easily avoid sounding flat by showing different facets of your personality within seemingly similar experiences. For example, if you co-founded a bioengineering startup, you could highlight different aspects of the process and your well-rounded roles in each - like presentations to investors (showmanship/communication skills), research & development (innovation/analytical skills), and implementation (patient care/bedside manner). In short, focusing on one thing doesn’t make you one-dimensional.

Another common concern for mini-specialists is the fear of going “all in” on a particular area of medicine, which might feel naive or presumptuous at such an early point in your path. This is similar to my high school clients who are terrified to trap themselves in a particular major. The truth is that the opposite is much worse. Admissions committees prefer candidates who have a vision, even if it’s one vision of many. You can always provide a disclaimer in your personal statement, which conveys that you’re committed to your vision, but also open-minded to new directions and opportunities in medical school. That’s all you need to avoid the dreaded trap.     

HOW TO STAND OUT IF YOU’RE TOTALLY AVERAGE: THE PRE-MED CAPSTONE PROJECT3 OUTSTANDING PRE-MED CAPSTONE PROJECTS TO INSPIRE YOU

 

Angle #4 - The Globetrotter

Do you have a travel experience, either medical or nonmedical, that has been transformative for your personal development or future aspirations?

Examples:

  • Bulgarian immigrant who lived in three countries and speaks a handful of languages

  • Medical immersion experience in Guatemala

  • Child of military parents who relocated every 2-3 years

  • Immigrating to America as a college exchange student

Writing about international volunteering can be a slippery slope into cliches. A big concern is coming across as naive or disingenuous (“I came, I saw, I conquered a poor nation’s problems in two weeks”).

The key is telling the story with real authenticity and humility. Rather than wasting precious characters by describing destitute villages (which could apply to anyone’s service trip), you might focus on ONE mentally disabled boy you met at the rehabilitation center. It’s wise to zero in on “characters” you encountered and the connections you made. It’s important to deviate from the typical narrative about giving shots and taking vitals at undersupplied rural clinics. You want to upend the reader’s expectations about this conventional topic.

Many pre-meds volunteer in a foreign country, but for most, the experience is over in a few weeks and they return to their normal lives. To stand out, make sure you show how the lessons and takeaways are applicable to your preparation for medical school. Explain how the trips abroad have relevance to your current approach, practice, and goals.

 

Don’t fit into one of these angles?

Then stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll outline four more tried-and-true approaches for the personal statement. I’ll even cover the “Jack of All Trades” angle for those of you who simply feel too well-rounded to fit snugly into some pre-med box.