Finding Your Angle in the Personal Statement (Part 2)

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By: Ryan Kelly

Most pre-meds struggling to write their personal statements are worried about two things:

  1. They feel like they don’t stand out
  2. They feel like their essays are cliche

These two problems are related, of course: the definition of cliches is the overuse of essay tropes, which then fail to stand out.

A solution to both problems, though, is to find your own angle to the personal statement. We’re not asking you to reinvent the wheel. 50,000 people apply to med school every year, so it’s unlikely that you’ll find a unique way to say “why medicine.”

Rather, finding your angle starts with looking at the successful approaches of past students, students who have actually gotten into medical school. Find one of the angles that resembles you, and you can put your own spin on the essay. You can be confident that it’s going to work (since you’re basing it on positive outcomes of other students), but also that it’s not cliche (because you’ve tailored it to your situation).

In part one, I covered “Personal Hardships,” “Outside Expertise,” “Mini-Specialists,” and “Globetrotters.” If those sound like you, click here: Finding Your Angle in the Personal Statement, Part 1

I’m back to introduce four more possible angles and expound on the good and bad ways to handle them. Hopefully one of them will give you the inspiration you need.    

 

Angle #5 - The Patient Turned Doctor

Have you or a loved one experienced serious illness from the patient side of care?

Examples: Family member with cancer

  •      Grandparent with Alzheimer’s
  •      Former athlete with debilitating injury
  •      Parent or sibling who suffers from severe OCD

By the time students apply to medical school, it’s likely that they’ve lost an important person in their lives. Opening with a death in the family or focusing too heavily on loss can be tricky (and potentially cliche), but it can effective with the right tone and approach.

On one hand, if a wound is fresh, you might not have the objectivity or distance needed to write about it clearly. But if it’s something untimely and severe, like a parent’s suicide, it’s impossible to leave it out of your story.

The goal is to channel your grief into powerful anecdotes that connect to your interest in medicine. I recall one former student who narrated the last time he saw his father alive, which steered his essay towards the theme of “second chances.” This theme served as an convenient transition into medicine: “I realized the best way for me to help others attain the second chances that my dad couldn’t was to apply my passion and skills towards a career in medicine.”

Whether you’re discussing a family member, friend, or your own history as a patient, the lessons from the experience can permeate the entire personal statement and anchor your essay with a theme that is easily digested and remembered.

Besides serving as inspiration to provide patients with options and lifelines, experiences with death or serious illness allow a candidate to empathize with suffering and relieve people’s burdens. In the case of my former student, he conveyed this empathy through stories about Asperger's patients and low-income minorities who were desperate for a fresh start (“second chances”) after being diagnosed with diabetes.

Like any other theme or angle, you should strive to personalize the information as much as possible, through specific details and events, so that you deviate from the more cliche versions of the same conventional topic. This relies on your ability to show, not tell.  

 

Angle #6 - Time to Scrub In

Do you have a medically-related story which is so surprising, unusual, suspenseful, intense, or impressive that it simply must be told? (HINT: you should be an active participant in the story)

Examples:

  • Translating crucial, life-saving information from Persian to English
  • Assisting with trauma surgeries in a makeshift Sri Lankan clinic
  • Helping to amputate a gangrenous limb
  • Providing CPR when someone choked or collapsed in public

A lot of good stories begin in the middle, and some even start close to the end. For many students, the best approach is to open their personal statements with a recent clinical anecdote that illustrates their current immersion in the field, their poise in hectic situations, and their meaningful contributions to a healthcare team.

All candidates have clinical experiences, but pre-meds are often limited within their shadowing or volunteering roles. If for some reason you’ve had the chance to “scrub in” during a crucial moment or dire situation, it can be gold for your personal statement.

But you need to be careful. In some cases, your involvement might seem inappropriate, as if you’re overstepping your boundaries, so you need to explain the unusual circumstances that demanded your action. It’s most convenient when you’ve been trusted and called upon by the nurses, doctors, etc. Their request is likely the only justification you need.

It’s also important to remember your own smallness in the grand scheme. DO NOT overstate your impact or position yourself as the “catalyst” or “savior” of the situation. Humility is key. Remember that your unforgettable experience is also unforgettable to the patients involved, for much different reasons. As in all medical cases, the patient’s well-being should be the priority in your account, as opposed to your breakthrough moment a pre-med caregiver.    

A good idea would be to focus on the challenges faced by the doctors in the situation, or the bedside manner they exhibited after the procedure. Even though you had an impact on the outcome, the medical schools are more interested in hearing about your personal growth as a result. What did you learn about yourself? About medicine? About the technical and interpersonal demands of a physician? Hopefully you can spend the rest of the essay showing how the realizations of this event shaped your motivations and future actions.          

 

Angle #7 - The Achilles Heel

Do you have one major weakness that you believe is ruining your chances for admission?

Examples:

  • Disciplinary probation
  • Poor grades or test scores
  • Previous applicant
  • Lack of clinical experience

Even though pre-meds often strive for perfectionism, the truth is that no one is perfect. Whether it’s something minor like a C in a science course, or something major like a case of academic dishonesty, these blemishes present hurdles during the application process.

Even if you mention your discretions in the optional primary essays, your personal statement should still broach any potential red flags. Surprisingly, your failures can be the perfect angle to exploit in your essay. If executed properly, this strategy can actually endear you to the readers and show your relatability, honesty, and self-awareness. To achieve this, you’ll want to ride the fine line between justification and excuse, which requires carefully chosen rhetoric.

Pre-meds often worry about giving a “sob story,” but it’s important to make your justifications convincing to the reader. While it’s definitely possible to over-exaggerate and sound disingenuous, the “Achilles Heel” candidates should include as many details as necessary. You want to take ownership in the mistakes and avoid displacing blame, but you still need to make the reader understand why you slipped in your ethics and values. An effective method is to show a “compounding” of events in your life, which is often written as a catalogue of simultaneous pressures that leave you feeling overwhelmed.

The whole point is to present the blip in your record as an anomalous fluke based on extenuating circumstances. It’s wise to include accomplishments and impressive milestones since the time of your transgressions. Hopefully the negative event can be spun into strong personal characteristics and a positive attitude for the future.   

 

Angle #8 - Jack of All Trades

Are you having trouble selecting from your plethora of exciting stories and interests?

Examples:

  • Pre-med association president who captains lacrosse team and runs homeless shelter
  • Speech and debate champion who runs pre-health science camp for local youth
  • Student with extensive experience in pediatrics, palliative care, and psychiatry
  • Research lab coordinator with additional work experience in hospital administration

Sometimes the biggest challenge for pre-meds is figuring out what aspects of their experiences to discuss in their personal statements. For many, their experiences are long, multifaceted, and filled with various lessons and takeaways. It’s a good problem to have, except when students need to capture the experiences in 5300 characters.

The key is to choose the experiences that make you most distinct, and then find common denominators between them and medicine, even if the connections seem elusive or stretchy. Here are examples from a few of my past students, where they connect their disparate experiences to their healthcare aspirations:

As a Lyft driver, I became “a man of the people.” I learned to communicate tactfully and deliver a quality service. Through my political work in D.C., I solidified my desire to be a public health advocate and supplement my clinical care with humanitarian efforts. I hope to draw from my experiences lobbying to extend beyond clinical care and encourage preventative health. In doing so, I will bring patients to their final destination: a healthy life.

For years, I used my love for motorcycles to connect with people from all backgrounds. Over time, I realized that I loved these connections more than the motorcycle business itself. I’d always had an interest in science, but found it absent in my work. While participating in clinical trials and a free needle exchange, I became drawn to medicine because it integrated my problem-solving skills with biology, while still focusing primarily on people. Medicine would give me the opportunity to empower people on a greater scale. As a physician, I will no longer be fixing motorcycles to get people back on the road, but instead getting them back on their feet.

These students were both accepted to medical school. Anyone can write a gigantic tome about all their various experiences, but it’s a much greater challenge and achievement to focus on the most distinct ones and give them as much personality and emotional appeal as possible. This leads to fantastic storytelling and a well-balanced application with a unique and memorable voice.       

 

Regardless of your background, it can be helpful to see what angles have worked successfully for pre-meds in the past, but please do not view these categories as molds that you must fit perfectly.

I’ve read nearly every personal statement angle in the book. Sometimes I’m blown away by the topics themselves, but more often than not, I remember candidates for their voice and presentation of their ideas.

Any angle has the potential to sound cheesy, cliche, or contrived until it’s validated with qualitative evidence. That’s the key: personalizing your narrative through the details, voice, and lessons derived.

Best of luck finding your angle and executing it!