By: Ryan Kelly
Compelling stories. An authentic voice. Sharp editorial discernment.
When pre-meds start writing their application essays, they often lack these intangible qualities that will make them stand out. Sure, you’ve gotten good grades in your science classes, amassed hundreds of volunteer hours, and earned a good MCAT score. But the act of making yourself come to life on paper, to write a personal essay, will feel as foreign to pre-meds as binge drinking and slacking off.
The best writers read constantly and practice their craft every day, so you won’t be able to fix your writing overnight. But if you focus your energy on the three most critical parts of your personal statement - the hook, the core story, and the “why medicine” statement - you can still write a stand-out essay, even if your writing is average.
Let’s break down the components of the personal statement and compare average versus compelling examples.
The Personal Statement Hook
The hook is the opening line(s) of your essay that grabs the reader’s attention and compels them to keep reading. Ideally, the hook will pose a problem, share an unexpected challenge, or reverse the reader’s expectations about a situation.
My reasons for choosing medicine are multifaceted, and my decision was gradual, rather than the result of one epiphanic moment.
As the son of two physicians, I’ve grown up alongside my mother’s pediatric patients and shared a painful ACL recovery with my father’s post-op surgical patients.
After shadowing doctors in several different specialties--including oncology, primary care, and cardiology--I’ve realized that compassion is at the heart of medical practice, regardless of what body part or ailment is being treated.
These hooks might seem solid. But upon closer look, we realize that:
- They address the topic of medicine right away, at the expense of actually piquing the reader’s interest.
- They fall into different cliches (parents who are doctors, showing “compassion”).
- They tell, rather than show - they are devoid of concrete details, sensory descriptions, and imagery that would help the reader feel something.
Unlike most people who spend their Christmas Eve at malls or on vacation, I spent mine moonlighting as one of Santa’s elves at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
My daily coffee isn’t needed on Friday mornings. Instead, opening the classroom door to the 3rd graders at 32nd Elementary School brings me the jolt I need.
During my first day working at the cell biology lab, I was lost. I was a tourist in a foreign land, armed with my Biology text as a guidebook.
Notice how the compelling examples:
- Contain a unique and authentic voice
- Narrow the scope to a specific moment
- Introduce some unusual comparison, metaphor, or reversal of expectation
Being a Christmas elf, teaching school kids, and “navigating” the biology lab are all great ways to get to know the writer’s values and personality, and they all could easily transition into the motivations behind the writer’s choice of medicine.
The Personal Statement Core Story
A “core story” is any anecdote in your personal statement that is used to support your reasons for “Why medicine?” These are “show; don’t tell” at its best. Rather than tell the reader your strengths or weaknesses, a core story allows you to show your personality through your observations, and most critically, your actions.
When I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in Haiti, my eyes were opened and my worldview expanded. Until that point, I had only heard about the destruction caused by the earthquake years earlier. Although pictures and newspaper stories about the aftermath are what compelled me to volunteer, it was not until I saw the plight and chaos of the Haitian people’s living conditions that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their strife.
What’s wrong with this typical example?
- There is too much focus on Haiti, not enough on the applicant.
- The plot and details of the narrative are not especially relatable (unless the reader has also been to Haiti and volunteered).
- There isn’t much concrete support for the writer’s claims about being emotionally touched by the experience.
Haiti was hot and humid–no surprise. But for a native Canadian like me, waking up to 90-degree weather and 95% humidity initially felt impossible to bear. It didn’t take long, however, for me to reflect and realize that my discomfort paled in comparison to the destruction and emotional suffering experienced by the Haitian people. Although pictures and newspaper stories about the earthquake’s aftermath compelled me to volunteer, actually interacting with locals, like 8-year-old Emmanuel, who cried tears of joy as we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that lifting people’s spirits was just as important as improving their physical conditions.
Notice how the compelling example:
- Focuses on the applicant throughout (personal background, key reflections, concrete moments)
- Includes a more relatable plot and narrative (temporary discomfort, a changed outlook)
- Contains an authentic voice (honest admittance to the reader, specific examples)
The “Why Medicine?” Statement
It should be the main point of the essay: why you want to be a physician. Most pre-meds struggle to say it without being cliche. They struggle to find their own compelling reason, but they mostly end up sounding the same. Let’s look at a typical one.
I have wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember. This aspiration stems from my desire to apply the biological sciences towards helping others. It would be incredibly rewarding to improve lives and live a life of service. I love the feeling I get when a patient thanks me for helping them. Through all my experiences in the health field, there have been many instances that helped me grow as an individual. I want to learn more and use my talents and knowledge to give back. I want to protect people and show compassion as I fight the diseases that plague my community.
Let us count the problems with this example:
- Almost every career in healthcare lets you apply biological sciences toward helping others. Why do you want to be a doctor?
- There is nothing to distinguish this statement from another candidate; in other words, these reasons would apply to ANY personal statement.
As I grew older, I failed to reconcile my family’s religious faith with the suffering I saw in the world. People around me preached about divine intervention and God’s plan, but I couldn’t see any logic to these ideas when life seemed chaotic. Science introduced me to the concept of entropy, which reflected my worldview, but it also showed me that we can make sense of life’s confusing, troublesome phenomena. As I researched and shadowed physicians, I realized that medicine drives our progress and collective understanding. It finds answers for unsolved mysteries and unlocks hidden mechanisms so that we can rectify injustices and restore people’s livelihood. Medicine is the closest thing I have to faith, and it’s the ideal way for me to achieve purpose in life.
This “Why medicine?” statement isn’t better simply because it’s longer. It’s better for many reasons:
- Its reasons directly build off the personal narrative that makes the candidate’s story unique.
- It has a good combination of selflessness (helping others) and self-interest (how the career will fulfill/stimulate you unlike any other).
- It has a nice balance of idealism and realism - it’s neither naive nor overblown.
- The reader walks away convinced that medicine is the one and only career for the candidate.
Be specific. Be personal. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Follow these guidelines, and you’ll be able turn your average personal statement into a stellar one!