How to Know Your Personal Statement is Finished

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By: Ryan Kelly

“Voila! Magnifique! It’s perfect - my masterpiece, my opus - it’s finally complete!”

I’ve never once heard these words come out of a pre-med’s mouth. Since the personal statement is challenging and the stakes are high, pre-meds usually struggle to know when their essays are finished.

This doubt can cause them to overthink, share their essays with too many people, and make unnecessary changes that reverse their progress.

But of course, they also shouldn’t settle or rush to call something complete. This decision, a crossroads of sorts, is a common dilemma for any creative endeavor.

Let’s take the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for example, painted by Michelangelo over the course of four years, as he toiled in uncomfortable positions amongst the chapel’s scaffolding.

According to historical reports, despite the breathtaking beauty of the work, Michelangelo felt dissatisfied and recognized it as unfinished. However, he felt reluctant to set up the scaffolding again and decided that additions would distract from his original conception.

Like most pre-meds, Michelangelo could imagine some greater version of his work - an even better version or execution. But he also knew when to call it quits.

How can you know when your masterpiece is finished? How can you determine whether that extra brush stroke will complete the picture or muddle things entirely?

It’s a tricky part of the writing process, but I’ve compiled some questions to help you objectively determine whether your personal statement is finished:

1. Does your personal statement unequivocally state why you want to be a doctor?

It seems self-evident that a personal statement should answer the question “Why do you want to be a doctor?” But students miss this target for several reasons:

  1. They reflect on or editorialize about medicine, rather than clearly stating their motivations for entering the profession. Even if the ideas are insightful, that’s not enough. Look back at your essay and make sure you’re hitting on the central motivations.

  2. They explain what they admire about doctors they’ve shadowed, and use that information as a stand-in for their own “why medicine?” Being impressed by doctors isn’t a clear or good enough reason.

  3. Their reasons for medicine could apply to many other careers, like a nurse, a PA, a researcher, a social worker, or a teacher. Take inventory of your “why medicine” statements in the essay and try to narrow their focus, so that there’s no doubt that a doctor is the one and only career for you.

Click here to read more about common mistakes students make when writing their personal statements: Caution! Medical School Personal Statement Don'ts.

2. Did you have an objective editor of your personal statement?

It’s easy for writers to fall in love with their own ideas, or assume that their message will be received as intended. Most of the time, writers are clouded by their closeness to the writing and the events it narrates.

It’s crucial to have an objective editor of your work who has some insight into the world of medical school admissions - an admissions counselor, a doctor, a medical student. It’s nice if you have a friendly relationship with this person, but don’t choose someone whose opinion will be skewed, like a family member or best friend.

Hopefully their feedback will communicate whether your intended message came across, while also revealing your oversights and possible ways your words could be misconstrued. Their objectivity will also help isolate what’s unnecessary and make the trimming process less painful.

Don’t trust the subjective minds of humans? Try submitting your personal statement to the Hemingway Editor, an online app that grades your writing for readability and points out areas of clunky syntax or construction.    

3. Does your personal statement sound like you?  

Having an editor is great, but there is such a thing as having “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Sometimes pre-meds share their personal statements with several people (I’ve heard reports of 40+ readers!), and over time, all that accumulated feedback can dilute your own voice.  

If your personal statement has been over-edited by countless hands, go back and make sure that any of the edited portions still sound like something you'd say. Good writers steal, but they also reshape the ideas to make them their own.

4. Did you read your final draft out loud?

The value of this step should not be underestimated. Take off those headphones, eliminate all distractions, and read the essay out loud several times.

This process has many benefits. For one, you’ll catch typos or missing words that your eyes and brain didn’t register. You’ll also have heightened attention to the flow, revealing key places where you should vary up sentence structure or cushion a certain transition.

Lastly, it will give you a clearer sense of the essay’s resonance. Does a story end abruptly? Does the conclusion fall flat? How did you feel when you finished reading it? You’ll have an easier time reaching these epiphanies if you force yourself to read it out loud.

Click here to find out The Secret to Telling a Great Story In Your Personal Statement.

5. Have you given yourself enough time and space while writing your personal statement?

Michelangelo took four years to “finish” the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Of course, pre-meds don’t have the luxury (or punishment?) of working on their personal statements for that long.

However, you can still work ahead of the deadline, which will let you revisit the personal statement after a few weeks, or even months, of not touching it.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King explains that he writes the first draft of a novel in three months, and then tucks it away in a desk cabinet, not even peeking at it for at least another month. That way, when he does eventually re-read it, he can view it with more distance and clarity, as opposed to lots of obsessive self-editing along the way.

In essence, the goal is to simulate what it’s like to be an outside reader of your work. If you take the time and space for this step, and you feel happy with the result, that’s a good sign that the personal statement is finished.

But more than likely, this step will expose areas of possible improvement, and you’ll feel tempted to make changes. And that’s great! If you worked ahead, you’ll still have plenty of time to go through these questions again and reach a final draft that makes you proud.

Voila! Magnifique!