By: Ryan Kelly
Imagine writing 730 pages to narrate the events of one day.
In Ulysses, James Joyce uses 18 chapters to traverse the novel’s 24-hour timeframe. The story flashes back and forth, alludes to myths, includes cheeky puns, and fluctuates between prose and Leopold Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness. In the end, you’re left with a deep impression that resonates - a book that’s even more comprehensive than it seems.
When writing most meaningful essays, pre-meds might feel jealous of Joyce (except for the blindness and syphilis, of course). All that space just to cover one day! On the other hand, medical schools expect pre-meds to capture their hundreds of hours of experience in just 1325 characters.
If you don’t already know, you’ll need to write most meaningful essays about three of your activities in your AMCAS. For these three activities, you’re given additional space beyond the normal 700 characters to describe their greater significance.
A most meaningful essay could represent months or years of your effort. All that countless time and energy boiled down to a few paragraphs. Keeping your personal statement to 5300 characters was hard enough. How is it even possible to convey an activity’s significance in such a small amount of space?
Even though you don't have a Joycean number of pages, you can still make these essays interesting for the reader and reflect well on yourself in your hopes of securing an interview.
Like Joyce, I plan to be pretty thorough here. I want this article to guide you through the most meaningful essay writing process, from start to finish. Hopefully you’ll have final products that fit within the limit, but don’t feel limited!
Step 1 - Choosing Your Three Activities
If you’re in doubt about what to choose, many students will include one medically oriented activity, one leadership activity, and one extracurricular (research, service, etc) with a significant commitment. As long as you’ve invested significant time and energy into the activity (compared to your others), then it’s fair game for a most meaningful essay.
Prompt: Describe the impact you made and the personal growth you experienced through this activity.
Pay attention to the wording of the prompt. Most of the time (with perhaps the exception of shadowing), students will be able to discuss their impact. The trickier part is to identify which experiences have caused the most personal growth.
Once you’ve narrowed down your possible choices based on time and commitment, you’ll want to ask yourself some brainstorming questions to determine the best activities and angles to explore in your most meaningful essays.
Remember that it’s okay to overlap the experiences of the personal statement and most meaningful essays, as long as you don’t repeat stories or lessons verbatim.
Which of the activities had the most setbacks or failures? Can you recall one or two specific moments that required your resilience?
Which of the activities presented the steepest learning curves? Why were they so challenging? Did you have to change something about yourself to succeed?
Did any of the activities expose you to people much different than yourself? Were their difficulties in communicating and collaborating with them?
Which of the activities most surprised you? Can you recall any moments within them when your perspective on medicine or life shifted?
Did you get more than expected out of a particular activity? Why? Vice versa, were there activities that disappointed you for some reason? How did you respond?
Which of the activities made you the most apprehensive? Why? Can you recall one or two moments that pushed you outside your comfort zone?
Which of the activities taught you a new skill that you otherwise wouldn’t have learned? Did you learn or realize how you could apply this skill moving forward?
You can probably see a trend - we’re looking for moments of suffering, moments of hardship and doubt, moments of conflict and tension.
Why? Because those moments are the ones that cause the most personal growth. They’re also the moments that will illustrate your best qualities and show that you can overcome obstacles. In essence, a most meaningful essay is trying to convey a before-and-after picture of you based on the experience. Like the arc of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, you need to show how your character changed and developed.
There’s one more brainstorming question to consider before making your selections:
Are any of the activities connected to your life events or background? Do any of them have a special personal relevance?
If you answered yes to this question, that can be an added bonus. Even though it seems easy, many pre-meds struggle to explain the personal motivations behind their choices in activities. If you’re working in an oncology lab because a family member died of cancer, or you’re tutoring underprivileged kids in the same rough neighborhood where you grew up, these personal ties can help distinguish an experience as “most meaningful.”
If you have more than three valid options, go ahead and write more essays than you need. Each one is not that many characters, and any unused most meaningful will be a readymade secondary essay for down the road. Writing more than three lets you experiment and see which angles work out the best.
Step 2 - Avoiding Cliche Traps
You need to recognize the genres you’re writing in, so that your most meaningful essays don’t sound like everyone else who’s writing about the same types of experiences.
Let’s cover some of the common genres and their cliches:
These essays often start with candidates entrenched in the lab, hunkered over some kind of complex experiment or equipment. It’s often hard to distinguish what’s actually happening in layman’s terms. There’s often a list of jargony phrases and techniques that were mastered over time, followed by a takeaway about analytical skills, attention to detail, and problem solving.
TA / Tutor
These essays often start with some line about being “met with blank stares” from student(s). Then they discuss some concept/lesson that went poorly and the steps the candidates took to improve their communication. They typically end on the reward of “finally helping the student(s) make a connection.”
The worst essays of this genre start with some meeting, like an executive board, and then catalogue the various obligations and responsibilities that had to be balanced. Ironically, these leadership essays are devoid of characters and dynamic team situations. The narratives often get bogged down in boring administrative details, just like the activities themselves.
These essays often start with an introduction to some patients and/or families in the hospital, with a description of their injuries or symptoms. The candidates might comfort them, listen, and/or offer them a warm blanket. The essays end with takeaways about the power of compassion and doing anything within their limited power to help someone.
Shadowing / Scribing
“Dr. X is so amazing.” “I was in awe of Dr. Y’s impeccable bedside manner.” “In the future, I want to emulate Dr. Z in all my endeavors.” Within this genre, the candidates are often peripheral in the essays, passively observing the doctors and staff with admiration. The essays usually end with a declaration about filling their shoes one day.
If possible, try to deviate from these themes and cliches. For example, think about what makes your leadership experience unusual or memorable - maybe you had to run an event while suffering from a stomach flu, or maybe you had to lead people who were much older than you?
But if the cliche examples sound all too familiar, don’t fret. The real reason things come off as cliche is because they lack specificity and memorable details. Even if you fall into the conventions of a genre, you can still make the essay unique through your voice and storytelling.
Step 3 - Telling Your Story
If you like numbers, I’d say a most meaningful essay is about 70% storytelling, 30% reflection. The examples and concrete details are the key to convincing your reader of your personal growth and the activity’s significance. It’s not enough to just say it.
With such limited space, it’s best to focus on one powerful story that best exemplifies the activity overall. If you cover everything, the different parts will be diluted of their power.
It’s important to remember that you already have 700 characters to describe the activity’s responsibilities, tasks, noteworthy accomplishments, etc. So when you write the most meaningful portion, just dive right into your narrative. The readers will already have plenty of context, so don’t bother anchoring them with tons of factual information.
You’ll need to be economical with your characters, so consider your story’s function and intentions before writing. Let’s break down an example to see how a most meaningful works:
Genre: Leadership Position
Example: Resident Assistant
The hook uses imagery or lively language to draw you into the setting and story, while also quickly introducing the major conflict.
Broken exit signs. Smashed ceiling tiles. Bulletin boards smeared in lewd graffiti. Not exactly a wholesome environment for a dormitory.
I was a new sophomore RA, and ResLife expected me to monitor a rowdy bunch of junior football players in Murphy Hall.
The plot focuses on the most pivotal actions, conversations, or events, and then explains their consequences and resolution.
When I covered the floor rules, the guys laughed and rolled their eyes while tossing a ball around. Most were on the cusp of legal drinking age and took advantage of that grey area. As I addressed noise complaints, I struggled to gain cooperation from manchildren who viewed me as a mascot. Things turned sour when I wrote up their teammate while on duty. I felt like I was living with a crew of strangers, or worse, enemies.
But I finally earned their respect when I escorted one of them to the hospital after a near overdose. I coached him through the unpleasant process of drinking liquid charcoal, and he assured the team that I had their backs. Later, a few of them helped me fix the ceiling and confronted the floormate who vandalized my flyers.
The reflection covers the most important lessons and takeaways, explaining how the experience has shaped / will shape your actions and perspective.
In the future, I will need to gain people’s trust--whether patients, families, or colleagues. Some will be doubtful, confused, or angry, potentially viewing me as a threat or outsider. As an RA, I learned the importance of showing consistent and genuine concern as a way to break down barriers and forge relationships.
Why does this example succeed?
The readers receive a vivid, concrete glimpse into the experience; they can clearly see the conflicts and happenings of the plot.
There’s a clear resolution that illustrates the candidate’s impact on the people and situation.
The chosen story exemplifies the overall challenges and rewards of the experience in the bigger picture.
The reflection clearly explains why the lessons of the experience were crucial for the candidate’s development, and why they’ll be useful moving forward.
You can also use these 5 Qualities of the Best Personal Statement Stories as a resource.
All that in 1318 characters! You see? It’s possible! Joyce ain’t got nothing on us.
Don’t expect to achieve the perfect balance between showing and telling right away. Like any other writing, a most meaningful essay requires several messy iterations before it will look and feel polished like our example above. But if you follow my steps, I guarantee things will be less messy for you.
Finally - don’t underestimate the power of the most meaningful essays. They’re not merely elaborations on the activities; they’re important narratives that set the tone for your whole application. If done well, they’ll create a great first impression, provide key insights into your character, and make you much more memorable to admissions committees.
Best of luck!