February 5, 2018

3 Tricks to Getting Started on Your Personal Statement

Rob Humbracht

By: Rob Humbracht

Few things are as intimidating as a blank screen. What should I say? Where do I begin?

That’s the reason I'm doing this 21-day writing challenge in the first place: to thwart the perfectionism, excuses, and other BS that prevent me from writing on a regular basis.

You, dear pre-med, may harbor this same perfectionism. If I tell you to write a personal statement exercise, you may find yourself freezing up. Why? Because it feels so unfamiliar. It's like taking a jog after a long break from exercise: you know how to use your legs, but they feel weak. You've written plenty of lab reports, but after years of science classes, your creative writing muscles have atrophied.

Even if you can get the words flowing, though, the second challenge is the inner monologue (which drives you, but also drives you crazy): the one telling you that you're not good enough and need to work harder. Most successful pre-meds have a voice like this. Let it run rampant and you'll end up neurotic and overwhelmed. Harness it for good, and you’ll work harder than you thought possible. It's incredibly helpful when used appropriately.

Except in writing. That voice telling you to work harder won't make your writing better. Instead, it will just tell you what you already know: that your writing sucks. The more you think about this, the more you analyze your writing and the less you actually write. That's a problem, because good writing is about getting crappy words on paper so that you can revise later.



Instead of thinking about whether your writing is good, start with the 200 Crappy Words Principle: every time you sit down to write, your goal is to put 200 crappy words on paper. Surpass 200 words and feel like keeping going? By all means. But if after 200 words you're feeling stuck, then by all means quit.

Aim for consistency. Two hundred crappy words a day for 21 days is, like, 50,000 words* - more than enough to get you through your personal statement and medical school essays.

*This is a writing challenge, not a math challenge.



When working on the personal statement, try to wear different hats - one for writing and one for editing. If it helps, you can actually buy and wear one.

Once you're done with your writer hat, switch to the editor hat and analyze all you want. Revise, revise, revise. Trim the fat and break out the thesaurus. The goal is to compartmentalize and separate the two roles, so that you can write freely but also edit objectively.

Sometimes this takes more than switching hats. For example, you might need a little time and distance from the writing before the editor hat will fit properly. Hopefully you can accomplish this with a few walks around the block. If not, throw the writer hat back on and work on another idea that comes to mind.



There's a simple trick to solve the "blank page" problem I mentioned earlier: never finish your thought before you stop writing. It's tempting to wrap up that paragraph, to tidy up the final phrase, and then call it a day. However, it’s smart to leave yourself hanging. Given how OCD many pre-meds are about organization, this may seem sacrilegious, but hear me out.

If you finish that thought, you're left the next day with the same blank page as the day before. If you're lucky, that last paragraph will flow naturally into the next, but most paragraphs don't. And you're left again with the green light and your writing car at rest.

Instead, try to leave yourself some bread crumbs for the next time you sit down. The most obvious is to leave a paragraph half-finished, but you could also type up a list of ideas or words to pursue in later writing, even if they’re unrelated to the current paragraph. I call this a "brain dump." You can either dump your brain as a stand-alone exercise or keep a tally as you write.

For example, in my writing challenge, I'm writing a lot about the challenge of writing itself.  Things I may want to write about would be:

  • Finding a writer you admire
  • My favorite book on writing
  • What are my chances? (I get this question a lot, so I'm considering writing about how to tackle this it yourself, rather than relying on the advice of strangers on the internet.)

Now, I have at least three topics to pursue when I sit down tomorrow. In fact, I'm even going to refuse to finish today's article just so that...

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