By: Ryan Kelly
“Cool story, bro.”
Hang out with young people long enough, and you might just hear this phrase. As Urban Dictionary notes, it’s a sarcastic expression “used to indicate one's disgust or indifference towards a tl;dr story.” In case you’re wondering, “tl;dr” stands for “too long; didn’t read.”
This phrase certainly speaks towards our dwindling attention spans, but let’s be honest, there have always been bad stories and bad storytellers. It’s never been a good idea to waste your listener’s time.
Recently, one of our students at Passport Admissions came to us with some feedback from a personal advisor, a higher-up at the NIH. The feedback was that “You should never start your personal statement with a story.” Never? Dang. Seems a bit harsh, no?
Our guess is that this person has been subjected to way too many crappy narratives. In essence, she’s been left saying, “Cool story, bro” enough times to leave her jaded.
In our minds, the rule of never using a story is misguided, certainly too strict for our philosophy towards writing.
Just to be clear: it’s more than okay to open your personal statement with a story. In fact, it’s probably your best strategy for writing a compelling essay that stands out.
However, it’s important to consider what makes a story worth telling, so that even if you encounter a cynical reader, you’ll still be able to win them over.
These same rules would apply to the bad stories you tell your friends - the ones about your dream last night, your lunch that day, etc. If people are willing to take the time to entertain your ideas, then they shouldn’t have to do you any other favors as a listener or reader. Make it worth their time!
How? It’s all in the execution. Let’s look at some examples to illustrate each of our three points:
It was cold enough outside to freeze a winnebago. Not that anyone would know what a winnebago was in Russia, where I was spending my holiday break as a clinical intern. I saw my breath plume in the air through my ski mask as I trudged through the urban tundra to arrive on time each morning at the clinic. I remember mentally thanking my doting mother for forcing me to pack my industrial-strength, Gore Tex boots. As I climbed over a few humongous snow mounds, I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be cars buried underneath. Unfortunately, the people in the clinic sometimes felt just as cold as the five-degree-Celsius weather beyond our walls. The staff members were terse and brisk, even beyond the levels of burnout or desensitization that I had been warned about in healthcare. One of the security guards grunted to greet me on my way in, “удостоверение личности,” asking for my ID badge as he snuck a morning cigarette…
Is this a distinct voice? Perhaps. Are there some fun details? Yes.
But it has already used nearly 1,000 characters, or a fifth of the personal statement, just to set one scene. If this opening were designed to get a reader immersed in a voice and particular place, maybe for a memoir or novel, then it could possibly work. But for a medical school personal statement, it’s a frivolous use of precious characters. There is so much more to say - why the narrator was there in the first place, how this experience relates to her medical aspirations, etc. You can’t afford these broad-sweeping, “landscape” openings.
Watch how the same hook can be reduced to a few lines while still keeping its punch:
Trudging through the streets of an urban tundra. Climbing over cars buried in piles of snow. A grizzled security guard smoking a cigarette outside the clinic. Just a few of my introductions to healthcare volunteering in Russia.
See? Less is definitely more. It’s easy to fall in love with our own writing, especially idiosyncratic things like “winnebago” or “Gore Tex boots” that mean a lot to us but nothing to an outside reader. Only a few details are needed to draw the reader in and establish the setting and mood. Now the narrative can move onto more vital information before it loses its reader’s attention.
Want to learn how to write better hooks? 3 Foolproof Ways to Make Your Personal Statement Memorable.
As the doctor pressed the first of three needles into Maria’s stomach, I grabbed her extended hand and held on with all my might, white-knuckling the rail of the makeshift hospital bed with my other hand. As she gasped from the pinching pain, I thought about her family, her children, all the ways this procedure would benefit her in the long run. I couldn’t verbally communicate this idea to her in the moment, so I held on and did what I could to support her, to be the rock on which her waves could crash. This experience with Maria confirmed my desire to be a doctor and made me realize the importance of compassion as a future physician…
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the proverbial “hand-holding” story in students’ personal statements. Although a powerful moment in real life, this kind of story comes up flat in the admissions writing.
Here’s why: if I’ve read this hundreds of times as a pre-med advisor, then admissions committees must be inundated with this type of narrative. It can’t possibly stand out from others they’ve read in the same vein, or even more so, from the distinct patient advocacy stories shared by the most stellar candidates.
Not only do these narratives sound all too familiar, but they also come across a bit naive. Was the student not self-aware enough to realize the generic quality of this story? If holding a patient’s hand during one procedure was your primary motivation for being a doctor, and if you needed a patient like Maria to realize the need for compassion in medicine, then you’re probably going to come across as beyond the curve, in terms of maturity, insight, and depth.
I encourage you to find a story that’s more distinct and personalized to your experiences. Need some more ideas? The Secret to Telling a Great Story In Your Personal Statement
Carla’s case felt like an episode of 60 Minutes. She had a son with chronic pain, and she claimed that God had now connected their pain together as punishment. She complained of sudden and intense pain in her abdomen, inexplicably in the same place as her son. I watched in awe as things turned even more dramatic and the doctors held long meetings to determine what to do with her case. Her son clearly needed his issues addressed, but her unusual beliefs were making it hard to screen her for our study. For example, the guidelines of the hospital stated that we’d need to check her son’s pain regularly, along with Carla’s, having them rate the pain on the 1-10 scale, but this seemed counterproductive for a patient like Carla, who seemed prone to hypochondria and melodrama. This experience reminded me that medicine is complex and requires cultural sensitivity and patient accommodation; I couldn’t even imagine all the ethical considerations these physicians had to make beyond a typical course of treatment…
Like our story about Russia, this narrative has a few things going for it - it’s atypical and has some interesting details.
And it might seem like the writer has given an appropriate lesson or takeaway for the story, but let’s examine things from a bigger picture. The two questions you’re trying to answer in the personal statement are “Why medicine?” and “Why you?” This writer has spent over 1,000 characters without providing any information about who she really is as a candidate; plus, she’s only made reflections about the nature of medicine, as opposed to actually explaining her own motivations towards the career.
So yes, it’s a strange patient case that could have some use in the writing, but it’s ill-executed and doesn’t prioritize the two most pressing questions it needs to answer.
When crafting any story in your personal statement, especially an introductory paragraph, it’s paramount to understand the story’s function and remember your biggest priorities as a writer.
I hope these warnings help you avoid the dreaded fate of boring storytellers. Your goal - and it’s a steep one given the cynicism of admissions officers - is to have someone read your essay, and without a trace of sarcasm, exclaim “Cool story, bro!”
Best of luck!