January 23, 2023

Expert Tips for Standing Out in Your Medical School Personal Statement

The Savvy Premed

What if we challenged you to write the opening hook of your personal statement right now? What would you write? Go ahead - take a crack at it. We'll wait.

Maybe you came up with one, maybe you didn’t. But our guess is that it wasn’t easy and you didn’t feel satisfied.

We know it’s tricky, but the entire goal of the first paragraph is to grab attention and give the admissions reader a key glimpse into your voice and personality.

It’s great if the opening hook has a natural connection to your long-term goal, but don’t worry TOO much about that.

Start by asking yourself the following questions:

1. Is any aspect of your background or experiences particularly unusual?


  • You were a child actor in Toys-R-Us commercials
  • You grew up working at your parents’ Harley Davidson motorcycle dealership
  • You earned your pilot’s license before you learned how to drive
  • You emancipated yourself from war-torn Ethiopia and emigrated to the US alone at the age of 17
  • You ran a side business as a magician and performed at birthday parties

These are all real stories from our past students, but they are a minority! Don’t feel bad if you don’t have a story like this! We have many more options for your hook.

If you do have a story like this, GREAT, definitely use it as your opener as a way to stand out and be memorable. Don’t worry if it seems disparate from your hopeful major, degree, or career path. There’s always a way to make that connection.

2. Have you ever left a group, organization, or community better than you found it?


  • Integrated mental health into your school’s PE curriculum
  • Created “Elder Tech” program to help nursing home residents use technology
  • Designed JUUL attachment and phone app to help people quit vaping
  • Established water filtration systems in impoverished Ecuadorian villages
  • Founded a new mentor-mentee system for international students at your college

We often call these experiences “Capstone Projects.” Yours does not necessarily have to be as large in scale as the examples we listed above. It just needs to be an example of a time you showed initiative to fill a gap or need in the communities around you.

Admissions committees (at all levels) LOVE to see this kind of impact.

If you have something like this, AWESOME, it’s a perfect way to open your personal statement. It will immediately set a positive tone and impress readers. Again, don’t worry if it feels hard to connect it to your ultimate goal.

3. Can you share a meaningful experience of you advocating for others?


  • Working as a Big Brother or Big Sister for a child with Asperger’s
  • Translating for Spanish-speaking patients at a free clinic
  • Helping a friend, classmate, or peer find treatment for their eating disorder
  • Tutoring prisoners to help them earn their GED
  • Acting as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for a kid in foster care

These forms of personal impact lend themselves to interesting narratives that will show your value to others right away.

Typically, you can use this kind of story to illustrate driving principles in your life and core qualities of your identity. Then you can explain how these same principles relate to your future goals.    

4. Can you “nerd out” and show your intense passion for a subject?


  • Hosting ‘Philosophy Nights’ to discuss thought experiments with your peers
  • Giving tours as a docent at an aviation museum
  • Making endless attempts to bake tasty gluten-free desserts
  • Researching and dutifully counting your ‘macros’ to ensure optimal nutrition
  • Taking apart and refurbishing vintage video game consoles

Even if this interest doesn’t perfectly connect with your long-term goals, readers respond well to passion. The more specific the details, the better.

The goal here is to show your dedication, follow through, and exploratory nature. Then you can explain how you will apply this same passion and curiosity to your future goals.

The HALL OF SHAME - Personal Statement Hooks to Avoid at All Costs!

Here is a short list of don’ts when it comes to your opening paragraph:

  • Don’t open with a quote from a famous person (extra shame if it’s a super common one from Einstein, Gandhi, MLK, or Mother Theresa)
  • Don’t claim you’ve wanted to be a doctor for as long as you can remember or “ever since you were a young child” (even if it’s true)
  • Don’t say that you come from a long line of doctors and want to follow in their footsteps (even if it’s true)
  • Don’t tell a story where you’re uninvolved or not an active participant
  • Don’t write about events, issues, statistics, or data in an expository way that sounds like a research abstract or academic paper

Good Hooks are Counterintuitive

If something on your path has surprised you or upended your expectations, it might be a great thing to use as a hook. Chances are, it will surprise the readers, too.

Cotton candy. Heavy metal music. American Ninja Warrior. Not what you’d expect to encounter in palliative care. But then I met Jimmy, a teenager with terminal cancer. A few months earlier, the words “children’s hospice” almost seemed like an oxymoron…

I’ve always been known for my sweet tooth, but I never expected that all the gummy worms and peanut butter cups would lead me to medicine. Growing up, I was resented for my lightning-fast metabolism, never gaining weight despite my sugary indulgences. On the outside I seemed healthy, but my sweet tooth had a secret cavity. At 18, I was diagnosed with secum diverticulitis and told that I had the digestional tract of a 60-year-old…

Good Hooks are Contrarian

To illustrate this idea, let’s look at a cliche hook from our list of don’ts and make it better:

Even as a child, I had medical aspirations. I remember using my toy stethoscope on my three younger siblings as we ‘played doctor.’

This type of narrative is expected. It could benefit from a reversal:

When my six-year-old nephew told me he wanted to be a doctor, I didn’t give him a high five or tell him “that’s awesome.” Instead, I asked, “Are you sure? That’s a pretty tough job.” I know it sounds harsh, but it’s the same question I was asked growing up. There are several doctors in our family, but they never push the career on their children. Instead, the career choice is more of an interrogation.

Good Hooks are Morally Ambiguous 

Again, let’s take a bad example and make it better:

Ever since doctors cured my grandfather’s cancer, I have wanted to pay forward that same service to other patients and their families.

This type of narrative is too straightforward. It needs more tension and ambiguity:

I couldn’t understand my grandfather’s decision to give up. When he looked the doctor in the eye and refused treatment, my heart sank. The prognosis was grim, and he did not want to endure more chemo with such a low recovery rate. To me, the 5% was worth the agony, but I was being selfish. My family pleaded with the doctors to help change his mind, but they had to respect his decision. It took me years to realize this was the humane thing to do.

Remember the hook you (hopefully) wrote earlier? With our advice in mind, take a shot at revising it! We're confident that it'll be much better and help you stand out!

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