November 11, 2014

5 Qualities of the Best Personal Statement Stories

Rob Humbracht

If you want to get better at storytelling - and if you're working on your med school personal statement, then believe me, you should - then you should learn from the best.  And some of the best storytellers are the folks at Radiolab.

Don't just take our word for it - go listen to their recent podcast about a haunted house.

What makes this story so compelling?

1) It dives right into the action by giving you a hint of things to come.

2) The main character is sympathetic.  We all know someone who has moved back home after college, who has struggled to find a steady job.  His motivations are easy to understand - from moving out of the house to moving back in.  Even the decision to ask the ghosthunters to come out made sense, since he talked about confirming the feeling of distress at the basement door with multiple people.

3) There's an excellent plot.  They didn't just examine the moment of the haunting; Radiolab gave us the backstory of the deaths of the parents from cancer.  They gave us the backstory of the house too.

4) They put the listener in the main character's shoes.  You hear the events unfold just as Dennis does.

5) And of course, they explain an alternative possibility for what we hear.  They don't just say, "it's a mystery!" They give the listener competing explanations for what happened and let the listener draw their own conclusions.  This makes the story more compelling because we're forced to interact with the material and decide for ourselves what we think.

What does this mean for your personal statement?

The five qualities above are the same five you should strive for in your personal statement:

1. Start your essay with a story. You probably won't have a story so compelling - either emotionally or scientifically - but it doesn't mean you shouldn't try.  Connecting with a heartfelt story is a tried and true way to draw the reader into your essay.

2.  Use a story where you are at the center of the action.  The best stories are not ones where you only observe; they're ones where you participate in the action.  We learn a lot more about you when you have to make a choice or play a pivotal role, and that will make you more sympathetic as a main character.

3.  Have a plot to your story.  I know it seems obvious, but a lot of personal statement stories don't have anything that actually happens.  Where is the tension?  Where are the twists and turns ?  Many of the best personal journeys - and anecdotes - have a compelling plot.

4.  Put the reader in your shoes.  Rather than talk generally about your experiences, put the reader in your shoes.  What did it feel like when you rode in the ambulance for the first time as an EMT?  How nervous were you to run your first GBM as a president of your student organization?  Putting the reader in your shoes can be an effective way to convey a memorable experience.

5.  Show, don't tell.  Instead of just telling the reader that, "I have always wanted to be a doctor," show the details that reveal your motivation.  "I often traveled to my hospital volunteering alone, over an hour each way.  Even though I was low on sleep from studying for my classes, I found joy in learning about the lives of others.  I will never forget a middle-aged woman from China I met..."

And of course, these aren't the ONLY five qualities that make an effective story.  The more you read, listen to, and watch the works of amazing storytellers, the better you will get at telling stories of your own.

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