February 16, 2024

Personal Statement Hooks That Don’t Suck

Easy writing is bad writing.

We’ve seen this phrase proven true repeatedly in our work with students. But that’s not to say that writing needs to be complex or convoluted.

Rather, it simply needs to go down a more difficult intellectual path, make a harder argument, and take a creative leap that requires innovative thinking.

And that’s especially important when you’re writing the hook of a personal statement, since so much is at stake in that opening paragraph. It’s your primary (and perhaps only) opportunity to make a memorable impression and give the admissions committees a reason to keep reading.

A few weeks ago, we posted our expert tips for generating ideas for personal statement hooks, and today, we want to highlight 3 stylistic qualities of great hooks that will help you execute your ideas in an attention-grabbing way.

Let’s break each quality down and give you some examples. For our purposes here, we’ve used medical school as our career goal, but our advice would hold up for ANY discipline.     

1. Great Personal Statement 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.

Example 1:

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…

Example 2: 

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 cecal diverticulitis and told that I had the digestional tract of a 60-year-old…

2. Great Personal Statement Hooks are Contrarian

To illustrate this idea, we can simply look at a particularly cliche hook and use the contrarian style to make it better.

Cliche Hook Example:

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.

Contrarian Version:

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.

3. Great Personal Statement Hooks are Morally Ambiguous 

Again, let’s take a bad example and make it better by applying the morally ambiguous style.

Cliche Hook Example:

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.

Morally Ambiguous Version:

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.

Key Takeaways for Your Own Writing:

Whether you use one of these strategies or apply all three simultaneously, there are overarching lessons to take away during your own writing:

  • Always put yourself in the shoes of the admissions officer: is your hook fitting a cookie-cutter mold they’ve seen before or breaking their expectations?
  • If the hook feels a little “out there” or risky, that’s probably a good sign.
  • Whatever your first instinct says to write, consider doing the opposite; if it’s your first instinct, it’s probably everyone else’s too.
  • Don’t disregard details of the story that seem insignificant at first (e.g. the cotton candy and heavy metal music from our first example); sometimes those tidbits are what will stick out the most in a reader’s brain.
  • Try, to the best of your ability, to produce something that feels like only YOU could have written it, even if it covers a common topic. ‍

Nobody said it’d be easy. And in fact, it shouldn’t be. But if you let your ideas wrestle around with our three styles/qualities for a while, we have faith that you’ll find the right hook for you.

- Ryan and Rob

For over 11 years, Ryan Kelly has guided hundreds of students towards acceptance into top colleges and graduate schools, with an emphasis on standing out while also staying true to themselves. Read more about Ryan here. Or book a free intro meeting with him here.

Rob Humbracht is founder and CEO of Passport Admissions and lead author of The Savvy PreMed. He is also CEO at ReelDx and Co-founder of HEAL Clinical Education Network. FOLLOW HIM ON LINKEDIN.

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