March 29, 2024

Personal Statement Mistakes That Will Destroy Your Chances

Sometimes it’s more about what you don’t say than what you do.

Google “Personal Statement Don’ts” and you’ll get a host of obvious advice: “Don’t have any typos” or “Don’t discuss political topics like abortion.”

This article aims to go deeper. We’ll focus on specific mistakes that plague average personal statements. Steer clear of these pitfalls.

For our purposes here, we’ll be using medical school as an example, but the advice holds up for any discipline or field you’re pursuing.

Mistake #1 - Narrating Your Resume

Why do students do this?

Because they think it’s what medical schools want. They want to show the schools that they’ve accumulated the thousands of clinical and volunteering hours needed to be a doctor.
But it’s not what medical schools want to read about in the personal statement.

By the time the admissions committees read your personal statement, they will have already read your entire work and activities list, including three most meaningful essays about those activities. They’ll be familiar with your resume, so repeating it will leave them unimpressed.

Many pre-meds take this route because they want to make sure the committee considers all of their many accomplishments. They don’t realize that the more you try to include, the less impact and depth your personal statement can convey.

Mistake #2 - Writing About Childhood

Why do students do this?

They treat the personal statement too much like an autobiography. When considering their backgrounds, they think logically and start at the beginning.

But chances are, the things you’ll say about your five-, six-, or 10-year-old self won’t be that impactful. Medical schools are much more interested in what you’ve done recently, since that’s most relevant.

Spare them the narratives about you playing with your Fisher Price stethoscope or band-aiding your friends’ boo-boos on the playground. These angles are overdone and uninspired.

The exception to this rule is if your childhood contains a story that continues to shape the person you are. In that case, be sure to relate what happened in your childhood to your present motivations for the field.

Mistake #3 - Writing About People You Admire

Why do students do this?

Doctors are their primary mentors and role models. Shadowing is often their deepest exposure to medicine, so they feel inclined to share the inspiring things they’ve seen doctors say or do.

But there’s a problem with this approach: it reveals little about you, the writer.

For example, my own father is a doctor, and I admire him a great deal. I could even list his specific qualities that I find admirable, or share stories of how he’s helped people. But in the end, that would say nothing about me as a person or candidate.

Doctors and shadowing experiences can have a place in the personal statement, but they should not be the focus. Medical schools prefer to hear about YOUR OWN patient interactions and healthcare contributions.

Mistake #4 - “Theorizing” About A Profession

Why do students do this?

They find medicine fascinating. They want to impress medical schools with ruminations about this noble career calling.

The problem: the admissions reader probably knows more about medicine than you do. Either it’s a faculty at the medical school, a current medical student, or a career admissions officer, who reads about medicine all day, every day. By trying to tell the reader how you think medicine SHOULD be, you run the risk of sounding naive.

Medical schools don’t expect you to have all the answers, and they certainly don’t want to read long paragraphs about medicine being the “ultimate trichotomy of science, ethics, and humanitarianism.”

No need for fancy, high-falutin discourse (see what I did there?). Try to tell your story in an engaging, accessible way.

Mistake #5 - Needless Negativity

Why do students do this?

Many pre-meds have ambivalent feelings towards the medical system. Others have witnessed doctors make inappropriate comments or take questionable courses of action. These negative interactions have helped drive them towards medicine, to do better for their own patients than their doctors did for them.

Most of the time, these stories will rub admissions committees the wrong way. Regardless of the injustices or unethical behavior you’ve seen, it’s not your place to be overly critical towards a long-established system or professionals with decades of experience.

Plus, even if you make a valid point, what does that accomplish? You’ll end up wasting space that you could have dedicated towards building the case for YOUR candidacy. Remember that you’re the one being assessed, not the people who are already working in the field.

Final Thoughts:

These aren’t the only 5 things to avoid, but they’re probably the most important.

Look around online and you’ll find all kinds of advice about personal statements. Read these pieces of advice, but do so with a grain of salt.  

You can’t please everyone, and that shouldn’t be your goal in the personal statement. Sure, you want your essay to be as palatable as possible, but not at the expense of your individual voice and distinct qualities. Present yourself in the way that feels most personally authentic.

Don’t drown in the sea of opinions. Grow wings and fly above the choppy waters. I really mean it when I tell my students to “celebrate yourself” (stolen from Walt Whitman). If you can’t, why should anyone else?

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