October 19, 2015

Powerful Personal Statement Tips from a Mount Sinai Admissions Officer

Rob Humbracht

“You have to toot your own horn, no one else is going to do it for you.”

A fantastic - and honest - talk by a Mount Sinai Admissions Officer at the UC Davis Pre-Health Conference in October aimed squarely at the personal statement and how to write it.  Using an in-depth approach of looking at a successful applicant over all of the phases of the application process, the Mount Sinai admissions officer analyzed what applicants must do to get in.

The applicant profiled had one of those incredible stories that many applicants just can’t match: grew up with a single mother in the Dominican Republic, put herself through college as the first in her family to attend, and took on leadership roles in mentoring under-privileged students.  It’s an amazing story, and you can see why she got in.

But there were generalizable take-aways that you can use in your own personal statement, which I have boiled down to the following two quotes, jotted down as faithfully as I could.  Picture each of the quotes in a thick New York accent.

1. “Be an authentic representation of yourself, because the right school will appreciate that and invite you for an interview.”

Your personal statement is your chance to explain to the admissions committee what perspective you can add to the incoming class.  The admissions officer gave several examples of possible perspectives, including:

  • students who lived in countries all over the world
  • students who were homeless
  • musicians, athletes, performers
  • students who have had completely different careers

And if none of those things - all of which are outside of the field of medicine, for what it’s worth - apply to you, try to think about how your experience with medicine has been different from other pre-meds.  What stories do you have to tell where you are at the center of the action?  Where you are the one who makes an impact on the life of a patient?  What stories can you tell where we get to know the real you, whoever that may be?  Those are the qualities to focus on in your personal statement.

2. “No fluff. Don’t make me work, don’t make me interpret, don’t make me do any of that. Your application should be jam-packed with information.”

This advice applies to other parts of the application (work/activities, in particular) as much as it does to the personal statement.  Admissions people are human, and they get tired of reading fluff.  The fluff that I often see in a personal statement is:

  1. Useless description that bogs down a good story.  If you’re telling an anecdote in your personal statement (and we encourage you to), leave out the adjectives, adverbs, and unnecessary descriptions.  Stories are made from actions and characters, so don’t include needless descriptive fluff.
  2. Conclusion fluff is when you say what you’ve just said without adding much additional to the essay.  This isn’t high school English class.  Your essay should have a conclusion, but it should also bring something new to the statement.  A lot of them end up in fluff territory, and it’s often a waste of words.
  3. Poor writing habits often result in fluff.  Fluffy writing could include using two words where one would do, creating a list of three when one item could suffice, or even using two verbs with a slash between them, as if the writer can’t make up her mind.  Direct writing, on the other hand, is using the fewest words possible to express each sentence.  It’s a demanding way to write, but it’s precisely what the admissions committee wants.

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