March 6, 2017

The Secret to Telling a Great Story in Your Personal Statement

By: Ryan Kelly

Most people know the writing adage, “show, don’t tell.” Whether you’re writing a novel or a medical school personal statement, this approach is a tried-and-true way of getting your message across.

But it’s easier said than done. What story do you choose? What elements do you emphasize? How can you be sure that the reader will understand your point?

Never fear; we’ve got the answers! If you follow our four tips, you’ll have the recipe for effective storytelling in your personal statement for medical school.


One of the biggest mistakes pre-med storytellers make is choosing stories where their primary role is observing or shadowing. Although there is much to learn from these moments, they don’t reveal any of your important skills or characteristics.

Instead, select stories where you’ve played a more active role. Have you:

  • Formed a relationship with someone quite different from you?
  • Made a difficult choice?
  • Had an epiphany?
  • Organized a successful event for your community?

By choosing a story where you’re at the center of the action, you will reveal a lot more about yourself - and thus, allow the admissions committee to get to know you (and hopefully like you) better.


Abstract words like ‘empowerment,’ ‘compassion,’ and ‘sensitivity’ sound great, but they don’t mean much without the concrete details to make them come to life. Abstractions are attractive because they feel like catch-alls for what pre-meds want to say about medicine, but when presented in isolation, they’re a surefire formula for sounding bland and predictable.

It’s hard to avoid abstract words entirely, but you should couple them with sensory words that help the reader to feel, see, hear, and sometimes smell or taste your story. These words will place the readers in your shoes, rather than forcing them to take your word for it.

Abstract: The South African hospital was a place of destitution that lacked basic resources.

Concrete: In King Edward VIII hospital, patients laid on stretchers in the dimly-lit hallway, waiting for hours to be seen. With no chairs available, family members sat alongside the patients on the dusty, concrete floor.

This doesn’t mean that you should use fancy, complex, archaic, or poetic language; you’re not a logophile, after all (see how annoying that was?) There are plenty of powerful concretes that don’t require a thesaurus. Clarity is king.  


In the Goldilocks fairytale, she opts for the baby bear’s bed because it’s “not too hard, not too soft—just right.” Similarly, in your stories, you should strive to find that “just right” level of detail. You don’t have infinite space, so you can’t afford to cram your narrative full of flowery, unnecessary descriptors. At the same time, if your story is devoid of detail, then it will come across like a sterile, straightforward report.

Okay, so which details should you include? That depends on the point of the story. If you’re trying to show your compassion, then it would make sense to include details that establish the physical and emotional pain of the person you’re helping. If you’re trying to show your perseverance, you could emphasize the many obstacles you faced or hoops you had to jump through to accomplish your goal. If you’re trying to capture your leadership skills, you could focus on the diverse personalities under your management or the precedent you established for the future of your community. If you carefully select your details, a little can go a long way.


Your 5300 characters are precious, so every sentence should be working towards a compelling answer for these two central questions. A good personal statement requires an economical use of words, which means you’ll have no room for extraneous fluff.

No matter the content of the story, its primary goal should be to convey your personalized reasons for pursuing medicine or your unique traits that will make you a great doctor. We all know the saying, “kill two birds with one stone,” and it holds up in writing. Ideally, your stories will reveal answers to both questions simultaneously.

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