Personal statements - common errors in medical school applications part 2

Personal statements are another part of the application where many applicants stumble. The most common problem here, the consultants say, is a failure to consider the relationship of the personal statement to the rest of the application.

“The personal statement makes sense of the application data for the reader,” Dr. Wu says. “A good personal statement will serve to give the admissions committee some added insight into your candidacy – something your application and its data would otherwise not communicate.”

Applicants who do not use their personal statements to frame their candidacy are making a serious mistake, Dr. Wu warns. “A weak personal statement destroys any chance you may have had at communicating with the admissions committee prior to the interview. The personal statement is your chance to prove your worth for an interview slot.”

“Some applicants assume that a letter from a prestigious physician or scholar will make their application stand out. That’s not necessarily the case."

Dr. Greg Goldmakher of AdmissionsConsultants, Inc.

Dr. Goldmakher agrees. “Your personal statement may be the most important single piece of writing you will do in your medical career. Do not use this precious space simply to reiterate accomplishments that the committee can learn about from the rest of your portfolio. Use it instead to capture the attention of the readers and convince them that you have meaningful personal motivations for a career in medicine and have pursued your interest in a way that has prepared you for its challenges.”

Dr. Edney stresses that presentation is as important as content in making the difference between an effective and an ineffective statement. Badly written essays give a negative impression of the applicants who submitted them, and can even alienate the admissions officers who read them. “In a typical year on the committee at Dartmouth I would personally read about 200 essays,” Dr. Edney says. “They are the most time consuming part of the application to evaluate. Poorly written and edited essays are a drag to muddle through.”

Dr. Edney offers 3 pieces of advice to applicants who want to avoid this error.

“One - have someone read your essay and give you honest advice about style, grammar and content. Pick someone who will give you objective feedback. I can’t tell you how many times I got through an essay and thought, ‘this applicant obviously did not have anyone read this before sending it in.’

“Two - be brief. Review your sentences and paragraphs and ask, ‘can I say the same thing with fewer words?’

“Three - reveal something about yourself. Don’t just record that you went to Russia to teach English during the summer of sophomore year. What did the experience do for you? How did it change your perspective?”

Overall, Dr. Edney says, “An effective statement needs to be a good piece of writing that is well edited and reveals something about who you are that is not apparent elsewhere in your file.”

Even well-written personal statements can fall short on content. Many applicants make the mistake of citing over-used or clichéd reasons for wanting to be a doctor. This year, for example, Dr. Wu won’t be surprised if a large number of med school applicants say something about how Hurricane Katrina reinforced their desire to become a physician.

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“This is what I've come to call the 'September 11th response' to med school applications,” he says. “Shortly after 9/11, many med school applicants turned in personal statements that cited the events of 9/11 and its human loss as their reasons for wanting to go to med school. Applicants from places as far away from New York City and Washington, D.C., as Casper, Wyoming, were saying that 9/11 was their reason for wanting to become a physician. It was a little difficult to believe they were all being sincere.”

What this means, says Dr. Wu, is that “premeds should be careful not to over-emphasize a particular disaster or news story as their reason for applying to medical school. Admissions committees are wary of applicants who seem so outraged by a recent tragedy that they appear to be acting on a gut response to become a doctor to 'save the world.' You’ll do better by making sure that all of the components of your application make sense and fit your central theme.”

Time management is another aspect of personal statements where many applicants run into trouble. Applicants should consider how much time they need to write strong, targeted personal statements when they decide how many schools to apply to, says Dr. Wesley Hsu, who served on the admissions committee of Johns Hopkins University. “All applicants should consider how many applications they can realistically expect to manage,” he says. “The primary AMCAS application is only the first step in a long gauntlet. Most schools require a secondary application that can be at least as time-consuming as the primary application itself!

“Unless you can devote a significant amount of time to completing applications, you are well served by limiting your applications to 10 to 15 schools. Less than that, and you risk not being accepted anywhere. More than that, and you may not have time to complete all of the applications carefully.”

Dr. Hsu also advises applicants to think about context in deciding which extracurricular activities to highlight in their personal statements. “People accomplish so much more when they pursue activities that are truly meaningful to them, rather than grinding through activities just to build a c.v.,” Dr. Hsu says. “One of the most impressive candidates that I ever saw while I was at Johns Hopkins was a gentleman who focused his love for computers on community service projects that set up computer labs in inner city neighborhoods and third-world countries. The applicant clearly pursued these activities for the love of it – not just to build his resume. This example of leadership, energy, and entrepreneurship is worthy of emulation by other applicants.”

About the Author Ann Driscoll writes for AdmissionsConsultants, an organization that provides admissions advice to premeds from physicians who have been on medical school admissions committees. For a 15% discount on their services, use discount code NUCA.