An often underestimated piece of the medical school application process is the personal statement. This is more than a cover letter. It is a chance to show who you are above what your CV and MCAT score can communicate about you as a candidate. I know it can be daunting to sit down and write the thing, but I have completed the process myself and I’m here to help get you started.

Step 1: Remember who you are as a candidate, apart from your MCAT score and GPA

A good place to start is by reading through the AAMC’s core competencies for medical students. These are qualities you likely possess (perhaps some more than others). Take a moment to write down SPECIFIC stories that demonstrate each one. How have you demonstrated teamwork? How can you prove that you are reliable? If there are certain competencies that you aren’t exactly strong in, how have you sought to improve your knowledge and skill? Keep this list. The stories that don’t make the cut for the statement will still be helpful in preparing for interviews.

Step 2: Choose your themes and motifs

Now that you know you are qualified for admission because of the competencies you exhibit, you probably realize so are all of the other applicants who will eventually be accepted into medical school. The trick to a memorable personal statement is to weave a story that demonstrates your competencies in a context that is unique to you. What is it that excites you? What activities have transformed you into the person who is ready to enter medical education? Can that sport or adventure be related in a parallel fashion to the process of pursuing medicine? For example, if you identify as a cyclist, then maybe you describe a bicycle excursion that presented challenges similar to your educational experiences, with worthwhile exhilarations to make the struggle worthwhile. For me, my yoga practice was an instrumental factor in my decision to pursue medicine, so it was only fitting to tie my educational experiences and career goals to the expansion and purposeful discomfort of a vinyasa flow. This part might come instantly to you or it may take weeks of contemplation. Keep an idea journal if you can, anything goes at first.

Step 3: Write

If an eloquent essay doesn’t roll off of your fingers, you are not alone. These things take time (and more introspection than most people are comfortable with). Start with a stream of consciousness outline, an idea web, or a doodle of theme-related concepts and action words. If typing isn’t facilitating ideas on your page the way you would like, switch to pen and paper (or vice versa). These two methods of “writing” come from different parts of the brain and your results will vary accordingly. Once you have the key words, start forming a flowing story. Avoid vague generalizations and empty promises in favor of (I can’t stress theis enough) SPECIFIC stories. Exactly what did you accomplish, what did you do, what did you feel, what did you learn?

Step 4: Read it aloud

Sometimes hearing your own voice tell your own story reminds you of what you meant to say instead. If you’re feeling brave, have a parent, sibling, or friend listen, or just read it to yourself in the mirror (or in the dark). Then reflect on what you said, how you said it, and what you still want to say.

Step 5: Clean it up

This is the step that comes at the end of the process, after you have everything you wanted to say safely on the page. Now it’s time to take most of it away. What I mean is that we need to remove the fluff. Doctors and admission staff will read this in about five minutes or less. Every word on the page needs to be there for an important reason. If it’s not pertinent to your strength as a future doctor, take it out. If it’s a cliche, take it out. If it’s a quote from someone else, make sure you really want to use up that number of characters with someone else’s words. The character limit is 5300, which comes out to about a page and a half single spaced in 12 point font. 

Remember, you can’t force this, but you can sit down and start it. Beginning is the hardest part.

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