Demonstrate Effective Communication Skills
Discuss Your Soft Skills
Tell a Story
During that first, quick look at your file (transcripts, science and non-science GPAs, MCAT scores, application, recommendations, and personal statement) what the admissions committee seeks is essentially the same:
"Proven ability to succeed."
"Clear intellectual ability, analytical and critical thinking skills"
"Evidence that this person has the potential to make not just a good medical student, but a good doctor."
But what they look for when they hone in on your essay is much more than this. We will discuss in detail the things that were unanimously listed as being the most important by our admissions committee.
Your application to medical school is a testimony to your desire to ultimately be a doctor. The admissions committee will look to your essay see that youve answered the obvious - but not so simple - question "why?". You must be able to explain your motivation for attending medical school.
"I look for a sustained understanding of why the candidate wants to enter medicine, how they've tested their interest, and how theyve prepared for medical school."
"Touch on your passion to pursue medicine. For many medicine is akin to a calling, and it is compelling for the evaluator to sense that they are hearing and responding to the same motivation."
You will be offered much advice in the upcoming pages, and it will be peppered with plenty of "dos" and "donts". In the midst of all of this, whatever you do, dont loose sight of the ultimate goal of the essay: you must convince the admissions committee that you belong at their medical school. Everything we tell you should be used as a means to this end, so step back from the details regularly to remind yourself of the big picture:
"The essay is the venue for the candidate to make the argument as to why they, among all the highly qualified candidates, should be admitted to medical school and the eventual practice of medicine."
Demonstrate Effective Communication Skills
Another obvious function of the essay is to showcase your language abilities and writing skills.
"In the essay I want a clear sense that they understand and can communicate well why they are a compelling candidate."
"Especially if an applicant did some or all of their pre-requisite coursework in another country, we will look to the essay to ensure strong English language skills."
But at this level, good writing skills are not sought - they are expected. So while a beautifully written essay isnt going to get you into medical school, a poorly written one could keep you out of it.
Beyond showcasing your writing abilities and demonstrating your motivation, what else can the essay do for you? Lets take a look at what else the committee hopes to find when they pick your essay.
Discuss Your Soft Skills
Let the rest of your application - not the personal statement - speak for your "hard" skills and achievements (i.e. your academic excellence, your fantastic MCAT scores, your class rank). What they seek in the essay are some specific "soft" skills such as sincerity, maturity, empathy, compassion, depth, and motivation. These qualities were rated especially high in the medical community more so than for any other graduate-level program we studied.
Because these qualities are not quantifiable, and therefore not easily demonstrated.
All of the essays we have in our database demonstrate in one way or another that the writers have the soft skills necessary to be good doctors. A few of them even come right out and say it:
"Motivation, independence, maturity, precisely those qualities my experiences in Eastern Europe instilled, will be essential to a fruitful career."
But when qualities are mentioned as directly as this, the applicant must be careful to support the claims with clear evidence as gathered from their personal experience. More often they just let their achievements and experiences speak for themselves, and the qualities that they demonstrate are inferred.
This list is not ordered by importance if it was, this category would be listed first. More than any specific skill or characteristic, what our admissions panel said they seek more than anything else in the personal statement is a real, live human being:
"The members of a medical admissions committee are responsible for choosing the next generation of medical doctors. These are the people who will be healing our children, curing our parents, and literally saving lives. Put it in that perspective and the responsibility we feel is enormous. For this reason, were going to choose to accept someone we feel we know, trust, and like."
In light of this, then, it might not surprise you that when we asked admissions officers and medical students for their #1 piece of advice regarding the essay, we received the same response almost every time. Although it was expressed in many different ways (be honest, be sincere, be unique, be personal etc.) it all came down to the same point: "Be Yourself!"
"My #1 piece of advice is: BE YOURSELF WHEN YOU WRITE THE ESSAY..THE MEDICAL PROFESSION IS A LIFETIME COMMITTMENT...LET THEM TRULY KNOW WHAT DRIVES YOU TOWARDS IT!!!!!!"
Unfortunately, achieving this level of communication in writing does not come naturally to everyone. But that does not mean it cannot be learned. Once you understand the basic factors that go into personable writing you will see that it is not as hard as it seems.
NOTE: Part of what can make this kind of writing seem so difficult is that it is very hard to gauge the image you are projecting through your writing. Even if you have followed every tip in this book, it is a good idea to have someone objective preferably someone who doesnt already know you well read it over when you have finished. Ask them if they got a sense of the kind of person you are, or if they were able to picture you as they were reading. How accurate is their description to the one you were trying to present? Then ask them if the person they pictured is someone that they would choose to be treated by in a life or death situation!
The only way to let the admissions committee see you as an individual is to make your essay personal. When you do this your essay will automatically be more interesting and engaging, helping it stand out from the hundreds of others the committee will be reviewing that week.
"After reading hundreds of essays in my time on the HMS admissions committee, I would tell people a couple of key things. First, make it personal. The most boring, dry essays are those that go on about how they love science and working with people and want to serve humanity, but give few personal details that give a sense of what the applicant is like."
"Personalize your essay as much as possible generic essays are not only boring to read, theyre a waste of time because they dont tell you anything about the applicant that helps you get to know them better."
But what does it mean to make your essay personal? It means that you drop the formalities and write about something that is truly meaningful to you. It means that you include a story or anecdote taken from your life, using lots of details and colorful imagery to give it life. And it means, above all, being completely honest.
Our database contains many examples of essays that get personal. The following example is one of them. The writer begins by recollecting her experience with anorexia and her admiration of the doctor who saved her life. But it is more than this story that make her essay real, it is the way that she describes her experiences. She uses a real, personal tone throughout the essay, for example when she describes herself while volunteering at an AIDS clinic:
" I am constantly reminded of how much I have to learn. I look at a baby and notice it's cute, pudgy toes. Dr. V. plays with it while conversing with its mother, and in less than a minute has noted its responsiveness, strength, and attachment to its parent, and checked its reflexes, color and hydration. Gingerly, I search for the tympanic membrane in the ears of a cooperative child and touch an infant's warm, soft belly, willing my hands to have a measure of Dr. V.s competence."
It is her admittance that she doesnt yet know everything she needs to know coupled with the picture she paints of herself noticing a babies "cute pudgey toes" and "gingerly" searching in "the ear of a cooperative child" and touching "an infants warm, soft belly." It is hard not to get a feel of the individual behind the essay which such a vivid portrayal is painted using such personal details.
Just as this writer did not rely on her tale of anorexia to make her essay personal, as one admissions officer put it:
"A personal epiphany, tragedy, life change, or earth shattering event is not essential to a strong essay."
This cannot be stressed enough. Personal does not have to mean heavy, or emotional, or even inspiring. It is a small minority of students who will truly have had a life-changing event to write about. Perhaps they have spent time living abroad or have experienced death or disease from close proximity. But this is the exception, not the rule.
In fact, students who rely too heavily on these weighty experiences often do themselves an injustice. They often dont think about what has really touched them or interests them because they are preoccupied with the topic that they think will impress the committee. They write about their grandfathers death because they think that only death (or the emotional equivalent) is significant enough to make them seem deep and mature. But what often happens is they rely on the experience itself to speak for them and never explain what it meant to them or give a solid example of how it changed them. In other words, they dont make it personal.
To make your essay personal, learn from the example above and use details. Show, dont tell, who you are by backing your claims with real past experiences.
"Essays only really help you if they are unique and enable the interviewer to get a sense of who the person is based on examples and scenarios and ideas, rather than lists of what they've done. The readers want to find out WHO THIS PERSON IS; not what they've done, although the two are obviously interrelated."
The key words from this quote are: "examples," "scenarios," and "ideas." Using detail means getting specific. Each and every point that you make needs to be backed up by specific instances taken from your experience. It is these details that make your story special, unique, and interesting.
Look at the detail used in the following example. The writer takes care to describe herself gently rocking her first patient, "taking care not to disturb the jumbled array of tubes that overwhelmed his tiny body," and that she has "worked with everything from papier mache to popsicle sticks" and that the children in her ward talk about "Nintendo or the latest Disney movie." This is the difference between a personal, interesting treatment of a story, and a yawn-inducing account that could be attributed to any of a thousand applicants.
Tell a Story
"Tell a story. It always makes for more interesting reading and it usually conveys something more personal than blanket statements like I want to help people."
Incorporating a story into your essay can be a great way to make it interesting and enjoyable. The safest and most common method of integrating a story into an essay is to tell the story first, then step back into the role of narrator and explain why it was presented and what lessons were learned. The reason this method works is that it forces you to begin with the action, which is a surefire way to get the readers attention and keep them reading.
Many of the essay examples in our database make effective use of storytelling. One begins with a storm at sea, one with a tale of stage fright before a theater performance, and one with a newspaper clipping about the writer as a child. Another writer takes an even more creative approach to the story method by incorporating the story of a prehistoric woman whose bones he has analyzed throughout the entire essay. What all these writers understood is that a story is best used to draw the reader in. It should always relate back to the motivation to attend medical school or the ability to succeed once admitted.
This last point comes with no caveats, and should be upheld without exception. Nothing could be more simple, more straightforward, or more crucial than this: be honest, forthright, and sincere.
Admissions officers have zero tolerance for hype. If you try to be something that youre not, it will be transparent to the committee. You will come off as immature at best and as unethical at worst. "If you say that one of your favorite hobbies is playing chess, then you better have a favorite opening move your interviewer might be an expert player and want to swap techniques!"
"I served on the Harvard Med admissions committee, and can say that it is so important to be honest. The students will be asked many times about the personal statement when interviewing, and it's painfully obvious when they exaggerate or are overly dramatic when recounting their experiences."
When you are honest about your motivations and goals, you will come across as more personable and real. One essayist, for example, begins:
"When I entered Dartmouth College in 1987, I was amazed by the large number of students already labeled as pre-meds. I wondered how those students were able to decide with such certainty that they wanted to study medicine, and I imagined that they all must have known from a very early age that they would one day be great doctors. I had no such inklings, and if asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said that I wanted to be an Olympic skier or soccer player."
Because of the plethora of essays that begin: "Ive wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember " this writers honest approach must have been refreshing and memorable.
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