Unlike the old MCAT essay section, a bad Personal Statement can keep you out of med school. On the other hand, it can be a chance to intentionally craft the tone of your application and boost your standing in the eyes of the admissions team.
The first thing you need to know is that many essays don’t even get read completely. If you don’t immediately hook the reader, can you blame her for not wanting to waste time? Your goal is to be personal and engaging, not arrogant nor generic. Tell a story; it doesn’t have to be a formal narrative, but there should be characters, a theme, and at least a little bit of action.
The essay above is from my AMCAS primary application, which means it isn’t explicitly targeted toward a specific school (but I did chose a theme that would be attractive to my top choice school). Theme (or “focus”) is the main point of your essay. It is the unifying idea that you will shape your essay around. My personal preference is to frame your theme in an engaging narrative. Your theme should be apparent early on and artfully restated in your conclusion. Every paragraph will add to it in some way. Building a cohesive theme will make your essay more readable and leave the reader with a stronger impression.
(A) Start with an interesting opening. Most med school essays sound like they are fill-in-the-blank form letters, and bored/busy administrators have to read dozens of these at a time. Get the reader’s attention with potent imagery. This is your only chance to steer the reader’s emotional response to your essay.
(B) Use strong transitions. Follow up on your promise to keep the reader entertained. Read your essay out loud, and listen for any parts that seem disjointed.
(C) At some point you will want to address how you knew you want to be a doctor. Generally there is either the “I have always known” or “I had an epiphany”. These are heartfelt, but they are still cliches and should be avoided. Really self-reflect on your decision to go to med school. Going to med school will be one of the biggest commitments of your life, so show the reader that this was an adult decision. You will also address why you want to be a doctor. Do you love science? Do you want to help people? You damn well better, but the admissions team already knows that. Show the reader why you want to be a doctor.
(D) Keep hammering on your theme. Mine could be summed up in the idea of medicine as a mutual exchange.
(E) Use examples to show the reader your core values and strengths. Rather than say “I am creative”, I show myself inventing study games. You don’t need to say you value hard work if they can see that you payed your way through college. “Show, don’t tell” is the best advice in writing.
(F) Make yourself interesting. Avoid summarizing your accomplishments. Admissions teams aren’t impressed by the number of clubs you were in, so give them something that makes them wonder what your secret is. People tend to assume you are exceptional if they see you doing something that they have a hard time picturing themselves doing. Since most people wouldn’t know where to start “planning a project in Uganda”, it adds to their estimation of the candidate’s potential.
(G) Address any red flags from your app. I had a semester of sub-stellar grades that in reality turns out to be a pretty good story. Don’t make excuses, but feel free to humbly preempt any hard interview questions.
(H) Go on to show how the experience actually made you better prepared for med school.
(I) Tie it all together with a memorable conclusion.
(J) This is an ending that will stick with someone. If she actually made it through your whole essay, reward the reader with something juicy.
Finally, have non-medical people proofread your essay. They will tell you if it sounds like you are trying too hard. I have been blessed with a partner who teaches English comp and literature, but your university probably provides a free peer-revising service through the English department.