The Mentor
Winter '20 | Issue 2

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Making the right first impression

How to make a personal statement in a medical school application stand out

By SeventyFourImages via EnvatoElements

By Rachel B. Levin

For Rebecca Morris, MD, writing her personal statement for medical school was a particularly challenging part of the application process. Not only did she feel tentative about her writing skills, but she also considered herself shy and reserved. Tooting her own horn didn’t come naturally.

But Morris found a way to make her personal statement shine by portraying the unique journey that led her to pursue medicine. At the time, she was a master’s student in nutrition and conducting research on obesity. While counseling patients about weight loss, she realized how much she enjoyed one-on-one patient interactions and craved more knowledge about physiology. These insights spurred her to apply to medical school and ultimately unlocked the writing process for her. “I think that [training in nutrition] was something that made me stand out a little bit,” says Morris, who today is a resident in anesthesiology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Tell your personal and unique story

“Being able to tell your personal narrative and your motivation for medical training are really important [in medical school admissions],” says Larry Chu, MD, MS, program director for the Stanford Anesthesiology Summer Institute (SASI) and professor of anesthesiology, pain and perioperative medicine.

Once an applicant has met a school’s MCAT and GPA requirements, the medical school personal statement is what differentiates him or her from other applicants. Ideally, says Chu, the statement should communicate something personal from one’s life that has shaped their perspective, so that the school can really see who the applicant is and what they will bring in terms of diversity, talent and perspective to the incoming class.

Since the medical school personal statement plays such a central role in admissions decisions, selecting the right topic can be daunting. Chu advises applicants to think about their journey thus far through school and consider exploring challenges, hardships or obstacles that they faced along the way.

However, SASI Program Coordinator Nari Kim, who teaches a personal statement workshop at the summer institute, adds that one doesn’t need to have experienced something intensely difficult to develop an impactful narrative. She says topic of a medical school personal statement can be something that is rather mundane. “It’s how you tell your story that makes it influential,” Kim says.

Ideally, writing the medical school personal statement should be a self-discovery process, Kim says, one in which the applicants learn something new about themselves, conveying that epiphany in the personal statement.

Show, don’t tell

Show admissions committee members examples of what makes you a good choice. However, the medical school personal statement may not be something that can be accomplished in one sitting. “You have to rewrite it, come back, look at it again and revise,” notes Chu.

Kim advises that applicants begin their essays with a powerful hook that captures the reader’s attention, such as describing a specific moment in their lives in vivid detail. Show, don’t tell, is the rule of thumb, she explains. “Admissions committee members will read a lot of essays, and if [yours] sounds like one of the many thousands of applicants who are applying, then [you’ve] already lost the admission officer’s interest.”

Figuring out how to write in such a manner that gives an applicant an edge over the competition can be especially intimidating when they feel like their experiences are so similar to others. Yet, “so many times, we are not as ordinary as we think we are,” says Amy Price, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at Stanford. She recommends applicants get written feedback from people who believe in them. “It is an astounding way to lift you out of your own feeling of ordinariness,” Price explains.

Chu concurs. “Everyone is a unique person,” he says. “Your job in writing your personal statement is to find what is extraordinary about yourself and not be shy [in expressing it].

One way to overcome any shyness is to think about your personal statement as a conversation starter. “Sometimes when you’re on the quieter side, you’re afraid that people are going to overlook you,” says Morris. “But I think the personal statement is an important time to show something that you are interested in talking about on the interview trail.”

Indeed, opening up about oneself in the personal statement can open the door to the next step toward meeting the next goal.

The views expressed here are the authors and they do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Stanford University School of Medicine. External websites are shared as a courtesy. They are not endorsed by the Stanford University School of Medicine.


So many times, we are not as ordinary as we think we are...

Amy Price, DPhil (Oxon)
Editor, The Mentor, SASI Newsletter