6 Personal Statement Do's and Don'ts

Use these tips to craft a persuasive letter in your medical school application.

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With this year's application cycle in full swing, aspiring premeds across the country will be aiming to submit their applications early. While many parts of the AMCAS (and other application systems) involve data entry and other finite tasks, the personal statement is often the least predictable part for students—and the one most likely to derail many submission timelines.

Why is the personal statement so challenging?

First, many students, particularly premeds, may not have enough writing experience under their belt from science-heavy undergraduate curricula. Second, a substantial number may not realize how much reflection and introspection it requires to prepare, edit, and polish a strong essay.

Admissions officers read hundreds of personal statements; your personal statement is your best shot at standing out from the general applicant pool. If your statement is viewed as typical, you can be pretty sure your essay won't be remembered when busy readers make recommendations for interview invitations at a future committee meeting.

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To help ease the uncertainty surrounding the personal statement, here are some do's and don'ts to follow.

1. DO make sure your statement addresses these two important points: your reason(s) for wanting to pursue medicine and your appeal as a candidate to medical schools. It is important to cover both these points; often, many statements only answer one of them (usually the first one). These types of statements risk getting lost in the shuffle with inundated admissions committees searching for those whose unique qualities shine through their application materials.

2. DON'T choose a subject matter simply because you think it will impress. Admissions officers have read it all: "I want to help people," "I want to make a difference," etc. They would prefer to read a much more personal story of learning and growth, regardless of the topic—though it's probably best to avoid controversial topics. You never know who will read your essay!

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3. DO broaden your list of potential essay themes. Believe it or not, this is your moment to be creative! This is not only the time to think outside the box, it's also the time to review certain aspects of your life, including your experiences (school or non-school related), motivations, and personal qualities.

You don't have to include all of these things, but organizing your thoughts into these categories will give you a better picture of your list of potential essay topics. You can also combine categories in formulating your topic.

4. DON'T rehash your résumé or other parts of your application in your essay. All too often, the personal comments section quickly becomes a summary of accomplishments that are listed elsewhere in the application. Doing this could squander a potential opportunity to show another side of you not reflected in transcripts or recommendation letters.

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5. DO give yourself enough time. Because so many components are involved in composing a strong personal statement, it's important to start at least the first step—brainstorming—early on. Each year, a substantial number of applicants express some regret that they felt rushed to submit early and lost critical time in working on their statement; when they realize how much time it involves, it's often too late.

Give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts and have them read by others; remember that professors, premed advisers, and writing centers at schools might be very busy with others in the same boat this time of year. 

6. DON'T gloss over any potential red flags. If you have something on your record you think may raise questions when admissions committees review your files— a difficult semester, low science grades, or a gap in your educational history—it's important to use the personal statement as an avenue to address these issues.

The upside to this is that the personal statement is your chance to describe what lessons you learned from what happened. Sometimes, applicants who have been through unfortunate circumstances may be inclined to justify or defend what happened. Keep in mind that acknowledging mistakes and highlighting what you learned from them can have a profound effect on even otherwise marginal applications.

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How To Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.