Don't Apply to Medical School Without a Purpose

The motivation you cite in your personal statement should be backed up by your résumé.

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Applying to medial school? Take a moment to consider some of the short-term consequences of your enrollment: an intense curriculum coupled with a steep reduction in social and leisure activities, enormous tuition bills with correspondingly large debt, and concerns regarding long-term financial security and medico-legal dangers. It's enough to make any would-be medical student fall prey to at least a few moments of self-doubt.

Admissions committee members know this and are looking for applications that convey a sense of motivation and enthusiasm durable enough to withstand the various assaults (and insults) a medical education will invariably deliver.

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While the personal statement is the figurative "heart" of the application and the component most conducive to relaying your passion for medicine, it is merely a part of the "package" you are presenting. The personal statement should function as the narrative commentary on the rest of your application, creating a "theme" or a "story" that coherently pulls together your education (including things like your choice of school/major and comments about extraordinary or extraordinarily poor grades), extracurricular activities, research experience, volunteer and/or community activities, etc.

Think carefully—and honestly—about why you want to be a doctor; ideally this should be done early in your undergraduate years (or earlier), but it must be done before you begin preparing your application. Then think about how and why the things you have spent your time and energy pursuing fit with this motivation and the larger story of who you are. Many, if not most, people don't take such a strategic approach to their lives, such as choosing what hobbies to pursue by consciously considering which might be most appropriate for a career in medicine.

But, almost every applicant I have met and application I have reviewed can be "packaged" to fit a more central theme related to career aspirations with some careful thought and consideration. The year you spent as a waitress helped fund your purchase of premed textbooks; your proclivity for bungee-jumping derives from the same need for excitement and thrills that are drawing you to a career in surgery or emergency medicine; or your incarceration for drug possession led to an epiphany that translated into a future in psychiatry and substance abuse treatment. (OK, maybe that last one needs a little more work.)

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A majority of applications will cite a few broad categories of motivation. For example:

1. I want to help people: It's probably the most common story being told—and it's a good one. But if you have a sincere and deep desire to help your fellow human beings, you should have found some way to act on this by the time you're applying to med school. Volunteer work, community service, humanitarian experiences abroad, and other similar activities are essential in this kind of application and should be highlighted accordingly in your personal statement.

2. Furthering medical science: This is popular amongst science majors, especially if the applicant has significant research experience. But if you're a liberal arts major who has never set foot in a lab, this is likely not the best route. And if it is, your essay must present a reasonable story for how and why you have decided to make such a drastic departure from the course of study you have pursued thus far, and what skills you will be able to bring with you from the humanities as you pursue your medical or scientific career. (See this recent New York Times op-ed for an eloquent example.)

3. Transformative experience: Often, this experience relates to a personal or family illness. While these applications are often conducive to writing a compelling, even inspirational, personal statement, one must be careful not to dissociate the "motivation" from the rest of your application. For example, after your six-month ICU stay and miraculous recovery from debilitating spinal cord injury, did you go on to create a charity or support group for survivors of spinal cord injuries? Did you pursue research or advanced coursework in neurology or stem cell biology? You need to demonstrate how this amazing story led you to build a solid premed résumé.

[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Medical Schools.]

Connecting the dots between your experiences and your motivation for applying to medical school will help you stand out among other applicants. Then, all you'll have to worry about is the coursework, lack of free time, debt, and potential legal issues…Happy applying!

Joshua Klein is a Board Certified OB/GYN and a Clinical and Research Fellow in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. After earning his medical degree at Harvard Medical School, he completed residency at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.