Personal Statements

Disclaimer - These guidelines may not apply to all situations.  Read the instructions provided by each graduate school carefully.  If they tell you to do something contrary to these guidelines, follow their specific instructions.

Guidelines:

  • A personal statement is your introduction to the admissions committee, it gives them your main reasons for applying and why they should choose you
  • A poorly written statement may disqualify you, write and edit many drafts before submitting
  • Do not tell the selection committee why this is a good field to go into or list a bunch of facts that they already know, this is apersonal story about you and how you came to the decision to apply, not why medicine or law or business is a worthwhile field

Getting started:

  • Make an inventory of the main reasons why the committee should select you
  • Personal statements are generally short - usually 1,000 words or less - always follow their instructions, make sure to do a word count.
  • Your statement should be written in essay form and is an exercise in self-reflection
  • Essays generally have an introduction, a body and a conclusion
  • If you are asked questions, make sure you address them 
  • Keep in mind that telling a story of how you came to the decision to go into this field is key
  • Use the terminology of the profession you are trying to enter

Think of a story of a situation that impacted you, use that story to:

  • Connect your past, present and future
  • Admit shortcomings and explain how you overcame them
  • Explain a unique experience

Sample opening statements:

  • In my junior year I applied for a study abroad program in Brazil and fell ill while living in a remote village… 
  • I was fortunate to be selected for an undergraduate research program in the Department of Human Genetics… 
  • During my summer internship I had the opportunity to… 

Target your statement for the reader:

If you are trying to get into medical school, patient care or medical research experience will be much more important than discussion of your work on the school newspaper.

  • The first paragraph is your introduction
  • The middle paragraph(s) form the body of your story and give the reader 3-5 reasons why you would be a top candidate
  • The final paragraph or conclusion should bring the reader back to the initial incident or connect the past, present and future

Here's an example of a good lead-in story and conclusion written by a successful candidate for medical school:

While I was volunteering at the People's Health Clinic in Park City, Utah, last fall translating for undocumented workers seeking health care, I noticed an abnormal lesion on the neck of an elderly man whose granddaughter was being seen at the clinic after falling off her bike. The old man was very guarded and reluctant to talk to anyone. He only wanted his granddaughter to have her arm treated and to leave as quickly as he could. I used my Spanish language skills to ask him some questions for the medical forms and my best human relations skills to show interest in his home country and gain rapport. From the weathering of his skin and calloused hands I suspected he had been a migrant farm worker.

Something about the lesion on his neck told me it wasn't a typical scab or scrape.  At the right moment, while in the doctor's presence, as the granddaughter's tears were drying and the casting of her arm was almost finished, I asked the old man how long he had the sore on his neck. I pointed with my gaze so the doctor would see it.  With his hands full of plaster, the doctor glanced at the old man's neck while the nurse finished the cast.  His eyebrows rose with concern as he lifted the man's T-shirt away from his neck exposing a large, dark, irregularly shaped lesion that protruded below the neckline of his shirt and was larger than I had noted initially.  The old man started to object, but I persuaded him to let the doctor just look at it. He reluctantly complied and pulled off his shirt. 

At this point you can go into the main reasons why you chose medicine. Tell about other clinical and medical-related experience you have. You worked as a phlebotomist at Primary Children's Hospital and had the opportunity to visit people in all departments in a busy children's hospital. Your grandmother died slowly of an unusual disease while you and your mother helped her cope. Your story should provide a compelling snapshot of who you are and what contributions you want to make.

In the final paragraph, complete the story and make your final pitch…

The next week when I arrived for my volunteer shift at the People's Health Clinic, there was an envelope at the intake desk with my name on it from the doctor I worked with the week before. Inside was a note commending me for spotting the Williams sarcoma on the old man's neck.  A biopsy had shown that it was a notoriously bad type of skin cancer, usually caused by sun exposure, was a threat to his life. Had I not spotted the sarcoma when I did, "its normally aggressive growth would have certainly metastasized and could have been fatal within months ..." I thought about the old man several times during my shift and wondered what treatment he has gone through since I noticed the lesion.  I looked up Williams sarcoma at the Health Sciences Library and noted pictures of similar lesions in the medical texts and read the common treatments.  It had a high level of recidivism if not caught early.  Even though I will probably never see the old man again, I felt a deep satisfaction that he might spend additional years with his granddaughter because of my eye for detail, Spanish skills and ability to befriend almost anyone. The experience also fanned a deep desire in me to go on and pursue medicine, possibly oncology, and continue to make a difference in people's lives as a physician.

Final notes:

Before you start, make sure to read either "How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement" or "Game Plan for Getting into Graduate School" by Peterson's guides. Check the Career Exploration Center or online booksellers.

Although the successful candidate did not have the highest MCAT scores or GPA, she received several offers of admission to medical school. Her personal statement played a key role.