Having a blank page in front of you is daunting. It can feel like you will never think of anything to write. However, with the help of this guide, this sensation will not last long! Once you have gone through our brainstorming exercise, your new challenge will be to decide what NOT to write. The most effective and targeted way to brainstorm for a medical school personal statement is to start with the school’s marking scheme. The personal statement marking scheme does vary from one medical school to another, but there are many common elements. Here are the main criteria that most schools will be looking for:
- Motivation and commitment to being a doctor
- A realistic understanding of Medicine and the role of a doctor
- Excellent communication skills
- Ability to work in teams
- Active involvement in school life and the wider community
- Intelligence, academic curiosity, problem-solving ability
To start, take 6 blank pages and write down one criterion per page. Now, think about all the experiences you have had and which headings they fit under. Some experiences may fit under more than one heading and that is okay. One example, or anecdote, can be used to demonstrate a number of different personal qualities and skills. However, at this stage, we advise you not to limit yourself - the idea of brainstorming is to write down as much as possible, even if you think you will not use it in your personal statement. This is NOT the time to cut words or exclude ideas. As you write examples/anecdotes to demonstrate that you have the necessary skills above, make sure that you also use these examples to show empathy, honesty, integrity, as these qualities also feature in many marking schemes.
2. Elaborate on meaningful experiences
How many experiences to write about, and how much detail to go into, varies depending on where you are applying. Particularly for those who have gained a substantial array of experiences, it is much more engaging and effective to pick some of the most profound ones and expand on them, rather than listing every award, accomplishment, and position held. This is especially true when there is another place to list your activities in the application form, as there is in the AMCAS and OMSAS applications, for American and Canadian medical schools.
“The other annoying thing that many applicants do is reiterate their CV/activities. Don't follow your entire activity list; pick a few interesting experiences and expand on them” (admissions advisor discussing applications to medical school in the US and Canada).
In many ways, your personal statement is your chance to show that you are more than the sum of your test scores, academic transcript and extracurricular or volunteer accomplishments. While these components of the application are substantial, your personal statement allows you to bring your experiences to life and demonstrate how those experiences have developed your desire and ability to succeed as a physician.
If you are applying in the UK, this advice is slightly different as there is no separate space in the UCAS application to list activities. However, applicants still need to be careful not to make their personal statement a list of accomplishments without discussing their meaningful experiences. Some applicants in the UK ask their referees to mention some activities that are important but that they did not have room for in their personal statements.
Here is what the University of Oxford says about elaborating on meaningful experiences:
“Do not simply recount everything you have ever undertaken. If you have undertaken extracurricular activities, or hold positions of responsibility at school, tell us why you sought these, and why they are important to you. You will not impress us by simply recounting that you took up a placement in Thailand, but we might be more appreciative if you tell us what you personally learned from the experience, about your interaction with local people, and about shadowing the medical team working within your village.”
It is a good idea to show how what you have learned from your experiences has influenced your motivation or preparation for medicine. This is called reflecting on your experiences; something that all doctors are expected to do throughout their careers. Considering the links that each of your experiences has to Medicine will help you to prevent losing focus in your writing. Think about each experience in this way: why are you sharing it? How does it relate to your suitability for Medicine? How does it relate to your realistic understanding of the role of a doctor?
Analysis of a description of father’s sickness
...I felt frustrated that I could not do anything to improve the patient’s medical condition. My frustration grew throughout my two years of service on the palliative care ward; in turn, so did my desire to become a physician.
I share a special connection with families on the palliative care ward because I too have dealt with the death of an immediate family member. Nine years ago, my father lost his life to cancer. Although our oncologist was among the best in Canada, I remember that his inattention to our emotional needs upset my mother. His diagnosis and treatment were exemplary, but he was unable to work with us on a human level. I learned then that a great physician not only has the analytical capacity to provide the very best medical treatment, but also the empathy and compassion to provide family-centered care.
This duality is at the heart of my desire to practice medicine....
The applicant does a good job of not dwelling on or dramatising his father’s illness, but instead ties it in with his volunteer work on the palliative care ward, and moves quickly on to what he learned about the kind of physician he wants to be, and how this motivates him to pursue Medicine. The essay could be strengthened by providing examples of how the applicant has pursued activities to strengthen his abilities in both the scientific and the softer sides of medicine after learning about this duality, showing the admissions committee that he has been deliberate and proactive in his preparation for a medical career.
3. The Opening line
You should now have written paragraphs on many experiences, including your thoughts, reflections and what you have learned from each experience. This is a good time to think about your opening line.
“Your opening line must be a kicker. I often would tune out with the more common opening statements, making a huge difference on the applicant’s entire essay assessment” (admissions advisor).
Your personal statement is not an autobiography; it is an argumentative piece of writing, so be convincing and do not start with “I was born in London, England...” A better way to start the personal statement is with a compelling personal story or a poignant quote related to what you will be discussing. However, while trying to be original in your opening line, there is a fine line to tread.
The University of Oxford advises that: “You will not be alone in trying to open your statement with an attention-grabbing intro. If you try this, make sure it helps tutors to learn something about what motivates and what enthuses you”.
The UCAS website also warns applicants about their opening lines: “Some statements start with quotes, some include jokes and others set out to be unusual or eye-catching. Sometimes it works, but it might have the opposite effect to what you hoped. The admissions decision maker may not share your sense of humour so be careful when trying to make your statement stand out”. For example, making a joke that is derogatory of another person or group in society, however clever the joke, is unlikely to go down well, especially as doctors are supposed to be compassionate and non-judgemental.
Example of a good opening line
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she walked away from the clinic with her tiny, underweight baby in her arms. She was a young mother; and despite how much I wished I could help her, I had to deny her the monthly pack of vitamins she gave to her baby because our supply had run out. I was in Píntag, a rural community in Ecuador, volunteering at a medical clinic and living with a host-family. It was one of my first experiences in the medical field, as well as one of the most meaningful. I had decided to embark on this three-month adventure after volunteering at a hospital in Richmond Hill, Ontario and realizing that I was ready to explore the career of a physician in a more hands-on manner.
Once you have written your opening line, ask yourself the following:
- Is it a good hook? Does it make the reader/examiner want to read more about yourself?
- Is it personal? Do you help the examiner find out something about yourself, your emotions, your thought process, your personality?