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Wondering how to write an essay that makes your application stand out?
A previous version of this article was originally published by Alex MacNow.
In this second installation of our a seven-part Application Essentials series, we address frequently asked questions about how to respond to the personal essay prompt.
As part of your AMCAS application package, you’ll be asked to write a personal statement of not more than 5,300 characters
. Although it varies from essay to essay, this will give you enough room for an essay of about one page and one paragraph. This is a hard limit, and the system won’t accept more characters than that, so it is important to keep this
limit in mind as you plan and write your essay. Most word processors will give you two character counts, one that includes spaces and one that does not. For the AMCAS personal statement, spaces count as characters
Writing a medical school personal statement
Let’s start today with a seemingly simple question that you are going to have to consider before applying to med school: Who are you?
It may seem simple on the surface, but this can be one of the most challenging questions that premed students encounter on the medical school application or the MCAT.
Give the admissions committee (adcom) readers a clear picture of you as an individual, a student, and a future medical professional. Make them want to meet you after they finish reading your essay.
Yet, it’s the basic question posed in at least one major part of your application: the medical school personal statement.
There are a couple important themes to keep in mind while you’re coming up with the subject matter for your medical school personal statement—or, what many admissions officers refer to as “your interview in writing.
Your AMCAS application represents who you are to the adcom, which is why it is critical that you write clear, vibrant, and compelling AMCAS essays and present your most impressive self throughout the application.
” Check out a few of our handy personal essay FAQs:
What kind of questions will I be asked?
The question posed—or the essay prompt—will be surprisingly vague. The Association of American Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) prompt from the AMCAS application is simply: “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.
AMCAS is a centralized application service for medical schools, allowing you to save time by submitting just one application. With over 140 MD granting institutions participating, you’ll likely use AMCAS if you’re applying to medical
school in the US. While this service does enhance convenience, it also makes it even more difficult to stand out. Most applicants will have similar backgrounds to yours, and the AMCAS personal statement is your biggest opportunity to show who you are as an individual and persuade the admissions officers to
This broad net can prove both a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, it allows you the freedom to take your story in just about any direction, and what could be better than that? On the other, it can feel overwhelming if you overthink it.
How long should my personal statement be?
On the AMCAS Application, there is a 5,300-character maximum, which equals about 1.5 pages, single-spaced and in 12-point font.
You do not have to fill all of the available space.
Given that the average applicant in 2009-2010 applied to 13 programs, the AMCAS can save you a ton of time by allowing you to submit just one application rather than a dozen or more. Learn more about the AMCAs personal statement in this article
In fact, a more cogent, focused personal statement that falls short of 5,300 characters will always be stronger than one that’s forcibly lengthened by digressions or irrelevant material.
How many versions should I write?
Unlike the school-specific, tailored information you’ll give on your secondary applications, your AMCAS medical school statement will remain uniform across all the schools you apply to.
Since you’ll only have one version of the personal essay, it should not be directed towards any individual school.
Not only do you need a strong academic track record in the sciences, med schools are looking for applicants who have developed the personality characteristics that will serve them well as a doctor. In your essay, you might want to write about compassion, team work, and respect for patient autonomy. You don’t need to write about all three, but the anecdotes that you choose should reflect an applicant who has not
only technical knowhow but ethics and interpersonal skills.
Use your secondary applications and essays to express your interests in individual medical schools.
What should I write about in my personal statement?
Even though the prompt for the medical school personal statement is vague, it is generally understood that you have three major goals to accomplish in this essay. Focus the essay with these in mind, but don’t be afraid to be creative!
You’ll need to give some serious thought to why you want to go into medicine, and more specifically, why you want an MD or a DO. Far too often, students write generic, impassioned passages about “wanting to help people.
Join thousands of fellow college students, health professional students and practicing doctors from across the United States and Canada. Membership is always free, anonymous, and member information is never sold or shared with other organizations
” While that is a completely valid reason to go to medical school, it doesn’t really explain why you want to become a doctor to the exclusion of other health careers, like nursing or physical therapy. It doesn’t really even explain why you want to go into medicine.
Life is college is not always smooth, and you might have some areas in your transcript or test scores that warrant further explanation. Applicants can be very apprehensive about addressing these issues within the essay out
of fear that what they write will harm their application
. Therefore, when writing about these
situations, always be factual about what occurred and then move quickly to how you resolved the issue and have become a more mature and resilient applicant as a result.
Firefighters, teachers, plumbers, and landscapers help people too!
Why do I want to be a physician specifically?
Is it the translation of your scientific knowledge into patient education about how to live a healthy lifestyle? Is it the pursuit of new therapies and cures through research? Is it the rigor of a career that demands lifelong learning?
Medical schools want to know that if they admit you, you’ll contribute to the class in a unique and meaningful way.
You want to get into the best school, but you need to stand out from other applicants. US News reports the average medical school acceptance rate is 6.9% or lower, but our med school clients enjoy an 80% acceptance rate
. How can you separate yourself from the competition
successfully? By creating a great personal statement.
So think about what makes your desire to become a physician unique. Medical schools want to admit a diverse class, and although diversity in medical education is a rather broad topic in general, they’re looking beyond just demographics—to facets such as educational
experiences, life challenges, medical interests, and more.
Also, it is common for applicants to begin their essay with an anecdote from their childhood. In our experience, med schools are really only interested in your life after you began college and won’t particularly be impressed with
anything before that regardless of how important it was in
your path to choosing this career. Instead, choose stories that show the adult you taking concrete steps in the field of medicine.
How does everything fit together?
You want your medical school personal statement to tell an intricate story about you—something a reader can get excited about and relate to. Rather than simply rewriting your résumé in paragraph form, construct your essay around a theme that you can keep returning to.
Perhaps you’re a musicology major who’s also passionate about education and patient care.
Of course, you are free to answer this question any way you like. However, unless the answer is that you want to make patient’s lives better, medicine might not be for you. From beginning to end, make sure that your essay is patient-focused.
Focusing on the intersection between the arts and sciences both historically and in your own life could be a good launching-off point. Take it from us—it’s worked before.
Who should edit my med school essay?
This is a key (and often-overlooked) question. You want your med school essay to be a highly polished product that really wows admissions officers.
Ultimately, that decision is yours, but the admissions officers will be looking for you to show passion for patients and potential to excel both in medical school and in your future career as a doctor. To help, consider these four questions
To accomplish this, enlist the help of at least three editors:
- Someone who knows you really well. Medical schools can spot a disingenuous personal statement a mile away. Get a best friend, parent, or significant other to call you on any bluffing or “gaming” of the essay. It’s not about writing what you think the admissions committee wants to hear—it’s about writing the truth, representing yourself tactfully, and letting your accomplishments speak for themselves.
- A strict grammarian. To be sure, using a comma when you should be using a semicolon will not, by itself, keep you out of medical school. But any sloppiness or lack of clarity in your statement will subtly and collectively bring down the overall quality and effectiveness of your words.
- Someone who knows medicine. Who should know better what will appeal to a medical school admissions committee than someone who’s already been there, done that? A physician you’ve shadowed, a PI with whom you’ve worked, or a friend who’s already a medical student will help you hone your statement’s message.
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If you are currently an undergraduate student, your pre-med advisor certainly fits the bill.
Ultimately, the essay is crucial to your success in applying to medical school, so go ahead and start writing. By thinking through your essay, you’re helping define who you are as a citizen, as a student, and as the physician you’re well on your way to becoming.
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