Personal Statement: Part 1

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As you probably are already well aware applying for medical school is a rather lengthy process. However, we should be comforted by the fact that now more than ever medical schools are attempting to bring a diversity of physicians into the field (diversity includes a lot more than sex and race), and therefore a lot of medical schools are taking a more holistic approach to reviewing an applicant’s file. Let’s face it, a solid GPA and MCAT are almost compulsory for US MD programs, though each school makes it’s own definition for what constitutes ‘solid’ scores. For example,looking at the prestigious East Virginia Medical School  2013 matriculated class their values range from 3.15-3.93 and 28-35 when looking at the 10-90th percentile. However, for Harvard Medical School if we look at the same percentile break down for the same year we get a more scores 3.71-4.0 and 33-40 as our range (stats via MSAR). So, no matter the program there’s going to be a mixture of scores among matriculated students despite all students being equal from the day of matriculation. With that being said, there are also plenty of students rejected with exceptional scores. How can both realities be congruent? The answer is besides scores you should also develop a strong application (primary and secondary), this especially includes  your personal statement (PS).

By now you’ve probably had to write at least one personal statement for your internship, research position etc. Now that I’ve reminded you of your old versions you might even have the urge to drudge through your hard drive to find your old PS. Feel free to use your old PS for material and as a bare-bones template, but don’t expect it to come even close to the 5300 character Pulitzer Prize PS you’re expected to craft. I’m not saying this to insult you, in fact I assume you’re probably ahead of the bell-curve when it comes to English composition. Instead, I advise you totally overhaul your PS because if you’re like any successful premed you’ve likely mastered the art essay fluffing (bullious shitticus in latin). In college I almost always turned in my first draft after checking for grammar mistakes, college writing was formulaic and automatic. I needed to move past the last second ‘sophomoric writing’ we are accustomed to, and start to think in terms of ‘professional writing’. As an undergraduate research scholar I had to write timely reports, that required a concise and meticulous style. Later I was a contributing writer for health, tech and fitness articles, writing 5 articles a week taught me how to write quickly, experiment with narrative tools and develop ideas. So, in this article will share with you my amalgamated  experience I used to write my personal statement. You’ll probably find my manner of writing a PS to be somewhat involved, but I decided I was getting into medical school or bust. Originally, I had intended to make a quick post about this, but my draft has just gotten heftier as I keep editing it, so I decided to break it out into manageable bits. Without further delay here is the anticipated layout of the articles to come describing how I put my PS together:

  1. Forming the editing committee
  2. Rough draft stage  I (content focused draft > grammar)
  3. Rough draft stage II (grammar & style)
  4. Rough draft stage III (re-center focus on content and flow)
  5. Finalizing draft stage IV (show mentor PS & get feed back)
  6. Finalizing draft V (style & flow & cutting back)
  7. Final Draft VI (send out final draft to all editors)

Besides your individual effort the most important aspect of your PS will be your editors. The reason why I ordered my drafts in that order was to do the least amount of backtracking as possible, i.e. conflicting editorial based revisions. Your editors will make or break your PS, therefore this article will be devoted to forming and understanding the purpose of an editing committee (a term I just pulled out of the ether).  You have a choice, get reviewed harshly now, or get reviewed harshly later by the admissions committee. In general don’t respond to reviewers with explanations about why your essay is the way it is, instead respond with the revision(s) they requested to see, you can argue about editorial issues later:

Committee Members

1. Blind content editor  – an editor who only cares about the narrative and impact.  This editor will be the most unbiased hopefully, because you won’t give them your CV/resume or any background, they will get to know you through your PS only. The more ‘blind’ your reviewer the more genuine the critique. For my blind reader I selected a friend who was getting her PhD in Organic Chemistry, and she was nice enough to volunteer her undergraduate slave  student as another cursory reader. I decided to go with someone who knows empirically what type of PS it takes to get into professional school, also she works 2D NMR so I knew not much would get past her.

2. Content editor (non-blind) – they will have access to your information, and they will make sure the story you portray is both accurate and succinct.  If they are worth the weight in salt then they’ll also be able to tell when things sound like ‘fluff’ and when you have substance. I made sure to choose another friend who was in the same scholarship cohort, she was a very strong reader and a very clear critic by training as a research ethics officer.

3. Grammar editor – they will not particularly care about the content of your writing, but rather the grammar. This editor should be encouraged to use the track changes option in Microsoft Word, after you understand their changes and agree to them just heed their advice. Take care of your grammar editor, they are your wing(wo)man. It’s okay to have more than one grammar editor, just be careful not to confuse style and grammar edits between conflicted editors. If you don’t have a grammar wizard as buddy go to your university’s learning resource center to seek out a tutor for free, but sure to let them know they’re in for a long term relationship with you. Fortunately, I had myself a grammar high chancellor, I made sure to buy her boba milk tea for her efforts.

4. End stage content editor – this editor will take your smooth and finalized product and help you polish into a work of literature.  It’s important that this editor be more focused on the beauty of the composition then anything else — they will help make your PS read as smooth as velvet. Therefore at this stage of the game there should be no grammatical mistakes or structure faus paux. Finding an editor this good can be difficult. For myself I found an editor via twitter, I explained my situation to her, she agreed and did an excellent job even getting me to take a riskier format for my introduction; it paid off. I employed the help of my past editor from work to give it a read over for feedback mostly because I respected her opinion, she knew my bad habits, and considered her an accomplished writer and colleague.

Here’s a table of how the flow of my drafts went:

Stage of PS

Editor Type Main Goal of Each Stage

Rough Draft stage I*

  • Non-blind content editor
  • Grammar editor
Clear narrative, nothing fancy, just the nuts and bolts to address you should go to medical school.

Rough draft stage II

  • Blind content editor
  • Grammar editor checks revisions before next stage
Have your blind editor surmise your plot in a 140 character composition. If it tells your story then you have fulfilled your mission.

Rough draft stage III

  • Satisfy both blind and non-blind editors
  • Grammar editor checks revisions before next stage
Sometimes editors may debate about when things are not explicit or implicit enough, semantics etc., just make sure they’re satisfied. Understand that you might not be able to maximize at this step. The main goal is to put a polished professional piece together for the next step.

Finalizing draft stage IV

  • Is your mentor/advisor impressed? If so, great move on, if not find out why and make the revisions
If you put a lot of work into the drafts then there’s a high chance you’ll receive a thumbs up.

Finalizing draft V (optional)

  • End stage content editors focusing on readability and style
  • Grammar editor optional unless you make major changes
This is the last chance for your editors to make any meaningful changes. Or, you can just skip this stage and go to step VI.

Final Draft VI

  • Distribute final draft to all editors
  • Decide if you act on suggestions, go with the majority if your editors disagree
  • Distribute PS to anyone you can get to read it, but your editor’s comments trump the casual reader
Testing the waters, you’re done, but give a ‘movie’ pre-screening and get an audience reaction. If you like how your audience reacts then you are fine, if not find a way to satisfy them before the final release.

You’ve probably noticed there’s a lot of revisions/drafting going on, it’s just part of the writing process (FYI my typical blog entry receives about 10-20 revisions, usually minor, before I feel okay about it).

*Note that the first draft you show an editor should be your 3-5 draft you’ve worked on alone with due diligence — after all no matter how much you polish a turd it’s still in fact a turd.

Last note, how to respond to editors/critics:

Remember, the sole goal of the editors is to improve your PS, that is all. It can be very devastating to work on a draft and receive brutal feedback, but remember these critiques aren’t personal attacks nor are they indicative of your intelligence. Just take them for what they are, that is ways to improve your personal statement. So, never defend or resist a revision unless you have extraordinary reasons (unless you have other editors agreeing with you). At lastly, if your editors are using kid gloves with you ask them not to, because the admissions committee won’t.

Stay tuned for when I revisit PS where I will focus on the Rough Draft stage I.

For part 2 of this article click here.


4 thoughts on “Personal Statement: Part 1

    Personal Statement Part 2 « doctororbust said:
    January 17, 2014 at 5:39 am

    […] of the game you should of found your Personal Statement editing and review committee discussed in part I, or at least found a few reviewers to edit and give feedback on content early on. Don’t worry […]

    […] there are some great blog posts (not written by me) that talk about the personal statement. Here, here and […]

    […] Making a Personal Statement Review ‘Committee (part 1) and part 2 […]

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