We live in the age of propaganda. Oh, few words have had their image tarnished like the word propaganda. In the 19th century, propaganda became affiliated misinformation, even to the extent of libel and slander, often to influence others into nefarious activities they wouldn’t of engaged in otherwise if the “whole truth” was known to them. However, the word actually stems from Latin, and it neutrally means “to spread“. We probably would recognize the word better as “to propagate” (e.g. the action potential propagates via..). It suddenly takes on a hint of positivism, well, all depending on what you’re propagating. And, premeds are charged with writing one of the best propaganda campaigns in their career, their personal statement. I assume, that you are possibly like me, okay with science but a little on the weak side when it comes to the touchy-feely part of life. The AMCAS requires these icky things called “feelings”. There was probably never a time in a premed’s career (except breadth courses perhaps) that how they felt, or expressing how they felt, ever mattered or was considered a valid answer. In fact, we are taught to be objective in our manner, steadfast in seeking absolutes, while discarding the subjective as meaningless — after all, if something is a different color just depending on the angle viewed, what’s the point of arguing about what color that object is? It’s all relative. Though, a qualification of my whole argument there is you’re just as inept as I am at expressing myself. But, sharing my thought process and I strung my personal statement (narrative) together, maybe this post will help you.
As you may already know, I sometimes offer to read applicants personal statements and make critiques. Most personal statements have great content, or have the potential to be great. Some are written better than others, as it’s reasonable to expect. So, when I read premed’s personal statements, their “argument” for being accepted into medical school, the personal statement, often usually a series of stacked explicit cliche premises: compassion, passion, lifelong learning, diligence. A superposition of valid premises neither the less — though, it often comes off as a check-list of accomplishments. Often I feel, the problem is not that they don’t have a good story, it’s rather that they haven’t considered their narrative. A lot of applicants have exceptional stories, but poor narratives.
Framing the story with the Narrative – Being a Puppet Master
One thing all premeds need to realize is that, on paper all applicants are pretty have identical premises for admission: good scores, medical & non-medical volunteering, interested in helping people, appreciate the ability to learn, and possibly have conducted research and/or various types of leadership positions. Therefore, simply rehashing your statistics and achievements isn’t really a maximal use of the personal statement in my opinion. Now, don’t let me mislead you — there is an importance in using the typical premises albeit in a nuanced manner. The only problem arises when applicants think retelling their story for the personal statement constitutes a “personal” statement. Instead, applicants would do better to structure a narrative, and string together their story to support “their narrative”. There is a time and a place to leave things up to interpretation, a story’s significance is often left to interpretation, whereas the narrative is typically more concrete. Now, if the reader agrees with the narrative or not is another issue, this will depend on if the story (anecdotes) presented cogent arguments to sway the reader in favor of the author’s position. Of course, you could decide to get artsy and leave the narrative ambiguous, also known in theater/screenplay circles as the Rashomon Effect, but in this type of writing I’d advise against it. A good narrative doesn’t strong-arm, nor coerce the reader into conformity; instead, a good narrative will help to orientate the reader around the premises. And with any luck, the reader and the author end up with the same conclusion.
Building the Bridge from Dreams and Goals — Let’s start with how it ends.
What exactly is your goal — is it just to get into medical school? It may seem like a rhetorical question, I mean, why would you apply if you didn’t want to get in? But, consider it for a second. On your goals, do the curtains drop once you’ve posed selfies on white coat day? Not very likely. You probably want to do well in medical school, clerkship, residency, into attending. Yes, let’s just assume you’re 10-15 years in the future, and practicing medicine and helping new residents. Now, look at your personal statement, and ask yourself do your premises for your acceptance congruent with your picturesque ending? If you think about it, this is likely how far medical schools are also projecting into the future, as they not only care about you getting in, they also want you to be a stellar doctor to represent their program after graduation. I found, this retrograde synthesize method of writing to really help whenever I’m in a writing rut. So, instead of just rehashing your anecdotes, work on your narrative as well.
Each paragraph gives you the right to compose the following paragraph – transitions should be logical to frame the narrative, you’re not trying to make a Memento type personal statement. If your personal statement doesn’t make transitions well, then it’ll appear that there are logical leaps between premises. Transitions don’t have to hammer the reader on the head, but it should allow a ready to easily conclude why each paragraph or sentence supports the rest of the composition.
If you haven’t developed a narrative, try this: take your rough ideas, outline etc, to see if your narrative fits that. Try different narratives, people love narratives. If you’re not sure if your personal statement captures your narrative, have a few friends read over your personal statement and ask them to write a 140 character, a succinct (tweet) summary about what they think your narrative is. The key is to keep their translations short and sweet, if they have to fumble for paragraphs to define your narrative then you’re probably missing something.
Remember, if you don’t chose your narrative your reader will.
Examples: Reefer Madness – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reefer_Madness
Narrative: marijuana use in all forms is destructive to society
Story (anecdotes) premise 1: innocent youth gets entangled with under world due to marijuana cigarettes(aka reefer, Mary Jane, whacky-tobacky, the Devil’s Lettuce).
Story premise 2: usage of marijuana causes: increased sexual activity, suicidal thoughts, and possibly psychotic murderous episodes.
Story premise 3: if only Johnny didn’t use drugs, he’d not be going to jail, and several people would still be alive.
Validating the narrative is simply a matter of validating the story’s premises, or anecdotes. If anything, we should learn that a composition will back fire, if the premises/story and the narrative are not well aligned. This is evident by how ineffective this propaganda movie was towards curbing marijuana use in the United States.
So, again, if you don’t make your narrative others will make it for you. On the other hand, if you make a narrative and the premises aren’t supported, then that’s possibly worse. And, as you should learn on the MCAT, you don’t have to agree with the premises in order to validate the premises. You can totally disagree with the philosophy of the writer, but if their conclusions are valid they are valid. Though, valid priori don’t always mean that the conclusion is supported. Write with the conclusion always in mind, and stack your priori in a logical way to argue why you should be accepted. Use the same (or better) critical thinking tools you used to break down the support and structure of the MCAT verbal passages on your personal statement–at least you can feel better about not wasting your time on that section.
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