Personal Statement — Other Tips

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Medical school invites come in ornate scrolls, typically delivered by a flaming arrow shot through your window — after you’ve been invited once it dissolves into dust.

As you might already know, I’ve been critiquing premed personal statements for medical school for several weeks (hence my blog slow down, after all I do work, and well I’m only one man =D). I decided to take some time from my editing hole to write some general thoughts that can be used  to overall your personal statement overall. Bare in mind that most of this tips are probably more useful to you once you’ve already strung together a draft, so if you already have a draft this post is good for you. If you haven’t made a draft yet, then you might want to read this article about writing a personal statement in general first, then come back. Though, it may help to know both — it’s up to you. So, many a personal statement later here are my thoughts:

1. Avoid using clichè words to explain big ideas. This is especially true when you are the direct object or not of words like: compassion, passion, passionate, love, enjoyed, intrigue(d), empathy, self-motivated, hard-working, determined etc. [In fact, to improve your personal statement by a large margin go back and use Control +F to search and destroy these words. Don’t just replace them with their respective thesaurus compliment, qualify them each where you can afford to.]

Why: Admittedly, clichès gain their status by having some shred of truth to them. However, if you decide to use a clichè word then you’re making the reader take your “word for it”. And really, why should we take your word for it that you have integrity — the first thing a snake oil sales man says’ is “trust” me. When writing your personal statement, remember that the point give a vivid enough picture of you that schools want to invite you for an interview. Instead of saying you’re compassionate, show how you are. Let the reader figure it out. The only time clichè words are to be used is when they’re pretty much unavoidable, like some introductions and conclusions where the premises are being laid out. Another time where it’s okay to use those ‘dirty’ words is when you’re referring to other people, because they are not the topic of the PS anyways. In situations like that it’s okay to use brevity to your advantage. For example, if you looked up to your mentor, then it’s probably okay to just say, “…my mentor believed all success starts with integrity”, and get away with it. If it’s about you then qualify it. Don’t worry about going too deep into any one story as you’ll have a lot of fun rehashing your story in 80 different ways during the secondary period of the application.

2. Remember that it’s a personal statement, so that probably means that it’s about you. It’s okay to acknowledge others, in fact it’s encouraged. But, don’t let other’s visions and ambitions shroud your own on the personal statement.

Why: again, let’s remember that the personal statement is your bid for why you should be summoned to an interview. It’s expected that you’ll bring up some of your experiences that shaped your decision(s) to apply to medical school. And, though Dr. Jacobson might be an awesome cardiologist, frothing over her dexterous surgical fingers for three paragraphs probably isn’t a judicious usage of your character limits. Try to avoid going into parent/family motivation, unless without telling their story the “cog” of your personal statement machine would fall apart. You want to be able to discriminate your ambitions from others living vicariously through you. If you’re rushing to explain your own story, then it’s really time to find a way to still give credit to others while not giving them much screen time. (Sorry, I’m from LA)

3. It’s a personal statement, make it personal. The caveat there is that you want to “appear” stable. 

Why: I’ve read a of personal statements in the last few weeks (one a day in the last week). I know you guys aren’t stupid, I know you all know all the rumors out there flying around about how cruddy the physician/medical school life can be — and yet here you are, thinking about applying. So, there’s probably a pretty solid reason for you wanting to go to medical school besides “having a love for science and positive health outcomes”. If you think about it, there’s a lot of things you could do and still help people. The medical schools know this, it comes up during the interview (or at least it did for mine). So, really put yourself out there — tell the truth. Ask yourself, why are you really doing this? It may seem like a silly question, but I can tell you the number of times I’ve read a “dry” personal statement only to reach the end and have my socks blown off. I then think, “What the…I had to wait all this time to learn this?”, then the personal statement is abruptly over. Remember, they do have the rest of your application to refer to, so as long as everything is congruent throughout your application leave the humdrum listings to the CV part of your AMCAS.

It may help you to fill out some of your AMCAS first or concurrently, so that you can see how repetitive you are.

4. Remember you’re writing a composition (congruent premises, unified by a theme), not a hodgepodge of seemingly connected premises. 

Why: because people don’t consider this, I often see a personal statement will have great elements, however they are not necessarily strung together well to tell the best story. And while it’s okay to use chronological order, to avoid anachronism, but remember that each part of your story (paragraph) should play off the next. And all of the premises should ring in harmony. Just slamming your fingers on the piano and hitting the “right notes” doesn’t guarantee a symphony will be played. So, don’t try to just say enough stuff and hope some of it sticks to the reader, be more strategic about what/why/when you decide to bring things up.

5. If you don’t usually use that “fancy word” during conversation, then ought not use it on your personal statement.

Why: when writing, always remember that you’re trying to communicate, attempting to “convey” your feelings through space-time into someone else’s noggin. So, why muddy the waters with words that may either confuse or distract your reader.

For example, no one say’s things like: I read my books with great felicity.

This is both distracting, and looks pretty silly in this context, even worse it fails to really describe you. Let’s look at a piece totally unrelated by writer and poet Oscar Wilde:

  • I.  “The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”
  • II.  From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now….

Notice that the first sentence  (I) doesn’t use one fancy word, and yet it’s still able to convey something quite graphic and detailed.  In the second paragraph, that is II, the only word that may even show up on a nice word radar is really innumerable.  In this case, this word is able to say a lot about the cigarettes in the story, it would take perhaps several clauses to try to voice the same imagery. But, at the same time note that the clause before that word was “as was his custom”, i.e. the guy he’s talking about made his own cigarettes and had a lot of them. Everything surrounding innumerable strengthens our understanding of why he mentioned the word “innumerable”. Then Wilder did something smart, he used nouns you probably wouldn’t know,  “laburnum”, and then used elementary language help you understand that that “laburnum” thing probably is a huge tree with possibly orange and red leaves (perhaps during autumn). It’s a random noun, so you weren’t expected to really know it; well, unless you work at an arboretum.  Similarly, in paragraph II,  no one expects you to know what a “divan” was without decent context provided at some point in the story. Simple words can do a lot, and often are just as effect if not more than an oddly placed “fancy word”.

Well, that’s all for me. I’m a little tired from work and reading personal statements. So, I’ll have more next time!

You can add yourself to the personal statement queue by sending it to doctororbust@gmail.com Feel free to find me on Twitter, or perhaps tell me the secret of life etc @doctororbust

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3 thoughts on “Personal Statement — Other Tips

    serend1p1ty said:
    May 14, 2014 at 4:48 am

    Deadline to send you a draft of our PS is May 20th right?

      allopathicjay said:
      May 17, 2014 at 12:32 am

      If anyone needs another pair of eyes on their PS, feel free to shoot me an email.

    […] Pitfalls to Avoid While Writing Your Personal Statement […]

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