Personal Statement Part 2

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Welcome to Part 2  of the Personal Statement  (PS) write up. This entry will focus on grammar and style.

  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)

*Steps 4-7 are straight-forward and will not be discussed further in detail

At this phase 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 about the number for now, you can always add (or remove) members later if need be, just get it started. However, in order to use your team to its best ability you’ll have to first deliver to them a good draft for them to work on. Therefore, you shouldn’t give your reviewers piecemeal excerpts or lily-liveried attempts, it’ll just frustrate your reviewers and you. Now, before you write your draft for your Personal Statement make sure you have the right tools: resume, curriculum vitae, possible publications etc. If you’re not familiar with the term curriculum vitae then imagine it as your “scholarly resume”.  Resist the urge to drone on all every detail of your life, you’re probably interesting, but you’re probably a lot more compelling in person. And, the point of the Personal Statement is to get an interview, that’s it.  Accordingly, the interview will be sent to you because they wanted to meet you from a combination of your application and Personal Statement.  And they wanted to meet you because you were qualified like everyone else and something special about you, this should be captured in the Personal Statement.  You’ll have lots of moments to expand upon your qualifications, to a point where you’ll feel nausea after spending so much time talking about yourself – remember, after the Personal Statement there’s plenty left of opportunities to clarify your qualifications on the primary application and secondary’s (oh the secondary horror). General things to write about on your personal statement:

  • Introduce who you are, and why/how your individuality will make you a positive impact on the medical school if accepted. Don’t exaggerate.
  • Be congruent on how your inclusion in the medical field, specifically as a physician, will have an impact on the community you will serve.
  • Identify when and why your interest in medicine came about. Be sure to differentiate why a physician as a career and why not any other equitable ways to deliver positive health care outcomes.
  •  Project your career as a professional and physician into the future where you serve the public (e.g. 10 years after starting medical school).

There’s some Heisenberg Uncertainty when you try to write and edit simultaneously.    

So, let’s begin with the writing portion, and then we’ll get into the joys of wearing your editor’s hat. We won’t go down a philosophical debate about it, let’s just agree on this for now.  College got us into a bad habit of producing papers like they’re hotcakes; any decent premed could pull out an A- paper about the ethics of wombat plastic surgery last minute. I won’t lower you down to my level of bad habits while in college, but I will say I was a successful rough draft warrior. It wasn’t actually until I graduated college and was paid to write that I sat down and took the task seriously, after all I needed to save up for medical school applications and pay bills. My tip for you is to have a “writers” mindset and an “editors” mind-set; the two processes are copacetic but disparate beasts. Sit down and write down your first rough draft as a passionate writer, while keeping the general points to address I listed above, again emphasis on ‘rough’, let the writing flow:

  • Leave the thesaurus at out of the picture unless the word you’re trying to imagine is on the tip of your tongue. Keep your language simple and loose, in fact I would encourage you to tone down superfluous language when it renders the clause less intelligible than simpler alternatives (see what I did there?). Words are meant to communicate an idea in the best way possible, not to project intelligence, use substantive examples instead if you want to project your intelligence. In other words don’t use expensive words for a bargain bin idea. If you’re naturally a word-smith, or want to use that GRE word-list you resentfully studied, go ahead and do what works for you but tread lightly. It’s analogous to cursing or using all caps to show people online you’re angry.
  • Don’t worry about the character limit of the Personal Statement; feel free to go well beyond it on your first draft.  It’s very likely you’ll toss out a lot of what you’ll write anyways in favor for more efficient and elegant versions.  So, the priority here is to get the ideas on paper so you can whip it into shape later.
  • Grammars edits will have more substance if you wait until the end instead of editing on the fly. Grammar is important, but it interrupt your ideas, don’t waste your time wearing your editor’s hat now, you’ll tackle that later. Sure, catch obvious stuff and fix it as you feel comfortable, but don’t get bogged down.

Editor Time – Last Grammar – Style Tips When I’m done writing my first rough draft I take the horrendous product and shove it into my grammar machine. I go point by point, assuring that I tackle all of the same issues at once, this reduces my writing time tremendously:

1. Use active whenever possible instead of passive. When I edit people’s PS I notice they often will (perhaps unconsciously) switch to passive voice for unfavorable situations: Passive voice:

“I had the misfortune of receiving a B- in Genetics.”

Active voice:  “I learned what it meant to struggle despite trying my after earning a B- in Genetics.”

But, the down side of doing writing passively is — besides making an awkward sentence — the grammar would imply that the writer isn’t taking ownership of their academic black-eye.

2. Ever wonder how to use those fancy dashes but never knew when? Use it as a sudden interruption to summarize a thought or to fly in opposition of the clause before the dash. Try not to misuse or overuse the dash, but it sure does make for a sleek sentence if used but once per essay. “You’ve probably always wondered how to use the dash — if you had cared about fancy punctuation at all — and assumed it was difficult to use.” 

3. Replace vague language with concrete language whenever possible. Vague: “An unfavorable air of fear filled the trauma room all day after her death.

Concrete: “After she died the room the trauma room stunk of fear.”   I wouldn’t see either sentence is great, but the second one isn’t vague and it carries more weight.

4. Chop out extra words, there will be a lot of them. Typically this entails getting rid of the excess “of”, “have”, “pretty”, “very”, and the sort within your personal statement. I find it more efficient to do this all at once. For example, I sit down with a goal of reducing the amount of “of” usage. If you’re used to using Twitter this should come natural to you. This is functionally easy to do, just use your search function to go on a search and destroy machine on wasted words.

5. Avoid a common problem, never use a fancy word if you’re not sure how to use it. While you’re at it, be sure to avoid using words that don’t exist for example “irregardless” is not a word. Check out Wikipedia for an entry on common misused words:

6. Avoid vague  and overused words like “interesting”, “passionate”. Instead, demonstrate it. Instead of saying:

Snore festival: “I am very interested in medicine because I’ve always had a passion to help people.”

Exemplify your “passion” with an anecdote from your CV/resume material instead of relying on cliche words. Another good word to avoid is “surprisingly”, or “literally“, I could literally go on forever. If you’re curious about what other words are destroying your personal statement Let’s face it, few things are really that surprising, so if the word is used the result better be nothing short of astonishing. While we’re making lists also try to avoid using:  dynamic, intense, team player, people person, dedicated. Remember, show, don’t tell.

7. Avoid overusing using “-ly” whenver possible: amazingly, perceptively , stunningly It’s okay to have a few “-ly’s” every now and then, but I’ve been told it’s analogous to putting a top hat on poop. It’s still poop.

8. Make sure you didn’t comma splice, use semicolons when appropriate. Conversely, people tend to gain a fear of comma splicing during college, so they instead break a good “one” sentence into “two” — avoid this. If this makes no sense to you, assure your grammar editor is comfortable with it.

9. If the sentence makes just as much sense without a “word” that word probably isn’t necessary, consider getting rid of it. The same goes for any sentence when compared to a paragraph, a paragraph when compared to the PS.

10. Avoid exaggerations on your achievements or insights. It will make your reader think you’re a tool: “When I shadowed Dr AnPanMan I felt so invigorated by the spirit of medicine that I knew there was no other path but medicine for me.”

Added 1/17/14

11. Devote a set time to editing, and be deliberate about what you’re trying to correct. However, don’t try to finish your editing all in one session, it’s too laborious and you’ll make mistakes. Instead, after you have your draft finished work on corrections every day for 20-30 minutes (or every other day if you feel stressed out). Sometimes the best thing you can do to improve a piece of writing is to walk away from it, and then approach it again from a different perspective.

12. I’m not sure if the editing ever stops, but at some point you have to be satisfied (in case your curious this entry has been revised about 25 times, including this one). In fact, about 3-seconds after I submitted my AMCAS application I thought of one more edit I could do on my PS. Arguably some of your best ideas will come after your submit your application and it can’t be returned to you.

Well, that’s all I have for style for now. If you’re a foreign reader and would like to hear more about grammar or style I wouldn’t be your expert, but I can refer you to some great free online material.

Well, that’s enough reading about the PS, get cracking!

About my writing background:

Besides writing my own Personal Statement (PS) I help my Twitter family with theirs when possible. I learned how to write more systematically when I was charged with writing five health and fitness articles per week, the threat of getting fired helps motivate you. Currently, I sit on an Institutional Review Board and Animal Care and Use Committee where I review research protocols to ensure they meet local and federal regulations about protections of research subjects — another writing heavy job. My other gig I currently pull off is an interim position where I review applications from research scholars, help organize conferences, and distribute stipends. You’ll never escape having to write.  If you personally want to write better, or are foreign born and want to surpass your native buddies I’d suggest picking up a rather old book called Elements of Style on Amazon (or  free at; you can hug me later).


Applying to Medical School: The Application: Work/Activities Section Tips

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There’s more ways to not get into medical than in, but if you approach it with a plan there’s a good shot!

Applying to medical school application is more than a set of forms, the AMCAS is an extensive process that may last anywhere from half to a full year (or years if you’re reapplying).  Ideally, you’ve taken the MCAT and have finished your medical school prerequisites prior to filling in the AMCAS, the entry of the primary application itself will probably be about 20 pages printed out (see the elements of the AMCAS below). And, being that it’s so lengthy it’s quite easy to poke holes into your own application by being inconsistent and redundant.

To remind you, here are the basic elements of the primary AMCAS application (medical school application link to AMCAS):

  • MCAT (Medical Colleges Admissions Test)
  • Undergraduate & Graduate Course Work (Data Entry)
  • Transcripts to Verify Coursework (send official transcripts to AMCAS)
  • Letters of Recommendation (LOR or LORs plural)
  • Personal Statement (PS, the best composition you’ve ever written)
  • Work/Activity Section (W/A)

The general mantra for the Work /Activity section is to verify you have the credentials to join the medical profession. 

This entry will focus on the Work /Activity section, and discuss how I completed my own section. In general, to holistically evaluate my application I divided my own AMCAS application into two categories :  objective scoring (MCAT/coursework and resultant GPAs’), and subjective testaments (PS, LORs’, W/A sections). When I was applying to medical school I had already graduated college and successfully taken the MCAT, so my objective scores were already written in stone. However, the rest of the application was mine to write, and my narrative to control. Don’t write off the 15 entries you’re given by the AMCAS  to enter your work / activities as a purely obligatory busy work. It’s another opportunity for you to show the admissions boards you’re capable of becoming a physician.

Wait, so what’s the Work / Activities section and why does it matter?

Let’s face it, even assuming you get the pro-typical “safe” GPA and MCAT, getting into medical school isn’t easy. In 2012 almost 45 K hopeful students applied for medical school, and only around 19 K successfully found a seat. But, at the same time from the school’s perspective, selecting from a pool of almost equally talented, intelligent, and driven premeds is also pretty tough. Having a strong work / activities section makes it easier for them to remember you. So, the AMCAS gives you 15 short  entries (700 characters) to denote your commitment and accomplishments in volunteering, conferences, work, clubs etc.  Furthermore, you have to select three events to be the most meaningful (an additional 1325 characters) — good luck with that. As a nontraditional premed, I had a really extensive work / activities history, this came up a lot during my interviews as a positive thing.

First, I took the elements of primary application and tried to quantify them in relative terms. In other words, I took the AMCAS primary list I presented to you above, that is : MCAT, GPA, LOR, and W/A, then tried to weigh my strengths and weaknesses for each category. I compared myself against typical applicants, the things I’d rather not come up while the medical school was reviewing application probably was my weaknesses. In contrast, parts of my application that I could happily presumably talk with my interviewer about were probably my stronger portions of my application.  This helped me decide how/what work and activities I should focus on. Then, I took my resume and curriculum vitae to tell a narrative that, while not negating my flaws, showed my growth whilst plugging holes in my AMCAS ship. It also helped me narrow down how I should allot my “top three” choices.

Okay, I wasn’t actually anal enough to graph attributes, but you get the idea.

Show and Tell with W/A : To be more helpful I used my actual AMCAS entries, with my university info and other identifiers removed, you can refer to them but copying them wouldn’t be smart for obvious reasons.

After I evaluated myself, I then chose how to best distribute my potential 15 entries. In the end I actually only used 13 entries, I believe you should go for your stronger entries as opposed to space fillers.  To show schools that I’m intellectually sound, besides my upward spiral in grades, I used my work /activity section to tell them “don’t worry about my old grades” with me becoming a science/biology college tutor:

  • Targeting my academic weakness with tutoring (normal activities entries will be 700 characters)
  • While at University of Frenchtoast (UF) I obtained recommendations from the biology and chemistry department to tutor at the UF Learning Resource Center. Helping others was doubly rewarding, I achieved satisfaction from helping fellow UF students, and reinforced my understanding of the subjects tutored: organic chemistry, general chemistry and biology, physiology, and introductory biochemistry. An effective tutor must be an effective listener, as even if the problem sounds similar, students have disparate reasons for not understanding. After graduation I was still retained as a tutoring advisor and upper level science tutor.
  • Targeting my academics with applied research, this was also one of my most meaningful entries, so I had more characters allowed (see below).
  • I started the project by performing a comprehensive literature review, and creating a muscle electrophysiology timeline in neonate and adult mice. This timeline was presented to the lead investigator, and used to justify our need for animal experimentation to the Animal Care and Use Committee. From this project I was selected as a Ronald E. McNair Research Scholar, helping to fund my study. I learned how to conduct electrophysiology experiments, seeing the effects of electrochemical diffusion at first hand, strengthening my understanding of physiology. After nearly two years of work, 20-30 hours a week, I was able to present the project at UC Berkeley in 2011.
  • The Most Meaningful Entry allows for 1325 characters.
  • I was invited to start in a new lab focusing on muscle electro-physiology, biology department with Dr. Awesome Voss. After several months of background training, I started bench research, trying to tease apart the mechanisms of chloride conductance across the excitable muscle membrane. The project centered on the concept that adenosine-5’-triphosphate (ATP) has been reported as being released from exercising muscle. Besides possibly nociception, it was a mystery to what the physiological benefit of active muscle releasing ATP. Our first observation was that ATP, even released distally to the neuromuscular junction, made whole muscle fibers excitable for an extended period. To understand the conductance properties better, my project was to measure this effect in enzymatically disassociated muscle fibers. Using microelectrodes, I impaled the muscle membrane of myofibers of mice, measuring current or voltage responses, with currents and changes in voltages corresponding to changes in conductance of charge carrying ions. Using neurotoxins to block other charge carrying ions (potassium and sodium) we discovered that chloride was the ion responsible for the observed hyper excitability. We speculated that aberrant chloride channel conduction may explain some of the symptoms of the disease myotonia.

In the end it’s important to remember that unlike the GPA and MCAT which are pretty much set in stone, the over parts of the application allows for admissions boards to view you more holistically. Therefore, your primary interest should be making a strong primary application, and simply following through with secondaries. Primary applications are analogous to the school viewing your profile, secondaries are like when they finally call/text you for the first time, and you’re interview in the first date. If your profile makes you look like an axe murdered then guess what, no dates. Make your primary application strong in all aspects, and use your W/A section to reinforce to admissions to why you’re a logical pick from the herd.

Feel free to message, chat, what-have-you on twitter

If you have oddles of time, you can read the 90 page manual for the AMCAS yourself =)