Avoiding the Cringe Factor: Writing the Great Personal Statement For Medical School Admission

(As those of you applying to medical school know, the personal statement on the AMCAS application is, at least by conventional wisdom, one of the most imporant parts of your application. It doesn’t seem fair when you think about it, that all of your effort to get good grades and to position yourself with extracurricular activities can be undone by a few lines of prose, but that’s just how it is. Here are some general rules that might help you get started.-PB)

You Are Not Applying For A Position In Management

Every generation has its peculiar bureaucratic vernacular. In the nineteen-fifties it was the breezy patter of the Madison Avenue ad men. In the sixties it was vacuous leftist duckspeak. Today it is the stilted jargon of the diversity Mafia with which the timid writer protects himself from the one true sin of diversity, that is, to have an original idea. In fact, if you can’t write a decent-sized page without mentioning “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” “open-mindedness,” or any of the other shibboleths of the ossified Pharisees who protect the academic temple from blasphemy, you’re not trying hard enough to write an interesting personal statement.

Even the bureacrats who will read your essay must tire of yet another anthem to diversity, improving access, or your efforts to bridge the gaps between different peoples. It’s like describing dirt to a farmer. They get it. The modern academic bureaucrat eats, sleeps, and breathes diversity. It’s their religion in whose teachings they derive mindless comfort even though if pressed, they’d have a difficult time explaining why diversity is better than conformity.

You are, in fact, gilding the proverbial lily every time you mention your efforts to enhance diversity or “bring diversity to the table.” Everybody says this. It’s sort of a baseline. Nobody (with the exception of your Uncle Panda) is ever critical of diversity so what is your point going to be except that you wasted a couple paragraphs of your finite allocation of words on the literary equivalent of wall-paper? Completely unoriginal and unnecessary.

You Don’t Have Any Original Ideas

Say! Here’s an idea. Volunteer in the inner-city for a couple of months teaching kids how to read and then crow about it in your personal statement. They’ll never see that one coming and I’m sure you will hold your reader in thrall. The fact is that there is nothing new under the sun. Medical school admission is a highly formalized dance not unlike the compulsaries in Olympic pairs skating. Everybody has the same moves and a certain level of technical skill. That you only taught inner-city children how to read to buff up your application goes without saying. You know it and the person reading your personal statement knows it even though it was a good impulse and no harm came of it. Surely there are worse ways to spend your free time than doing some low-level, ineffectual community service. Do not, however, make a mountain out of a molehill or a religious experience out of handing out clean needles to drug addicts. I know people who were sentenced to the same kind of community service and they never talk about it.

Look at it this way: did volunteering amongst the great unwashed in any way change your decision to apply to medical school? Of course not. You were going to apply before you volunteered and nothing you saw or did dissuaded you. Ergo, volunteering is useless as a predictor of fitness for a medical career. I know it, you know it, and the admission committee knows it. With this in mind, rather than bragging about how you “facilitated this” or “enabled that” why not pick one person or event that either interested or affected you and write about it? And the kicker is to only loosly connect it with your life-long, thought-of-nothing-else-since-first-grade dreams of medicine. In other words, describe but do not use the suffering you witnessed as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement.

It is also not necessary to commit to a life of selfless dedication to the underserved. Talk is cheap and even you must know that where pre-meds become outraged at the plight of the poor, residents become outraged at their own plight, working as they do long hours for little pay in the service of the same poor who take them completely for granted, viewing as the poor are wont to do the complicated logistics of health care delivery with the same indifference as they view water or cable television.

You are a Terrible Writer

Admit it, love it, embrace it. Hell, I’m a terrible writer myself. I regularly abandon wonderful ideas for articles because I don’t have the skill to do them justice. I’m not proud of this but at least I recognize my limitations. Sure, I can sometimes bang out a servicable paragraph or two but I have a blog upon which I have been practicing for the last two years. You however, with the exception of a couple of cut-and-past term papers which weren’t even graded critically on style or grammar, have probably never had to string together even a couple of paragraphs of coherent ideas. There is no shame in this but you have to realize that you are not up to the task of creating something original and beautiful. You need to instead strive for servicability. Just say what you want to say and the more stilted phrases, wandering metaphors, and over-blown rhetoric you can eliminate the better (for you and your reader).

If you aren’t much of a writer, start with a simple subject-predicate sentence structure. “I went to Darfur in my senior year to work at a refugee camp” just sounds bettter than, “To actualize my life-long commitement to serving the underserved, something about which I have been passionate since the third grade, I decided to devote my free time working to facilitate the delivery of basic health care to the refugees in Darfur.” Through which sentence would you rather wade? Both sentences say essentially the same thing but the first assumes that the reader can put two and two together while the second doesn’t trust the reader to wipe his own ass, much less recognize your superior altrusim.

Give the reader some credit. Keep your prose simple, your sentences coherent, and he will follow along until the end when everything will be explained. Flight of ideas, flashbacks, and other literary devices are dangerous weapons in the hands of amateurs and you need to leave them alone unless you have some training in their use. Stick to the basics. State a theme, develop it modestly, and end it. You can go back later and embellish the stupid thing if you can’t resist the urge to put lipstick on a pig.

Avoid humor, by the way, unless you can pull it off which you can’t. You are not funny. You say some funny things occasionally, we all do, but that doesn’t make you a comedian. This doesn’t mean that your style needs to be ponderous but, as we mentioned, you don’t actually have a style per se. Humor is a difficult style and you have to work up to it.

Brevity, Sweet, Sweet Brevity

Be merciful to your reader. Unlike my blog which no one is obliged to read, to faithfully discharge his duties the medical school admission officer must read your entire personal statement, potentially all 5300 hundred characters of it. This is a lot of reading especially if the writer is a hack. I have read quite a few personal statements and I sometimes have to make a couple of attempts at them, not only to get clear of the sticky morass of stilted language and ponderous prose but also to appreciate the vastness of the writer’s accomplishments in his short, 24-year-old life. Good Lord. I am regularly amazed that I got into medical school because I have done absolutely nothing in life of any use to anybody. Compared to the typical medical school applicant, my life has been a vast wasteland of watching television, playing frisbee with my dog, and other activities that do nothing but prove my unfitness for a medical career.

Give it a rest. Few of us are interesting enough to fill a paragraph with our accomplishments let alone a whole page unless it were to relate every little thing we ever did in some mad paroxysm of achievement inflation. You can leave some things out. Pick one or two things about which you are justifiably proud and write about them. Once again, give your reader some credit. You are either a bona fide saint or a shameless opportunist but packing your personal statement with a catalogue of everything you did to polish you credientials since high school will neither expose nor conceal this.

You don’t have to use all of your alloted characters either. Use succinct paragraphs (with a decent space between them) and consider making your personal statement short. While I wrote the typical cringe-inducing AMCAS personal statement, when I re-applied for the Emergency Medicine match my ERAS personal statement was two brief paragraphs for a total of about 500 characters. Maybe I didn’t get an interview or two because of it but I still have my self-respect.

Avoiding the Cringe Factor: Writing the Great Personal Statement For Medical School Admission

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