The Med School Personal Statement: Where To Start

December 12, 2011
Jeff Koetje

There’s a great line in the 2000 British stop-motion animation film Chicken Run. After surviving a brush with death, Babs, the sweet, daft chicken deadpans, “All me whole life flashed before me eyes . . . It was really borin’.”

Some of you may be feeling a little bit like poor ol’ Babs as you stare at an empty Word document – or blank sheet of paper for you old-fashioned types – wondering how you’ll ever manage to craft a personal statement for your medical school primary application that is interesting, meaningful, and no longer than 5300-characters-including-spaces. You might be thinking, Well, I haven’t cured any major diseases. I haven’t performed solo at Carnegie Hall. So I don’t really know what will be interesting or unique to write about. But if this is what you’re thinking, you’re missing the point of the personal statement.

First, let’s be clear about what the personal statement is not. It’s not an autobiography. You should never, ever start your personal statement with, “I was born in a one-room log cabin on a farm in Kentucky.” First of all, that wasn’t you – that was Abraham Lincoln. And even if you were born in a one-room log cabin on a farm, that information is most likely not relevant to your passion for medicine today.

At the same time, the personal statement is also not a “greatest hits” album of your academic and extracurricular achievements. You’ll come across as a self-important jerk if your essay is just “First I did this. Then I did that. Then I got this award. Then I was honored for . . .” You get the point. Besides, you’ve already provided your greatest hits in the Coursework and the Work/Activities sections of the AMCAS application, so there’s no point in taking up valuable space repeating yourself.

Lastly, your essay is not a confessional. Nobody is all that interested in reading an extended apology for all your various shortcomings (such as that C- in first semester Orgo), failures, or character defaults. It’s also not a position paper. This is not the time or the place to offer your astute analysis and critique of health care reform efforts under the Obama administration, regardless of how well you know the issue.

So what is the personal statement? It’s personal, which means that it must be sincere, thoughtful, and open, and honest. These are your qualities, by the way; you reveal these hard-to-quantify attributes through your writing. It’s a statement of your motivation – or more accurately, a demonstration of your commitment to the mission of medicine.  You must show rather than tell. The personal statement is a focused narrative of your developing identification with and embodiment of the humanist commitments of the medical profession. It doesn’t promise the kind of doctor you’re going to be – and by kind, I don’t mean specialty. It demonstrates, it shows, the kind of care-taker you’ve already come to be. Medical school admissions committees want to see the record of your compassion, your humanism, your dedication to supporting the health and wellness of individuals and communities. They want to see your empathy in action; they want to know how you’ve embodied the qualities of an excellent physician.

If this sounds a bit grandiose, remember that no one expects you to have performed miracles. In fact, your narrative may tell a small, quiet story of gently applying a cool washcloth to a febrile toddler’s forehead, calming him down by clasping his small hand in yours. Or your narrative might describe how – as a premed art history major – you slowly, but powerfully, began to understand your love for interpreting art in order to understand the artist as a metaphor for your role as a care-taker in the building of relationships through the physicality of the body. The power of a well-written personal statement is not found in the drama of the events you describe, but in the depth of your reflection on the meaning of those events for your development as one who is already dedicating his or her life to supporting the wellness of individual people and communities.

Editor’s note: Students interested in learning more about writing the personal statement are invited to join one of Kaplan’s free Personal Statement Workshops. Simply visit and search for free events to find one that matches your schedule. 

Jeff Koetje

Jeff Koetje A 10-year veteran instructor for Kaplan, I've worked with pre-health students across the country to help them achieve success as future health care providers. As assistant director of pre-health programs, I'm responsible for managing the academic experience for students enrolled in our MCAT, DAT, OAT, and PCAT prep courses. I earned my BA in Biology from Johns Hopkins University and my MD from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. When not working with premeds I love to spend time cooking. I also enjoy collecting - and wearing - vintage and custom-made bow ties.

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