You can’t. In fact, if you could completely express your life’s ambition, describe your background and formative experiences, and gesture toward your personal philosophy in this limited space, you would have lived an unusually shallow life.
So what’s a medical school, dental school, or veterinary school applicant to do? Take heart, my friends. Here is my prescription:
There’s no way you can be exhaustive—so don’t try to be. Instead, tell a story, and tell it well. As humans, we’re made up of thousands of stories, and for an application, there is no single right story to include.
You may wonder, “Should I tell the story of my grandfather’s battle with heart disease? Maybe I should describe my amazing shadowing experiences with Dr. Iyer. Or should I recount the moment when I tore my ACL playing soccer?” The experience itself probably does not matter all that much. What matters is the way you choose to tell it, and the way the experience sheds light on your motivation and character. In other words, admissions committees read thousands of essays each year—the experience itself, unless it is truly shocking, is probably unlikely to be unique. What is unique is you—the meanings you derive from the experiences you have had. Any story you tell should be a jumping-off place for self-examination, and a chance to reveal something authentic and thoughtful to your readers.
Be personal. That does not mean you need to disclose your deepest secrets in your essay—unless you have a clear rationale for doing so. Keep in mind that your words, in both this personal statement and in your essays in your secondary applications, are your only opportunity to introduce yourself in your own words to the admissions committee. Your goal is to make the admissions committee want to meet you. The way to do this is to be sincere, to be reflective, and to be honest.
No one expects you to be perfect. Some of the most interesting essays grow out of moments of failure, disappointment, grief, and challenge. The stories you tell in your essay do not need to have a happy ending, nor must they invariably show you in your finest hour. Sometimes the moments when we are challenged can lead to the richest opportunities to explain the complexity of our thinking.
Don’t expect your reader to do the work. If you relate an experience, you need to be clear about what it means to you. Don’t expect a reader to make a gigantic leap from a description of your pediatrician to your current research obsession without providing a logical connecting idea. Don’t expect a reader to automatically understand that the dog’s death you have so heartbreakingly described was the motivation for your desire to become a veterinarian. You need to do the work by linking these ideas into a logical, cohesive narrative.
And finally, plan to write more than one draft. In fact, plan to write at least five drafts. It is difficult even for the most engaging and experienced writers to deliver a meaningful, high impact personal narrative—and all the more so when they must do so in a single page. Start early, revise often. And share your work with careful readers, who will give you honest feedback. In an ideal scenario, you’d show your drafts to one person who is an English major (or better yet, an English professor), preferably one who is meticulous about grammar and word choice. Another reader should be someone who knows you well, and can comment on whether the writing gives a good sense of who you are as a person. The third reader should be someone who is further along than you in education and experience—a professor or a mentor would be an ideal choice. You want this person to critique the quality of your reflection and expression.
And now, it’s time to get started. Find a comfortable chair, your favorite beverage, and begin.