Writing your personal statement for medical, dental, or vet school

Personal statement “5300 characters? How on earth can I possibly explain all of the reasons why I want to be a doctor in a single page?”

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.

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Writing Your Personal Statement: A Few Resources

With apologies to Erasmus of Rotterdam and Hans Holbien the Younger.

With apologies to Erasmus of Rotterdam and Hans Holbien the Younger.

Are you writing a personal statement for medical, dental, or veterinary school? The post-bacs at the University of Rochester are polishing their drafts, readying themselves to submit their applications to medical school and veterinary school (alas, we have no dental school applicants this year). You’ll find plenty of advice on the internet about writing personal statements, but some suggestions are more helpful than others. I’ve collected some of my favorites to share with you. While most of these suggestions are specific to medical school, the suggestions are applicable to any health professions personal statement.

When advice comes from the American Association of Medical Colleges, you should always take it seriously.   This page, with advice from Sunny Gibson from the Feinberg School of Medicine and the University of Rochester’s own Brenda Lee, Assistant Dean for Medicine Education & Student Affairs, offers excellent suggestions. Dean Lee’s suggestions take the form of a succinct list of questions to address. Ms. Gibson’s suggestions are longer, and give more explanation. You’ll find that many lists of advice encourage you to “show, don’t tell”: Ms. Gibson offers specific examples of what that actually looks like.

The pre-health advisers at Johns Hopkins University offer a concise, comprehensive guide. Don’t look for examples here—this consists primarily of dos and don’ts. Pay close attention to the caveats (“Don’t lie,” “Don’t narrate your entire resume”)—these are extremely important.

Jeff Glenn from Harvard Office of Career Services offers superb suggestions. With brief examples, this collection of powerpoint slides illustrates catchy openings and effective transitions, and provides some good examples on how to proceed when you’re stuck.

Anubodh Varshney, writing for U.S. News and World Report, has some excellent tips. His insistence on the necessity of self-reflection and the advice to tell a story are particularly important. I take issue with his “80-20” rule because it seems to me that too much space devoted to future goals will not reveal enough about the person you are today—but overall, this essay offers sound advice.

Edward Chang, also writing for US News, illustrates how to create a compelling narrative. Chang’s essay offers an approach that is different from the previous lists—he creates a fictionalized medical school applicant, and demonstrates how she can organize her experiences into a cohesive story.

Liza Thompson has several blog entries about personal statements, but this one is my favorite. In particular, her advice to include evidence of altruism is an excellent point, and seldom mentioned in other considerations of personal narratives.

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Six Things to Know about the 2015 MCAT’s Critical Analysis Section


  1. You’ve got an hour and a half. There are 53 questions to complete during this time.
  2. The questions are all based on writing passages. The passages themselves are relatively short—approximately 500 to 600 words.   You can expect some tricky vocabulary and challenging writing.
  3. There will be no passages based on science. Half of the passages are based in the humanities and the other half are based in the social sciences.
  4. The questions are designed to test your powers of critical analysis and your reasoning skills. Approximately 30% of the questions will be based on comprehending what you read. The other 70% will be based on reasoning within the text and reasoning beyond the text. Thus, you won’t only be asked questions about what the passage means. You can expect to be asked to evaluate and analyze word choice, imagery, and rhetorical devices, to extrapolate ideas and apply them to new contexts, to consider how new ideas and information might impact the text’s argument.
  5. These questions will not focus on your personal opinion. Keep your judgments focused on the text itself—even if you don’t agree with the arguments being made.
  6. If you read a passage about a topic you know well, use particular care in your responses. Your answers should be based solely on the passage and the new ideas and information introduced in the questions. If you happen to know obscure (or even not-so-obscure) facts that might contradict the arguments in the passage, keep them firmly out of your mind.


Want to know more about the Critical Analysis section? Check out the American Association of Medical College’s description of this section here.Critical Analysis

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Help for pre-vets

Animal-Care-1024x697If you’re considering veterinary school, you probably already know that the application process is long and involved. One thing it is not, though, is mysterious. The American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges has created a series of webinars for pre-vet students. “The Road to Veterinary School” is intended for freshmen and sophomores, but the information is applicable to post-bac students as well as students contemplating post-bac programs. “The Road to Veterinary School” includes information about vet school pre-requisites, clinical experiences, and the application process.   “Applying to Veterinary School” and “Introduction to VMCAS 2016” are both intended for students who will apply to Veterinary School in the near future. These webinars are offered at monthly intervals, and most last about an hour.   The entire listing (and registration links) can be found here.

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Why doctors need stories

After posting the last two entries about Jay Baruch and Rita Charon’s upcoming talks, a recent article in  the New York Times offers thoughtful opinions about why narratives are important in the field of medicine.  Take a look at Peter D. Kramer’s article and let me know what you think.

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Narrative disaster zones–a talk with Jay Baruch, MD

October is a great time to be on campus.  Sure, there are midterms and falling temperatures–but there are also some amazing talks happening.  Here’s one that promises to be incredible–and it’s free and open to the public.


Jay Baruch, MD

Jay Baruch, MD

Annual Human Values in Health Care Lecture

Wed, Oct 22, 3:30 – 5:00, in Goergen Hall 101, (Optics and Bioengineering) on the River Campus

Narrative Disaster Zones:  Story Pearls and Pitfalls in the Emergency Department

Presenter:  Jay Baruch, MD, Associate Professor, Emergency Medicine, Alpert Medical School, Brown University

Jay Baruch, MD is Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, where he serves as the director of the Program in Clinical Arts and Humanities, co-director of the medical humanities and bioethics scholarly concentration, and director of the ethics curriculum.  Dr. Baruch’s short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous print and online medical and literary journals.  His academic work centers on the importance of creative thinking and creative writing skills in clinical medicine.

This event is sponsored by the Division of Medical Humanities and Bioethics in the School of Medicine and Dentistry and the University Committee for Interdisciplinary Studies Human Values in Health Care Cluster.

For further information, contact Mary Fisher, 275-6435; mary_fisher@urmc.rochester.edu.

I hope to see you there!

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The Care of the Sick is a Work of Art

Rita Charon, MD, PhD

Rita Charon, MD, PhD

Rita Charon, M.D., Ph.D., will present the 2014 Sischy Lecture, “The Care of the Sick is a Work of Art,” at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 21 at the Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Avenue.

Dr. Charon is a general internist and narratologist at Columbia University who originated the field of narrative medicine. Narrative medicine recognizes the value of patients’ spoken viewpoints and first-person accounts in clinical practice, research and education. Narrative medicine aims not only to validate the experience of the patient, but also to encourage creativity and self-reflection in the physician.

“Sick people need physicians who can understand their diseases, treat their medical problems, and accompany them through their illnesses,” Dr. Charon has said. She is the author of Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness (Oxford University Press, 2006) and co-editor of Stories Matter: The Role of Narrative in Medical Ethics (Routledge, 2002) and Psychoanalysis and Narrative Medicine (SUNY Press, 2008).

Dr. Charon is founder and Executive Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia. Her research focuses on the impact of narrative medicine practice, reflective clinical practice and health care team effectiveness.

The lecture is free and open to the public. To register now, visit http://event.urmc.edu/sischy . For additional registration information contact Angela Pullen at 585.273.5937.

The Ben Sischy, M.D., Lecture in Humane Medicine was established in 1991 as a tribute to the former chief of radiation oncology at Highland Hospital. Dr. Sischy’s career was based on his beliefs in the importance of quality patient care, innovative research and dedicated treatment. He pioneered many new approaches to cancer treatment in a community hospital setting.

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A tip of the hat


If you’re one of my advisees, you possibly already know how much I appreciate the sagacity of Liza Thompson’s blog. She has a particularly useful recent post on pre-med planning that I encourage all pre-health students to read.

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Easing the final passage

Slate Magazine has published an eloquent, haunting excerpt from Atul Gawande’s new book Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End.  “No Risky Chances:  The Conversation That Matters Most” offers a short meditation on death, palliative care, and the delicate balance between shaping our own stories and accepting the realities of biology and physics.  I highly recommend it.

Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande

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The Holistic Review: What a Pre-med Needs to Know

Holistic review


In the mood for some interesting reading? I recommend Holistic Admissions in the Health Professions: Findings from a National Survey.  Written by Urban Universities for Health (a collaboration of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, and the Association of American Medical Colleges), this report is the first national study documenting the increasing prevalence of holistic admissions review by health professions schools. According to the authors, nearly three fourths of the medical, nursing, dental, pharmacy, and public health schools have moved toward a holistic admissions review. Driving this change is a desire to train a workforce of health professionals who can treat patients from all walks of life. Health professions schools hope that their students will draw on their personal qualities and professional skills to treat patients with expert, compassionate care. Increasingly, schools seek a study body that is diverse not only in terms of race and sex, but also diverse in perspective, socioeconomic background, ethnicity, and experience.


What is a holistic review process? Simply put, it’s when admissions committees take a range of factors into account when assessing applicants. In addition to standardized test scores and grades, schools consider socioeconomic status, whether an applicant is a first-generation college student, and the breadth of experience an applicant brings to the table.


What does this mean for YOU, as a prospective applicant to any health professions program? It means that to most admissions committees, you are more than your numbers. While MCAT, DAT, and GRE scores are important, they do not represent the sum of who you are as an applicant. Certain online medical school predictors claim to calculate your chances of getting into medical school. I encourage you to be suspicious of any person or program implying that you can be reduced to a series of numbers.


This is not to say that grades and test scores are not important. These metrics offer a valuable look at a student’s scientific aptitude, work habits, and current level of knowledge. But they are not the full picture of who an applicant is. They say nothing about a whole host of competencies that medical schools have identified as important for future doctors.


Here are some other resources to learn more about holistic reviews of medical school applicants:

The Changing Face of Medical School Admissions (from the New York Times)

Holistic Review — Shaping the Medical Profession One Applicant at a Time (article in the New England Journal of Medicine)

Core Personal Competencies Important to Entering Students’ Success in Medical School: What Are They and How Could They Be Assessed Early in the Admission Process? (from Academic Medicine)

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