The medical school application is your single best opportunity to convince a group of strangers that you would be an asset both to the school and to the medical profession. It’s your opportunity to show yourself as something more than grades and scores. Granted, every person who applies will have strengths and weaknesses. But it’s how you present your strengths and weaknesses that really counts. Recommendation letters, personal statements, and admission interviews are ways to showcase your talents and convince the school that you have what it takes.
How to Get Great Recommendations
Letters of recommendation are typically sent in the latter part of the application process with Secondary Applications. However, it’s important that you start to think about and solicit your letters much earlier in the game.
Admissions committees are generally very specific about from whom they want to receive letters on your behalf. Don’t take these requirements lightly. You should do everything you can to give the medical schools exactly the kind of letters they have requested.
Sometimes a medical school will ask you for a “pre-med committee letter.” These letters are typically of two types: Either an original letter written by your undergraduate premedical committee on your behalf, or a summary of excerpts of comments made by individuals who have submitted letters (at your request) on your behalf. While the pre-med committee letter used to be a standard component of any applicant’s application, they are rarer today.
Alternatively, you will be asked to submit two or three individual letters of recommendation, of which at least one or two must come from senior science faculty. A letter written by a teaching assistant usually carries less weight. However, letters cosigned by both the teaching assistant and professor are generally acceptable. In addition to the recommendations from science faculty, most medical schools request a letter from a humanities or social science professor, especially for non-science majors. You may also be asked to submit a letter by someone familiar with your clinical experience, research, or work history.
Supplemental Letters of Recommendation
Generally, it is permissible to send supplemental letters of recommendation in addition to the required letters. But note, these will be additional letters, not letters in substitution of those requested. As a rule, you should never send more than twice the number of letters requested. Additionally, remember that more letters is not necessarily better. If you’re going to send supplemental letters they should substantively add to your application.
Make Your Recommendation Letters Personal
Recommendations are essentially personal sales letters written on your behalf and it’s important that the letter writer put the best pitch forward. Understand it this way: It’s clear that the more personal the letter, the better off you are. This means you need to get to know your professors or more importantly, you need to give your professors an opportunity to get to know you. Go to office hours; become a teaching assistant; volunteer to work in their lab; take them to lunch! Whatever it takes so that when the time comes, they will be able to write you a personal letter of recommendation.
When you approach someone to write a letter of recommendation, don’t hesitate to ask whether she can write you a strong letter of support. If the person hesitates in any way, look elsewhere. Although this may be embarrassing, it will hurt you a lot more in the long run to have someone write you a lukewarm or unenthusiastic letter of recommendation. Remember, schools fully expect these letters to be glowing endorsements. Once you have garnered a positive response, be sure to provide your recommender with a resume to provide a more complete picture of you as a person. If you have a strong academic record, you may want to include a copy of your transcript to showcase your academic prowess and consistency. Your Personal Statement and any articles or papers which you think may be helpful should also be offered. Finally, always provide the writer with clear directions for electronic or hard-copy submission of the letter to the appropriate school(s). You should provide addressed and stamped envelopes when needed.
Pre-meds who procrastinate will be left scrambling to get recommendations. Professors and teaching assistants can become overwhelmed with requests. You can imagine the potential quality of these letters. You must give at least one month for your letter writers to write and submit the letters. Keep track of the status of your letters. As the deadlines approach, call and check on their progress. Once you’ve confirmed that your letters have been sent, thank-you notes are a nice touch. Personal visits are in order after you’ve been accepted.
How to Write an Effective Personal Statement
The term “Personal Statement” brings a shiver to the spine of many a potential medical student. You should think of the personal statement, however, as an opportunity to show admissions officers what you’re made of. They want to know why you want to enter the medical profession and this is your chance to tell them as clearly and compellingly as you can.
Purposes of a Personal Statement
The Personal Statement shows whether or not you can write a clear, coherent essay that’s logically and grammatically correct. These days, students’ writing skills are often presumed deficient until proven otherwise. If you plan on submitting your application through AMCAS, the length of your personal statement should be 5300 characters, which should be ample space to succinctly set yourself apart from other applicants.
Second, it provides you with the opportunity to present the admissions committee with more of a “three-dimensional” portrait of yourself as a deserving candidate than GPA and MCAT numbers possibly can. What you choose to write sends clear signals about what’s important to you and what your values are. You can explain why you really want to pursue medical graduate work and the career path it will enable you to follow. Your essay also enables you to explain things like weaknesses or gaps in an otherwise commendable record.
How Do Med Schools Use Personal Statements?
Essays are the best way for admissions officers to determine who you are. So, don’t hesitate to go beyond your current experience for essay topics. Feel free to discuss past events that, in part, define who you are. If you have overcome significant obstacles, say so. If you were honored with an award, describe the award and what you did to achieve recognition.
Give some thought to how your past and current experiences have contributed to your intellectual, personal and professional development. Rather than make pronouncements about goals and future activities, which are easily made-up and often exaggerated, select a few stories from your life experiences that showcase the qualities and characteristics that you already possess and that will help you be an empathic, committed doctor. Always remember the adage: Show; don’t tell. Start early, write several drafts, and edit, edit, edit.
Top 7 Tips for Med School Personal Statements
Avoid the Rehashed Resume
The personal statement is not the time to recount all your activities and honors in list-like fashion.
Make It Personal
This is your opportunity to put a little panache into the application. Show the admissions committee why you decided to go into medicine. Was it an experience you had in school? Was there a particular extracurricular activity that changed your way of thinking? Did you find a summer lab job so exhilarating that it reconfirmed your love for science? Use vignettes and anecdotes to weave a story and make the essay a pleasure to read.
Avoid Controversial Topics
If you do include discussion of a “hot topic,” definitely avoid being dogmatic or preachy. You don’t want to take the risk of alienating a reader who may not share your politics.
Don’t Get Too Creative
Now is not the time to write a haiku. Remember, the medical establishment is largely a scientific community (although individual physicians may be passionate artists, poets, writers, musicians, historians, etc.). On the other hand, don’t be trite and don’t be boring. Avoid writing “I want to be a doctor because…”
For instance, if you received a C in physics, you may feel compelled to justify it somehow. Unless you believe that the circumstances truly do merit some sort of mention, don’t make excuses. You don’t need to provide them with a road map to your weaknesses. If you had a bad year or semester because of illness, family problems, etc., ask your pre-med advisor to explain the details in his or her cover letter.
Write Multiple Drafts
Have your pre-med advisor and perhaps an English teaching assistant read and edit it. Proofread, proofread, and proofread some more. Also, try reading it out loud. This is always a good test of clarity and flow.
Think Ahead to Interviews
Interviewers often use your personal statement as fodder for questions. Of course, if you’ve included experiences and ideas that are dear to you, that you feel strongly about, you will have no problem speaking with passion and confidence. Nothing is more appealing to admissions folks than a vibrant, intelligent, and articulate candidate. If you write about research you conducted five years ago, you’d better brush up before your interviews. Don’t engage in hyperbole: You risk running up against an interviewer who will see through your exaggerations.
Having reviewed thousands of personal statements over the years, admissions committee chairman John T. Pham, DO, has come up with his own rule of thumb.
“When I look at a personal statement, if it doesn’t catch my attention in the first paragraph, then I’m not interested in reading further,” says Dr. Pham, who is the vice chair of the department of family medicine at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific-Northwest in Lebanon, Oregon.
The personal statement provides an important glimpse of a candidate’s noncognitive traits such as self-awareness, empathy, passion and fortitude. A vivid well-written essay conveying a medical school or residency program applicant’s motivations and aspirations can be a deciding factor in inviting that candidate in for an interview.
“The personal statement is really the only way you can make a memorable mark on admission committee members before you meet them,” says Benjamin K. Frederick, MD, a third-year radiology resident in Columbia, Missouri, who runs an essay-editing service called Edityour.net.
Dr. Pham advises students to have their personal statements critiqued before submitting them to medical schools or residency programs. Applicants should seek feedback on their draft essays from their classmates, physician mentors, college guidance counselors, and friends or family members with strong editorial skills, he says.
Some students take this process a step further by seeking professional help with their statements. Dr. Pham is not opposed to students’ enlisting help from private admissions consultants and essay editors as long as the personal statement reflects the applicant’s own words, insights and experiences.
But Adam Hoverman, DO, who has reviewed many personal statements to assess med school and residency applicants, is concerned that heavily edited, overly polished essays do not accurately portray a candidate’s communication skills.
“Being able to organize your thoughts and write effectively is vital for transmitting knowledge as a physician,” says Dr. Hoverman, an assistant professor of family medicine and global health at the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine in Yakima, Washington. “An essay that reflects someone else’s skill set is misleading.”
But those who provide essay-editing services argue that they help future physicians become better, more reflective communicators. If it weren’t for their help, they maintain, many talented, compassionate individuals would not gain entrance to medical school or competitive residencies.
Medical school candidates often produce personal statements that are superficial and clichéd, says Linda Abraham, the founder of Accepted.com, an admissions consulting and essay-editing firm.
“The applicants will write in very generic terms about how they want to help people, and you don’t see where this comes from,” she says. “They don’t give their background story, and they don’t provide examples.”
When I look at a personal statement, if it doesn’t catch my attention in the first paragraph, then I’m not interested in reading further.
Dr. Frederick notes that many students try to cram too much information into their personal statements, which end up reading like CVs or résumés.
“The personal statement should be a narrative about an experience that led to personal growth in the pursuit of a medical career,” he says.
Vagueness and a lack of illustrative stories are the death knell of many personal statements, says medical school admissions consultant Cynthia Lewis, PhD.
“What I tell my applicants is that only one half of one sentence in a paragraph should be ‘This is what I did.’ The rest needs to be a reflection on why you did something,” says Dr. Lewis, founder of Lewis Associates. “What did you get out of it? How did it change you? How do you think differently about the world as a result of this experience?”
Telling a story
When Dr. Pham reads a personal statement, he wants to be wowed by the applicant’s story. Maybe the candidate decided to pursue medicine because of experiences in the Peace Corps, hardships overcome, a community service project, a family member’s battle with a disease or any other life-changing situation.
“Does the personal statement engage me from the get-go?” Dr. Pham asks himself. “Does it have a good story line and tell me a lot about the person and whether he or she is really dedicated to medicine?”
Being able to organize your thoughts and write effectively is vital for transmitting knowledge as a physician.
Applicants to osteopathic medical school are limited to 4,500 characters (including spaces), roughly 700 words, for their personal statement, so it must be concise and to the point. Dr. Lewis recommends that candidates divide their personal statements into three components. The first part, she says, should be a one-paragraph “uniqueness statement”—something significant the applicant has accomplished, a passionate interest or hobby, or a challenging or deeply moving experience.
She recalls one client who had several stories to choose from. When he was studying abroad in Spain, his wallet was stolen while he was traveling in England and he had to navigate Europe without his passport or any other ID. He also learned how to play flamenco guitar that year.
“You need to pick one key experience or interest and talk about it,” Dr. Lewis says. “This will say a lot about you, what you care about and how you think.”
The second part of the personal statement should describe the applicant’s journey to medicine, she says. The candidate should explain in a couple of paragraphs what initiated his or her interest in becoming a physician, what has sustained that ambition over time, and why he or she feels ready to apply to medical school.
Taking considerable time to self-reflect and write a compelling personal statement is a valuable exercise.
The final part of the essay should explore the candidate’s interest in osteopathic medicine. “Don’t just say, ‘I shadowed an osteopathic physician,’ ” urges Dr. Lewis. “Explain what you learned from the experience and how you might incorporate osteopathic philosophy into your future practice.
“If you are applying to osteopathic medical schools, the people evaluating your application need to see that you have an understanding of the osteopathic approach to care.”
However, warns Dr. Pham, applicants should not try to address all of the osteopathic tenets in the essay, which would seem forced and insincere.
“Applicants should not tell us what they think we want to hear,” he insists. “We know that many students apply to both DO and MD schools. But if a student is strictly applying to osteopathic schools, it’s important to tell us why.”
Unlike personal statements for osteopathic medical school, which are submitted with the application through AACOMAS, those for residency can be customized to the specialty and program, as ERAS permits. But that doesn’t make them any easier to write, says Kim M. Peck, the director of academic and career guidance at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine (MSUCOM) in East Lansing.
Residency candidates need to tell the story of how they came to be interested in a particular specialty and what their long-term career goals are, according to Peck. “I advise students to be specific,” she says. “Don’t just say, for instance, that you are good with your hands and would make a great surgeon. Give an example of how you came to realize that, including details. Did an attending compliment you when you assisted with suturing? Was it an interaction with a hospitalized patient that helped you make up your mind?”
MSUCOM’s website includes a list of 14 questions students should ask themselves before they begin writing their first draft, such as “Which course work and clinical experiences have you enjoyed the most and why?” and “What is unique about you and your experiences?”
The process of writing an effective personal statement may take months, not just days or weeks, Peck says.
“Medical students are so busy doing rotations, taking shelf exams, and jumping through all of the hoops that are part of the residency process that they often don’t have time to think about themselves and where they’re going,” she observes. “Taking considerable time to self-reflect and write a compelling personal statement is a valuable exercise that helps ensure that students are making sound, thoughtful career decisions.”
Medical communication: An overlooked skill?
Googling “medical personal statement editing” yields more than 590,000 links to services and informational websites.
“Evidently, these services have arisen because of demand: Students feel they have not been adequately prepared as premeds to write persuasive personal essays,” says Dr. Hoverman, who stresses that educators should be teaching aspiring physicians communication skills alongside biology and chemistry.
“The ability to frame your thoughts in a manner that is productive for a peer, a patient or the community is substantially relevant in all aspects of health care,” he says.
Premeds interested in educating themselves can take electives such as creative writing classes and advanced speech classes. Medical students may consider pursuing writing opportunities on their own, such as starting a blog or writing research papers or articles for medical publications.
Picking up communication skills will help aspiring physicians do much more than write better personal statements, Dr. Hoverman notes.
“Organizing clinical teams, developing treatment plans, engaging in health advocacy—all of these things require physicians to be excellent communicators,” he says. “Consequently, a personal statement should genuinely reflect an applicant’s communication skills.”