How to Write a Powerful Personal Statement for Medical School

The personal statement can make or break your medical school application. Learn how to write it and strategies to make it stand out to admissions committees in this expert guide.

Posted May 10, 2024

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Essays are one of the most important parts of any graduate school application. Whereas your resume, letters of recommendation, and standardized test scores speak to your achievements and academic potential, your essays are where you can make a human argument based on your unique candidacy; they tell the story of a person rather than of numbers.

Typically, aspiring MD candidates will need to submit several essays. The personal statement or personal comments essay is submitted through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), a centralized application that most medical schools use (outside of Texas), similar to the Common App. This application opens for submission around the end of May or the beginning of June. After you submit your AMCAS application, you’ll also need to submit a secondary application that goes directly to the schools you're applying to. Depending on the program, this may be open to everyone or extended on an invitation-only basis. This secondary application usually includes several other essays or short-answer questions that are more specific to what the school is looking for.

Though there is a standard that your scores, GPA, and experience need to meet, the essays really can make or break your chances of admission. In this article, we’ll go over what makes a good personal statement, how to get started on yours, and some actionable strategies for success.

What is the Personal Statement?

The “personal statement essay” can be found in section eight of the AMCAS application. The simple, vague prompt is as follows:

“Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.”

This prompt is purposefully left broad–the admissions committees want to see where applicants go in their responses. In short, they really want the answer to two things:

  1. Why should we admit you, specifically?
  2. Why medicine?

On its website, AMCAS says that this essay “provides an opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants and provide admissions officers with more insight into why you have chosen to pursue a career in medicine.” In other words, your response should make a compelling case for what you will bring to the table and clearly outline how your path so far has led you to medical school.

Med School Personal Statement Length

The personal comments essay has a character limit of 5,300, which includes spaces. This translates to about a page and a half worth of words. TMDSAS, the Texan equivalent of AMCAS, has a character limit of 5,000.

How Long Will My Personal Statement Take?

Like with any part of the application, timing is everything. Thankfully, medical school applications don’t require too much writing. Still, we recommend giving yourself at least a month on the personal statement (several if you're able to) so that you have time to iterate on a few different drafts, sit on it, and get feedback.

For more advice on timing the application process, read The Ultimate Guide to the Medical School Application Process.

How to Write a Med School Personal Statement

Often, the most difficult part is getting started; but, it’s hard to do so without a plan. Before you begin writing, it can be helpful to have an idea of your overarching narrative and the role that you want the essay to play. At a foundational level, you also just need to have a really solid understanding of who you are and what your motivations are for pursuing medicine. After all that, you’ll get to writing. Here’s a step-by-step playback for getting from start to finish on your personal statement.

Step 1: Ideate

Before you put pen to paper, think about the following questions and jot a few ideas down. If there are any that you’re struggling with, ask the people around you! Parents/guardians and close friends can be especially helpful in identifying your strengths and what makes you unique.

  • What are the main life decisions I made in the last ten years and why did I make them? What values/thoughts/rationale remained consistent across these decisions?
  • What character traits do I want to show the admissions committee? What are some examples of when I demonstrated these traits?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses?
  • When did I first believe that I wanted to be a doctor? What experiences originally led to that and then later cemented it as a goal?
  • What are the main takeaways from my clinical (and other relevant) experience? What did I learn? What stuck with me?
  • What parts of my candidacy are not well represented in the other parts of my application?
  • Why do I want to go med school? (get specific)
  • What do I want my professional career to look like in 15 years? In 30?
  • What motivates me–professionally and personally?

In any graduate school application, you’re trying to strike a balance between providing a comprehensive view of your candidacy and not overwhelming with unnecessary information. For this reason, it can be extremely valuable to have an idea of the overall story you want to tell. Think about your “elevator pitch” and use the essay to build on that. If you’re not sure what experiences or characteristics are the most impactful, you can also work with a coach. They’ll help you identify what’s most important to talk about, and to leave out, and can also work with you to draft an outline.

Step 2: Write a draft (it’s okay if it’s terrible)

Once you’ve got some direction, the next step is to just get your thoughts on paper. Sit down and force yourself to brain dump. It does not have to be pretty, it does not have to make sense, it does not have to be comprehensive. From there, leave it for a day. When you come back, highlight the parts that still resonate and make a note of anything missing.

Step 3: Review and edit, repeat

Based on the comments you left yourself on your preliminary thoughts, write a second draft. This time, pay a little more attention to the overall flow. Support your main ideas with real evidence in the form of stories and anecdotes. Be concise and get to the point–when your characters are limited, it’s important to not waste any on irrelevant details or extraneous verbiage. Once you’ve done this, set your draft aside for a bit. Come back to it later and make it better. Then, repeat the process. To get a really good personal statement, you’re going to want to go through many different drafts.

Step 4: Get feedback

Once you’ve got a draft that you feel good about, we highly recommend getting a second perspective. The ideal editor is someone who has a basic understanding of your background but does not know you in-depth, as this would make it difficult for them to judge the essay objectively. A friend-of-a-friend, friend-of-a-mentor, professor, or med school admissions coach are all great choices. It’s a bonus if they have any kind of writing or editorial experience.

This third-party review will help you figure out what’s working and what’s not. From this point, and depending on the feedback, you may be close to a final draft.

Step 5: Read it out loud

We know–this sounds weird, but do it. When you read your essay out loud, you hear it as the admissions committee member will. It’s easier to find the gaps, identify missing transitions, see where you’re rambling, and get an overall idea of the impression it gives.

Step 6: Review, final edits, and spellcheck

Once you feel really, really good about your response, read it for a final time. Make sure that there are no grammatical or spelling errors. Then, you’ll copy and paste it into section eight of the AMCAS application, and it’s ready to go!

Caution: Don’t overdo it

Though it’s better to err on the side of too much editing over too little, it is possible to overdo it. If you stare at your writing long enough, everything starts to sound the same. And, for those of us who are perfectionists, it’s easy to feel like it’s never good enough. In most cases, it probably is. There comes to a point where you’ve done all you can and it’s time to submit. A good coach can help you gauge when this is but it also takes knowing yourself. If you start to get overwhelmed or frustrated, it’s completely okay (and even beneficial) to step back for a few days. Then, when you return, you’re coming in with a fresh and slightly more removed perspective.

Example Medical School Personal Statements

Download free example personal statements from admits to top medical schools at Harvard, Stanford, and others

Medical School Personal Statement Tips

Now that we’ve covered what the personal statement is and how to get it written, we’ll dive into some specifics on how to make it great, including things to do and avoid.

Lean into what makes you different from the other applicants.

After reading your personal statement, you want the admissions committees to think, “If we don’t admit this person right now, we might never get another applicant like them!” No pressure, right? Just kidding, we know this is tough to do! You will come from the same schools as other applicants and have the same majors, the same work experiences, the same hometowns, and the same GPAs. What’s different is how you went through all of that. Your perspective, how you interact with the world, and what you take away are all unique to you.

In the examples you share and your overall argument for admission, make sure you address this and don’t be afraid to get specific. A good test is this: if someone else could have written your exact same personal statement, it’s not unique enough.

Know what your personal statement is not.

You’re applying to medical schools, not creative writing programs. With this in mind, your personal statement should not be an exercise in writing the most experimental personal statement. The power in personal statements comes from the applicant’s background and story, not their writing abilities. To be clear, your statement should still be written well; but, you don’t need to get too fancy.

Don’t lose sight of the prompt.

With broader topics like this, it’s easy to get sucked into a tangent and pretty soon, you’re giving your entire life story. And, while you do want to explain your path, you’re doing so with a specific reason in mind. Your personal statement should explain exactly why you want to be a physician. If your stories aren’t directly relevant to that purpose, take them out.

For this, it can be helpful to examine your personal statement paragraph by paragraph. Imagine your response without that section–does the primary message still get across? Is it contributing something valuable or is it extraneous?

Don’t recite your resume.

This is your classic “show, don’t tell” advice. Use examples to support the qualities that you want the adcom to see, rather than listing your accomplishments and what you think they demonstrate. Here’s an example:

  • Applicant 1: For two years, I shadowed a family physician in my city where I learned the day-to-day responsibilities required to succeed in the field.
  • Applicant 2: For two years, I shadowed a family physician in my city. This taught me how successful doctors in this field need to understand a variety of issues, problem-solve constantly, and develop real relationships with their patients.

Which one is more compelling? They’re essentially saying the same thing, but the second applicant explains what the first only claims.

Keep the focus on you.

You are the main character of the personal statement. While many stories will also involve other people–mentors, patients, friends, family members, etc…–make sure that the focus remains on what you demonstrated. That’s not to say you should only have stories that don’t include others. Tell the same stories but do so in a way that highlights the role you played.

When you’re reviewing any given anecdote, ask yourself: “What does the admissions committee learn about me from this?” If you can’t point to direct and specific things, it needs to be reworked.

Perfect Your Personal Statement With the Help of an Expert

This is enough to get you started on your personal statements, but the best way to make sure that you have a powerful, genuine response is to work one-on-one with a med school admissions coach. It can be tough to find an authoritative and objective second opinion, and that’s where a coach steps in. Find one that matches your background, goals, and budget here. Below are some of our most popular and highest-rated coaches.

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