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How to Write a Great Medical School Personal Essay

Posted by Scott Harrah
July 10, 2013

When applying to medical school, writing a strong personal statement/essay is just as important as having a high GPA, MCAT, and excellent letters of recommendation. It truly is the best way of standing out amongst the countless applicants to medical school, giving you a chance to explain why you deserve a seat in the next semester’s class. Personal statements give prospective students a chance to explain a less-than-stellar GPA, how you’ve learned from mistakes, and why you want to become a doctor.


Many pre-med undergraduates have outstanding science and math skills, but lack solid experience in writing and editing. As an article in US News & World Report notes, “While many parts of the AMCAS (and other application systems) involve data entry and other finite tasks, the personal statement is often the least predictable part for students—and the one most likely to derail many submission timelines.”

Just like one studies the sciences for the MCAT, it is crucial to sharpen your writing skills before applying to medical schools. There are several ways to prepare, but keep in mind that just having friends or family proofread your personal statement for typos is not enough. Like any other skill or craft, writing requires practice and lots of rewrites/drafts—and personal statements are no exception—so the sooner you get started, the better.

Many experts on medical school personal statements say prospective students have the misconception that they must “sell themselves,” but keep in mind one of the fundamental rules of writing, “Show me; don’t tell me.” As Jessica Freedman, MD says in an article about personal statements on, “You never want to boast in your personal statement. Let your experiences, insights, and observations speak for themselves. You want your reader to draw the conclusion – on their own – that you have the qualities and characteristics the medical school seeks.”

Kaplan offers a Medical School Personal Statement Preparation Review for $599 good for 90 days, allowing you to submit samples for review by medical school admissions professionals. However, before spending money on a review program, familiarize yourself with the personal statement requirements of medical schools.

UMHS Director of Admissions Sean Powers outlines what his Caribbean medical school looks for:

  • We ask applicants to respond to a simple directive for their essay: "Tell us why you are considering a career in medicine?" It is deliberately broad in that it allows the applicant to take their essay in any direction they choose. The focus of their reply may be on the significance of the moment or experience which served as the genesis of their interest in becoming a physician.
  • They may choose to write about challenges they have faced that have forced them to question their passion for the field of medicine or obstacles they have overcome to reach the precipice of achieving their goal of gaining entry into medical school. Whatever the detail of the essay may be, it is important for applicants to keep in mind that it should tell us something about them that we cannot glean from their transcript or letters of recommendation; the essay is often the first section of the file that is read as an interviewer in preparing to meet with an applicant to discuss their candidacy. For that reason, it should be concise and, of course, free of any grammatical or spelling errors; use the format to help make your best possible first impression.

In US News and World Report, Veritas Prep discusses the do’s and don’ts of personal statements for aspiring doctors:

  • DO make sure your statement addresses two things: your reason(s) for wanting to pursue medicine, and your appeal as a candidate to medical schools. Cover both these points. Many statements only answer one of them (usually the first one).
  • DON'T choose a subject matter simply because you think it will impress. Avoid such clichés as: "I want to help people," "I want to make a difference," etc. Admissions committees prefer a more personal story of learning and growth, regardless of the topic. Also, avoid controversial topics.
  • DO broaden your list of potential essay themes. Be creative and original. In addition, this is the time to review certain aspects of your life, including your experiences (school or non-school related), motivations, and personal qualities.
  • DON'T rehash your résumé or other parts of your application in your essay. Never use the personal comments as a summary of accomplishments that are listed elsewhere in the application.
  • DO give yourself enough time. Procrastinating and rushing to finish your personal statement at the last minute may lead to undeveloped ideas, poor grammar and typos.
  • DON'T gloss over any potential red flags. If you had a difficult semester, low science grades, or a gap in your educational history, it's better to address the problems in the personal statement. Admissions committees will appreciate your honesty.

Jessica Freedman, MD, says on to answer the following questions as you go over your many drafts of personal statements:

  • What have you done that supports your interest in becoming a doctor?
  • Why do you want to be a doctor?
  • How have your experiences influenced you?

In addition, she points out the following myths about personal statements:

  • My personal statement must have a theme. Dr. Freedman says most have no themes and are somewhat autobiographical in nature.
  • My personal statement must be no longer than one page. “This advice is antiquated and dates back to the days of the written application when admissions committees flipped through pages,” Dr. Freedman says.
  • My personal statement should not describe patient encounters or my personal medical experiences. Dr. Freedman says powerful personal statements “often include information about clinical encounters – both personal and professional. Write about whichever experiences were the most important on your path to medicine.”

Dr. Freedman suggests using a checklist before submitting a personal statement. Make sure it does the following:

  • Shows insight and introspection. What have you learned from your experiences and what insights have you gained?
  • Flows well. Are your statements all logical, or are they confusing?
  • Is interesting and engaging. Dr. Freedman suggests writing in your own language, avoiding “big words,” and talking about the most intriguing experiences you’ve had on the way to medical school.
  • Gives the reader a mental image of who you are. Does your statement show that you would be a compassionate doctor and would cope well in crises?
  • Illustrates your passion for medicine. Will admissions committees think you are truly interested in medicine after reading your statement?


(Top photo) Practice makes perfect when writing a personal statement. Photo: Free

About UMHS:

Built in the tradition of the best US universities, the University of Medicine and Health Sciences focuses on individual student attention, maintaining small class sizes and recruiting high-quality faculty. We call this unique approach, “personalized medical education,” and it’s what has led to our unprecedented 96% student retention rate, and outstanding residency placements across the US and Canada. UMHS is challenging everything you thought you knew about Caribbean medical schools.

Posted by Scott Harrah

Scott is Director of Digital Content & Alumni Communications Liaison at UMHS and editor of the UMHS Endeavour blog. When he's not writing about UMHS students, faculty, events, public health, alumni and UMHS research, he writes and edits Broadway theater reviews for a website he publishes in New York City,

Topics: Admissions

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