If you’re applying to medical school, you may be wondering how to write a powerful personal essay.
One technique is to tell a story. Relating an event or experience that’s unique to you and which has shaped your decision to become a physician will help you stand out from the crowd.
The medical school personal essay (AMCAS calls it the Personal Comments essay) is your advertisement. The essay has to speak for you, differentiating you from other candidates and showcasing your strengths. It should illustrate not only your hard skills (specific, teachable abilities that can be defined and measured), but also your soft skills (self-management and people skills), such as a strong work ethic, positive attitude, and ability to work well under pressure.
If your essay does its job, the reader will feel that he or she knows you and understands the special strengths that will make you an excellent physician; someone who deserves a closer look by the admission committee.
So how do you stand out in a sea of applicants?
Create Instant Impact
Consider who is reading your essay. In a busy week, admission officers might read forty or fifty applications per day. Your goal is to get your medical school admission officer to take notice. Your goal is to draw him or her into your essay from the first sentence and maintain that interest until the last word.
Start with a Story
One of the best ways to differentiate yourself and create instant impact is to start your essay with a story.
A well-chosen, well-told story will establish a framework for your essay, and serve as an interesting place to start and engaging way to end. It will showcase your hard and soft skills, and create immediate and compelling interest.
Medical School Essay Example: From Boring to Extraordinary
Here’s an example of how a story transformed a medical school essay. I worked with a young man who planned to be an emergency room physician. This is how his essay began:
“When I was in high school I had the privilege to take an honors Emergency Medical Technician course as part of my regular course work. I had recently joined the fire department in town as part of my community volunteer service and was quickly thrust into the world of emergency medicine. Soon I gained my certification and began running calls to help protect my friends and neighbors: one of my first motor vehicle accidents involved a longtime friend and one of my first calls working a cardiac arrest was a close friend’s mother. Dealing on a daily basis with patients whose ailments range from psychiatric issues to severe traumas gave me a whole new perspective on life. Spending a considerable amount of time interfacing with nurses and physicians in the emergency rooms of local hospitals gave me firsthand experience in the world of emergency medicine, particularly trauma surgery.”
There are three major problems with this medical school essay:
1. It doesn’t grab the reader’s attention.
2. It’s too generic. No other student should be able to write your essay, especially the first sentence. How many medical school applicants can write that they took an EMT course? Plenty.
3. There’s no story.
For his second draft, I asked the student to think about an event that portrayed him at his best, one that compelled him to act in a way that showed he’d make an excellent physician and co-worker. I wanted the experience to have a powerful emotional connection for him, because that would generate greater interest for the reader. I also wanted him to use dialogue to bring his experience to life.
As we talked, he realized the story he wanted to tell was already in his essay. Its mention, however, was so fleeting that he hadn’t even given it a sentence: “…one of my first calls working a cardiac arrest was a close friend’s mother.”
With that story in mind, here’s how the student re-worked his essay:
“3:24 am. Drowsy, trying to wake up. Redding Ambulance for an unresponsive female… Adrenaline kicking in. EMS pants on… CPR in progress.
For the past six years, I have immersed myself in the world of emergency medicine. When I was sixteen I joined the fire department in town and began running calls to help protect my friends and neighbors. Dealing on a daily basis with patients whose ailments range from psychiatric issues to severe traumas gave me a whole new perspective on life and spending time interfacing with nurses and physicians in the emergency rooms of local hospitals gave me firsthand experience in the world of emergency medicine, particularly trauma surgery. I was able to help my patients not only in the field but also in the critical early stages of emergency stabilization in the ER. My level of competence became extremely important to me as my patients lives depend on it. I enjoyed being able to help my neighbors and make a positive difference in their lives; something told me that this was the field I should be in.
3:31 am. Sirens. I recognize my friend’s house as soon as we arrive. I walk inside to find chaos: my friend’s mother on the ground, police performing CPR… struggling to untangle AED wires. I evaluate the officer’s compressions and prepare to drop an oropharyngeal airway. Stand clear.”
In the rest of his essay, the student intersperses more punches of time as he and the team try unsuccessfully to resuscitate his friend’s mother; until finally:
“3:38 am. My earlier drowsiness is long gone. I spike an IV bag while the paramedic searches for a vein. I pick epinephrine from his bag and hand it to him. No time to dwell on the tragedy at hand. The ambulance slams towards the hospital.”
Does the story grab you from the beginning? You bet. Specifics? No one else can tell this story. Emotion? We feel like we’re right there, experiencing the student’s compassion for his friend and his friend’s dying mother as he works with the other medics to save her life (examples of both soft and hard skills). More than one admission officer commented on this essay during the student’s interviews.
What’s Your Story?
What event made an impact on your life and your choice to be a physician? Tell it. Use your story to frame your essay. Incorporate detail that’s unique to you, and gives the reader an understanding of who you are, what you’ve been through, and what you’re capable of.
Don’t leave your medical school essay in need of CPR. Breathe life into it. Tell a story.
..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website or blog for more info.
Leave a comment — let me know what you think.
College Admission Essays: Finding Your Authentic Voice
Writing College Application Essays: 5 Editing Tips
2012 AMCAS Instruction Manual