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Home > Medical > Free Essay Tips and Advice > Topic Selection

Getting Started
Assessing Yourself
Identifying Your Themes
Developing A Strategy
Avoiding Pitfalls

Getting Started

To get the most benefit out of this section, put your anxieties aside. Don’t think about what the admissions committee wants, don’t worry about grammar or style, and especially don’t worry about what anyone would think. Worries like these hamper spontaneity and creativity. Focus instead on writing quickly and recording every thought you have the instant you have it. You will know that you are performing these exercises correctly if you are relaxing and having fun.

Stream of Consciousness

Take 20 minutes to answer each of the questions: Who are you? and What do you want? Start with whatever comes to mind first, and write without pausing for the entire time. Don't limit yourself to any one area of your life such as your career. Just let yourself go, be honest, and have fun. You might be surprised by what kind of results can come from this type of free association.

Morning Pages

If you have the discipline to practice this technique for a week, you may end up doing it for the rest of your life. Keep paper and a pen at your bedside. Set your alarm clock twenty minutes early, and when you are still in bed and groggy with sleep, start writing. Write about anything that comes to mind, as fast as you can, and do not stop until you have filled a page or two.

Journal Writing

Keep a journal for a few weeks, especially if you are stuck and your brainstorming seems to be going nowhere. Record not what you do each day but your responses and thoughts about each day’s experiences.

Top Tens

Write down your top ten favorites in the following areas: movies, books, songs, musicians, sports, paintings, historical eras, and famous people. Step back and look at the lists objectively. What do they say about you? Which favorites are you most passionate about? How have these favorites affected your outlook, opinions, or direction?

Free-Flow Writing

Choose a word from your questions such as "influence," "strengths," "career," "diversity," or "goals" and brainstorm around it. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping. Write down everything you can think of that relates to the topic, including any single words that come to mind.
Assessing Yourself

Hopefully the exercises in the last section successfully stirred your thoughts and animated your pen. If so, then it is time to impose more focus on your brainstorming. These next exercises help you do just that. They concentrate on finding the specific points and details that can be used to answer each of your questions. But as you work on them be sure to retain the open mind and creative attitude with which you approached the last exercises.

First, make a list of all the questions you have to answer for each school, leaving plenty of space next to each. Work on the following exercises proactively, keeping these questions in mind as you write. When you have uncovered a point or example that could potentially be used in response to one of them, make a note of it next to the question and then go right back to the brainstorming. If you can apply one situation or experience to multiple questions, do so. Don’t censor yourself. At this stage of the writing process , more is better – you can worry about honing and culling later. The objective now is to accumulate multiple items for each question.

The Chronological Method

Start from childhood and record any and all special or pivotal experiences that you remember. Go from grade to grade, and job to job, noting any significant lessons learned, achievements reached, painful moments endured, or obstacles overcome. Also, include your feelings about those occurrences as you remember them. If you are a visual person, it might help to draw a timeline. Do not leave out any significant event.

Because so many questions ask about your past, this exercise can help you uncover material that will likely be used in several places. A few schools will ask you directly about your childhood and have you highlight a memory from your youth. Don’t automatically discount memories that you think will seem trite or silly. A childhood memory can be used, for example, to demonstrate a long standing passion or to emphasize how an aspect of your character is so ingrained that it has been with you since youth.

Assess Your Accomplishments

Write down anything you are proud of doing, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem. Do not limit your achievements to your career. If you have overcome a difficult personal obstacle, be sure to list this too. If something is important to you, it speaks volumes about who you are and what makes you tick. Some accomplishments will be obvious, such as any achievement that received public acknowledgment. Others are less so, and many times the most defining moments of our lives are those we are inclined to dismiss.

List Your Skills

Do a similar assessment of your skills that you did for your accomplishments. Begin by looking at the accomplishments you listed for the last exercise and listing the skills that these accomplishments demonstrate. When you have a list of words start brainstorming on specific scenarios that demonstrate these skills. Pretend that you are defending these skills in front of a panel of judges. Stop only when you have proven each point to the best of your ability. Some of your skills will be obvious, such as artistic, musical, or athletic abilities. Others will be more subtle (but just as important!).

Analyze Personality Traits

Take advantage of the often fuzzy distinction between skills and personality traits, and if you are having trouble listing and defending your skills, shift the focus to your qualities and characteristics instead. Make a few columns on a sheet of paper. In the first one, list some adjectives you would use to describe yourself. In the next one, list the words your best friend would use. Use the other columns for other types of people – perhaps one for your favorite teacher and another for family members or classmates.

When you are done, see which words come up the most often. Then group them together and list the different situations in which you have exhibited these characteristics. How effectively can you illustrate or prove that you possess these qualities? Proving your points is important.

Note Major Influences

You can refer back to your "Top Ten" lists for help getting started with this exercise. Did a particular book or quote make you rethink your life? Was there a particular person who shaped your values and views? Relationships can be good material for an essay, particularly one that challenged you to look at people in a different way. Perhaps you had a wise and generous mentor from whom you learned a great deal. Have you had an experience that changed how you see the world, or defines who you are? What details of your life, special achievements and pivotal events have helped shape you and influence your goals?

Identify Your Goals

The first step of this exercise is to let loose and write down anything that comes to mind in response to the following questions: What are your wildest dreams? What did you want to be when you were a kid? If you could do or be anything right now, regardless of skill, money, or other restrictions, what would it be? Think as broadly as you wish, and do not limit yourself to career goals. Will you have kids? What kind of house will you live in and what kinds of friends will you have? What would you do if you were so rich that you didn’t have to work?
Identifying Your Themes

Part of what makes the Personal Statement so difficult is that you need to do so much in one essay. Unlike the college application essay, where your motivation is unquestioned and your goals can remain undefined, and unlike other graduate programs where you are expected to write multiple essays in response to specific questions, writing a Personal Statement requires that you incorporate multiple themes in one composition. Needless to say, this can be tricky.

There are three basic themes that need to be incorporate into your essay. The first addresses the question "Why do you want to be a doctor?" The second addresses "Why are you unique, different, or exceptional?" and the third "Why are you qualified?" and/or "What experience have you had?"

There are several different ways to approach each one of these themes. The more common of these approaches are outlined below with tips and advice for how to best handle each approach.

Theme 1: Why I Want to Be A Doctor

Many people look back to cite the moment of their initial inspiration. Some people have wanted to be a doctor so long they don’t even know what originally inspired them. To incorporate this theme, look back to the material you gathered in the last chapter, specifically in response to "The Chronological Method," "Note Major Influences," and "Identify Your Goals." Ask yourself these questions: How old was I when I first wanted to become a doctor? Was t here a defining moment? Was there ever any ambivalence? Was I inspired by a specific person? What kind of doctor do I want to be and how does that tie into my motivation?

Here are a few of the common ways that students incorporate this theme:

"I’ve Always Wanted to Be a Doctor"

AKA: "I’ve Wanted to Be a Doctor Since I Was… " and "Everyone Has Always Said I’d Be a Doctor"

This is perhaps the most common approach of all. The secret to doing it well is to show, not just tell, why you want to be a doctor. You can’t just say it and expect it to stand on its own.

"The ‘I've always wanted to be a doctor’ essay has been done to death. I think such candidates need to be careful to show that their decision was not only a pre-adolescent one and has been tested over the years and approached in a mature manner."

Supply believable details from your life to make your desire real to the reader. One secret to avoiding the "here we go again" reaction is to be particularly careful with your first line. Starting with "I’ve wanted to be a doctor since…" makes them cringe. It’s an easy line to fall back on, but admissions officers have read this sentence more times than they care to count - don’t add to the statistic.

"My Parents are Doctors…"

This approach to the "why I want to be a doctor" theme is dangerous for a different reason.

"It’s a prejudice of mine, but the legacy essay, the one that reads ‘my Dad and my grandpa and my great-grandpa were all doctors so I should be too’ makes me suspect immaturity. I envision a young person who can’t think for themselves or make up their own minds."

This is not the opinion of every officer, though. The point isn’t to avoid admitting that your parent is an MD, it is to avoid depending on that as the sole reason for you wanting to go to medical school. If a parent truly was your inspiration, then describe exactly why you were inspired. One essayist in our database takes a unique approach – he tells of how he initially revolted against becoming a doctor because of family pressure to do so. His story of how he eventually came around to the decision on his own terms makes for an interesting and convincing read.

"My Doctor Changed My Life!"

AKA: "Being a Patient made me want to Become A Doctor"

Some people are motivated to become doctors because they have had personal experience of illness or disability.

"I had a student who grew up with a chronic illness. She spent much time with physicians and other health care providers throughout her young life. In her essay she wrote about this continuing experience and how the medical professionals treated her. She wrote of her admiration of them as well as her understanding that they couldn't yet cure her. Her essay literally jumped off the page as being unique to her and a compelling understanding of and testament to her desire to join the people who had been so important to her life."

If your personal experience with the medical industry sincerely is your motivation for attending medical school, then do write about it. The problem is that many students fall back on this topic even when it doesn’t hold particularly true for them. We can’t stress enough that you do not have to have a life-defining ability or a dramatic experience to have an exciting statement. Admissions committees receive piles of accident and illness related essays and the ones that seem insincere stick out like sore thumbs (pun intended!) and do not reflect well on you as a candidate.

"‘My orthodontist changed my life!’ ‘My dentist gave me my smile back!’ These type of themes are certainly valid, but go beyond that to what particular aspect of the profession intrigues you. Do you understand how many years of study your orthodontist had to endure to reach his level of practice? Have you observed your dentist for any significant amount of time? Do you know that the profession now is much different than it was when he was starting out? Have you given any thought to the danger of infectious diseases to all healthcare professionals? Present a well organized, complete essay."

One of the essayists in our database begins with a line that is often overused, and makes it the subject of the first paragraph. What makes it work is that he moves briskly in the next paragraph to demonstrate that he balanced his initial inspiration with real hospital experience. This taught him that being a doctor is more about hard work and commitment than about the good feeling of being cured or curing.

Another of our essayists describes her experience with illness in vivid language to capture the reader’s interest:

"The morning of New Year's day, 1978, was bright and sunny. Refreshed from a good night's sleep, I lifted the blankets, rose to my feet, and collapsed, unable to walk."

She does not dwell on the experience, though, and like the others provides plenty of further evidence of her sincere motivation.

Another demonstrates the most personal patient experience of them all: she suffered from anorexia and "slowly came to realize that my pediatrician had saved my life – despite my valiant efforts to the contrary." Her story works because she tells her story objectively and with no intention to manipulate the reader’s emotions.

"My Mom Had Cancer"

This theme is really just a variation of "I was a patient myself" and the same advice applies: if a loved one’s battle with illness, trauma, or disability is truly what inspired your wish to become a doctor, then by all means mention it. But don’t dwell on it, don’t over-dramatize, and don’t let it stand as your sole motivation – show that you’ve done your research and you understand the life of a doctor and choose it for a variety of reasons.

Two of our essayists mention their sister’s struggles very briefly (one with cancer and one with retardation) but neither spends more than a couple of sentences on the subject. Another begins with the story of a teacher suffering from AIDS. What validates this focus is the writer’s subsequent involvement as a volunteer at an HIV clinic – without this evidence to prove her sincerity, the poignancy of the situation would have been doubted and the essay considerably weakened.

"I Want to Help People"

It is common and natural to cite a desire to help people. Many of the essayists in our database do just this. Perhaps the most poignant and convincing of the group is the applicant who writes of his involvement with three boys as part of a volunteer program. It is easy to see how such a person would make a kind, caring, and involved physician. Another essayists compares being a doctor to being a minister – it rings sincere when we discover that he himself is an elder in his Church.

The Medical Dichotomy

One of the major draws of the medical field is its dualistic nature combining hard-core science with the softer side of helping people. This is described by people in many ways: some describe it as a dichotomy of science to art. To others it’s intellectualism to humanism, theory to application, research to creativity, or qualitative to social skills. No matter how you choose to phrase it, if you mention the dichotomy, then be sure to touch on your qualifications and experience in both areas.

Theme 2: Why I Am An Exceptional Person

This theme is often tied in closely with "why I am a qualified person." Be very clear on the difference, though: the latter focuses specifically on your experience (medical or otherwise) that qualifies you to be a better medical student, while this one focuses strictly on you as a person. Committees are always on the look-out for well-rounded candidates. They want to see that you are interesting, involved, and tied to the community around you.

To help you think about how to support this theme, look at your answers to the exercises from the last chapter and ask yourself: What makes me different? Do I have any special talents or abilities that might make me more interesting? How will my skills and personality traits add diversity to the class? What makes me stand out from the crowd? How will this help me to be a better doctor and student?

If you are creative, you’ll be able to take whatever makes you different – even a flaw – and turn it to your advantage.

"One student wrote about her experience as a childhood klutz and how her many accidents kept her continually in medical care. The care she received was the impetus to her desire to be a doctor and made her essay entertaining, sincere and eminently credible."

Note that the candidate in this example tied her experience in to her desire to become a doctor. It is imperative that this is done with practically every point you make in your essay.

The Talented Among Us

If you are one of a lucky few who have an outstanding talent or ability, now is no time to hide it. Whether you are a star athlete, an opera singer, or a violin virtuoso, by all means make it a focus of your essay.

"These people can be some of the strongest of candidates. Assuming, always, that they've excelled in the required preparatory coursework, the other strengths can take them over the top. Athletes, musicians, etc. can make the compelling case of excellence, achievement, discipline, mastering a subject/talent and leveraging their abilities. Medical schools are full of these types – they thrive by bringing high achievers who possess intellectual ability into their realm."

If you do plan to focus on a strength outside the field of medicine, your challenge becomes one of how to tie the experience of that ability into your motivation for becoming a doctor.

One of our essayists begins with a description of an African drumming performance during a Catholic mass, and then ties back to the musical theme nicely in the last line. Music was a profound influence in the life of another writer, and she rightly devotes her theme to the healing power of music and her study or musical therapy.

Another essayist draws a compelling portrait of an avid skier and swimmer and effectively ties her interest in sports to medicine through her experience as a lifeguard and a member of the emergency medical ski team.

Students of Diversity

If you are diverse in any sense of the word: if you are an older applicant, a minority, a foreign applicant, or disabled, use it to your advantage by showing what your unique background will bring to the school and to the practice of medicine. Some admissions officers, however, warn against using minority status as a qualification instead of a quality. If you fall into this trap, your diversity will work against you:

"If you are a ‘student of diversity’ then of course, use it. But don’t harp on it for it’s own sake or think that being diverse by itself is enough to get you in – that will only make us feel manipulated and it will show that you didn’t know how to take advantage of a good opportunity."

So just be sure you tie it in with either your motivation or your argument for why it makes you a better candidate, you will be standing on safe ground.

Late Comers and Career Switchers

Luckily for all of us, you needn’t be a minority, a foreign applicant, disabled, or an athlete or musician to be considered diverse. There are, for example, those who have had experience in or prepared themselves for totally different fields. One of our essays was written by a management consultant who was looking to switch careers. Another begins by telling how miserable he was as branch manager for a marketing corporation. Another is written by a woman who had always planned to go into Public Health, and yet another originally wanted to be a veterinarian. All of them give succinct reasons for wanting to shift into medicine and show evidence of sincere and intensive preparation for their new chosen field.

English Majors and Theater People

Not everyone who is accepted to medical school has a hard-core science background. Essay 1 wanted to be a writer originally and writes persuasively on the similarities between analyzing literature and analyzing medical research. He takes this one step further when discussing the creative versus the analytical approach to medicine and his lofty ambition of building a bridge between the two. One essay opens with the author’s involvement in a play, and openly admits that she was initially turned off by science and math. Another was a Classics major and another admits that she "turned away from science during my undergraduate years".

The secret of all these essays is that they know how turn their potential weaknesses into strengths. They point out that communication is an integral part of being a doctor, and discuss the advantages of their well-rounded backgrounds. They are also very careful to demonstrate their motivation and qualifications in detail and with solid evidence to offset worries that their non-science backgrounds have given them an unrealistic view of a doctor’s life or that their ability to cope with the science courses at medical school will be compromised.

Can I Be Too Well-Rounded?

Some people have talents, abilities, or experience in so many different areas that they risk coming across as unfocused or undedicated. When handled deftly, though, your many sides can be brought together, and what could have hurt you ends up setting you apart instead. One of our essayist does a terrific job of this. She was an Art History major, active in varsity sports, health education, and traveling. She’d been an Au Pair in Iceland and an exchange student and intern in France. She manages to present all of this in a short, pointed essay by using the concept of "connections" as her theme. She relates systems of connections both to the human body as well as to her own diverse activities, emphasizing how they all come together to form a coherent and unique whole.

Taking Advantage of International Experience

Many applicants have international experience. So while it may not set you apart in a totally unique way, it is always worthwhile to demonstrate your cross-cultural experience and sensitivity. Many in our database have written descriptions of their foreign experience ranging from volunteering in Africa, Brazil, and Hondorous to au pairing in Iceland to opera singing in Paris. One essayist is especially strong in the area of international experience. This exceptional man worked as a farmhand in Hungary and an orderly in the former Soviet Union, financed the first hospital in Estonia, and organized a mission to deliver medical supplies to refugees in Bosnia.

Notice again, though, that all these essayists went beyond simply writing about their experiences to relating them either to their motivation or qualifications. Don’t expect the committee to make these leaps for you – you need to put it in your own words and make the connections clear.


Some admissions counselors advise avoiding mention of religion altogether. Others say that it can be used to an applicants advantage by setting them apart and by stressing values and commitment. This is a somewhat touchy subject area and is best left to individual choice. A few of our essayists mention religion to varying degrees. One was a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for two years and another is an elder of the same. The last merely mentions Bible-study in passing, so-to-speak, but it still sheds light on an what is probably an important part of her life.

Theme 3: Why I Am A Qualified Person

The last major theme deals with your experience and qualifications both for attending medical school and for becoming a good doctor. Having direct hospital or research experience is always the best evidence you can give. If you haven’t, then consider what other experience you have that is related. Have you been a volunteer? Have you tutored English as a Second Language? Were you a teaching assistant? The rule to follow here is: if you have done it, use it.

Hospital/Clinical Experience

Direct experience with patients is probably the best kind to have in your essay. What is important to notice in the essays in our database is that any kind or amount of experience was mentioned, no matter how insignificant it might appear. Some essayists even cite experience they gained in high-school. Many were volunteers, some as HIV counselors, some in emergency rooms, some as lab assistants, and some simply escorted patients to their correct rooms.

Research Experience

A word of caution: don’t focus solely on your research topic – your essay will become impersonal at best and downright dull at worst. Watch out for overuse of what non-science types refer to as "medical garble." If it’s necessary for the description of your project then of course, you have no choice. But throwing medical terms around just because you can won’t impress anyone. Good writers can delve into the use of scientific and medical terms, but they also spend plenty of time away from them as well, sounding like real human beings.

Unusual Medical Experience

Even if you haven’t put in X number of hours a week at a clinic or spent a term on a research project, you might still have medical experience that counts, like the time you cared for your sick grandmother or the day you saved the man at the next table from choking in a restaurant. It doesn’t even matter if you were unsuccessful (maybe, despite all your valiant efforts, the man at the next table didn’t survive) if it was meaningful to you then it is relevant. In fact, three essays in our database relay tales of failing to save a life. One, on the other hand, relays a fascinating success story: the writer was forced to become a doctor by default to a village in Honduras for a summer, even though she had no formal training, no experience, and her only supply was " a $15 Johnson & Johnson kit."

Non-medical Experience

Your experience doesn’t even have to be medically related to be relevant. Many successful applicants cite non-medical volunteer experience as evidence of their willingness to help and heal the human race. In fact, almost every one of our essayists cited having been either a volunteer or a tutor at some point in their lives.

Developing A Strategy

Once you have decided how to incorporate the various themes into your essay, the last step is to develop a strategy – or in other words, figure out how you are going to weave your themes together into a coherent whole. Here’s some advice you don’t get often: don’t think about this one too much. What’s nice about strategy is that it tends to fall into place by itself once you develop an outline and start writing, which is what the next section is all about. So what we offer here is no more than a couple of tips for you to consider – but not to worry too much about it. In the end there really is no more we can tell you about strategy without knowing more about you personally.

Strategy Tip 1: Keep the School in Mind

Most students write generic personal statements which are then sent to every school. That’s fine, and to a degree it is expected. But it always impresses when you do your research and show in your essay why you are a good fit for that particular school.

"Know the schools to which you are applying and know what they look for in an applicant. Some schools are heavily research based, some only want in-state residents, some want the heaviest science preparation possible. Do your homework!"

Don’t be lazy about this! You can, at the very least, find out about the school’s general reputation by scanning the guidebook and catalog. Better, though, is to research the faculty and familiarize yourself with a school’s specific strengths. All of this becomes fodder for the statement and will be crucial later when you are invited to interview.

Strategy Tip 2: Keep the Rest of Your Application in Mind

Step back and take an objective look at your entire application package. Imagine that you are the admissions officer looking at it for the first time. What do the test scores, the science and non-science GPA, the kinds of courses you took, the recommendations, the extracurriculars and the supplementary materials say about you? Do you feel it presents a complete picture of you? If it doesn’t, what can you include in your essay to round it out? Also note if there are any obvious red-flags:

"If there is a hole or gap that appears in another part of the application, we will look to the statement to provide an explanation. If one is not provided, we start guessing. Anything the candidate provides is bound to be better than what we hypothesize in its absence."

Also note redundancies. Don’t recapitulate in your essay that which can be found elsewhere in the application. Don’t repeat your GPA or your MCAT score, no matter how impressive. And, as noted previously, don’t try to cram in a prose listing of your activities and accomplishments when space is provided for you to do that elsewhere. Not only is it dull, but it shows that you don’t know how to take advantage of a good opportunity to showcase your personal qualities.

Strategy Tip #3: Avoid Discussing Medical Issues

Though known to come up during interviews, a discussion of medical issues is not often attempted in the essay and not generally advised. There are many reasons for this: 1) the essay is supposed to be about you, not about issues, 2) your audience likely knows more about the issues than you do, 3) with only two pages to do the issue justice, you will probably end up biting off more than you can chew, and 3) you risk offending someone on the committee. The natural exception to this rule is if a medical issue featured prominently in your decision to become a doctor. Essay 14, for example, cites the public health care debate as one of her primary draws to the field.

Discussing your negative views of the medical field in your personal statement is an especially risky way to discuss medical issues in your essay. Like anything there are those who do it well. One of our essayists, for example, discusses what he perceives as a conflict in the medical world and demonstrates how he will contribute to the resolution of the conflict. Though he deals with what he sees as a negative conflict in the medical arena, he discusses it objectively and with tact.

Another essayist doesn’t give her opinion on medical issues, but she does cites the bad experience she had with her pediatrician as a child as her chief motivation for her to do a better job as a doctor herself. Both of these examples discuss their potential roles in the resolution of the conflict. Even when you keep these tactics in mind, though, the best advice here is definitely: "when it doubt, leave it out."

An Alternative Approach

No matter how many hard and fast these rules regarding theme and strategy may seem, there will always be applicants who decide to toss it all to the wind and take a completely different approach. The writer of Essay 40, for example, incorporates none of the mentioned themes into his personal statement. He doesn’t talk about his motivation or qualifications for attending medical school. In fact, he only mentions medical school once, and even then it is a single reference made only as an aside. He chose, instead, to focus his entire essay on his experience as a rower at Cambridge University in England.

This is a risky approach, and one that is best taken by students with already very strong backgrounds. This applicant obviously felt confident that the rest of his application spoke well enough of his qualifications that he could focus entirely on another aspect of his life. And this approach does have the merit of painting a vivid picture of the applicant in his natural surroundings and of giving the reader a strong sense of his character and drive. Ultimately it is a personal decision. Again, the best way to gauge whether or not the risk is one worth taking is by finding an candidate capable of giving you objective and informed feedback.
Avoiding Pitfalls

Pitfall #1: The Hard-Luck Tale

Some truly outstanding essays are about strong emotional experiences such as a childhood struggle with disease or the death of a loved one. Some of these are done so effectively that they are held up as role models for all essays.

"I had a student who was considered a weak candidate because of poor grades and low test-scores. She was African American and although she had pursued all the right avenues (classes, MCAT, volunteer experiences) to prepare herself for medical school, she remained undistinguished as a candidate – until, that is, she wrote her essay. The essay revealed her tremendous and sincere drive. She was from a crime riddled area of NY and several of her siblings had been violently killed. She wrote about her experience and her desire to practice medicine in the city and improve the neighborhood where she was raised. It was compelling, believable and truly inspiring."

While it’s true that these poignant tales can provide very strong evidence of motivation for medical school, they are difficult to do well and need to be handled with extreme care and sensitivity. And, as we’ve said before, don’t rely on the tale itself to carry you through – you always need to clearly show your motivation.

"This is going to sound harsh, but I don’t like the tales of woe. Like the ones that begin with the mother’s death from cancer. Frankly, I feel manipulated and I don’t think that the personal statement is the proper mode of expression for that kind of emotion."

Pitfall #2: Making Lists

There is a danger inherent in wanting to cram as much of your experience as possible into 500 words. The danger is in ending up with what amounts to little more than a listing of your accomplishments.

"I've found that medical school applicants can have a tendency to make laundry lists… They need to take extra care to tie their interests, motivation and preparation together and turn it into a readable and credible argument that fits them."

It is not a bad idea to include all the experience you have had somewhere in your essay. But do it in the context of a story or a personal account.

"The essay should never be merely a prose form of a C.V. It’s dry to read, and again, doesn’t offer any additional information about the candidate.”

Pitfall #3: Excuses, Excuses

Because GPAs and MCATs are so important to the application process, applicants who have fallen short in either area are often tempted to use the essay to provide excuses for their poor performances. This is not always ill-advised. If there is a true anomaly in your record, the committee will look to your essay for an explanation. Applicants who do this topic well provide a brief and mature explanation of the lapse, then they spend the rest of the essay focusing on their strengths in other areas.

"Explaining a bad grade or a even a bad semester can be done with finesse. I would never give staying away from that as blanket advice. But, please, just don’t whine while you’re doing it."

The problems come when you try to excuse a problem instead of explain it. Some applicants, for example, try to excuse low MCATs by claiming that they are not good test takers. Well, we hate to break it to them, but medical school is about taking tests. They are a large part of the curriculum and are proven predictors of academic success. So why would admitting flat-out to being a bad tester ever be a good thing? Other students try to push the blame for a bad grade onto someone else.

"Using the essay to make excuses for your overall poor record isn't a good way to get ahead. We don't need to hear about the professor who ‘had a problem with you,’ or how your organic chemistry professor ‘wasn't from America.’ These types of statements speak volumes about a person's character."

The only way to know for sure that you’re not falling into this trap is to ask someone objective to proof your essay for you. Even better, find someone who doesn’t even know you and ask them to describe back to you the impression they received of the writer.
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