If you’re gearing up to apply to medical school, you already know that writing a top-notch personal statement is one of the most important parts of the application process. Even if your GPA and MCAT score are terrific, an excellent personal statement will help you stand out among the sea of equally qualified medical school applicants—and it’s usually what makes the difference between those who get in and those who don’t. Yet, in my nearly 20 years of helping applicants get into medical school, I’ve observed that choosing a great personal statement topic is a stumbling block for many med school applicants.
One reason why your personal statement deserves a great deal of your attention is that it’s the part of your application over which you currently have the most control. You’ve probably been hard at work earning strong grades, studying for the MCAT, and rounding out your slate of extracurriculars—and by the time you get to application season, these accomplishments will more or less be a done deal.
On the other hand, your personal statement is a chance to directly shape how admissions committees view you as a candidate. That’s why selecting a great topic—and writing about it in the right way—will take your application to the next level.
Applicants often search for that bulletproof topic, believing that finding the “perfect” subject will be the key to unlocking their med school dreams. In reality, the perfect topic doesn’t exist. I’ve seen amazing personal statements—and not-so-amazing ones—written about almost every topic under the sun. The same is true of “original” subjects, since nearly everything you might want to write about has likely already been done.
So, what separates strong essays from weak ones? Excellent writing, for one. But, on top of that, outstanding personal statements are also centered around a topic that serves as a vehicle for answering the following questions:
- Who are you, aside from your stats and accomplishments?
- Why do you want to go into medicine?
In other words, nearly anything you want to write about is fair game; what really matters is how you link that topic to your own journey through medicine and what you reveal about yourself in the process.
I advise students to use a “qualities-first” approach when choosing topics for their medical school personal statements. Remember how I mentioned earlier that your personal statement allows you great control over how admissions committees view you? A qualities-first approach takes advantage of this through the following process: first decide how you want to come across to admissions committees, then choose experiences that best support that impression.
To put this approach into action, begin by selecting personal characteristics that you want to convey. I’m not talking about your intelligence or scientific aptitude, which will be represented by your GPA and MCAT score, and I’m not talking about your accomplishments or hobbies, either, which admissions committees will see in your AMCAS Work & Activities section. Rather, I mean positive elements of your character, personality, or attitude that you want to highlight for admissions committees, such as your compassion, determination, reliability, optimism, or listening skills, to name just a few examples.
If you’re unsure what your best qualities are, try asking your friends or family members what they think of as your strengths—the perspectives of others can give you valuable insight.
Once you’ve decided what you want admissions committees to know about you, you can then begin the process of brainstorming situations in your life in which you’ve demonstrated those qualities. You might come up with specific anecdotes (e.g., that time you spent six months training for a marathon, which taught you perseverance) or you might think of settings (e.g. the afterschool tutoring program you volunteer at where you’ve displayed patience).
In the brainstorming process, it’s typical for med school applicants to automatically reach for situations that are either clinical or scientific in nature, such as a research or physician shadowing experience. This is perfectly fine but not strictly necessary. In fact, because these are fairly common topics for personal statements, including situations that aren’t obviously related to medicine—for example, those to do with work, travel, volunteering, family, or community—can give you a distinctive edge, so long as you eventually tie in medicine and why it’s the right field for you.
Whatever topic you choose, here’s the bottom line: by first choosing what qualities you want to impress upon medical schools, you can much more easily come up with a personal statement topic that demonstrates that you’ll be a great fit for their programs. Not only should your personal statement help medical schools better understand who you are and what strengths you bring to the table, it should also convince them that those strengths will make you an excellent future physician.
About the author:
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is the founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting and one of the world’s foremost experts on medical school admissions. For nearly 20 years, he and his team have helped thousands of students get into medical school using his exclusive approach.
For more information on writing a standout personal statement, make sure to check out Shemmassian Academic Consulting’s Medical School Personal Statement Ultimate Guide, which includes 20+ medical school personal statement examples.