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What is the purpose of a personal statement? 

 The personal statement is an opportunity for you to tell the admissions committee what you want them to know about you to convince them to accept you. A few years ago, a medical school admissions committee member made a good analogy about the personal statement. She asked students to imagine that the dean of admissions at their top choice medical school calls them and says you have 4 minutes to convince me that I should give you an interview at our school. What would you say in those 4 minutes?  Whatever you say should go into your personal statement. 

 A personal statement should achieve a few key goals:

  • It should explain how you became interested in the field you are pursuing (medicine, dentistry, PA, pharmacy)
  • It should provide insight into why you are drawn to this profession. Ideally you should use experiences participating in patient care, shadowing, volunteering to show what you like about the field.
  •  It should give the reader some insight about what qualities make you a good candidate. This should not be a laundry list of generic positive qualities like being hardworking or being smart. Instead it should be a handful of specific qualities and a demonstration of how you acquired these qualities through your personal or professional experiences.

 The most common personal statement mistake! 

 Perhaps the most common big picture mistake that we see in personal statements is applicants not clearly and explicitly articulating why they want to go into their chosen health profession. This may seem quite obvious but in many of the essays we read, the writer does not articulate effectively why he or she wants to be a physician, PA, dentist or nurse.

Often, the applicant will dance around the topic without stating it explicitly. Some applicants completely avoid the topic and just say that they want to be a doctor or PA or dentist without saying why at all.

Below is an excerpt from a recent essay which demonstrates this point. In this example, after describing a clinical experience where she worked with underprivileged populations, she concludes the paragraph by saying: 

“….these personal interactions with patients further motivated me to pursue the medical profession.” 

In reading this, one is left to wonder why and how these personal interactions further motivated her to pursue medicine?

 This sentence could be improved if she adds to it and makes her point more directly with clear reasons for why she wants to pursue the field. For example, one way to improve this would be to modify this sentence and say:

…these personal interactions gave me a sense of satisfaction that I had not previously experienced elsewhere. As a physician, I would have the opportunity to interact in a meaningful way with those I am privileged to serve and earn their trust on a daily basis. This motivates me to pursue the medical profession.”    

Some students tell us that they avoid detailing what they want to enter their chosen profession out of fear of sounding generic. They argue that everyone has the same reasons for wanting to go into medicine, physician assistant studies, or dentistry. But that is not entirely true. If you draw on your personal experiences through which you gained exposure to the field and use those experiences to demonstrate how you became drawn to your chosen health profession, you will not sound generic.

If you write in an essay:

 “…I want to be a PA because I enjoy working in teams and serving patients,

and you do not demonstrate where you saw teamwork, it will sound generic.  But if you go on to explain that you witnessed this teamwork in particular settings or discuss your experiences working in a team ideally with examples, your argument will be unique and compelling.

What are other mistakes to avoid in a personal statement? 

Some other common mistakes that we often see in personal statements are:

Using hyperboles:  Take the following three examples taken from different medical school personal statements:

  • Working with a diverse patient population at the inner-city clinic, I was able to communicate with patients who were from different walks of life. As a physician, the most important skill I possess will be patient communication.”
  • I am looking forward to a career where I can save lives every day as a practitioner and scholar of medicine.
  • In my freshman year of college, I was extremely immature and did not care at all about my education. My grades suffered and this affected my overall GPA.”

Where are the hyperboles in these statements?

In the first, the applicant is asserting that the most important skill he possesses will be patient communication. It’s true that patient communication is very important but is it the single most important skill? Is clinical judgment or surgical proficiency less important than patient communication?  Staying away from extremes can make you sound more grounded and mature and it demonstrates more nuanced thinking.

A slight change in phrasing can fix the problem with that sentence: 

“…As a physician, one important skill I possess will be patient communication.”

In a similar vein, in the second example, the language of “saving lives everyday” can come across as extreme. This is also important because grandiose statements like ‘saving lives’ reveal to admissions committees that the applicant does not fully understand the limits to a physician’s abilities. It may also suggest a lack of humility on the part of the applicant who sees himself or herself as the sole savior of patients without recognizing that patient care occurs in teams with many players involved.

Instead of using heroic language like “saving lives” it may be better to say something like:

 “I am looking forward to a career where I can work with patients to manage their illnesses and improve their quality of life”

The third example can also be improved by just slightly changing the wording. It may better to say:

In my freshman year of college, I did not possess the maturity and motivation needed to do well in my courses. My grades suffered and this affected my overall GPA.”

There is no need to use “extremely” or “at all” to get your message across. These expressions don’t make your case stronger, they only make your writing less smooth.

By keeping a more moderate tone, you sound more mature and demonstrate greater sophistication in your thought process.

Opining with authority:

Consider the following examples from two different PA school personal statements:

  • PAs must work well in teams to succeed. This is a skill I can bring with me to any school.”
  • “More PAs should work in underserved communities and provide care to populations that cannot access care.” 

Most people would agree with both of these statements. However, they are the writer’s opinion and not hard facts. Moreover, they are coming from an aspiring PA, who is not yet an authority on the PA profession. This applicant would sound more humble if he presented these ideas as his opinions.

 This again is a fairly simple fix:

  • “I believe PAs must work well in teams to succeed. This is a skill I can bring with me to any school.”
  • “More PAs could work in underserved communities and provide care to populations that cannot access care.” 

 Notice how you change the tone of the sentence by just adding “I believe” or changing “should” to “could”.

In the case of the second example, by using the word “could” the writer sounds like he is suggesting something as opposed to imposing his position.

Also notice that in the first example, the writer asserts that teamwork is a skill he can bring with him to any school. It also helps in these scenarios to present your attributes or qualities as an opinion.  It sounds much better if you say:

“…I feel this is a skill I can bring with me to any school.”

Not showing how a skill was acquired

Consider the following examples from two dental school personal statement: 

“In Ecuador, my inherent ability to relate to others allowed me to connect with patients and ease their worries as we provided free dental care.”

 “I know that dentists need to work well with their hands. My strong manual dexterity skills will in fact be an asset that will help me in dental school.” 

One common adage about personal statements is to show, not tell.  Neither of these two applicants describe how they developed these skills. They would make a much stronger case if they show the reader how these skills were developed as opposed to just asserting that they possess the skill.

In the first example, the applicant even asserts that she has an innate or inherent ability to connect with people. Having an innate skill does not necessarily make one more qualified for a profession. Admissions committees are not necessarily interested who were born with a talent but those who worked hard to cultivate that talent. The above examples could be changed as follows:

  •  “Through my diverse travels and interactions with individuals of diverse backgrounds I learned to relate to others. This skill helped me in Ecuador as we provided free dental care to the local community.”
  •  “I know that dentists need to work well with their hands. Working at my parents’ jewelry repair shop during high school and college helped me to develop basic manual dexterity skills, which I hope to build on in dental school.”

In the second example, notice how the applicant also changes the wording to say that she hopes to build on the skill in dental school. In doing so, she recognizes that while she possesses a skill, she will need to further develop it to succeed. 

Using “I” instead of “we”

Consider the following excerpt from a medical school personal statement, where an applicant describes his research experience:

Working in the laboratory of Dr. X, I was able to identify molecular pathways that contribute to ovarian cancer pathogenesis in mice.” 

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this sentence. The applicant is presenting his involvement in a research lab and outlining what he did.  It may in fact be entirely accurate that he was able to identify molecular pathways that contribute to cancer pathogenesis. 

But it’s also very unlikely that he did this all by himself.  Most students do research with a professor who oversees the project and in this particular case, there was post-doctoral fellow with whom this student worked. By not acknowledging the fact that this was a team effort, he runs the following risks:

First, he may be perceived as lacking strong teamwork skills or an awareness of the fact that a team of people contributed to the identification of these molecular pathways. Another more dangerous risk he runs is that to some readers, he may come across as wanting to take all the credit for the achievements of a group of people. In doing so, he doesn’t only come across as unaware but as self-serving and egotistical.

Another place where applicants make this mistake is when they talk about their clinical experience.  In a recent PA school personal statement, an applicant asserted:

“As a medical assistant in a dermatology practice, I take care of patients with a variety of dermatological problems including skin cancer.” 

The same person went on to talk about the satisfaction of seeing smiles in “my patient’s faces.”

This is problematic because the medical assistant only plays a small role in caring for patients as compared to the physicians, PAs, nurses, and other more senior members of the healthcare team. The person reading this essay may be left with the impression that the applicant is intentionally overstating his role to sound impressive. It may come across as disingenuous and dishonest.

 The good news it’s very easy to remedy this language.  Consider the following change in the second example:

As a medical assistant in a dermatology practice, I participate in the care of patients with a variety of dermatological problems including skin cancer.” 

By changing “I take care of” to “I participate in the care of”, the applicant is acknowledging that this was a group effort.

It is especially important to avoid “I” and “my” when talking about clinical experiences. Medical, dental, PA, and nursing schools know that before completing your education in your field of study, you have little knowledge or expertise to truly care for patients.

In non-clinical settings, if there were times where you did something independently, you should take credit for it. For example, if you were the treasurer of a campus club and you were the sole person responsible for managing the budget of the organization, it would be perfectly OK to say, “As treasurer, I was responsible for organizing the budget” or “I led fundraising efforts”, but wherever others were also involved, make sure to acknowledge the group effort.

The boring hook at the medical or dental practice

The introductory sentence of a personal statement is meant to capture your reader’s attention, grab their interest, and make them want to read more.  Too many essays start with a boring and bland introduction like the ones in the following two examples:

“My interest in dentistry dates back to my childhood when I spent time in my mom’s dental office.”

“My interest in medicine dates back to my childhood visits to my pediatrician’s office. Whether it was for a simple ear infection or a wellness checkup, I looked forward to these visits where I would play with all the doctor’s instruments.”  

Notice that both start with, “My interest in blank dates back to…” This is a very common start to the essay. There are two problems with these introductions. First, they are quite boring. Put yourself in the shoes of the people reviewing your applications. They are likely sifting through 50 or 100 applications and yours will be somewhere in the middle. When they see this introduction, they will not be very inspired.

Secondly, the argument that one would become interested in dentistry or medicine because they spent time at their parent’s practice or at their pediatrician’s office as a young child is not very compelling. A 10-year-old has all sorts of interests and career aspirations, many of which are not realistic, and most of which are not based on a meaningful understanding of the profession.

In the dental example, it’s OK if your parent was truly a source of inspiration, but you need to explain in a well-thought-out way how they influenced you. Present these early exposures as factors that influenced or shaped you but also focus on how further exposure to the field played a role.

The example above was modified to look like this:

“Like many young children, my career aspirations evolved on a daily basis. On Mondays I wanted to be an astronaut, on Tuesdays a pilot, and on Wednesdays a professional football player. Among these different careers, one that I kept coming back to was dentistry. Growing up with a mother who is a dentist certainly had an influence. But it was not until I was older that I began to see dentistry for what it truly has to offer. My exposure to the field through my mom’s practice and the many hours I spent shadowing in other practices have inspired me to enter this field where I can use my knowledge, dexterity, and compassion to improve people’s lives.”

In the modified version, the applicant starts with an introduction that is more interesting and outlines how their interest in dentistry developed as they grew older. They even acknowledge that it was later experiences as an adolescent or adult that likely played a more significant role.

The second example lacks depth. There is nothing profound about wanting to play with a stethoscope or looking forward to these visits that will convince the reader that this applicant was influenced to enter medicine. This applicant completed scrapped the example and focused instead on how service through the church from a young age planted the seeds for giving back. She then went on to explain how this service-oriented mindset evolved into a passion for medicine in college through various professional and academic experiences.

The bottom line from these two examples:

  • Strive for a more interesting start. 
  • Put more focus on meaningful deeper experiences, particularly those in more recent years, that have influenced your decision to go into medicine, dentistry, PA, pharmacy, physical therapy, nursing, or any other field.

Undermining the seniors

One of the toughest aspects of writing a personal statement is striking the right balance between talking yourself up and sounding humble. This is not an easy task, which makes the personal statement all the more difficult to write. There are certain ground rules to keep in mind as you talk yourself up.

One of those ground rules is to never undermine the superior.  Consider the following example from a medical school essay:

While checking on a patient one afternoon, I noticed his wound dressing had not been changed for a few days. The patient was distressed; I immediately notified the nurse who came in and changed the dressing. Later, the patient grabbed my hand and tearfully thanked me for my concern and compassion.”

There are a couple of problems with this account. First, it implies that not one other person on the team, including the nurses, PAs, and physicians – who are all more experienced than this volunteer – had noticed the unchanged dressing wound. It’s hard to believe that something like this would go unnoticed for several days. Also, putting down other members of the healthcare team – particularly those with more knowledge and experience – to elevate yourself as an applicant will only make you look bad. This was not a direct put-down but it was implied.

 Another common way applicants inadvertently put down healthcare staff is when they talk about a bad experience with a physician or dentist as a source of motivation for going into medicine or dentistry. A few years back, one premedical student’s personal statement started with an account from his adolescence of witnessing his grandfather suffer a long and drawn-out illness, to which he eventually succumbed.

The applicant then went on to explain how he believed that his grandfather’s death could have been prevented if the doctors caring for him had been more attentive and communicative. He argued that this experience inspired him to go into medicine so he could do better for his patients than these physicians had for his grandfather. The problem with this example again is that the student is criticizing those with more experience and knowledge. It was not clear on what basis he – with his limited knowledge of medicine – could properly ascertain if poor clinical decisions had been made. Nevertheless he asserted with conviction that he would have been a better doctor.

The original example about the wound dressing has another problem. It has a self-congratulatory tone, where the applicant is praising himself and in doing so, he does not sound humble. As explained earlier, it’s always good to show how a skill or talent was acquired when talking about yourself in a personal statement. This applicant is not putting any focus on the acquisition of the talent. Essentially, the message is as follow: I was more capable than others, the patient thanked me for my great qualities, and I saved the day. Not mentioned is where the skills were acquired or how experiences like this furthered his motivation for medicine.