Part 2: How to Begin (Goal: Engage the Reader)
Before you begin to write, I recommend that you:
- Develop a list of qualities you want to demonstrate and
- Think of events or situations that highlight these qualities
Then, you should write about one of these events or situations in a way that demonstrates these qualities and captures the reader’s attention.
1. List Your Greatest Qualities
To answer the personal statement prompt more easily, focus again on the question of what you want admissions committees to know about you beyond your numbers and achievements.
I’m not talking about your hobbies (e.g., “I followed Taylor Swift to every concert she performed in the US during this past year”), although you could certainly point to aspects of your lifestyle in your essay to make your point.
Instead, I’m talking about which of your qualities–character, personality traits, attitudes–you want to demonstrate. Examples include:
- Extraordinary compassion
- Willingness to learn
- Great listening skills
- And so on
If you have difficulty thinking of your great qualities (many students do), ask family members or close friends what you’re good at and why they like you; that will take care of things :)
Finally, choose the two or three qualities that you want to focus on in your personal statement. Let’s use compassion and knowledge-seeking as the foundational qualities of an original example for this article.
(Note: I cannot overstate how important it is to think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your personal statement before choosing a situation or event to write about. Students who decide on an event or situation first usually struggle to fit in their qualities within the confines of their story. On the other hand, students who choose the qualities they want to convey first are easily able to demonstrate them because the event or situation they settle on naturally highlights these qualities.)
2. When or Where Have You Demonstrated These Qualities?
Now that I’m off my soapbox and you’ve chosen qualities to highlight, it’s time to list any event(s) or setting(s) where you’ve demonstrated them.
I should explicitly mention that this event or setting doesn't need to come from a clinical (e.g., shadowing a physician, interacting with a young adult patient at a cancer center, working with children in an international clinic) or research experience (e.g., making a finding in cancer research), although it’s OK if it involves an extracurricular activity directly related to medicine.
In fact, since most students start their essays by describing clinical or research experiences, starting off with something else–travel (e.g., a camping trip in Yellowstone), volunteering (e.g., building homes in New Orleans), family (e.g., spending time with and learning from your elderly and ill grandmother back home in New Hampshire), work (e.g., helping out at your parents’ donut shop)–will make you immediately stand out.
Let’s start with the example of building homes in New Orleans. Why? Because we could easily demonstrate compassion and knowledge-seeking through this experience. Notice how the qualities we select can choose the story for us?
3. Describe Your Event as a Story
Here’s where the art of writing a great personal statement really comes in.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays, most of which are very cliché or dry. Therefore, it’s critical that you stand out by engaging the reader from the very beginning.
By far the best way to capture admissions officers early is by developing a story at the start of your essay about the event or situation you chose in Step 2.
In a previous article, I wrote about the three critical elements for writing a great admissions essay story: 1) a compelling character, 2) a relatable plot, and 3) authenticity)
However, I want to go one step beyond that article and provide an actual example of how the same event can be written in a routine vs. compelling way. That way, you can avoid the common pitfalls of typical personal statements and write a standout one.
One of my most eye-opening experiences came when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans during the summer months of 2014. Up to that point, I had only heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to volunteer, it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.
New Orleans was hot and humid during the summer months of 2014–no surprise there. However, for a native Oregonian like me, waking up to 90-degree and 85% humidity days initially seemed like too much to bear. That was until I reflected on the fact that my temporary discomfort was minute in contrast to the destruction of communities and emotional pounding experienced by the people of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people was as much about lifting spirits as making physical improvements.
Many people may feel the Routine example is pretty good. Upon closer look, however, it seems that:
- The focus is as much on New Orleanians as the applicant
- The story is not particularly relatable (unless the reader had also volunteered there)
- There isn’t much support for the writer actually being touched by the people there
On the other hand, the Compelling example:
- Keeps the spotlight on the applicant throughout (e.g., references being from Oregon, discusses her reflections, interacting with Jermaine)
- Has a relatable plot (e.g., temporary discomfort, changing perspectives)
- Is authentic (e.g., provides an example of how she lifted spirits)
(You can find yet another example of a typical vs. standout admissions essay introduction to engage readers in this earlier post.)
4. Demonstrate Your Qualities
(Note: This section applies to all aspects of your essay.)
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given for writing personal statements, but further guidance or examples are rarely provided to demonstrate what it looks like when done well.
This is unfortunate because the best way to understand how standout personal statements demonstrate qualities through an engaging story is by reading two examples of the same situation: one that “tells” about a quality, and another that “shows” a quality.
Let’s take a look at the last sentence of each story example I provided in the previous section to better understand this distinction.
Telling (from Routine story)
“…it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.”
Showing (from Compelling story)
“…actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people…”
Notice how the second example demonstrates compassion without ever mentioning the word "compassion" (hence no bolded words)?
Moreover, the same sentence demonstrates knowledge-seeking: “Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals...”)
That’s what you’re going for.
Think about it. Who do you consider to be more kind:
- A person who says, “I’m really nice!”; or
- A person who you've seen do nice things for others?
Clearly, the second person will be seen as more kind, even if there's no difference between their levels of kindness.
Therefore, by demonstrating your qualities, you will look better to admissions committees, and also seem more authentic.
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Below is a personal statement from a recent applicant for A100 Medicine at Oxford. It is not perfect and it may not be suited to every medical school. There is no single template for success in terms of an application to Oxford. Other styles can be equally effective: we encourage individuality and diversity in our students. This statement is however a good example for an Oxford application because it helps us see that the applicant is attempting to match ourselection criteria.
An applicant's personal statement is likely to be discussed by tutors during interview.
A well-written statement will not in isolation gain you an interview or a place. It forms one part of an application from a gifted applicant that can be considered alongside other information - academic record, BMAT score, school reference, interview performance - in the selection process at Oxford.
Statement & comments
Choosing to study medicine is not a decision I have taken lightly. It isn't a career I have wanted to do since a particularly young age, nor did a life changing event prompt my choice. I have thought very long and hard before deciding to apply.
Admissions tutors may be sceptical of exaggerated descriptions of a revelatory moment or lifelong desire to become a doctor.
At first glance, this might seem like a down-beat opening paragraph. Although you may think that an arresting opening statement will impress, admissions tutors may be sceptical of exaggerated descriptions of a revelatory moment or lifelong desire to become a doctor. This introduction shows honesty and a degree of introspection. Throughout the statement, the applicant works hard to show that they have a realistic view of medicine. You won't prove that you have the motivation for medicine by simply saying that you do: it is what you have done to inform yourself about the career - and the views that you have formed - that will convince us that you really know what being a doctor is like and that this is what you want to do.
Various periods of work experience have taught me much about the career. A local hospital placement gave me the opportunity to visit A&E, Radiology and Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
You won't prove that you have the motivation for medicine by simply saying that you do.
Whilst fleeting, these visits to the departments highlighted the variety and diversity of the fascinating specialities medicine encompasses. A placement shadowing a clinic staff was hugely informative regarding daily life as a doctor. During the day I sat in on consultations ranging from routine post natal checkups to discussions of treatment for young people with diabetes and overactive thyroid glands.
You won't be judged on what you've done: we want to know what you learned from doing it.
This student describes their experiences of healthcare that have helped them decide that they want to study and practise medicine. We understand that opportunities to obtain experience vary, so you won't be judged on what you've done: we want to know what you learned from doing it. The description of the placements here isn't over-exaggerated, and the applicant takes care to explain what they have seen and done and the insight each opportunity afforded them. The relatively detailed account of the infant's check-up conveys the impression of engagement during the placement and suggests an intellectual curiosity to understand the infant's condition and its treatment. The applicant also takes care to point out an example of the importance of good communication skills and argues how their sales position has helped them develop such skills.
Throughout my time there the doctor's genuine interest in his cases and unfaltering motivation highlighted to me the privilege of having such a stimulating profession. This, together with the ever advancing nature of a career in medicine, was brought to the fore by an infant who was having a check up as a result of her being put on an ECMO machine after her birth with Meconium Aspiration Syndrome. The ease with which the doctor broached and dealt with sensitive subject matter also emphasised the importance of a warm, approachable manner and an ability to communicate to a person on their level of understanding. I believe I have honed these skills and gained invaluable experience of the eccentricities of the general public myself in my job as a salesperson.
It is important to convey an impression of engagement and intellectual curiosity when talking about any work experience/placement/voluntary work.
Since February of this year I have volunteered in a care home for a couple of hours each week. I assist with serving meals to the residents as well as feeding one of the more infirm ladies. My time there has brought to my attention the more unpleasant side of medicine and has proved by far the most useful work experience I have had; preparing me for the stark realities of physical ageing and senility. In spite of this, I genuinely enjoy my time there; giving residents, some of whom go months without visitors, 10 minutes of my time to chat can be very rewarding in the obvious enjoyment they get from it. The experience has shown me very clearly the importance of caring for the emotional as well as the physical needs of patients.
The applicant presents evidence that they have become well-informed about the realities of healthcare.
This paragraph reaffirms the applicant's motivation for medicine. They admit that working in a nursing home is not glamorous but explain how rewarding it has been. There is evidence of analytical skills here and there is no doubt that the applicant has become well-informed about the realities of healthcare. Empathy comes across as well, with the applicant recognising that a brief interaction can have such a positive effect on the overlooked residents of the home.
Outside of my lessons I enjoy orienteering with a local club. As part of an expedition I took part in, we walked 80km over 4 days in torrential rain. The challenging conditions demanded teamwork and trust to maintain morale and perform effectively as a group; as well as calm rational thought in stressful situations. Also, through this activity and the people I met, I have become a member of the SJA which has enabled me to gain first aid qualifications and go out on duties.
Although the bulk of a personal statement should be academic-related, it is important to show a life outside of studying. The involvement in a club or association demonstrates wider spare time interests, and the description of the challenging walking expedition provides evidence that the student can work with others and can cope in an arduous situation, obliquely suggesting that they might have the capacity for sustained and intense work. The student also shows that they understand that taking time out to relax and manage any stress is important, and conveys the impression of good time management. The passing reference to the drama group reinforces the impression that this applicant is a team-player. It is useful to describe sporting or musical interests although, as, this applicant shows, these non-academic interests don't need to be particularly high-powered ones.
Other activities I enjoy include drama - I was a member of a local group for 6 years - cycling and playing the guitar and piano which allow me to relax.
Non-academic interests don't need to be particularly high-powered.
I know that medicine is not a "9 to 5" job and is by no means the glamorous source of easy money it is often perceived to be. I understand the hours are long and potentially antisocial and that the career can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining. It is apparent that becoming a medic will involve inherent sacrifice.
However medicine is also a deeply gratifying and fascinating career path. I want to be a medic because my passion and aptitude is foremost scientific and to me 5 or 6 years more of formal education followed by a lifetime of further learning sounds like a stimulating career option and, thankfully, a far cry from the monotony some jobs pose. Nevertheless, as an intrinsically social person, I would relish a career requiring the development of strong empathic relationships with patients too. Crucially, I know I have the enthusiasm, capacity for hard work and the open and enquiring mind needed to succeed in such a fulfilling vocation.
Fact-finding placements have given the applicant insight and motivation in order to decide upon a a career in medicine.
In the concluding paragraphs, the statement is emphasising that, although aware of the negative aspects associated with the practice of medicine, fact-finding placements have given the applicant the insight and motivation to be certain that it is the right career for them. The applicant ends by summarising the key personal attributes that they believe make them well-suited to medicine.
Verdict and advice for improvement
Of course, there is room for improvement with this statement. No reference is made to the scientific subjects that are being studied at school or to particular modules that the applicant has found particularly exciting: this could have helped convey enthusiasm and curiosity in science. Although the applicant asserts that they have an 'open and enquiring mind', there is no description of any extracurricular project or reading that the applicant might have undertaken, perhaps to help them understand a highly-charged ethical issue.
Despite those omissions, this is an effective personal statement. It is well constructed, connects with the reader, and the material flows in a logical sequence. It further conveys the impression that the applicant has done the research and knows exactly what is in store: they are not applying with a naive view or because that is what is expected of them. Writing a statement along these lines would provide a good foundation for a competitive applicant and offers lots of material that can be discussed at an interview.