The introduction is the most important part of your essay, and it has one purpose to fulfill above all others: to draw the reader in. Ideally this should all begin right from the attention-grabbing opening sentence. If the introduction can then go on to orient the reader to the focus of the essay, then that can be very helpful. But orientation is not an essential purpose because that can be achieved gradually in the essay. Many people make the mistake of writing a paragraph that explains what they're going to talk about in the rest of the essay. Such a paragraph might include something like the following: "My journey toward medicine has been shaped by a variety of experiences, including academic studies, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities." The reader knows that you're going to talk about these things and is most likely muttering to herself, "Get to the point."
If you have a paragraph like this in your essay, the best move would be to delete it. Often your second paragraph, which begins to discuss a specific experience, will work much better as an introduction. But you may also find that a later paragraph works even better. In general, you should bring your most compelling experience to the forefront and then structure your essay around that.
The following is a list of possible approaches to the introduction, with an emphasis on the opening sentence itself:
Jump Right In
Some people will start with a compelling experience but will insist on prefacing that experience with a very generic statement such as the following: "My interest in medicine can be traced back to the time I had knee surgery as a child." Often the reason people will write such a statement is that they feel compelled to restate the question in some way. If your essay is answering the question "Why are you interested in medicine?" you should be able to demonstrate your reasons without relying on such a bland summary sentence.
If, on the other hand, you're tempted to use the first sentence to explain context, you should respect the reader's intelligence enough to save that context for later. For example, consider the following passage, which constitutes about half of this applicant's introduction:
"I originally became interested in the health care field at a very early age because my mother was a nurse and I spent considerable time in my childhood observing her at work. I was attracted to the idea of helping people with physical problems, although I had no thought about any specific specialty. However, in time physical therapy became the logical focus of my attention for a number of reasons. For one, I have memories from a very young age of my grandfather in Czechoslovakia, disabled by a stroke, his problems unmitigated by any attempts at physical therapy. I will never forget the devastating consequences of this."
This applicant probably felt that he had to start from the beginning and show the context for his interest in physical therapy. But this leads to a very unoriginal first statement that includes several hackneyed points: 1) starting with his original interest; 2) tracing it to his childhood; 3) tracing it to a parent.
Now look at the following restructuring, which grabs the reader's attention more immediately and conveys the necessary context in time:
"Disabled by a stroke, my grandfather in Czechoslovakia never fully recovered, his problems unmitigated by any attempts at physical therapy. Despite my young age at the time, I will never forget the devastating consequences of this. My interest in the health care field began at a very early age because my mother was a nurse and I spent considerable time observing her at work. I was attracted to the idea of helping people with physical problems, although I had no thought about any specific specialty. Gradually, however, memories of my grandfather and subsequent encounters with physical therapy directed my attention toward this path."
As you can see, it's possible to establish context later on, after you have the reader's attention. This revision also has the advantage of making a specific point about physical therapy, as opposed to an ambiguous, general statement about the writer's interest in the health care field.
The advice to jump right in also applies to anecdotes. One effective way to grab the reader's attention is to describe the action of your story. The above introduction might have begun by relating an episode as follows: "Grandpa struggled to reach his cane on the floor. He refused my parents' help but smiled when I picked it up for him."
Show Your Originality
If you can make yourself stand out right from the first sentence, then you will have contributed a great deal to your case for admission. You should not of course just throw out a random fact about yourself, but if your essay is going to emphasize a unique aspect of your life, then by all means that should come up right away.
This applicant starts as follows: "Not every dental school applicant has supported himself for five-and-a-half years jousting and sword fighting in a Las Vegas show."
This applicant takes very much the same approach: "I am a 26-year-old woman who has spent much of the past nine years engaged in such unusual activities as jumping out of airplanes, briefing Chuck Yeager (on more effective flying, of all things!), running through trenches, being a test parachutist, taking apart and then reassembling (blindfolded) a vintage M-1 rifle, earning a pilot's license, and learning how to survive behind enemy lines (including resisting interrogations and escaping captivity)."
Both writers have succeeded in grabbing our attention and revealing something unique about their personalities, which they will go on to explain in further detail.
A Concrete Image
Starting with a concrete image helps the reader to grasp your point more immediately. The hypothetical anecdote we wrote under the Jump Right In heading is one example, but even non-narrative openings can start with a specific image. For example, this applicant explains her attempts to comfort her grandfather: "From massaging his arm to simply keeping him company, I tried to assist my grandfather in any possible way after a stroke had left his left arm partially paralyzed." This is not a particular episode, but she offers a specific action detail, and so we can picture her sitting by her grandfather's side, massaging his arm.
The Element of Mystery
Generally we would not advise starting with an abstract point over a concrete image, but if you have an interesting idea to convey, it can be very effective. This applicant sets up a dichotomy that provokes the reader's mind: "I grew up in circumstances that provide a classic example of the frequent disparity between appearance and reality." He then goes on immediately to fill in the details so we are not left hanging on an abstract theme.
The danger with this approach is that your idea might have been used too many times already. For example: "I learned early on that helping others is not just a fulfilling purpose, but a moral responsibility." This is an abstract point, but there's no mystery here because the idea is too predictable.
State a Problem
By stating a problem, you create instant curiosity because the reader wants to see how you will address this problem. This applicant states a personal difficulty, and the rest of the essay goes on to detail his response. You don't need to limit yourself to personal issues, however. You could state a general problem you've observed in the health care system and then go on to describe how you hope to address it in your career. You might also cite a discouraging statistic and then reflect on its significance. There are many possibilities here, but what unites them is the element of drama, and you should use that to your advantage in creating a strong lead.
This is the type of approach that we can't ignore because it has the potential to be so effective, but it also could have disastrous results. The same warnings apply here that we enumerated for humor in the Tone section. Try to be subtly and creatively clever rather than outrageous.
This applicant makes a humorous observation about his upbringing: "Sometimes I like to tell people that my father knew I wanted to be a doctor long before I did, but the truth is that the idea of becoming a physician has probably been gestating within me in some form or other since an early age." It's an interesting twist on the idea of wanting to become a doctor for all of one's life. Even here there's a slight risk: will the reader be critical of the writer's admission that his father was such a strong influence? Recognizing this possible interpretation, the applicant immediately asserts his independent development and later makes further reference to his independent decision.
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Don’t underestimate the power of the medical school personal statement to make a strong, positive impression on an admissions committee. Combined with your interview performance, your personal statement can account for 60% (or more) of your total admissions score!
Medical schools want to enroll bright, empathetic, communicative people. Here's how to write a compelling med school personal statement that shows schools who you are and what you're capable of.
Personal Statement Topics
Your medical school personal statement is a component of your primary application submitted via AMCAS, TMDSAS (for Texas applications), or AACOMAS (NB: If you are applying to medical school in Canada, confirm the application process with your school, as not all application components may be submitted through AMCAS).
These applications offer broad topics to consider, and many essay approaches are acceptable. For example, you could write about:
- an experience that challenged or changed your perspective about medicine
- a relationship with a mentor or another inspiring individual
- a challenging personal experience
- unique hardships, challenges, or obstacles that may have influenced your educational pursuits
- your motivation to seek a career in medicine
You'll write an additional essay (or two) when you submit secondary applications to individual schools. These essays require you to respond to a specific question. Admissions committees will review your entire application, so choose subject matter that complements your original essay .
How to Write a Personal Statement for Medical School
Follow these personal statement tips to help the admissions committee better understand you as a candidate.
1. Write, re-write, let it sit, and write again!
Allow yourself 6 months of writing and revision to get your essay in submission-ready shape. This gives you the time to take your first pass, set your draft aside (for a minimum of 24 hours), review what you’ve written, and re-work your draft.
2. Stay focused.
Your personal statement should highlight interesting aspects of your journey—not tell your entire life story. Choose a theme, stick to it, and support it with specific examples.
3. Back off the cliches.
Loving science and wanting to help people might be your sincere passions, but they are also what everyone else is writing about. Instead, be personal and specific.
4. Find your unique angle.
What can you say about yourself that no one else can? Remember, everyone has trials, successes and failures. What's important and unique is how you reacted to those incidents. Bring your own voice and perspective to your personal statement to give it a truly memorable flavor.
5. Be interesting.
Start with a “catch” that will create intrigue before launching into the story of who you are. Make the admissions committee want to read on!
6. Show don't tell.
Instead of telling the admissions committee about your unique qualities (like compassion, empathy, and organization), show them through the stories you tell about yourself. Don’t just say it—actually prove it.
7. Embrace the 5-point essay format.
Here's a trusty format that you can make your own:
- 1st paragraph: These four or five sentences should "catch" the reader's attention.
- 3-4 body paragraphs: Use these paragraphs to reveal who you are. Ideally, one of these paragraphs will reflect clinical understanding and one will reflect service.
- Concluding paragraph: The strongest conclusion reflects the beginning of your essay, gives a brief summary of you are, and ends with a challenge for the future.
8. Good writing is simple writing.
Good medical students—and good doctors—use clear, direct language. Your essays should not be a struggle to comprehend.
9. Be thoughtful about transitions.
Be sure to vary your sentence structure. You don’t want your essay to be boring! Pay attention to how your paragraphs connect to each other.
Good medical students—and good doctors—use clear, direct language.
10. Stick to the rules.
Watch your word count. That’s 5,300 characters (including spaces) for AMCAS applications, 5,000 characters for TMDSAS, and 4,500 characters for AACOMAS.
11. Stay on topic.
Rambling not only uses up your precious character limit, but it also causes confusion! Think about the three to five “sound bytes” you want admissions committee to know and remember you by.
12. Don't overdo it.
Beware of being too self-congratulatory or too self-deprecating.
13. Seek multiple opinions.
Before you hit “submit,” ask several people you trust for feedback on your personal statement. The more time you have spent writing your statement, the less likely you are to spot any errors. A professor or friend whose judgment and writing skills you trust is invaluable.
14. Double-check the details.
Always check for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. This goes for the rest of your application (like your activities list), too. A common oversight is referencing the wrong school in your statement! Give yourself (and your proofreaders) the time this task truly requires.
15. Consult the experts about your personal statement strategy.
Our med school admissions counselors can diagnose the “health” of your overall application, including your personal statement. Get expert help and guidance to write an effective personal statement that showcases not only your accomplishments, but your passion and your journey.
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