Tips on Writing Personal Statement
I. Some Words on Structure
Structure refers to how you choose to present the information in your
personal statement. Good structure will make your piece flow, and
enhance the reader's ability to understand what you are trying to get
Some people can write well without thinking too much about structure.
They naturally organize their information to be seamless, transitioning
well between points and making their comments relevant to a theme. Most
people, however, need to work at it a little more. Here are some very
basic tips on how to make sure your personal statement has good
Choose a FOCUS
What is it?
Focus refers to the main point of your statement. Sometimes it is called
a theme. Most of what you say in your statement will contribute to
supporting your focus. In the very broadest sense, the focus of all
medical school personal statements is "Why I Should Be Accepted to
Medical School,". However, you need to choose something a little more
subtle and personal to make a positive impression. Your focus should
entail a value or an observation that has shaped you as a person. Most
of the time a focus is an abstract quality: the desire to help others,
the importance of individual contribution, the drive to unite science
How to choose it.
Because of the abstract nature of focus, it can seem like a daunting
task to choose one for your personal statement. Instead of sitting down
and trying to come up with abstraction that you think defines you, it is
much easier to come up with a list of experiences that have had an
impact on your life. You can then examine the experiences to see what,
exactly, about them made them important. This will often yield a good
Here are some tips to consider when choosing an experience to
evaluate for a focus:
- It should be unique. It does not have to be life shattering, but
you should be able to write about it with conviction, enthusiasm and
- It should be an experience you feel some passion for. You must
be able to support it as a "turning point" in your life. Ask
yourself, "How did I change as a result of this experience?" For
example, did it give you a new perspective or understanding, did it
give you a new direction in life, or help you come to an important
- Don't limit yourself to thinking of experiences that can
translate well into the moral of " . . . and that's why I want to be
a doctor." Choose something that you feel is truly representative of
you, and something that you feel you can use to transition to other
relevant aspects of your life. Otherwise, your statement may come
off sounding staged or strained.
- It should be sustainable throughout your statement. In other
words it has to have enough depth and flexibility to carry you
through your statement while avoiding repetition. The details of the
event should afford you opportunity to talk about related
experiences that you want the people who are considering your for an
interview to know.
Can you give me an example?
Perhaps am experience that impacted you was the time you were thrown
from your horse and dislocated your hip on the day before an important
riding competition. It was a pivotal experience because it was the first
time you were a patient with a serious injury, and because it was the
biggest disappointment of your life. While in the hospital, your
roommate was a woman who had just had both of her legs amputated due to
diabetes. One possible focus that could be derived from this experience
is how you learned how to put the elements you your life in perspective.
This is a lesson that might have helped you in ensuing experiences, and
you could outline ways that it could help you during medical school, or
as a doctor.
There are also many ways to use the experience to talk about other
issues involved in becoming a doctor. You could talk about how you felt
as a patient, and the things about your treatment that you appreciated.
Perhaps your doctors were attentive to your deep disappointment as well
as to your injury. You could talk about how you used the time away from
riding to develop an interest in sports medicine, or volunteering, or
riding instruction, or psychology The possibilities of a well-chosen
experience are limitless. As long as the experience was memorable and
formed you in some way, it is a good candidate for the production of
Create a FRAME for your FOCUS:
What is it?
When most people think of frames, they think of the structure around a
picture, or the structure that holds something up-like a skeleton or
building frame. That is a pretty accurate way to think about the frame
in writing, too. A frame will give your statement a shape. It will
provide a concrete way for you to introduce and talk about your focus.
Most of the time, if you've come up with a good experience from which
to draw a focus, you can use details of the same experience for your
frame. While the focus is often an abstract idea, the frame consists of
concrete details-places, people, action It provides a means for
anchoring your focus by setting a scene.
Many people think of the frame as a story, and in a lot of ways it
is. In a personal statement, it usually consists of an anecdote that is
introduced at the beginning of your statement and is brought to some
sort of closure at the end.
Can you give me an example?
Keeping with the experience we used to derive a focus, here is an
example of how frame might function to open a personal statement:
Nothing was more important to me on that warm morning in June
than the upcoming competition. I'd been riding horses since I was
six, and tomorrow I'd be riding the most difficult jump course of my
life. I'd come out early to practice, and although it was sunny,
there was still dew in the grass. The first time around the course I
heard my horse's hooves click against the top bar of barriers twice.
Determined to have a perfect sweep, I sent her into the course a
second time without stopping for a breather. My impatience cost me
dearly. As my horse gathered herself to clear the third and largest
fence of the course, I felt her falter and leaned forward to
encourage her. My last minute adjustment didn't help. The barrier
caught her at the knees and we crashed down together.
Of course, you don't want to use up too much of your limited space
just setting a scene. Make sure your frame serves multiple purposes:
- It introduces the occasion of the focus
- It introduces you
- It is creative enough to spark interest in the rest of your
By framing the statement with an anecdote, you provide your audience
with immediate access to some aspect of your past, your character, and
your personality. Also, you give them incentive to read on to find our
what happens next.
Make sure you return, even if it is only in a cursory way, to the
frame at the end of the statement. Often, this is a good opportunity to
summarize the important points of your statement and tie them together
into a concluding observation.
What is a concluding observation?
The concluding observation is a restatement of your focus, but in a way
that shows how it has evolved over time from a lesson that you learned
as a result of a specific event into a bit of wisdom that you've found
useful to apply to other situations in your life--and that will continue
to serve you in medical school and as a doctor.
Here is how the frame and concluding observation might function at
the end of a statement:
I'm sometimes a bit ashamed when I think that I had to dislocate
my hip in order to learn that my approach to life was limiting my
horizons. The first day that I returned to the saddle I was too sore
to do more than ride very slowly through the fields near the
stables. I remember that it was be best ride of my life, and to this
day I only ride my horse for pleasure, not competition. To be
honest, it's because I haven't had the time! My accident forced me
away from a consuming passion and gave me the opportunity to
discover other treasures in my life, treasures that to this day I
find more rewarding than competitive riding. The foremost of those
pleasures has been working at the summer camps for children who have
lost arms and legs to amputation. I want to continue to broaden
myself in medical school and beyond so that I might encounter yet
more treasures along the path to becoming a pediatric surgeon.
Create Strong TRANSITIONS
Transitions refer to the language you use to move from one idea to
the next. Most of the time transitions are accompanied by a paragraph
break. You should never assume, however, that a paragraph break is
enough of an indication that you are leaving one idea behind and moving
on to another.
One way to check for clear transitions is to make sure the first
sentence of every paragraph is somehow related to the last sentence in
the previous paragraph. Even when you need to shift gears pretty
drastically, you should find a way to create a "bridge" between your
If you have chosen a strong focus and frame, your transitions will
come much easier. This is because you can use your frame and focus as a
sort of hub that is the origin of each new idea that you choose to
explore in your statement.
In addition to making sure that you transition well between your
ideas, you should also make sure that your ideas are presented in a
logical order that your reader can identify and follow. Many students
choose to use chronological order. You might choose to order things from
most to least important, or use categorize your ideas (e.g. academics,
volunteer experience, work experience, etc.) Whatever order you choose,
be faithful to it
II. Some Words on Style
Style refers to how you choose to use words to say what you have to
say. There are a lot of different styles, and many of them are
acceptable for a personal statement. However, you don't want to
compromise on several points:
Make sure that your syntax is correct. Not only must you be fastidious
about basics such as spelling and subject verb agreement, you should pay
careful attention to your form. Make sure that you don't have sentence
fragments or run on sentences. Use punctuation correctly. Always have
someone proofread your statement, and if grammar is not your thing, have
someone who is good at grammar check your statement for errors.
Follow Through and Flesh Out
If you bring raise issues, be prepared to follow through on them and
offer explanation or background. A common mistake is to make a statement
and then assume that the reader will be able to place it as relevant.
You must be explicit, and make sure that you round out the issues you
raise with supporting details. For example, if you introduce the fact
that you are a single mother, you must make sure that it is relevant to
your focus, and you should offer details about how it is relevant. If
you say that your desire to become a doctor started after your trip to
Mexico, you need to tell why this is so. If you say, "I didn't think I'd
ever make it at a college like Carnegie Mellon," give the reasons that
you felt this way. Sometimes writers rely too much on meaning that they
believe to be implicit and leave the reader with questions. Remember,
the person reading your essay knows very little about you, your life
experiences, your character, or your personality. Be clear.
Show, Don't Tell
This is the most valuable--and most cited--piece of advice given to
writers. Writing that is preachy or full of generalities sheds little
light onto the character of the writer and, worse, is boring. You can be
perfectly technically correct in your prose, but if you're just telling
and not showing, you are not communicating.
Here is an example of writing that tells a lot, but really doesn't
The medical profession combines knowledge and wisdom from just
about every aspect of life which is directed towards helping
humanity. A physician is not just part of the heath care team but
the leader of the health care team. He is free to practice broadly
or to acquire a specialty of his own choosing. Thus medicine offers
the challenges and fulfillment that I am seeking in a career.
These statements profess truths that might be indisputable, but they
are also full of platitudes and common knowledge and offer the reader no
real information. This sort of general language of telling should be
avoided at all costs.
Often when writing personal statements, students fall into the habit
of telling and not showing in an effort to squeeze in all their
accomplishments, resume-style. They resort to lists:
My desire to work with people is demonstrated by my many
interactions as a volunteer. In 1997 I aided elderly and blind
residents at the Homewood Retirement Community read their mail and
write letters. The following summer, I served food at the local
homeless shelter. As secretary of my high school chapter of SADD, I
arranged for speakers at several community and school fundraisers.
In addition to my volunteer activities, I've held a job since I was
twelve. I worked on my uncles farm until I started ninth grade, at
which time I was able to get a position as dish washer at a family
restaurant. When I got my driver's license, I took a cashier's job
at the gift store at Mercy Hospital in Altoona.
Although these accomplishments might be important to an application
to medical school, they shouldn't appear list-like in a personal
The reader doesn't get a sense for why you did these things, or how
you felt about them, or what you learned.
Here are some ways that you can be sure to show and not tell:
- Use sensory details to help set scenes. Note what the sky looks
like, what color a child's dress is, how the food smells. Make sure
your reader is right there with you.
- Share your personal emotions and indicate how your surroundings
affected you. This will give the reader a better idea of your
individualism and make experiences that are common seem unique.
- Be anecdotal and use examples to illustrate your observations.
- Write with the intention of communicating something original.
Don't just put down what you think the reader wants to hear.
- Avoid general commentary.