The Personal Statement: Getting Started

Ah the personal statement. What’s better than having to write out the hows and whys of your thought processes, ambitions and goals all while making yourself seem highly likeable and engaging all within a few paragraphs?

If you answered “I’d rather put my hands in boiling water” or something with a similar, dramatic feel then congratulations, you are par the course. Especially if you’re a medical student. There is a very specific type of dread that happens when you haven’t written a real piece of literature with expression in years, some having not done so since the last time they wrote a personal statement. And that time was a struggle just the same.

I’m not saying I’m any type of master here. Don’t get me wrong, grammar is not my strongest writing quality and I often stumble over the right way to word something, but I love writing and have continued to do so through medical school, published or not. When it finally came time for me to write my personal statement it wasn’t really a big to do. I was excited to do it, and you can be too as farfetched as it may sound. There are ways to make this process significantly less painful and won’t leave you stumped and staring at your computer screen, feeling defeated before you even get started.


One Idea, One Sentence

Before you start anything else, you should write down one sentence that is the sole purpose of your personal statement. It shouldn’t have multiple parts with conjunctions and run-ons. It needs to be straight to the point. If the person reading your statement had one sentence to summarize your entire statement this is what they would say.

Dan wants to go to medical school.

Amit wants to work with X program in underserved areas.

Elena wants to be a lawyer.

Well that seems pretty intuitive, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, t’s not that simple. Nothing ever is. Your one statement should be answered within your personal statement and writing these out serves as a guide to help you remember what you want to convey in its entirety to the reader. So when someone asks well why does Dan want to go to medical school the answer is there, clear as day. Not blanketed with a wordy story, not hidden by anecdotes and excuses. These, if used incorrectly, just hide that you have no explanation for your sentence. Everything you write needs to support that single sentence. I’ve proofread many statements that I’ve given back and was like “it’s a nice essay but I have no idea why you want to be an anesthesiologist or how this essay was about wanting that.”

Stick to your sentence. Everyone should know your sentence. Your sentence is you.

Get Some Inspiration

When writing is not your preferred mode of self-expression it can be difficult to figure out what feel you want to go for. One of the best ways to do that is to find some examples that give you a spark. And they’re all over the place. Some of them are real personal statements written by students just like you, some are examples written by people who specialize in this kind of writing, while others are raw templates outlining the form a personal statement should take. All of these work. Beware the pitfall and do not try to match up your writing to what you’re using as a reference. You’re not the only one using or seeing these examples.

Bullet It

You have good ideas. They’re in your brain just sort of floating around trying to make connections.

Put them down. Every idea, topic, word whatever. Just put down anything that you might want to convey in your personal statement. It doesn’t have to be a coherent sentence, shoot it doesn’t even really need to make sense. It’s just a way to start getting juices flowing and ideas working.

You’re still at an early stage! So rather than try to force them out in an order that works, just write down what comes at you. Don’t worry about trying to put them together right now. At this point you just want to get the idea out so you can see if they’ll work for you. “It sounded better in my head” is much less of a problem if you aren’t already half way through your personal statement. It also gives you a chance to sit on a point and think it out without forgetting what that point was.

Where to start?

Now that you’ve worked out a place you like how exactly do you start? The beginning sounds like a good place right?

Not particularly.

An old writing trick that I’m sure many of you have heard before is the start from the middle and work your way out. Usually people are more excited to get the meat of the sandwich rather than the bread, aka the intro and conclusion (though very important as well). But those things can come later and can be a little a more general. The body of your personal statement is what expresses your intent and explains your purpose. I have also found it to be easier to flesh out your personal statement when you start with the middle because you don’t get stuck on flow or wording as often.

Give yourself a chance!

I get this process can be daunting and you might not want to think about it at all. I understand that writing might be the bane of your existence. But its even worse if your stuck at the last minute, scrambling to make words work. And while some of you swear that pressure makes the creative juices flow I think that’s a misconception. I think pressure can bring things together but I don’t think you all of a sudden have the inspiration and perfected writing skills a day before its due.

Giving yourself time gives yourself the best chance to pump out a really good statement you like, that has been edited by an outside source or a few and that you have time to alter and edit for you needs as you go.

And please don’t be frustrated with yourself. Writing about yourself isn’t easy. That’s why biographies are thing. Some will find a natural flow while others will struggle to get a single line down. Take your time and know it may be a challenge, but you’ve always gotten this far.


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