Welcome to the fourth article in this series on becoming a competitive medical school applicant. In the first article I provided a look inside the general medical school admissions process. I explained why it can take so long to learn the fate of your application. I concluded with recommendations for what you can do in the months following submission of your application.
In the second article we explored the secondary application. We looked at common essay topics and I provided tips for writing secondary essays.
The third article was all about update letters. We talked about when you should update medical schools and what you should include. Check out the third article here.
In this article we will take a look at the Personal Comments Essay, often referred to as the personal statement.
Read on for my top tips, including what you should and should not include in your own Personal Comments Essay.
Keep in mind, I base all my recommendations on my own experience reading, reviewing, and offering decisions on more than 15,000 medical school applicants.
So, what does someone who evaluates medical school applicants think about the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) Personal Comments Essay and what are some of my top tips for writing a statement that will actually improve your chances of getting into medical school?
Let’s find out.
The Purpose of the AMCAS Personal Comments Essay
According to the most recent AMCAS Applicant Guide (available here), the Personal Comments Essay is “an opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants.” The AMCAS Applicant Guide includes several questions applicants can consider when writing their essays. Those questions include:
- “Why have you selected the field of medicine?”
- “What motivates you to learn more about medicine?”
- “What do you want medical schools to know about you that hasn’t been disclosed in other sections of the application?”
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) also recommends that applicants consider any “Unique hardships, challenges, or obstacles that may have influenced your educational pursuits” and any “significant fluctuations” in academic performance that are not clear from other parts of the application.
While the the AMCAS Applicant Guide is an official AAMC resource, keep in mind they are not the ones deciding who gets into medical school.
The advice in the AMCAS Applicant Guide is a great place to start and I recommend everyone read through it. With that said, here is my perspective on the AMCAS Personal Comments Essay/personal statement.
First, I do not recommend that you think of the personal comments essay as your opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants. It is important to think of your entire application from this perspective, not just the personal comments essay.
Your experiences, background, where you went to school, what you studied, what your faculty and supervisors think of you, all these elements define you and differentiate you from other applicants.
Treat your personal comments essay as important, but no more or less so than the other sections of your application.
If you treat your personal comments essay as your opportunity to stand out, you may miss out on an opportunity to stand out in how you present yourself in other sections of the application.
A One-sentence Explanation of the Personal Comments Essay
Your essay should show that you are passionate about and well-suited for a medical career.
Can you talk about a difficult academic semester or the loss of a family member?
Yes, as long as doing so supports your primary goal—to show that you are passionate about and well-suited for a medical career.
Let’s consider two common sub-purposes or goals of the personal comments essay and think about how they can tie back to the main purpose.
Explain a challenge or struggle:
Perhaps you have something to share regarding grade performance, whether family challenges, economic hardship, disabilities, or any of a number of reasons.
Highlight an accomplishment:
Maybe you would like to showcase a particular experience from your Work/Activities section.
Whatever you include in your personal statement, you will want to make sure you can connect it back to your passion for medicine.
Make sure to share new details if you write about an experience listed in your Work/Activities section.
Assume that one person is reading your entire application. It is likely that by the time your reader gets to your personal statement they have already gone through your Work/Activities section, including the brief accompanying narratives in which you write about what you did and why those experiences are important.
Don’t be repetitive.
Share something new.
Stay Tuned: In a future article I will include example AMCAS Personal Comments Essays.
For now, let’s dive into my top tips for writing the personal comments essay.
Tips on What Not to Do
Don’t be fancy. Your medical school application is not the place to showcase your passion for bloviated loquacity. Translation—the AMCAS application is not the place to show off your mastery of the English language. Keep your language simple.
Don’t lecture. Many applicants write their philosophies on what a doctor should or shouldn’t be. As an applicant to medical school, assume you are less familiar with medicine than your application reviewers (even if that is not the case).
Applicants who use their personal comments essay as a soapbox tend to lack relevant experience. Instead, use the essay to share experiences you have had that help you show you will make a worthy physician.
Don’t write about extrinsic motivations, such as status or money. I will also include the hero complex here as well. Status and money should be obvious. Medical schools (and society for that matter) want physicians motivated by a desire to help others rather than enrich themselves. It is logical to consider the return on investment in your decision to become a doctor, but you do not need to discuss this in your application.
The hero complex is a bit tricker. All applicants should want to help others. The concern is when the desire to help others is more about being the center of attention—the hero.
Here is an example:
I have read essays in which an applicant describes being on a plane when a flight attendant requests a doctor over the intercom. The applicant shares how calm the doctor was. The applicant goes on to share that the next time there is a medical emergency, they want to be the one everyone looks to for help.
It is fine to want to be helpful, but make sure you aren’t motivated by a desire to be the hero. You will risk coming across as naive, or worse, immature.
Don’t make the personal comments essay all about your GPA. I know the AAMC says you can write about academic blemishes, but keep in mind your primary goal. You want to show your passion and suitability for a career in medicine. Can you explain grade fluctuations? Yes. But don’t let your explanation take away from the purpose of the essay.
Tips on What You Should Do
Do gain rich experiences that help you show your passion for medicine. We all know actions speak louder than words so make sure you include examples in your essay. Whether your experience relates to a personal medical event, volunteering/working in a hospital/clinical setting, conducting research, or serving a disadvantaged population, connecting these kinds of experiences to your reason for wanting to become a physician is a recipe for a strong essay.
Do connect personal struggles back to the purpose. If you want to share a challenge in the personal comments essay, make sure you can tie it back to your purpose. Whether your struggle relates to academics, health issues, or something else, bring it back to your desire to serve others through medicine.
Keep this in mind. Writing a compelling medical school personal comments essay starts with experience. If you have not put in the time in core areas such as medicine (patient contact), service, and research, how will you show passion or preparation?
By applying to medical school you are saying, I deserve to be a physician.
Without a track record of experience, it will be difficult to prove your desire to become a doctor.
How the Personal Comments Essay Affects Your Application
Like most of the admissions process, medical schools are free to decide how they value the various sections found in the AMCAS application. Some schools place considerable weight on the Personal Comments Essay and others do not. For example, a school that does not place much value on the Personal Comments Essay may only skim it for flags such as the Don’ts listed above.
Other medical schools may place more weight on the personal statement, looking for maturity, explanations of struggles (academic, financial, social, etc.) and how they were overcome. Again, remember to connect those stories back to the primary purpose.
Regardless of how much or how little a medical school values the Personal Comments Essay, if you provide examples of your passion for medicine and connect any non-medical/service experiences back to that purpose, you will stand out among other applicants.
The primary goal of the AMCAS personal statement is to demonstrate your passion and suitability for medicine.
This is not done through bold claims and fancy language. The way you show your interest in medicine is by drawing on your track record of experience.
If you want to be a doctor, get out there and start volunteering and working in meaningful experiences. There are many strong experiences.
- working at a shelter for domestic violence,
- shadowing in a variety of settings
- clinical research
- teaching (particularly in underserved schools)
Find what interests you within the broader categories of service to others and medicine and start working and/or volunteering.
Once you have gained meaningful experiences, you will find the task of writing your personal comments essay much easier.
I hope this article has been helpful.
I wish you the best in all your aspirations.
Adam Lowrance, PhD
If you found this article helpful, let me know in the comment section. Where are you at in the process? Are you applying to medical school this cycle, or thinking about doing so in the future?