Drafting a Strong Personal Statement

(Adapted from Dr. James Woodruff's Personal Statement Workshop; University of Chicago, Pritzker School of Medicine)


Reflection and Gaining Perspective

A personal statement for application to a professional health school (or graduate program) is more than just a document for review by an admissions committee -- it is an opportunity for you to engage in meaningful introspection on your experiences with health care professions that have made you want to take the next step.

Drafting a personal statement provides you a valuable opportunity to use the writing process to reflect reflect and gain perspective on any of the activities that you have engaged in during your education, including research projects, clinical experience, patient interaction, and your coursework. This process of reflection and contextualization is an important one that is important as you continue your education and move into professional practice or whatever career you pursue -- enabling personal and professional growth by critical self-analyis and self-awareness.

By reflecting upon your experiences and putting them in the appropriate perspective, you will find yourself better able to answer the important questions that admissions committees will want to have answered:  Why do I want to pursue a career in a health field?  What is important to me in the work that I do?  How do I handle the interactions (e.g.: patient / doctor; stakeholder / service-provider) that I will encounter as a professional? How do I handle difficulties and adversity both professionally and personally?


Contextualizing Your Personal Statement

A personal statement for application to a program is not a document with a single purpose. While it is being read and evaluated by an admissions committee, it is also helping you give form to the ideas -- and questions, perhaps -- that you seek to address.

From the perspective of an admissions committee, it is a vital part of your application -- it provides an insight to your level of commitment, your career aspirations, and your ability to manifest your education and experience in a coherent and meaningful manner. While it is true that a personal statement might "weed out" undesireable candidates that are not a good fit for a particular program, it is better to view this as your opportunity to make a great first impression that helps set you apart from other candidates. With hundreds of applicants, programs need a way to put a face to the individuals they are selecting. A well-crafted and truly insightful personal statement not only give a program a chance to learn more about you as a candidate, but also provide an inroad to the meaningful dialgoues that will take place during your interview process.

For you, the applicant, the personal statement is a document to help you summarize and clarify your personal approach to a health career. In gathering your thoughts and reflecting upon your experiences, you may determine a specialty that you would like to pursue within the practice that you have chosen. In the event that you have already chosen one, the statement will give you a chance to refine your ideas about taking on a career in this field. In writing about what you have done and what you hope to do during your continuing education and career, you may gain more clarity on what you might need from a training program. Remember: a lot has changed in your life over the past few years -- solidifying your expectations and aspirations into a written statement is a chance for you to bring the next steps of your life into sharp focus.


The Nuts and Bolts of Your Personal Statement

For all our talk, to this point, of the nature of the personal statement, it's important to remember that it's not just abstraction and thought -- there are very specific expectations and guidelines for the writing that you will be doing. Here, we'll discuss a few of those.

For everything that a personal statement needs to be, there are some things that it shouldn't be. While you are using this statement to help set yourself apart from other candidates, it should not be a way to brag about your accomplishments or to leverage any connections that you might have made during your volunteer, clinical, or research experiences. It goes without saying that your pesonal statement should have a positive focus, and as such, any references to your experiences should be focused on what you learned and how it is informing your decision to pursue a health-related career, and not on any complaints or negative interactions that you may have had with patients or other care providers. Most importantly though, your personal statement is a crucial part of your presentation to an admissions committee -- so it is not something to be rushed, or completed without allowing the proper time for reflection, revision, and feedback from others.

As we've discussed, there are several key questions to be answered by your personal statement: who you are as an individual, why you have chosen the specialty that you want to pursue (if you have selected one at this point), what your career goals are, and what you need to succeed.
Here are some questions that you might ask yourself, in reflecting on your answers to these questions:

Who are you?
⦁    What experiences made you want to pursue a health-related profession?
⦁    What about these experiences -- and the people that you encountered during them -- made a difference to you, and how?
⦁    How has this affected your future plans (i.e.: not just your choice of program, but your long-term career goals)?

Why this specialty / discipline?
⦁    Was there a specific event or events that triggered your decision to pursue a particular specialty?
⦁    Are there powerful role models for you in your chosen specialty?
⦁    Is there something specifically that attracts you to the area in which you want to specialize? Patient population? Research, teaching, or leadership opportunities? A way to make a meaningful contribution in an area of interest?

What are your career goals?
⦁    In what venue do you plan to apply your education?
⦁    Do you plan to pursue activities beyond professional practice (e.g.: mentorship, teaching, etc.)?
⦁    What are your personal motives for these choices?

What do you need to succeed?
⦁    What would maximize your learning?
⦁    What would maximize your professional and personal happiness?

These questions will give you a starting point for mapping out your personal statement. As you work through these, you may identify a way to structure these responses in ways that present natural transitions or in a complementary manner. Outlining your thoughts and planning what you will write can be every bit as important as the writing itself -- as this process allows you to identify those points that are most important to you and merit strong emphasis, as well as those thoughts that may need further development or that can be omitted.

You will need to be mindful of any restrictions that you may have for your personal statement, particularly with regard to word or page count. Using the questions above as a guideline, you would probably want to keep your statement focused largely (~80 percent) on the "Who" and "Why" of what you have to say, and streamline the "What" portion of your response to the remainder. It is important to remember that if your application and statement are well-received, you will probably have a chance to explore the specifics of those "What" questions during your interview -- so structure your statement accordingly.

As you write, remember the conventions for personal statements. They are biographic, by nature, and should thus be written in first-person style. It needs to be expository about you as a person, but focused and concrete when discussing the specifics of your experiences. Above all, you need to ensure that your tone does not come across as arrogant, brash, or in any way that suggests you might be difficult to work with.

As an example of how tone can make a large difference in how your message is received, compare the following sets of statements:

⦁    Performing this procedure was very easy for me.
⦁    Performing this procedure affirmed my understanding of the process.

⦁    My time as a hospice volunteer has made me sure that I want to be a doctor.
⦁    My experiences as a hospice volunteer have given me valuable perspective on the challenges of patient-caregiver interactions.

⦁    I know that medical school can be difficult, but I am prepared for the struggles that come with it
⦁    To me, the challenges of medical school represent an opportunity for growth as a person and as a professional.

Once you have a draft, and you have reviewed it for grammar and content, you should ensure that the tone and voice of your writing are what you would like them to be. Reading and re-reading your own writing with a critical eye can help you pick up on things that you might not have noticed when you were initially drafting and were more focused on structuring your ideas and giving them substance. Pay special attention to how each portion of your statement supports the larger presentation of yourself that you are trying to make.

Finally, you will want to make sure that someone else reads and provides response to what you have written. While friends and family members can help with this, it is strongly recommended that you get input from a professional -- whether it be a health professions advisor, academic mentor, or even your university's writing center. Perspective is important when writing, and letting others share their insight can help you refine or improve an area of your statement that you might not have realized was in need of improvement.


In Conclusion

Writing a personal statement for admission to a professional school or graduate program is just one part of a very large and challenging process. Compared to much of the writing you may have done as an undergraduate, it may seem small by comparison. While it alone will not get you into the program of your dreams, it will oftentimes be a deciding factor on whether or not you get an interview with an admissions committee. Keeping a focus on the entire process of drafting a personal statement -- reflection and thought, planning, writing, revision, and incorporating feedback -- can help a program understand why you're the right candidate.