Written by Nathan Pastrano.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
Convincing medical school committees why you want to be a doctor can be very difficult, especially when it has to be done in less than one to two pages. The Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS) requires at least two primary essays per applicant: a personal statement, a personal characteristics essay, and an optional essay.
The University Writing Center (UWC), in adjunct with the Health Professions Office, aids students with the writing process year-round. Writing tutors, who choose to specialize in this area of scholarship like myself, are trained in how to examine the framework of each prompt thoroughly. Students can then schedule a 45-minute consultation at the UWC to receive feedback and ask any questions they have over the writing process.
Prior to the start of this summer, I had seen only a limited number of these essays. By the end, I had seen well over two dozen and secured my certification in Health Professions Writing through the UWC. More notably, I had the same students re-visit me for assistance with their secondary essays, which meant two things: they made it past the first round, and they valued the advice I had to offer.
“Explain your motivation to seek a career [in this field]. Be sure to include the value of your experiences that prepare you.”
Personal statements are designed to give readers insight into applicants’ qualities and motives. Initially, however, students tend to draft these essays without focus, and therefore lack the substance necessary to distinguish themselves from other applicants.
When overcoming writer’s block, consider choosing an experience that can be written with authenticity. Whether it be shadowing a dentist, conducting research, discussing the impact of mentorship or influential moments, for instance, be mindful to show admission committees you’re prepared and invested. The focus should be showing readers who you are through your story beyond a grade point average (GPA).
By asking writers to verbalize the personal significance of each body paragraph, they instantly begin to recognize their qualities, skills, and true motivations that may have been unclear beforehand. In tandem, consultants can help by ensuring the usage of Active Voice and addressing syntax, brevity, and flow-related concerns.
In addition, the following two questions can be used in supplement when helping students pinpoint their intentions, if any: how have these experiences shaped your motives specifically? And, how are these things going to help you moving forward?
Learning from others is enhanced in educational settings that include individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Please describe your personal characteristics (background, talents, skills, etc.) or experiences that would add to the educational experience of others.
Decoding this prompt and responding to it is challenging. The personal characteristics essay gives students the opportunity to examine their skills in depth, which in turn highlights exactly what they can bring to the table.
Writers immediately jump to broader and more obvious skills such as empathy, communication, and compassion. Although these are ideal for the brainstorming process, I encourage students to think more narrowly as many other applicants use these as well.
In my experience, students choose to accentuate their skills by discussing their identities, hobbies, or personal experiences in a narrative. Generally, these are excellent focus points that can underscore skills and talents. By asking students if they feel their strengths are heightened through the experience(s) discussed, it becomes easy to gauge the level of persuasion in the essay altogether.
Let’s use this as an example:
[Before]: “I was an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), and it’s because of this that I deserve to be a doctor.”
My Response: “As a reader, I understand what’s going on here clearly. Although, do you think this sentence tells readers about any skills or personality traits unique to you? How does this work experience, which many other applicants have, benefit you specifically?”
[After]: “Through my experience as an EMT, I amplified my communication skills, improved my ability to work well under unexpected circumstances, and honed my passion for healthcare in the process.”
Here, the student moves from telling readers that they feel qualified, to showing readers how his or her experience contributes to their character and passion for healthcare.
Briefly state any unique circumstances or life experiences that are relevant to your application. This is not an area to continue your essay or reiterate what you have previously stated — this area is provided to address any issues which have not previously been addressed.
The irony is that this optional essay should be treated as obligatory. This is the area students may wish to write about “academic difficulties, legal problems, and other special circumstances” (CNS). If applicable, writers should tell readers how these circumstances functioned as a learning tool.
If the above is not applicable, the question then becomes, “what should I write?” In reference to the prompt, the first sentence asks to expand on “unique circumstances” or “life experiences.” Writers can obviously respond in many ways but thinking through a “special and rewarding” experience is a start (CNS).
No matter the content, writers should remember to explain exactly why they’ve chosen a specific experience for this prompt. Get creative!
As a disclaimer, students should schedule a meeting with the Health Professions Office prior to visiting the UWC. It makes the brainstorming and writing process smoother if writers have researched the mission statements of schools, have potentially crafted an outline, and have flushed out why their experiences make them a unique candidate.
Lastly, I want to stress that writing is a skill aspiring doctors, dentists, veterinarians, and pharmacists should take seriously. It’s more than just charting words; it allows people to be clear, expressive, and open-minded.
Students should see this process as a way to hone their writing because it is especially important when connecting with patients and publishing in medical academia.