What everyone writes for the AMCAS application
- Personal statement (5300 characters, spaces count)
- Activities descriptions (700 characters, up to 15 allowed)
- Three descriptions of most meaningful activities (an additional 1325 characters for each activity)
What some people write on the AMCAS application
- Institutional action explanation (1325 characters)
- Disadvantaged status explanation (1325 characters)
- MD/PhD essay—Why MD/PhD? (3000 characters)
- MD/PhD essay—Significant Research (10,000 characters)
What you write beyond AMCAS--Secondary applications
WHAT EVERYONE WRITES FOR THE AMCAS APPLICATION
- 1. Personal statement - The prompt for this is “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.” Keep in mind that for the average applicant who might apply to 20 schools, this essay will likely be read by somewhere between 40 and 200 people. In general you are trying to hit many singles with your personal statement rather than focusing on hitting a home run. Memorable personal statements can be great. Risky ones are not so great.
First, good editing is good writing. Be prepared to go through a lot of drafts. Do not worry if your first draft is too long. There will always be things to cut. Do not get too attached to your first idea. Often you will not be able to figure out how something will sound until you write it first. You can always change it if it does not seem quite right.
Get feedback, but not too much feedback. Asking 10 people to read it may leave you confused. In the end, it needs to be your voice coming through. Listen to advice when a trusted reader tells you that something seems off. It will hit some medical school admissions committee members the same way.
Your main resource for feedback on your personal statement will be your assigned premedical tutor (non-resident or resident) in your house. If you are feeling stuck with the writing process or just want more general feedback, the writing center at Harvard can also be a valuable resource.
Here are some general issues to think about as you start to write:
- How do you know that you want to be a doctor? How have you demonstrated this interest?
- How has your interest in medicine changed and developed over time?
- How did you overcome your doubts?
- Why medicine and not other career fields, such as teaching, science, public health, nursing, etc.?
- Have you faced any obstacles in your life (for example, economic, familial, or physical)? How did you handle these?
- How have you been influenced by certain events and people?
- Recall a time when you had a positive impact on another person. How did you and the person change as a result?
- What were major turning points in your life?
- What do you want the committee to know that is not apparent elsewhere?
- Use a concrete anecdote or experience to draw the reader in; perhaps circle back to it at the end to create bookends.
- Approach the essay as a chance to share the arc of your journey to this point.
- Consider whether to discuss fluctuations in performance, hardship affecting academic record, and/or a personal or medical situation.
- Remember that if you write something in your personal statement, you may be asked about it in an interview. If you do not wish to speak about it in an interview, do not write it here.
Here are some specific “Do’s” for writing the personal statement.
- Tell a story.
- Keep it interesting by using specific examples and anecdotes.
- Provide information, insight, or a perspective that cannot be found elsewhere in your application.
- Describe experiences in terms of what they mean to you and what you learned.
- Make sure the reader learns about you, not just what you did.
- Use strong action verbs and vivid images; paint a picture.
- Be concise. Make sure every sentence needs to be there.
- Describe what you learned in your research, not the details of the specific research project (unless writing the MD/PhD essay).
- Allow plenty of time to write, revise, reflect, and revise some more. Step away often so you can revisit your essay with fresh eyes.
- Proofread. Spell checking will not catch everything! Then, proofread again and get someone else to do the same. Read the essay out loud to catch typos your eyes may have missed.
Here are some “Don’ts” for the essay.
- Just list or summarize your activities. This is not a resume (and your activities are included in their own section).
- Try to impress the reader with the use of overly flowery or erudite language.
- Directly tellthe reader that you are compassionate, motivated, intelligent, curious, dedicated, unique, or different than most candidates (“Show don’t tell”).
- Focus only on childhood or high school experiences.
- Use slang or forced analogies.
- Lecture the reader, e.g., on what’s wrong with medicine, what doctors should be like.
- Make excuses for poor grades.
- Begin every sentence or paragraph with “I”.
- Overwork the essay to the point where you lose your own voice.
- Use generalizations and clichés.
- Follow the advice of too many people.
- Try to share everything there is to know about you.
- 2. Activity descriptions—You are allowed up to 15 activities in this section and for each activity you are allowed 700 characters to describe the experience. This amounts to about 5 or 6 sentences. Some activities will not require that much description. From the AMCAS 2018 manual (accessed via aamc.org): “Medical schools receive all text entry responses as plain text. This means that formatting options such as bulleted lists, indented paragraphs, and bold/italic fonts do not appear for reviewers.” Because of this formatting issue and just for the ease of the reader, it is preferable to write these descriptions in sentences rather than using a resume style of writing.
- 3. Most meaningful activity—You are allowed to designate three of your activities as “most meaningful.” For these three, you will write the 700 character description, but then are allowed to write an additional 1325 characters to discuss why it was most meaningful. Again, this should be in sentences and should be error free. This may give you an opportunity to speak about an experience in detail that is not part of your personal statement.
WHAT SOME PEOPLE WRITE FOR THE AMCAS APPLICATION
We will first focus very briefly on the parts that only some people write.
- 1. Institutional Action explanation—You are required to disclose certain kinds of institutional action that may have occurred in your academic career. If this has been the case for you, we strongly advise you to make an appointment with your Academic Dean and with an OCS Premedical/Health Careers Adviser to discuss the situation and strongly advise you to ask for advice regarding this explanation. Others will answer “no” and write nothing here.
- 2. Disadvantaged status explanation—If you believe you grew up in a situation that could be described as disadvantaged, you are allowed to explain this. If you are unsure if you qualify, this is also a good topic for an advising conversation. Again, we suggest letting someone at OCS or in your house team review this explanation.
- 3. MD/PhD essays—Candidates for combined MD/PhD programs are required to write two additional essays. You can get advice from OCS, your house tutor team or your research mentors as you write these essays. The first focuses on why you want to get the combined degree. The second, much longer essay, focuses on your research experiences, including your supervisor, the nature of the problem studied, and your contribution to the project. These essays are sent only to the schools where you select the MD/PhD option.
BEYOND THE AMCAS SECONDARY APPLICATIONS
Some schools screen applicants prior to sending secondary applications but most do not. Secondary applications will begin coming as soon as your AMCAS application is verified and sent to schools. A few may come even earlier. You should make sure you set aside time to do these applications promptly and efficiently in the summer. Ideally, plan to turn each one around within 10-14 days. They pile up otherwise. Error free documents are critical, so if you have to hold on to it an extra day to check it, then you should do so. You need to be able to check your email virtually every day in the summer. Check your spam folder every day.
Part 2: How to Begin (Goal: Engage the Reader)
Before you begin to write, I recommend that you:
- Develop a list of qualities you want to demonstrate and
- Think of events or situations that highlight these qualities
Then, you should write about one of these events or situations in a way that demonstrates these qualities and captures the reader’s attention.
1. List Your Greatest Qualities
To answer the personal statement prompt more easily, focus again on the question of what you want admissions committees to know about you beyond your numbers and achievements.
I’m not talking about your hobbies (e.g., “I followed Taylor Swift to every concert she performed in the US during this past year”), although you could certainly point to aspects of your lifestyle in your essay to make your point.
Instead, I’m talking about which of your qualities–character, personality traits, attitudes–you want to demonstrate. Examples include:
- Extraordinary compassion
- Willingness to learn
- Great listening skills
- And so on
If you have difficulty thinking of your great qualities (many students do), ask family members or close friends what you’re good at and why they like you; that will take care of things :)
Finally, choose the two or three qualities that you want to focus on in your personal statement. Let’s use compassion and knowledge-seeking as the foundational qualities of an original example for this article.
(Note: I cannot overstate how important it is to think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your personal statement before choosing a situation or event to write about. Students who decide on an event or situation first usually struggle to fit in their qualities within the confines of their story. On the other hand, students who choose the qualities they want to convey first are easily able to demonstrate them because the event or situation they settle on naturally highlights these qualities.)
2. When or Where Have You Demonstrated These Qualities?
Now that I’m off my soapbox and you’ve chosen qualities to highlight, it’s time to list any event(s) or setting(s) where you’ve demonstrated them.
I should explicitly mention that this event or setting doesn't need to come from a clinical (e.g., shadowing a physician, interacting with a young adult patient at a cancer center, working with children in an international clinic) or research experience (e.g., making a finding in cancer research), although it’s OK if it involves an extracurricular activity directly related to medicine.
In fact, since most students start their essays by describing clinical or research experiences, starting off with something else–travel (e.g., a camping trip in Yellowstone), volunteering (e.g., building homes in New Orleans), family (e.g., spending time with and learning from your elderly and ill grandmother back home in New Hampshire), work (e.g., helping out at your parents’ donut shop)–will make you immediately stand out.
Let’s start with the example of building homes in New Orleans. Why? Because we could easily demonstrate compassion and knowledge-seeking through this experience. Notice how the qualities we select can choose the story for us?
3. Describe Your Event as a Story
Here’s where the art of writing a great personal statement really comes in.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays, most of which are very cliché or dry. Therefore, it’s critical that you stand out by engaging the reader from the very beginning.
By far the best way to capture admissions officers early is by developing a story at the start of your essay about the event or situation you chose in Step 2.
In a previous article, I wrote about the three critical elements for writing a great admissions essay story: 1) a compelling character, 2) a relatable plot, and 3) authenticity)
However, I want to go one step beyond that article and provide an actual example of how the same event can be written in a routine vs. compelling way. That way, you can avoid the common pitfalls of typical personal statements and write a standout one.
One of my most eye-opening experiences came when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans during the summer months of 2014. Up to that point, I had only heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to volunteer, it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.
New Orleans was hot and humid during the summer months of 2014–no surprise there. However, for a native Oregonian like me, waking up to 90-degree and 85% humidity days initially seemed like too much to bear. That was until I reflected on the fact that my temporary discomfort was minute in contrast to the destruction of communities and emotional pounding experienced by the people of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people was as much about lifting spirits as making physical improvements.
Many people may feel the Routine example is pretty good. Upon closer look, however, it seems that:
- The focus is as much on New Orleanians as the applicant
- The story is not particularly relatable (unless the reader had also volunteered there)
- There isn’t much support for the writer actually being touched by the people there
On the other hand, the Compelling example:
- Keeps the spotlight on the applicant throughout (e.g., references being from Oregon, discusses her reflections, interacting with Jermaine)
- Has a relatable plot (e.g., temporary discomfort, changing perspectives)
- Is authentic (e.g., provides an example of how she lifted spirits)
(You can find yet another example of a typical vs. standout admissions essay introduction to engage readers in this earlier post.)
4. Demonstrate Your Qualities
(Note: This section applies to all aspects of your essay.)
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given for writing personal statements, but further guidance or examples are rarely provided to demonstrate what it looks like when done well.
This is unfortunate because the best way to understand how standout personal statements demonstrate qualities through an engaging story is by reading two examples of the same situation: one that “tells” about a quality, and another that “shows” a quality.
Let’s take a look at the last sentence of each story example I provided in the previous section to better understand this distinction.
Telling (from Routine story)
“…it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.”
Showing (from Compelling story)
“…actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people…”
Notice how the second example demonstrates compassion without ever mentioning the word "compassion" (hence no bolded words)?
Moreover, the same sentence demonstrates knowledge-seeking: “Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals...”)
That’s what you’re going for.
Think about it. Who do you consider to be more kind:
- A person who says, “I’m really nice!”; or
- A person who you've seen do nice things for others?
Clearly, the second person will be seen as more kind, even if there's no difference between their levels of kindness.
Therefore, by demonstrating your qualities, you will look better to admissions committees, and also seem more authentic.