Writing a Personal Statement for Health Professions Applications

Why is the personal statement important to your application?

The personal statement is your first chance to provide health profession school committees with subjective information about your qualifications and your reasons for choosing a particular career. In other words, the personal statement is your initial opportunity to present yourself as an interesting and unique applicant who deserves a closer look.

What should be included in a personal statement?

Most health profession school applications are rather vague in their instructions regarding the contents of the personal statement. Before you sit down to write, think about what kind of information the application requests and decide what information about yourself you want the admissions committee to be aware of that is not fully described elsewhere in the application. This usually means there will be overlap with information in the application but it will be presented in a different way.

Admissions officers must read countless applications and essays in a fairly short time and, as a result, many readers skim personal statements. Therefore, you should be succinct and concise (but not too brief) and use key words and action verbs throughout your statement. For this same reason, you should try to capture your reader's attention by describing any out-of-the-ordinary and interesting things you have done.

  • Although there is no "right way" to write a personal statement, you may wish to describe your reasons for wanting to study medicine/dentistry/optometry (etc.) as well as your experiences and accomplishments in that area. When discussing your motives for wanting to attend a health profession school, be specific. For example, many medical school applicants cite their love of people and interest in science as their primary motives for wanting to go medical school. These, of course, are good reasons but try to be creative in your statement and avoid over-used phrases such as "I have always liked to help people." Rather than saying "I am compassionate and mature," you may wish to cite a particular experience or situation which reveals that quality.
  • When discussing particular experiences, you may want to include when and where you worked (paid, volunteer or research settings) as well as the degree of responsibility you assumed. This information often appears elsewhere on the application and so you should mention it again only if you can elaborate and use it to provide new information about yourself. Be sure to include enough detail so that the reader can picture you in your setting and can refer back to your application for a time frame, location, etc. For example,

Weak: "While working as a volunteer in a hospital, I found I enjoyed working with people"

Better: "While volunteering in the emergency room at Sutter Davis hospital, I found I particularly enjoyed being able to provide emotional support to trauma patients."

  • Try not to "laundry list" activities, particularly those of a clinical nature. Admissions Committee members are usually health care professionals themselves and they already know how health care is delivered and what is involved in routine procedures and assignments. It is acceptable to present the general idea of your basic duties, but don't waste precious space on a long list which does not add significant information about you.
  • When discussing your health-related experience and/or community service, you should concentrate on activities you were involved in during your college years. High school and childhood experiences may help to convey a long-term commitment to a particular goal, but this should be touched on only briefly (if at all). If your personal history is unusual, particularly if you have overcome adversity, you should discuss it in your personal statement. You may also want to explain any situation(s) which have affected your academic performance (e.g. illness, personal upheaval) if you feel your GPA and/or test scores don't reflect your true academic ability. You may briefly discuss seemingly irrelevant extracurricular activities (e.g. sports, artistic and musical endeavors) provided that you can demonstrate their relevance to your personal growth. Many such activities are viewed very favorably by admissions committees since success in these areas usually requires dedication, perseverance, self-discipline and skillful interactions with other people.Don't forget to mention any awards you have received and any publications you have been credited with as a result of research or other contributions. Toot your own horn!

Getting started...

  1. Make a list of all the information you might like the admissions committee to have about you including such things as (a) your personal qualities, (b) your reasons for wanting to pursue the career you have chosen and (c) how you have prepared yourself for health profession school.Organize the items on your list into groups of ideas which seem to fit together naturally.
  2. Demonstrate your good qualities and skills through the experience you have had.
  3. Write a rough draft of any length to begin with; it is much easier to cut out material than to add. Many people find it easier to write the body of the essay first, returning to complete the (brief) introduction and conclusion later. An attention-grabbing introduction can be very effective but it is not essential. The ideal conclusion should summarize your special qualities and qualifications in a sentence or two although some writers have successfully omitted a conclusion. You may want to schedule an appointment with an advisor to go over your draft at this stage.

Some pointers for polishing your personal statement

  • Organize your ideas logically.  Many personal statements are organized chronologically which is convenient and effective for writers and readers alike. Other personal statements are organized by topic (e.g. history, clinical experience, community service, academic background) or by theme or thesis (e.g. what will make a good physician in the year 2000 and how/why you would be that physician). Whatever style you choose, it is vital that you provide the reader with some spatial and temporal reference points so that s/he does not have to spend a great deal of time sorting out your information. Make statements that only you can make.
  • Avoid generalizations and third-person sentences that anyone can make. Use the first person (yes, you can say "I"!) and use concrete examples to illustrate your thought.

Weak: "It is important to be a well-organized person."

Better: "While working as an orderly 40 hours per week at San Francisco General, I caught a glimpse of the physically and emotionally demanding duties required of a surgical resident. This schedule has required me to be organized and efficient."

  • Avoid over-sentimentality (gush and mush!)  An emotional appeal to the reader is not convincing evidence of a logical, well-reasoned statement.

Weak: "I have wanted to be a veterinarian since I was ten years old and our family dog, Fluffy, lay dying after being run over by a car. I knew then that I wanted to be in a position to do something to help sick and injured animals rather than to stand by helplessly. For this reason I chose to study veterinary medicine."

Better: Avoid this type of statement altogether because, although it may be true, it detracts from the professional image you are trying to present.

  • Turn negatives into positives. If you find yourself making negative statements about your background or experiences, think about what positive benefits you might have had from them. There is a fine line between making excuses for negative aspects of your record, and providing a positive explanation for them.

Weak: "I would have made better grades in my science courses during my freshman year, but my personal problems made it impossible for me to concentrate on my studies."

Better: "My grades during my freshman year at UC Davis suffered as a result of my concern for my father during his serious illness; however, I gained many valuable insights into my own feelings about terminal illness. From this experience, I gained a strong sense of the needs of both the patient and his family during such trying times."

  • Set the proper tone for your statement.  Remember that this is your "marketing tool" and you should take full advantage of this opportunity to sell yourself by filling the entire allowed space with your statement. Unlike a richly worded essay that you might write for English class, your personal statement should be succinct, objective, informative and professional in tone. Avoid the use of slang and/or sentences or phrases which give a conversational or chatty tone to your essay. In general, avoid criticism so that you don't run the risk of offending your readers. You are writing for professionals, so be professional in your choice of words.
  • Check your statement for style and grammar.  Vary your sentence structure from time to time in order to keep the reader interested. Avoid starting every paragraph the same way (e.g. "I..."). Do not try to be clever or humorous unless you are absolutely certain you can pull it off with finesse. An application to a health profession school is serious business.Use the active voice! You are writing a personal statement, so put the spotlight on you rather than on someone or something else.

Weak: "I was employed by the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital to assist..."

Better: "I assisted in anesthesia of laboratory animals at the VMTH..."

  • Use action-packed, descriptive verbs and be careful not to switch tenses.
  • Watch for sentence fragments, run-on sentences and dangling phrases or ideas.When using an acronym, give the entire name when it first appears followed by the acronym in parentheses: e.g. University of California, Davis Medical Center (UCDMC). Also UC Davis is the official acronym for this campus (not UCD).
  • Precisely follow any directions/prompts given for the personal statement and proof your essay very carefully. A sloppy personal statement says a lot about an applicant--and none of it is positive!