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Pwning the Personal Statement Part II: Writing the thing

This article is a continuation of Pwning the Personal Statement Part I: Intro and Free Essay Reviews!

Starting the essay can be extremely stressful and is often the hardest part of making a great personal statement (PS).  Students often want to write the essay by having inspiration inform structure.  This usually results in staring at a blank Word document for hours!  It’s far more efficient to have a structure over which you can lather inspiration.  With that, let’s lay out a structural approach to your PS.

1. Brainstorm: Create an Experience Map

You don’t have to be ultra-creative here.  Start off with a chronological list of notable accomplishments and experiences you’ve had in the last 5-8 years.  These can include volunteering at the hospital, doing research, and running marathons – anything you think could even be remotely relevant.  Ask for help from close family and friends – they’ll often remember events that you might have forgotten.  Quicktip: Making your list chronological will help ensure you get it all down!  Next to each item, write a short blurb about what you gained or what it tells about you as a person.  Here’s an example:

Research in pediatrics lab – displayed independence because I was given my own project.  Developed a love for science.

It’s as easy as that.  Your PS won’t include all of your experiences, just the select few you later choose to develop.  For now, this map will help you start to see the story you want to craft.  Did you realize you wanted to become a doctor ever since you shadowed that surgeon?  What subsequent experiences did you have that inspired that dream, developed its growth, and prepared you for this next step in medicine?  Your story should start to become visible at this point.

2. Word Vomit Time

This step is key and almost no one follows it.  It’s a huge benefit in writing essays and will relieve you of that writer’s block.  A lot of this probably won’t make it into your final essay but it will get you warmed up and focused.  Take a look at your experience map and just start writing whatever comes to mind.  Start with a brief introduction, jump into your examples, and conclude with a simple conclusion.  This word dump can be garbage – it doesn’t matter.

Here’s why: this process forces you to just write what’s on your mind and get your thoughts down in paragraph format.  It will reveal to you what you find important to discuss.  The editing process will allow you to clear things up, change examples around, etc.  Editing is ALWAYS easier than starting an essay.  That is why we heavily recommend you to just get your thoughts down first.

Yes, your essay might read “I want to be a doctor.  I love people and what to help them.”  Again, this can all be fixed up later with more poignant language.  If you at least get it started, you will have completed the hardest part of essay writing, all in probably under a couple hours.

3. Edit Like Mad!

We’ll be going in depth into this in Part III of this series.

4. Keep in mind…

While writing the PS, keep the following items in mind.  They should help you gather your thoughts and avoid common pitfalls in personal statement writing.

Recent examples trump old ones, but within reason.

Don’t talk about something that happened last week for the sake of having something recent, but don’t use something from 2nd grade unless it’s just there as background.  Your essay should show maturity; you’re going to do that by introspecitvely examining your major accomplishments in recent years, showing your utmost commitment to the field of medicine.

¼ of your content is answering the question “What happened”; ¾ is answering the question “Why does it matter”

Generic advice you’ll find online tells you to “show not tell” and to “not list chronologies”.  What they leave out is that your “awesome example” is probably pretty lame on its own.  Adcoms have likely read hundreds of essays which use the same examples you did.  Personal hardship/illness, global health work, research, they’ve read it all.

The only way to make your example unique is to actually talk about its impact on you and your desire to be a physician.  Explain what you learned from it and its overall value and why it proves that you have a deep passion for medicine.  Prove that you didn’t just get inspired; you took action and did something with your inspiration.

Don’t write like you talk

“I always used to think essays were best written as a conversation because I thought it literally enabled my writing to move mountains with meaning.”

Did you catch all the things wrong with that sentence?

1. “Always.” …really?  Did I think that way when I was five years old?  No.  Be clear about what you mean.  Avoid expletives and superlatives.
2. “Literally.” The writing literally moved mountains?  No, it didn’t.  Using “literally” or other hyperbole to illustrate a metaphor destroys your credibility.
3. “Move mountains.” Cliché.  ‘nuff said.
4. Avoid alliteration and consonance unless it actually makes the sentence sound nice and it’s a good sentence.  Don’t artificially inject a poetic or eloquent voice if it’s not who you really are.  Readers can tell, and it risks sounding cheesy.
5. This list is not exhaustive.  Always remember: be clear about what you are trying to say and say nothing more.
6. You have limited space so make it count.  For your Word Vomit, just throw it out there and don’t worry about these things.  But your second pass over it should already start cutting out anything that isn’t crucial to your story.

Be mature. Don’t blame others or yourself, complain, or regret anything.

There are few things more annoying to read than someone complaining or bringing up a serious weakness and then grasping at straws to justify it.  Don’t write about anything you aren’t prepared to be grilled about in your interview… which means this is not the time for a tell-all.  If you do have regrets and they have to be in your essay, make sure you can demonstrate maturity and growth as a result of the experience.  For example: If you hated doing research, at least you can discuss that you received an excellent opportunity to see academia first-hand and interact with scientists at the cutting edge of their medical field.

Don’t spin.

If you made a mistake and learned from it, admit that you made a mistake.  It will show maturity and that you learned from your past experiences – both very important qualities in an applicant.

Alright, that’s it for Part II!

In Part III, we cover the editing process: Pwning the Personal Statement Part IIIA: Editing.  So go ahead – go work on some word vomit and keep the above tips in mind!  See you next time!

P.S. Don’t send us your word vomit!  We’ll ask for submissions again after Part III!  (Don’t know what we’re talking about?  Check out Pwning the Personal Statement Part I: Intro and Free Essay Reviews!

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