What to Include AND NOT INCLUDE In Your AMCAS Personal Statement

Cartoon of a female medical school applicant surrounded by thought bubbles representing clinical experience, lab work, excellent grades, leadership, and volunteering with the homeless

         As the May 2nd AMCAS release date approaches, many applicants have begun planning their applications and personal statements. After nearly 20 years of helping people get into top medical schools, I have seen, over and over, how the best applications feature a focused personal statement complemented by Work/Activities sections that provide breadth and complementarity. This is a tricky task, and in putting together your AMCAS application package, it’s crucial to understand the difference between “box-checking” and “ differentiators.” All applicants will, no doubt, possess the necessary prerequisites, but how you present these alongside your unique experiences can set you apart in the competitive medical school admissions process.

Understanding “Box-Checking”

Box-checking activities are essential components of any medical school application. These are the basic qualifications that admissions committees expect every applicant to possess. Generally, these include:

  • Clinical Experience/Exposure: Demonstrating hands-on patient interaction and an understanding of the healthcare environment.
  • Sufficient Scientific Training: Evidence of rigorous scientific education, typically highlighted by coursework and lab experiences.
  • Service-Mindedness: Engagement in activities that show a commitment to helping others, often through volunteering or community service.
  • Leadership: Doctors are leaders of healthcare teams, so the ability to lead is crucial. Thus, admissions committees prize situations (academic, athletic, personal, professional) that demonstrate leadership.

While these elements are critical, they do not usually distinguish one candidate from another because almost all applicants will meet these criteria.


The Role of Differentiators

Your application’s most precious “real estate”—particularly your personal statement—should be dedicated to what makes your journey to medicine unique. The easy rule of thumb is that “the personal statement is about depth; everything else is about breadth.” That is, use your personal statement to tell 1-3 compelling stories, but tell them well and with relevant detail. These differentiators are what make your application memorable and can significantly enhance your appeal to an admissions committee.

What kinds of things work well as differentiators?


Identifying Your Unique Elements

First, it’s important to note that every candidate will have different differentiators, depending on their interests, backgrounds, and career goals. For example:

  • MD/PhD Candidates: If you’re aiming for a dual-degree program, emphasizing your research experience and long-term investigative goals could be your differentiator.
  • Aspiring Medical Researchers: Highlight any unique research projects, particularly those where you played a pivotal role or contributed to meaningful outcomes.
  • Leaders in Healthcare: If you’ve held significant leadership roles, either in healthcare settings or in community organizations, these experiences showcase your potential to lead in the medical field. Don’t be afraid to feature something that is ostensibly non-medical. Working on Capitol Hill, doing GOTV, your time as an elite NCAA athlete… these can all be tied into a narrative that supports your medical school aspirations.


Strategic Placement of Information

It’s essential to strategically place information about box-checking and differentiators across different parts of your application:


  • Personal Statement: This should be primarily reserved for telling your unique story. How have your experiences and ambitions shaped your desire to pursue medicine? Focus on moments that highlight your unique insights, challenges overcome, and personal growth. Don’t weigh your essay down with box-checking. Remember, you’ll have additional chances to show your full range of accomplishments, BUT the best way to ensure that the reader doesn’t give your W/A, reccos, etc. a full reading is to write a boring and rote personal statement. On the other hand, if your reader’s interest is piqued, then they’ll really dig into all parts of your application.
  • Work & Activities Section (AMCAS): Utilize this section to detail your box-checking activities. Use the “Most Significant” activity descriptions to expand on experiences that have prepared you for medical school but are more common among applicants.
  • Secondary Essays: These can also be a valuable space to discuss aspects of your candidacy that you didn’t explore fully in your personal statement, including additional differentiators or significant box-checking activities. That said, beware: don’t leave important / featured parts of your life / application for your secondaries for two reasons: (1) not every school will ask you a question that allows you to bring up this important accomplishment, and (2) if something is a needle-mover, don’t put it in a part of your application that might not come (because you don’t a secondary) or that will be so late in your package that your reader is already sort of made up their mind.


Why Differentiators Matter More Than Ever


Medical schools increasingly value well-rounded candidates who bring diverse perspectives and skills to their programs. Indeed, it’s such a point of emphasis that the Work/Activities section has a new Social Justice and Advocacy experience type. This shift means that admissions committees are looking for more than just academic and clinical excellence; they want individuals who can contribute uniquely to the medical community through:

  • Policy Work and Public Health: Experience in these areas can demonstrate an understanding of the broader factors that impact healthcare systems and patient care.
  • Innovative Research or Unique Clinical Experiences: Especially those that break new ground or address significant challenges in medicine.
  • Personal Stories: Compelling personal narratives that connect your life experiences to your medical aspirations can be powerful differentiators.


Crafting Your Narrative

When writing your personal statement, consider where your narrative fits best. If your experience is common, such as working in a lab doing routine tasks, it might be better placed in the AMCAS section, unless there is a compelling story or unique challenge associated with it. Always aim to tell a story that only you can tell, focusing on what sets you apart from the crowd.


While box-checking is necessary, it’s not sufficient for standing out in a pool of highly qualified applicants. Consider your application as a holistic, complementary package and that each section does something different for you. Your differentiators are what imbue your application with color and personality, making you memorable to the admissions committee, so make sure to feature them prominently. As you prepare your application, carefully consider how to balance these elements to present a compelling picture of who you are and what you will bring to the field of medicine. Remember, in the competitive arena of medical school admissions, it’s not just about checking the boxes—it’s about drawing outside of them.

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top medical schools. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Ten Tips for Your Medical School Secondaries

With your MCAT, personal statement, Work & Activities, and letters of recommendation all lined up, it’s time to start on your secondary application essays. Here are eleven tips for getting the most from your secondary essays.

  1. Get a head start. Your calendar is going to get pretty crowded, so begin as early as you can. Fortunately, most schools use the same essay from year to year, so even if you’ve not yet received the prompts, you can at least begin some light brainstorming, outlining, and rough-draft writing for the secondary essays you anticipate getting.
  2. View your secondaries as complementary. Think of your application holistically. Your personal statement provides your core theme and depth on a few moments and accomplishments. Your Work & Activities provide breadth and some additional depth on a few “most significant” items. Then, your secondaries fill out the application while emphasizing how your strengths, interests, and background align with what the school offers and values. As such, don’t use these secondaries to repeat information at length that you’ve already covered well elsewhere. A good way to think about it is that your AMCAS personal statement is your best case for admission, but your secondaries should emphasize your next best arguments. For instance, if you feel your core argument is “clinical experience and extensive public health work,” then your AMCAS personal statement should focus on that in-depth. Then, in your secondaries, you might also highlight another strength or experience, such as your scientific research.
  3. Carefully follow the directions. Be careful to follow the medical school’s word restrictions, formatting specifications, and any other instructions.
  4. Create unique essays for every school. I know you’re going to write A TON of essays. And, you can repurpose some text where it makes sense. But, don’t shoehorn text into an essay that doesn’t quite fit just because you want to avoid some work. The main idea behind a secondary essay is to focus on aligning your strengths as an applicant with the school’s culture and values. This requires customization. Find out the aims and values of the medical schools to which you are applying, and then use your essays to show how you share those ideals.
  5. Provide concrete instances to support your arguments. Use particular stories and examples to explain your experiences and accomplishments rather than making generalizations. Your essay will become more interesting and memorable as a result.
  6. Steer clear of clichés and overused words. Avoid using overused words and clichés in your writings since they may make them look generic. Your essays should be distinctive and genuine.
  7. Carefully proofread and edit. To guarantee that your writings are devoid of typos, grammatical errors, and other faults, be sure you proofread and edit them thoroughly. You should be just as fussy and meticulous about your secondary essays as you were about your primary AMCAS essay.
  8. Show, don’t tell. To demonstrate your experiences and accomplishments rather than merely recounting them, use vivid language and specific facts. This can make your writing more compelling and interesting.
  9. Be true to yourself. Write about subjects that are personal and significant to you since medical schools are seeking applicants who are real and authentic.
  10. Write clearly and concisely. Be as plain and succinct as possible in your writing, and avoid using jargon or too complicated terminology. Be sure to end your essay by returning to your introduction.



  1. Request input from others. Think about inviting dependable mentors, family members, or friends to read and comment on your essays. This might assist you in identifying areas for development and ensuring the strongest possible essays. BUT, make sure that you are thoughtful and assertive in weighing every piece of advice.


For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top medical schools. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.



Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). “Writing Your AMCAS Personal Comments Essay.” https://students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/article/writing-your-amcas-personal-comments-essay/


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