Ten Mistakes to Avoid in Your Medical School Personal Essay

A cartoon of a stressed-out student sitting at a cluttered desk with a laptop, books, papers, and a coffee cup, showing a worried expression with a thought bubble containing 5300 characters, a doctor, a hospital, and a ticking clock.
5300 Characters Can Determine Your Life!

5300 characters. That’s all you have. After years spent taking demanding prerequisites, stuffing your CV full of volunteer, research, and clinical experiences, and studying for months for the MCAT, you have 5300 characters -about 700 words- to tell the admissions committee why they should take you. No pressure.

In our 18 years of helping clients build compelling personal statements for medical school, we have seen people make just about every mistake you can imagine. Sometimes people make amazing new ones, but mostly they tend to make the same ones that most of their fellow applicants make. Avoiding these mistakes can help you create a stronger, more effective personal statement. Here are some typical errors and advice on how to avoid them:

1. Being Too Generic

One of the most common mistakes is writing a generic personal statement that could apply to any applicant. Admissions committees read thousands of essays, so it’s essential to make yours stand out. Avoid clichés and broad statements like “I want to help people” or “I have always been passionate about medicine.”

Don’t open with a bedside story about the night your grandma died and please avoid, at all costs, the phrase “tears in her eyes…” Yes, you do need to provide specific examples and personal anecdotes that highlight your unique journey and motivations, but do it in a way that features how you really felt and acted, and not how you think the AdCom wants to see you or how you imagine the scene might play out in a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.

  1. Focusing Too Much on Others

    While it’s important to acknowledge the influence of mentors, family members, or patients, your personal statement should primarily focus on you. Thus the “personal” in “personal statement.” Avoid spending too much time discussing other people’s achievements or stories. Admissions committees want to learn about your experiences, qualities, and aspirations. Make sure your essay centers on your journey and how it has prepared you for a career in medicine.

It’s fine if you weren’t the MVP of the team or the leader of the group. Focus on what you DID do, the role you played, and what it taught you.

  1. Listing Experiences Without Reflection

    A great personal statement is far more than just a narrative CV. Simply listing your experiences and accomplishments is not enough. Admissions committees are looking for reflection and insight. Explain the significance of each experience and how it has shaped your decision to pursue medicine. Discuss the skills and lessons you have gained and how they have prepared you for medical school and a medical career.

A good rule of thumb is to “tell fewer stories better.” Instead of stuffing six stories into your essay, instead focus on two or three. Remember, you have your Work & Activities section and secondary essays to cover additional ground.

  1. Overemphasizing Academic Achievements

    While academic achievements are important, your personal statement should provide a holistic view of who you are. Avoid focusing solely on your academic successes. Highlight your extracurricular activities, volunteer work, research, clinical experiences, and personal interests. This approach demonstrates that you are a well-rounded individual with diverse experiences and skills.

Typically, you don’t even mention your grades or academic awards in a personal statement. The committee will already have that data, so no need to rehash it.

5. Neglecting to Address Motivations

Your essay needs, at some point, to answer the “why medicine?” question. Admissions committees want to understand why you are passionate about medicine and what drives you to pursue this challenging career. Failing to clearly articulate your motivations is a common mistake. Reflect on the experiences and values that have led you to this path and explain them compellingly. This clarity helps the committee see your genuine commitment to the field.

Importantly, if you have extensive experience within a field such as nursing or public health and you are looking to transition into a medical career, you need to make sure that your “why medicine?” also covers the “why not just keep working within public health?”

  1. Writing a Chronological Essay

    Your personal statement doesn’t HAVE TO be chronological. Avoid simply recounting your life story in order. Instead, focus on a few key experiences that have been pivotal in your decision to pursue medicine. Use these experiences to illustrate your qualities, motivations, and readiness for medical school. A thematic approach can make your essay more engaging and impactful. And, if done well, opening a bit further forward, then in your second paragraph doing a “soft reset” and telling your full story can be really effective.

    7. Using Complex Language and Jargon

    While it’s important to write professionally, using overly complex language or medical jargon can make your essay difficult to read. It also feels stiff and inhuman at a moment when you are trying to establish a sense of connection with your reader. Aim for clarity and simplicity. Write in a way that is accessible to a broad audience, including those who may not have a medical background. Clear and concise writing is more effective and demonstrates strong communication skills.

    8. Failing to Show Personal Growth

    Medical schools are looking for applicants who demonstrate personal growth and the ability to learn from experiences. Failing to show this growth is a missed opportunity. Reflect on the challenges you have faced and how you have overcome them. Discuss what you have learned from your experiences and how they have prepared you for a career in medicine. This reflection shows maturity and resilience.

    9. Not Proofreading Carefully

    Typos, grammatical errors, and awkward phrasing can detract from the quality of your personal statement. Not proofreading carefully is a common mistake that can be easily avoided. After writing your essay, take the time to proofread it multiple times.

  1. Not getting outside help.

Consider seeking feedback from mentors, peers, or professional consultants to catch any errors you might have missed. A polished, error-free essay reflects your attention to detail and professionalism. Obviously, this is something we can help you with at Gurufi.com, but if you cannot afford outside services, then lean on people whose writing you trust and also see what resources your school provides, as many will help former graduates even some years after they leave.

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.

How to Build Powerful Med School Secondaries

A four-panel cartoon illustrating the journey of a medical school applicant. In the first panel, a weary student stands at the start of a long, winding path carrying a heavy backpack filled with books, a laptop, and papers. In the second panel, the student, looking even more exhausted, reaches a point where the path splits into multiple smaller paths. In the third panel, the student sits on a rock, looking at a map while a mentor figure offers a bottle and smiles encouragingly. In the fourth panel, the student appears confident and focused, writing on a laptop with papers spread out around them.
The journey of a medical school applicant: From initial preparations to mastering secondary essays, with guidance and perseverance leading to success.

Here at Gurufi, we spend much of the late summer and early fall working with hundreds of clients to perfect their medical school secondaries. In my experience, at this point, applicants are quite exhausted by the immense work it takes to get to this point: studying for and taking the MCAT, getting letters of rec, completing your prerequisite courses, supplementing your clinical experience, completing the AMCAS, and ironing out your personal statement and Word & Activities sections. Now, you must complete a dozen or more additional school-specific essays. This naturally leads people to wonder how they can complement their existing materials in ways that maximize the value and impact of their secondaries. This post seeks to help you craft powerful secondary essays.

Secondary essays provide an opportunity to showcase your unique qualities, experiences, and motivations that make you a suitable candidate a specific medical school. Crafting effective secondary essays requires thoughtful reflection and a strategic approach. Here’s how to respond to common secondary essay prompts and tailor your responses for different schools:

1. Understand the Purpose of Secondary Essays

Secondary essays allow admissions committees to learn more about you beyond your primary application. Moreover, because the admission committees of particular schools craft these essays, they reflect questions that the AdCom obviously cares about. They are designed to assess your fit for the specific program, your alignment with the school’s values, and your readiness for the challenges of medical school. Understanding this purpose will help you craft essays that effectively convey your qualifications and aspirations.

2. Research Each School Thoroughly

Before writing your secondary essays, conduct thorough research on each medical school you are applying to. Understand their mission, values, curriculum, and unique features. Familiarize yourself with their specific programs, faculty, research opportunities, and community involvement. Talk to people at the school, including both faculty and staff if you can. This research will enable you to tailor your responses to align with the school’s specific expectations and culture.

3. Address Common Secondary Essay Prompts

While each school may have unique prompts, some common themes often appear in secondary essays. Here are strategies for responding to these common prompts:

a. Why This School?

This prompt asks you to explain why you are interested in attending that particular medical school. Be specific and detailed in your response. Highlight aspects of the program that resonate with your career goals and interests. Mention unique opportunities, such as specific research programs, clinical experiences, or community service initiatives, that make the school a good fit for you. Demonstrating a genuine interest and thorough knowledge of the school will strengthen your response.

One thing to beware of is writing a “school brochure” where you simply list a series of things that you like about the school. This doesn’t show much more than that you have access to Google. If you can explain in depth, using examples from your past, a few things really well, that is much better than mentioning a bunch of things. As with personal statements, saying one or two things really well is better than saying a bunch of things poorly.

b. Describe a Challenge You’ve Overcome

This prompt seeks to understand your resilience and problem-solving abilities. Choose a significant challenge you have faced, either personally or professionally. Describe the context, the actions you took to address the challenge, and the lessons you learned from the experience. Focus on how the experience has prepared you for the rigors of medical school and a career in medicine.

c. Diversity and Inclusion

Many medical schools value diversity and seek to understand how you will contribute to a diverse and inclusive community. Reflect on your background, experiences, and perspectives that contribute to your unique identity. Discuss how your experiences with diversity have shaped your worldview and how you plan to promote inclusivity in medical school and your future career.

d. Significant Research Experience

If you have significant research experience, this prompt allows you to highlight your contributions to scientific knowledge. Describe your research project, your role, and the impact of your findings. Explain how this experience has influenced your interest in medicine and your future career goals. Emphasize any skills you developed, such as critical thinking, data analysis, or teamwork.

There are three additional points that I’d make with this prompt. First, writing about science can be hard. It’s difficult to balance accuracy, clarity, and complexity. As such, this is among the most difficult kinds of admissions writing and you may want to think about getting help with someone experienced and adept with this. (like Gurufi! ) Second, think about how you view the role of science and research as you move forward. Do you (be honest) intend to continue doing research in and beyond medical school? If so, think about including this, even if briefly, in your essay. Lastly, also think about your research experience in the same way that you wrote about an important job in your Work & Activities section: did you grow, improve, receive additional responsibilities, or earn a promotion?

  1. Professional Goals and Aspirations

    This prompt asks you to articulate your career goals and how the medical school will help you achieve them. Be clear and specific about your short-term and long-term goals. Explain how the school’s resources, faculty, and curriculum align with your aspirations. Demonstrating a clear vision for your future and how the school fits into that vision shows that you are focused and motivated.

    4. Tailor Your Responses

    Tailoring your responses for each school is essential to demonstrate your genuine interest and fit. Use the research you conducted to incorporate specific details about the school into your essays. Mention faculty members you are excited to work with, unique programs that align with your interests, and community initiatives that you want to be part of. Personalizing your essays shows that you have a sincere interest in the school and have thoughtfully considered how it aligns with your goals.

    5. Be Authentic and Reflective

    Authenticity is key to crafting compelling secondary essays. Be honest about your experiences, motivations, and aspirations. Reflect on your journey and share meaningful insights that provide a deeper understanding of who you are. Avoid generic statements and clichés. Instead, focus on specific examples and personal stories that illustrate your points.

    6. Show, Don’t Tell

I’m sure you’ve heard this before. I don’t love “show, don’t tell” as a piece of advice because it doesn’t feel actionable. You can get to the same idea by saying “tell a story and let the story demonstrate your traits.” Not as punchy, but more accurate. For example, instead of simply stating that you are passionate about medicine, provide examples that demonstrate your passion. Describe experiences that have solidified your commitment to the field and the actions you have taken to pursue your interest. This approach makes your essays more vivid and memorable.

If you need help with storytelling, check out this video. It was made for MBA applicants, but all of the core ideas apply to medical school applications. This other video also provides a useful way to attack the “show don’t tell” problem.

7. Edit and Revise

Writing effective secondary essays requires multiple drafts and revisions. After writing your initial draft, take a break and then revisit your essay with fresh eyes. Seek feedback from mentors, peers, or professional consultants to gain different perspectives. Revise your essays to improve clarity, coherence, and impact. Pay attention to grammar, spelling, and punctuation to ensure your essays are polished and professional.

BUT, do be judicious with who you send your essay to. Too many chefs spoil the broth.

Crafting effective secondary essays for medical school applications involves understanding the purpose of these essays, conducting thorough research, addressing common prompts thoughtfully, and tailoring your responses to each school. By being authentic, reflective, and detail-oriented, you can create compelling essays that resonate with admissions committees and enhance your chances of acceptance. Good luck with your applications!

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.

Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Personal Statement, Secondaries, and Work & Activities

applicant preparing his medical school application
Have a plan for your entire medical school application before you begin

Of all the graduate and professional schools, medical school has the most onerous admissions process. Between MCATs, science prerequisites, personal statements, and secondaries, it can certainly feel overwhelming.

In the 15 years we’ve been helping applicants earn admission to their dream schools, we have become quite familiar with how difficult it can be to juggle all of the different pieces of written application materials. Crafting these components effectively requires a clear understanding of their distinct purposes and how they interrelate. This article will guide you through strategizing each part of the AMCAS application to present a compelling and cohesive narrative to admissions committees.

Planning Your Application

The best approach to tackling the AMCAS application is to begin with comprehensive planning. Start by reviewing the secondary essay prompts for all the schools you are applying to. While many of these prompts for the current application cycle may not yet be released, you can look at last year’s prompts, as they often remain largely unchanged. By gathering all the prompts, you can map out a plan to cover all your main points without redundancy.

The Personal Statement

The AMCAS personal statement serves two primary purposes: explaining the source of your interest in medicine and making the strongest case for your admission. Think of the personal statement as your opportunity to make a powerful impression on the committee in just 90 seconds. This requires focusing on depth, storytelling, and personal authenticity.

1. Depth and Storytelling: Your personal statement should delve deeply into your motivations for pursuing medicine. Use storytelling to illustrate your journey, highlighting pivotal moments that shaped your decision. Avoid generic statements; instead, provide specific examples that demonstrate your passion and commitment.

2. Personal Authenticity: Authenticity is crucial. Admissions committees want to see the real you, not an idealized version. Reflect on your unique experiences and perspectives, and convey them honestly. Authenticity resonates more than trying to fit a perceived mold of what a medical school applicant should be.

The Work & Activities Section

If the personal statement is about depth, the Work & Activities section is about breadth. This section allows you to demonstrate that you are a well-rounded candidate by showcasing a range of experiences. The main categories to cover are academic readiness, scientific bona fides, service, leadership, and character.

1. Verbs and Actions: Focus on what you did in each activity. Use strong, action-oriented verbs to describe your roles and contributions. This not only highlights your accomplishments but also demonstrates growth, initiative, and leadership.

2. “Most Significant” Entries: In the Work & Activities section, you have the opportunity to designate three experiences as “most significant.” Use these longer entries to provide depth to your application, complementing the breadth demonstrated in the other entries. If your personal statement focuses heavily on one or two areas, use these significant entries to balance your application by highlighting other aspects.

3. Avoid Redundancy: While it is fine to reference an experience mentioned in your personal statement, avoid repeating the same information. Instead, provide additional insights or details that were not covered in the personal statement.

The Secondary Essays

Secondary essays are school-specific and allow you to demonstrate why you are a good fit for each particular institution. These essays should be tailored carefully to address each prompt and align with the values and mission of the school.

1. School-Specific Fit: Research each school’s mission, values, and programs to understand what they are looking for in applicants. Use this information to craft essays that not only respond to the prompts but also highlight how your experiences and goals align with the school’s ethos.

2. Repurposing Text: While it is efficient to repurpose sections of text for multiple secondaries, do so with caution. Ensure that each essay remains responsive to the specific prompt and tailored to the school’s unique characteristics.

Integrating Key Concepts

As you compile these components, it is essential to integrate key concepts that medical schools value: leadership, service, advocacy, outreach, cultural competency, and diversity. Find ways to infuse your experiences with these themes, demonstrating your commitment through actions you have taken.

1. Leadership: Highlight instances where you have taken initiative, led teams, or influenced positive changes. This can be in academic, professional, or community settings.

2. Service: Showcase your dedication to serving others, whether through volunteer work, community service, or patient care experiences. Emphasize the impact you have made and the lessons you have learned.

3. Advocacy and Outreach: Demonstrate your involvement in advocacy or outreach efforts, especially those aimed at addressing healthcare disparities or improving community health. This shows your commitment to making a broader impact in medicine.

4. Cultural Competency and Diversity: Reflect on experiences that have enhanced your cultural competency and ability to work with diverse populations. Medical schools seek applicants who can navigate and contribute to diverse environments effectively.

Final Thoughts

Strategizing your AMCAS personal statement, Work & Activities, and secondary essays involves a careful balance of depth and breadth, authenticity, and strategic alignment with each school’s values. By planning ahead, focusing on what each section is supposed to accomplish, and integrating key concepts valued by medical schools, you can present a compelling and cohesive narrative that maximizes your chances of admission.

Remember, the goal is to provide a comprehensive picture of who you are as an applicant, highlighting both your qualifications and your personal journey toward a career in medicine. With thoughtful planning and execution, you can create an application that stands out and resonates with admissions committees.

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.