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.

What is a Frankenstein Essay, and Why Will It Destroy Your Application?

Cartoon of Frankenstein sitting at a desk, writing a personal statement with a quill, portraying a humorous juxtaposition of a monstrous figure engaged in a scholarly task
Avoid turning your personal statement into a ‘Frankenstein essay’. Even Frankenstein knows the importance of thoughtful, careful editing!

After nearly 20 years of reading, assessing, revising, and consulting on personal statements, I have seen every variety of mistake an applicant can make. More importantly for you, though, is that I am pretty good at identifying the upstream source of the problem and providing guidance on how to fix it. One of the most common mistakes might seem counterintuitive: the author sought too much help… or at least too much of the wrong kind!

Once you’ve finished your personal statement, you may feel a little apprehensive about what you have written, and as such it is only reasonable to seek out second and third opinions to make sure that you have overlooked nothing, the prose is tight, and you have made a compelling case for your candidacy.  But, just as an excellent revision and editing can make an average essay excellent, bad editing can wreck an essay.  On such occasions, one is smart to heed the old aphorism that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth.’

Once you have completed your first draft, you need to think carefully about how you go about using advice from other people.  Here are six pointers for how to get the best advice in order to turn your draft into an excellent final version you are proud of and happy with.

1.)  Be careful about who you pick.

Obviously, you want to get advice from someone who writes well, can be frank with you, and has some understanding of the field to which you are applying.  If you choose to get advice from a boyfriend or your mother, for example, then be careful because they might give you an overly glowing review because of their esteem and love for you or may lack the qualifications to point out minor problems with your approach.  Similarly, asking your English major friend to look at your Engineering graduate school essay is not a bad idea, but if you go that route, also have someone involved in Engineering (preferably in an academic capacity) is a good idea.

Good people to talk to are your academic advisor (if you are applying to graduate or professional schools) or guidance counselor (if you are applying to college).  I know that many people will take their essays to message boards and post them to see what people think of it.  The problem here is that you have no real way to gauge someone’s level of expertise and you may get too much feedback from too many sources.

Which leads us to point #2…

  1. Don’t give it to too many people.

If you get critiques on your essay from 8-9 different people and you incorporate all of their suggestions, you will be pulled in too many directions and the essay will lose its sense of voice and focus.  The old joke that a camel is a horse designed by committee applies here.  Your essay cannot be everything to everyone, and you have to accept this fact.  There will always be something that someone would have done differently, so they will often naturally advise you that you should do something different than what you are doing.

  1. Ask follow-up questions

Whenever someone suggests a change, don’t be afraid to ask them about it.  Sometimes you will agree with their rationale, but disagree with the execution of the change.  Also, through a conversation people will often help you see larger problems that you may have missed.  People are often hesitant to give tough advice, and a friendly conversation can help you to avoid this problem because by talking to someone, the person will see that you are serious about valuing their advice.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ignore advice.

At the end of the day, this is *your* personal statement, and *your* future depends on how well you execute it.  When someone suggests changes, consider their level of expertise, think about it carefully and if you disagree, then don’t do it.  Not every piece of advice given is good; often, you will receive terrible advice.

The final decision is yours, so take your role as the gatekeeper of advice seriously, and only let the best suggestions that work well with your theme, tone, approach and goal through.

  1. BUT, try to avoid pride of authorship

In my capacity as an admissions essay consultant, I often encounter customers who are furious when I tell them that they have things that they need to work on.  It is almost as if they paid me $200 for me to tell them that their work was perfect, and they should not change a single letter.

Because a personal statement is so, well, personal, it can sometimes sting when someone gives you some pointed advice.  Try to see the bigger picture and embrace the process that will help you to move towards a better and stronger essay.  Do your best not to see a critique of your essay as a criticism of you as a person, and rather see it as a positive moment that moves you one step closer to your goal.

  1. Consider using an essay editing service

They can be a bit expensive, but in the end, it makes sense to spend a hundred dollars to give yourself a better chance of getting into the graduate program of your dreams. Getting into a top school, as opposed to an average one, is worth investing in, especially when the cost is less than a pair of fancy Nikes or a new purse.

Some things to consider:

-Make sure that they guarantee your satisfaction.

-Ask if they will work with you beyond just receiving a single revision back from you.  Often, it will take 2-3 exchanges with your editor to completely understand what you want to say, how you want to say it, and what core message you want to convey.

At Gurufi, we don’t put a cap on the number of revisions you get, and we’re not happy until you are. That’s why we get such consistently excellent reviews!

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 Masters and Ph.D. programs in STEM, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. 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.