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.

Mistakes to Avoid on Your AMCAS Work & Activities Section

Applicant preparing their Work &Activities section for their AMCAS medical school application
Be thoughtful about your Work & Activities section!

Every year, our editors at Gurufi help scores of candidates earn admission to their dream medical school. In the fifteen years I have been helping applicants, I have noticed that far too many applicants don’t put enough time or thought into their Work & Activities sections.

Crafting the Work & Activities (W&A) section of your AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) application is a crucial task that requires careful thought and precision. Unfortunately, while many people spend weeks or ever months fine-tuning their personal statement, they treat this vital section almost as an afterthought. The W&A section allows you to showcase your experiences, learning, and growth in a succinct yet comprehensive manner and provides the reader with a clear overview of your overall strengths as a candidate. Here are some essential tips to help you make the most of this opportunity.

Focus on Your Actions, Learning, and Growth

When describing your experiences, it’s important to clearly articulate what you did, what you learned, and how you grew from each activity. Admissions committees are looking for evidence of your dedication, skills, and personal development. Applicants will sometimes get this wrong by spending too much time describing what the organization does or talking too much about things that don’t relate directly to their roles or tasks.

What You Did: Describe your specific responsibilities and actions. For instance, if you volunteered at a clinic, detail the tasks you handled, such as assisting with patient intake or organizing health education workshops.

What You Learned: Reflect on the skills and knowledge you gained. Did you develop better communication skills, learn about healthcare disparities, or gain insight into patient care?

How You Grew: Explain how these experiences influenced your personal and professional growth. Did they strengthen your commitment to medicine, enhance your empathy, or inspire you to pursue a particular medical specialty? If you struggle to nail this down, think about who you were before you started and who you were afterward. How are these different people?

Highlight Promotions and Expanded Responsibilities
If you received promotions or were given additional responsibilities, make sure to mention these. They demonstrate your competence, reliability, and the trust others have placed in you. For example, if you started as a volunteer and later became a team leader, highlight this progression to show your leadership and ability to take on more significant roles.

Avoid Jargon
Medical and scientific jargon can be confusing and may not convey your experiences effectively. Moreover, individual organizations often use idiosyncratic title names or other descriptors that don’t mean anything to people outside the organization. Use clear and straightforward language to ensure your descriptions are easily understood by all readers. Instead of using technical terms, explain your activities in a way that highlights your contributions and impact and think about how you might describe what you did to a loved one who isn’t in the medical world.

Choose Strong Verbs
The verbs you use can significantly influence how your actions are perceived. Strong, active verbs convey confidence and decisiveness. For example, instead of saying you “helped with patient care,” say you “provided patient care” or “coordinated patient services.” This subtle change makes your role sound more impactful and direct.

Be Succinct but Complete
You have only 700 characters for each entry, so brevity is essential. However, being succinct doesn’t mean using incomplete sentences or resorting to “CV speak.” Write in complete sentences to ensure clarity and coherence. Focus on the most critical aspects of each experience and eliminate any unnecessary details.

Plan Your “Most Significant” Experiences Thoughtfully
Deciding which experiences to designate as “most significant” should be done in conjunction with planning your personal statement. Because you get an extra 1325 characters, you can obviously cover a lot more ground, which is a huge benefit. Taking a strategic approach ensures you provide comprehensive coverage of your strengths and avoid redundancy. Your personal statement will delve deeply into your motivations and key experiences, while the Work & Activities section can highlight a broader range of accomplishments.

Review Last Year’s Secondary Essays

Looking at the secondary essay prompts from the schools you’re applying to can provide valuable insights. Most schools reuse essay topics for multiple years before changing, so understanding what they’ve asked in the past can help you align your “most significant” selections with potential secondary essay themes. This foresight can save you time and ensure your application remains focused and relevant.

Emphasize Breadth in Your Work & Activities
While your personal statement focuses on the depth of your decision to pursue medicine, the Work & Activities section should emphasize breadth. This is your chance to demonstrate the variety of your experiences and how they collectively prepare you for a career in medicine. Highlight diverse activities such as clinical work, research, volunteering, leadership roles, and extracurricular pursuits to present a well-rounded picture of your qualifications.

Apply the Same Care as Your Personal Statement
The Work & Activities section is just as important as your personal statement, so it deserves the same level of care and attention. Meticulously proofread your entries, ensuring they are free of errors and clearly communicate your achievements. A well-crafted Work & Activities section can significantly enhance your application and leave a lasting impression on admissions committees.

Example Entry
Here is an example of how to succinctly and effectively describe an experience:

Volunteer at Community Health Clinic (June 2020 – Present): Coordinated patient intake, assisted with health screenings, and organized educational workshops on nutrition and wellness. Developed strong communication skills and a deep understanding of healthcare disparities. Promoted to team leader, overseeing a group of 10 volunteers and managing clinic operations during weekend shifts.

This entry clearly outlines the responsibilities, learning outcomes, and growth experienced, all within the character limit. Note that the above provides a 388-character breakdown of the job. From there, you could add another 312 characters where you could briefly mention something like the most important task you accomplished, how this informs your thoughts on medical school, where this fits within your journey to medicine, or where you hope to go from here.

Conclusion

 

Writing the Work & Activities section of your AMCAS application requires careful planning and thoughtful execution. By focusing on your actions, learning, and growth, using clear language and strong verbs, and strategically selecting your most significant experiences, you can create a compelling and comprehensive account of your qualifications. Remember, this section is a vital component of your application, so give it the attention it deserves to ensure you stand out in the competitive field of medical school admissions.

Our editors at Gurufi have years of experience helping people put together their W&A sections. You can check us out here if you need help revising them, including making them fit within the tight character caps!

How to Approach Medical School Interview (Start EARLY!)

A cartoon of a young, attractive blonde woman dressed in a professional business suit, confidently participating in a medical school interview. She appears calm and prepared, sitting across from an interviewer in a modern, minimalistic interview room.

When most people think about medical school interviews, they assume that they’re something they’ll deal with at the very end of the application process. After all, as our consultant at Gurufi know well, applicants first have to complete their MCAT, AMCAS package, personal statement, Work & Activities, and a flood (hopefully) of secondaries. In a technical sense, they’re right: interviews are the end of a lengthy journey.

 

But, it is worth it to spend some time going and over and thinking about the most common interview questions and thinking about what your responses would be. There are two reasons. First, if these are the questions that the doctors, administrators, and (sometimes) medical students tend to ask in interviews, isn’t this a good insight into what they tend to look for? As such, having worked out your responses to them beforehand could provide some useful background guidance or content for your personal statements and secondaries. Second, there is value in reading through these questions early, exposing them to your brain, and letting your mind work through them over the course of months so that you can slowly -almost as a background process- develop nuanced, personal, and authentic answers to these questions so that if/when you get to the interview stage, you’re ready to go!

 

Indeed, I would urge you to get a notebook and do 10 minutes of writing and outlining / brainstorming for each one. Sketch out your initial ideas. As you do, you should hopefully began to get ideas for your personal statement or, later, secondaries.

 

  1. Why do you want to pursue a career in medicine? This question is often one of the first asked and is an opportunity for you to express your passion and motivation for the field of medicine. Be clear and concise in your answer, and highlight specific experiences or events that inspired your interest in medicine.
  2. What is your understanding of the role of a physician? This question is an opportunity for you to show your understanding of the responsibilities and duties of a physician. Highlight your understanding of the importance of compassion, dedication, and professionalism in the field of medicine. It also provides an excellent opportunity to talk about role models or doctors whose approach you admire.
  3. Can you discuss a specific experience that influenced your decision to pursue medicine? This question is a chance for you to highlight a meaningful experience that has shaped your decision to pursue a career in medicine. Be specific and share details about what you learned from the experience and how it has influenced your goals and aspirations.
  4. Can you discuss a time when you had to overcome a challenge? This question is asking about your problem-solving skills and how you handle difficult situations. Be honest and provide a specific example of a challenge you faced and how you overcame it. Often, this might end up being a moment where you failed. That’s fine! As we have discussed in other contexts, a thoughtful and genuine (non “humble-brag”) reflection on a failure can be a valuable part of your interview / application.
  5. What interests you most about the medical school you are applying to? This question is an opportunity for you to show your interest in the specific medical school you are applying to and why it is a good fit for you. Be sure to research the school ahead of time and highlight specific programs, opportunities, or resources that appeal to you.
  6. Can you discuss a time when you had to work with a difficult team member? This question is asking about your ability to work with others and handle conflict in a team setting. Provide a specific example and talk about what you learned from the experience.
  7. What are your long-term career goals? This question is asking about your future plans and what you hope to achieve in your career. Be clear and concise in your answer and show how your goals align with the mission and values of the medical school you are applying to.
  8. Can you discuss a time when you had to make a difficult ethical decision? This question is asking about your ethical principles and how you handle challenging ethical situations. Be specific in your answer and talk about what you learned from the experience.
  9. Can you discuss a time when you had to learn something new quickly? This question is asking about your adaptability and ability to learn new information quickly. Provide a specific example and talk about what you learned from the experience.
  10. Can you tell us about a healthcare issue that you are passionate about? This question is an opportunity for you to show your interest in and knowledge of healthcare issues. Choose an issue that you are passionate about and be sure to explain why it is important to you.

When it comes time to actually interview, you should revisit your responses to these questions and perhaps expand on them, noting information you’ve gleaned from the following steps:

  1. Research the medical school ahead of time and be familiar with their mission and values.
  2. Work you’ve done to make your answers more concise and specific.
  3. Moments from your life that display your passion and motivation for the field of medicine.

 

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our medical school personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top med schools. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements and refining Work & Activities sections and secondaries in ways 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.

Five Topics to Avoid in Your Medical School Personal Statement

 

Two cartoon medical school applicants in white coats cross a rickety wooden bridge over a river of lava, where playful monsters representing topics like alcohol use, religion, and politics emerge. The applicants hold their application papers and look anxiously towards a stylized medical school building in the distance. The scene is light-hearted and colorful, set in a fantastical landscape.
Steering Clear of Pitfalls: These Medical School Applicants Navigate the Perilous Path to Admission, Humorously Avoiding Topics Like Politics and Alcohol Use

We’re deep into April, and as medical school applicants begin thinking about their personal statements in earnest, we at Gurufi are putting the final touches on our medical school application video series. Every year, we help scores of applicants earn admission into top medical schools and residency programs.

In a recent post, I talked about the worst topic to use as your medical school personal statement introduction. Though I think that some topics are more complicated and fraught than others, I don’t usually give clients hard “no-go” topics. Rather, it’s about thinking about framing, context, and delivery. Another way to think about it is that these aren’t “banned” topics, per se; they’re just topics that have higher degrees of difficulty. Here are some topics to think twice about as you approach your personal statement.

  • Religion and politics. Don’t ever proselytize or make assumptions about what the reader’s politics are. Faith can be a vital part of many applicants’ lives, but to the extent that you bring it up, do it in a way that isn’t gratuitous, and make sure that you embrace a spirit of inclusivity. Similarly, it’s becoming increasingly common for people with backgrounds in politics, policy, or advocacy to transition into medical careers. As you talk about your political engagements, focus on what you hope to accomplish and avoid denigrating other political positions.

 

I have noticed that applicants with policy and politics backgrounds are becoming increasingly common in medical school applications, and they’re having a lot of success in their applications! Indeed, having helped many people write personal statements that emphasize the intersection of policy and medicine, I would note that the best essays focus on issues and policy, and don’t make sweeping statements about partisanship. What’s the difference? Well, advocating for, for example, better public health initiatives, protection of abortion rights, or better recognition of LGBTQ issues within healthcare spaces are all instances of health policy advocacy, whereas saying something like, “the Trump administration…” is a focus on partisanship.

  • Personal tragedy. Again, this is a topic that can be an important and effective part of a personal statement, if done properly. If done poorly, it can weigh the essay down in negativity. As a general rule, I urge clients to eventually bring their stories around to a forward-looking and optimistic vision. Tragedies either inspire you to become better, urged you to fight for a solution, or somehow teach you vital insights that will make you a better doctor. What you do NOT want is to include a sad story because you’re seeking emotionality for its own sake. Remember your purpose: to convince the reader that you’re a prepared, interesting, qualified, and mature candidate. Overcoming hardship can show that; a sad-sack story about life grinding you down that doesn’t end on an optimistic note will not.

  1. Your personal setbacks. Everybody makes mistakes, and if the AdCom will know about your setback, you HAVE to talk about it. I’ve made several videos about how to do this. Heck, I even did a full-length detailed course for MBA applicants on how to do this (the same basic rules apply). So what are the basic rules?

 Be clear about what your setback was. Don’t be vague or use euphemism.

 Own it. Accept responsibility and state directly that you fell short of your standards.

 Explain what you learned AND how you’ve improved since.

 If you can point to subsequent examples of success, do so.

 Move on. Take an optimistic tone about the future and embrace the fact that you’ve learned and grown since.

  1. Talking about your use of drugs or alcohol in a personal statement for medical school is typically not a smart idea. Discussions about past substance misuse may not be consistent with the admissions committee’s expectation of candidates who are responsible and dedicated to upholding a professional image. If, though, you have a conviction for some alcohol-related crime, you MUST address it at some point, so use the guidelines laid out above for how to address missteps thoughtfully.
  2. In general, it’s not a good idea to mention that you want to become a doctor only for the money or the status. Admissions committees are searching for applicants who are passionate about medicine and truly want to assist others.

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.

 

Here are some additional resources for this topic:

  1. “Medical School Personal Statement Dos and Don’ts.” Kaplan Test Prep, Kaplan, Inc., www.kaptest.com/medical/medical-school/medical-school-personal-statement-dos-and-donts.
  2. “5 Things to Avoid in Your Personal Statement.” Association of American Medical Colleges, www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/personalstatement/5things.
  3. “5 Things to Avoid in Your Personal Statement.” Association of American Medical Colleges, www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/personalstatement/5things.
  4. “Medical School Personal Statement Dos and Don’ts.” Kaplan Test Prep, Kaplan, Inc., www.kaptest.com/medical/medical-school/medical-school-personal-statement-dos-and-donts.
  5. “5 Things to Avoid in Your Personal Statement.” Association of American Medical Colleges, www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/personalstatement/5things.

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