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.

Storytelling Mistakes on Your Personal Statement (and how to avoid them!)

Cartoon of a young South Asian man, animatedly telling a story to a captivated, diverse audience in a modern conference room. He is dressed in a smart business suit, gesturing with his hands as he speaks. The audience, consisting of various ethnicities and genders, shows expressions of engagement—some are leaning forward, others are laughing, and a few are clapping. A projector screen displaying a presentation is visible in the background, adding to the lively atmosphere of the interaction.
Understanding how to tell your story is key to success!

In nearly 20 years of helping people get into their dream schools, I’ve made a point of working with clients to create essays that are both engaging and substantive. This balance is the key to a great essay for graduate or professional school. But, somewhere along the line, people got it in their heads that the only purpose of a personal statement was to let the reader get to know them. This is a mistake.

Over and over, I will read a personal statement for medical school or law school in which the author will tell a story that is highly personal to them, but in which they fail to link that story to their application’s core strengths and themes. When I try to explain that they need to focus on things germane to their application, they will tell me that they want to let the reader know who they are, as if this is a sufficient explanation for a medical school essay that focuses almost exclusively on their love of triathlons or a law school essay that does not ever use the word “law.”

Why does this happen?  Essentially, it happens because people get so fixated on writing an *interesting* essay that makes the applicant sound *unique.*  I hear these words –interesting and unique- all the time, and while they are important goals, and they will help an essay if used properly, they are a means to an end and not the end itself.  The end, the purpose, and your primary motivation in a personal statement are simple: convince the reader that you are prepared and qualified for admission.

Given this, as you write your personal statement, you should keep in mind a simple and well-worn maxim that every salesman has heard a million times: Always Be Closing (ABC).  In other words, at every point in the essay, you need to keep in mind whether or not what you are saying is moving the reader closer to believing that you have the requisite knowledge, experience, and understanding of the field you hope to enter.

For every story, for every paragraph, and for every sentence, you do need to ask yourself, “What does this say about the strength of my candidacy?”  If the best that you can come up with that it says something interesting or unique about you, it doesn’t pass the ABC test.  On the other hand, if it shows that you have an important and germane skill or perspective, then it passes the ABC test.

Now, what I am NOT saying is to be boring or rote, or to provide a straightforward rendering of your CV in essay form. If there is some aspect of your personality that is meaningful to you, then take the extra time to think about how it aligns with your application. For instance, if you’re a triathlete applying to medical school, can you create an overarching frame or metaphor and use the three phases of a triathlon to discuss the three pillars of your preparation for medical school? Or perhaps you’ve learned things from preparation and training that are germane? Did the discipline you found in the pool, track, and open road give you a framework for thinking about challenges? In other words, a great story is wonderful… so long as you connect it to what you’re doing and who you aspire to become.

The story is your way in, but it’s not the sale. Make them interested, then make the sale. Always be closing.

For more tips on how to build a story that moves the reader AND improves your application, check out these two videos we did:

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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.

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.

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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