3 secrets to personal statement success

Writing the personal statement can initially appear a daunting task when faced with completing the first draft. Ultimately, the personal statement is a method for you to demonstrate why a place at medical school should be allocated to you to become a doctor rather than someone else. It enables you as a student to communicate to the people deciding your future why you stand out and deserve that sought-after place. Take this as an opportunity for the medical school to look beyond academic grades, but to be able to see other skills you have to offer to them. It is called a personal statement for a reason. It should enable the reader to feel like they have gained insight into what motivates you to become a doctor. Now I am going to divulge some of my own secrets in writing a successful personal statement.

1. A successful strategy 

Benjamin Franklin supposedly once said: “If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail.” Planning the foundations of the personal statement is key for success. How would I recommend to do this? I will take you through my step-by-step guide on how to plan for a successful personal statement draft.
Firstly, source a large piece of paper. Divide this piece of paper into eight equal sections. In each section, create the following subheadings:
  • Academic achievements, intellectual ability, interest in science
  • Communication skills
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership skills
  • Compassion and empathetic roles
  • Roles within the wider community
  • The desire to know more about medicine and the role of the doctor
  • Tenacity and commitment 

Next, write your own personal experiences or achievements which exemplify your own subheading. I would advise leaving some space under each bullet point. There is an example table drawn up below for reference. Also, some experiences may fit under more than one category. That is fine, write them under both and then cross it out later if one subheading is sparser than the other.

Following this, write under each key point what motivated you to do in the first place, how it relates to the above subheading, which skills were gained, any lessons learnt and if applicable how it relates to your motivation to become a doctor. Now revisit your sheet of paper and place a tick by the points which you think enhance your application. Are there any points which are irrelevant or that you cannot write much about? If so, put a question mark by these points. You can always revisit them later. Now if you look at your sheet you should have a solid idea of what should be woven into a successful personal statement.

2. Remain concise 

Now to start writing your personal statement. Imagine you’re the person whose role it is to read personal statements. Do you think they will favour someone who has a succinct well-structured personal statement or someone who drifts from convoluted paragraph to the next with no real purpose? If you picked the first option, you are correct! When you first start writing the personal statement, feel free to brainstorm and be creative, but when your crafting your final draft, ultimately make sure each character counts. If you have a draft, or when you have written it, print it off if you have access to a printer. As an exercise read through and underline any sentences in red which you feel do not illustrate at least one of the following points:

  • Motivation to become a doctor
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Leadership skills
  •  Ability to work within a team
  • Compassion
  • Hardworking
  • Organisation
  • Intelligent, problem-solver
  • Ability to think outside of the box
  • The portrayal of being a well-rounded person such as being actively involved in activities beyond the classroom such as volunteering, sport, committees, employment
  • A desire to know more such as going beyond the curriculum e.g. extended project, research projects

Have you found any? If not, ask a trusted friend or relative to take a read and see if they can identify any sentences or phrases which don’t exemplify these key points and underline in blue. Now get a green pen and highlight any sentences which you feel are not concise. Ask your friend to do the same in a different colour. Could the same sentence be condensed? Concise doesn’t mean cutting out words but just removing what is not needed. It enables your story to shine. If you have some coloured lines on the page, that is great! It means you have been reflective. Now, focus on each underlined phrase or sentence separately and ask the following questions:

  • Is this sentence or phrase necessary?
  • What is its main point? Is that point portrayed effectively?
  • Have you repeated yourself elsewhere in your personal statement making this sentence reductant?
  • Does the sentence weave into the rest of the personal statement?

If any of these questions you answered negatively to, you have now found areas to improve your personal statement. It may take time, but a little additional effort can go along way when perfecting your personal statement. Next, allow me to discuss how to successfully structure your personal statement.

3. Avoid lists

Remember when I said, “imagine you’re the person whose role it is to read personal statements.” Well, please do this again but imagine you see a long list of work experience or activities the candidate has supposedly completed. Would you, as the reader, be enthralled by this list or would you ask yourself the question: “so what?”. If you answered the latter option, then you are correct! Now, I am not saying that not mentioning what you have achieved is not important. What I am saying is: less is more. Be judicious in choosing only the experiences which, on reflection, you have gained knowledge or skills from. One of the key skills of a doctor is to be able to reflect on previous experiences to be able to see how they can learn and improve for future occasions. When writing your personal statement, try and ask yourself these three simple questions for each key point:
  • What did skills did I gain from this experience?
  • What have I learnt from this experience?
  • How does this show I deserve a place in a medical school?
If you can answer these questions for each point, jot down your answers accordingly on a piece of paper next to your point. Was at least one of these points originally included in your personal statement? If not, then ask yourself why is that? Is that point adding to your personal statement or is it just a bit of padding to increase the word count? Can the point made be rewritten to show what you have gained or learnt?

I am going to illustrate what I have been discussing with an example.

“I volunteered for two years at a nursing home where I was involved in the caring of the elderly residents including washing and dressing. I worked alongside other volunteers and nurses to provide care to the residents.”

The above point is impressive in the sense that two years of volunteering shows commitment and volunteering with the elderly, implicating that the candidate is compassionate and is an active member of the wider community. This ticks a few boxes in terms of my first point “remaining concise”. However, has the candidate stated what skills they have gained or learnt from their experience? Now, review the same experience written in a reflective style.

“Volunteering at a nursing home was an invaluable experience in learning how to interact effectively with people with dementia. I realised that being patient is key. Although it could often be challenging on nightshifts when there was fewer staff, I learnt the importance of working within a team when a person is distressed or frustrated in being unable to wash or dress themselves independently, to both remain calm and to provide high-quality patient care.”

Although the candidate is discussing the same experience of working in a nursing home, the second candidate reflects on some of the difficulties they faced such as working within an understaffed team and the skills of communication they have gained. It also mirrors a situation a junior doctor may find themselves in, trying to administer medication or taking a history from a distressed patient on the wards, insinuating to the reader that the candidate has a realistic view of the life of a medic. 


To summarise, the take-home messages are:

  • Please plan your personal statement
  • Remain concise
  • Always try to reflect on why the point your making matters

However, also proofreading cannot be done enough to avoid pesky spelling and grammatical errors which can make even the best piece of writing appear slovenly. In addition, a word of advice is when you lose the motivation to write it is to come back to your personal statement with a fresh pair of eyes.

Anyway, I wish you every success and if you’re looking for even more help, theMSAG is here to lend a helping hand. More wonderful advice can be found in the rest of our Personal Statement Blog Series. In addition, theMSAG also have some fantastic personal statement services, so we can guide you to highlight your achievements in the most effective way. Good luck!

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