Note: This analysis was originally written for the Teaching Writing course (WR 3011) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute by Sahil Nawab and Enyonam Edoh and is reproduced here with permission.
Introduction and Defining Features
The personal statement, as used for U.S. allopathic medical school applications, is a genre that is not well studied in the writing literature despite its similarities with other graduate or professional program applications. While there are many facets to the medical school application, including other components such as GPA, MCAT score, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, the personal statement critically serves to tie together these other elements and anchor the application with a narrative about the applicant’s personality.
Medical schools expect an answer that highlights the unique qualities of an applicant and simultaneously describe their journey towards deciding to pursue medicine. Applicants often use the personal statement to communicate more broadly about themselves and their own personality. This paper serves to analyze this self-promotional genre by analyzing the defining features, discourse community, rhetorical moves, and dichotomy to provide an outlook of what this genre is and what it’s turning into in the near future.
The personal statement includes the following prompt, “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school,” which must be answered using a maximum of 5,300 characters. The defining feature of the personal statement prompt is it’s intentional vagueness. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) describes the personal statement as “an opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants” (2020 AMCAS Applicant Guide). Despite the open ended prompt, the personal statement is commonly expected to answer the questions, “Why medicine?” (Advisor Corner), “What motivates you to learn more about medicine?” (2020 AMCAS Applicant Guide), and “What do you want medical schools to know about you that hasn’t been disclosed in other sections of the application?” (2020 AMCAS Applicant Guide 54). Within this limited space, applicants often struggle to effectively articulate their undergraduate and preclinical experiences through a narrative that is engaging to the admissions committees of medical schools.
Unique to professional programs like law and medicine, applicants for medical school can come with degrees from fields completely unrelated to the professional practice of medicine. Because of the diversity in the experiences of medical school applicants, the lack of prescriptive guidelines is useful. However, it presents its own set of challenges, as applicants are often confused about appropriate writing practices in the personal statement and unfamiliar with the conventions of the genre (Advisor Corner and Ding). Requiring applicants from other fields to justify their decision to study that field and to “justify their motivation to shift from their previous areas of study” inherently creates conflict. Applicants must show that not only were they were dedicated to their previous area of study, but are now ready to move on to study medicine and are just as dedicated, if not more.
While the flexibility that such a vague prompt affords is helpful for such applicants, that the personal statement is “something between a reflective, analytical narrative, and an argumentative essay” (Advisor Corner) causes issues with balancing the sometimes conflicting nature of these elements. In essence, however, the personal statement serves two purposes: revealing “something about yourself and your thoughts around future in medicine while also making an argument that provides evidence supporting your readiness for your future career” (Advisor Corner).
The 5,300 character limit, as prescribed by the AMCAS requirements (2020 AMCAS Applicant Guide 54), showcases an implicit value in clear and concise argumentation. Part of the exercise in writing a personal statement is learning to distill entire experiences into words, present goals, motivations, sincerity, and likeable personality. The narrative must “capture the reader’s attention,” “establish the writer’s competence,” and “demonstrate the fit between the writer and the field of medicine” (Ding 371). “Applicants have to establish their academic and professional qualifications, demonstrate their abilities through work experiences, discuss their interests and motivation in studying in the target field, explain why the target program matches well with their interests and goals and what contributions they can make to the field; and explain their future study and career plan” (Ding 371). Most students struggle with this self-promotional aspect of the genre, especially when caught up in creating an effective narrative and fail to recognize that the personal statement is not listing accomplishments or restating a resume in narrative form (Jacoby). Rather, the narrative is purely in service of communicating “fit” to the audience. Therefore, a deft understanding of the discourse community benefits applicants writing personal statements.
The discourse community in which the personal statement operates within consists of two primary parties, the applicant and the admissions committee. While the specific makeup of the admissions committee varies widely from school to school, it generally includes faculty, physicians, and privileged medical students. The admissions committee uses the personal statement to gauge the applicant and determine whether or not the applicant’s thought process is consistent with that of a physician.
The evaluative nature of this relationship results in a power imbalance between applicants and the admissions committee. Applicants actively require the approval of the admission committee to matriculate into medical school. However, it is the medical school experience itself that is designed to sculpt a student into a physician and thereby imbue them with the qualities expected by the discourse community. Lacking this prerequisite experience, applicants are therefore unfamiliar with the expectations of the discourse community and often have difficulty writing a personal statement that reflects the expectations.
Despite the inherent challenges with writing an unfamiliar genre and the large diversity of medical school applicants, successful personal statements have a surprising amount of similarity. Ding’s analysis showed that there are five recurring rhetorical moves associated with the personal statement that applicants often use to connect their personal narrative back to the primary question of why applicants choose to pursue medicine.
Move 1: Explaining the reason to pursue the proposed study (i.e. why medicine?)
Move 2: Establishing credentials related to the field (i.e. clinical/research experiences)
Move 3: Discussing relevant life experience
Move 4: Describing personality
Move 5: Stating Future Goals
Through her analysis, Ding found that the first move requires three distinct steps. In the first step, the applicant wants to explain the academic or intellectual interest in medicine by telling the way that it came about through an experience In the second step, applicants state their understanding of the profession based on their experiences to show that their understanding helped then make the decision to study medicine. Elizabeth Jacoby, a pre-med advisor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, argues that the third step must be done skillfully it is easy for a writer to harbor on personal and family related experiences that deviate from the purpose to pursue medicine. Ding and Jacoby agree it is best to acutely focus on how these led up to the decision to “Why medicine?”
Examples of Moves 1 and 4
“I aspire to be a physician because I want the long nights, tough choices, and to serve patients. I value the opportunity to be a part of, and lead a team entrusted with the lives of others. I want to advocate for my patients, work for better health, and heal. Working for, and with physicians has allowed me the…” (2)
“My desire to enter the medical field is intertwined with my passion for singing and performing. I believe that my career as a physician, like my work as a musician, will give me the opportunity to improve the lives of my patients, but more directly, more completely. My experience volunteering and performing has shown me the value of working with underserved populations. Singing around the world has taught me, in a small way, how to communicate with audiences, regardless of their backgrounds. I will use what I have learned performing to connect with my patients and I look forward to working with people from all walks of life on a daily basis” (2).
Move 2 requires the applicant to communicate their credentials related to the field of medicine. Ding explains to be the most important move in the personal statement. It is also done can be seen in 3 steps or ways: a list of academic achievements, reviewing research experiences, and discuss suing professional experiences in clinical settings. It’s important to know why Ding, Jacoby, and Faber agree that credentials are important in this field but it is important to not just list them but to explain how this all relates back to why one wants to pursue medicine. It is important to talk about the experience.
Examples of Move 2
“… while climbing the concrete steps, and he smashed his knee and elbow in the process. As a newly certified EMT, it was the first time I was responsible for another’s health. Though numerous EMTs stood throughout the room acting as both a source of evaluation and a safety net, he was my patient” (2)
“Almost a year later, I visited Haiti with Project Medishare hoping to help individuals with lesser access to healthcare. One night we were working to resuscitate a lifeless, premature newborn boy. Despite the baby regaining circulation, we were without a ventilator with settings for a preemie. We quickly exhausted alternatives and were left using meager resources to create a way to deliver continuous oxygen to the baby. When even this failed, we were out of…” (2)
“… benefits to the patients. I have also taken Health Psychology and Medicine and Society. These classes have helped me to better understand the relationship between mental health and physical health as well as social condition and the health care system” (2).
Move 3 is related to move 2, but deals more specifically with experiences that showcase personal growth or resilience in the face of adversity. Not every applicant can have the same opportunities to gain professional opportunities to do volunteering and shadowing. Many use non-clinical community settings and their people skills to show their willingness to help people.
Examples of Move 3
“… year, I volunteer each week at MobileMed, a mobile clinic for the uninsured individuals of Maryland” (2).
“But what does this have to do with medicine? A singer, after all, heals with melodies, not antibiotics or operations. Yet it was my singing that first sparked my interest in medicine. And after a decade of seeing my voice bring some small measure of joy or peace to so many members of my audiences, I need more. I want to continue to bring joy and peace. I will continue to sing, but I want to prevent those around me from becoming infirm and forgotten in the first place. I want to be a doctor” (2).
Move 4 requires describing the applicant’s personality. Most guides describe that this needs to be shown through a recollection of their experiences. This is critical because this underlying unique feature is used to distinguish the applicant from the large application pool. Various medical school advisors share different ways of doing this. The University of Oxford, stresses that applicants demonstrate their personality traits through anecdotes, rather than explicitly stating them.
Move 5 is where an applicants states their future career goals after graduation, which stresses the goal-oriented nature and strong motivation of the applicant. It shows that the applicant is always thinking ahead and has a clear vision, therefore the applicant is prepared for the arduous journey ahead.
Examples of Move 5
“I believe that what I have learned from the many people and experiences over the years will help me to become a successful physician – sensitive to my patients needs and aware of my responsibilities to science, society, and the health care system” (2).
“However medicine is also a deeply gratifying and fascinating career path. I want to be a medic because my passion and aptitude is foremost scientific and to me 5 or 6 years more of formal education followed by a lifetime of further learning sounds like a stimulating career option and, thankfully, a far cry from the monotony some jobs pose. Nevertheless, as an intrinsically social person, I would relish a career requiring the development of strong empathetic relationships with patients too. Crucially, I know that I have the enthusiasm, capacity for hard work and the open and enquiring mind needed to succeed in such a fulfilling vocation” (2).
“Outside of my lessons I enjoy orienteering with a local club. As part of an expedition I took part in, we walked 80km over 4 days in torrential rain. The challenging conditions demanded teamwork and trust to maintain morale and perform effectively as a group; as well as calm rational thought in stressful situations. Also, through this activity and the people I met, I have become a member of the SJA which has enabled me to gain first aid qualifications and go out on duties” (2).
Brenton Faber, a professor of writing at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and an active nationally-certified paramedic, provided some key insights into his perspective of the personal statement. He explained that the personal statement is not supposed to be as “personal” as it may initially sound. Rather, a successful personal statement, he argued, should show that the applicant thinks and reacts like a prospective physician-scientist. The “personal” information serves to create a narrative scaffolding that demonstrates the thought process and keeps the reader engaged.
An example Faber described highlighted this: if the premise of a personal statement is the writer’s reaction to a close friend saying that their mother recently had a stroke, then the personal statement should not begin with the response being, “Oh, that’s so terrible. How is she doing now?” but instead focus on “What type of stroke was it? Where was the occlusion? Was she on angiotensins?” and so on. Medical schools, and their admissions committees are looking for prospective applicants to embody the physicians’ professional gaze. The personal statement is meant to demonstrate that “when faced with an experience, you react like a physician” (Faber).
Faber’s perception was heavily based on Brown’s research into clinical psychology personal statements for MD/PhD programs. Brown argues that the key to a successful personal statement is that of a deep understanding of the audience. In particular, clinical psychologists are constantly reminded of the status of psychology as an “in-between” science; it’s not really a full science like biology, but not really an art either, some might argue. Therefore, psychology PhD programs are looking for applicants who take the scientific elements of clinical psychology seriously. Therefore admissions committees want the personal statement to reflect the applicant’s scientific rigor. While Brown’s argument is very specific to the clinical psychology program, the general medical school application is not all that different.
However, a dichotomy exists between this perspective, embodied by Faber and Brown, and the more recent approaches, embodied by Jacoby and many of the advising sites available to applicants (Kowarski). We hypothesize that the difference is a result of the movement of ideals in medicine and a shift in society at large towards a more humanist approach, including showing greater empathy and awareness of patients’ emotions. Therefore, medical schools may look for applicants that embody these traits.
For example, many advising sources (Jacoby and Kowarski) explain that the personal statement should contain a strong theme and narrative that demonstrates authenticity and resilience through the experiences of the applicant. She recommended that applicants examine their motivations and desires to go to medical school and explain how the applicant’s experiences led them to believe that. This focus in developing a deeply personal and introspective narrative that delves into the character development of an individual applicant stands in stark contrast to the more scientific approach championed by Faber and Brown.
Despite this dichotomy, every source agreed that understanding the audience (i.e. admissions committees) and their goals is critical to developing a successful personal statement. Sources also agreed that the personal statement should use the experiences of the applicant to demonstrate relevant characteristics, whether physician-scientist or humanist, rather than telling the reader that the applicant has these characteristics. However, the dichotomy points to greater need to understand the current audience, including medical school admissions committees so that applicants can better target their rhetorical devices to greater impact.
Advice and Conclusion
As a tutor to an applicant, the best method to provide an improved understanding of the genre is to provide examples of personal statements that worked well. This directly addresses a key issue limiting students: their unfamiliarity with the genre. A key to writing effective personal statements is to have a central theme to connect all of the applicant’s experiences and push the message.
An in-depth understanding of the discourse community and its goals is critical to developing effective personal statements, though this is difficult for applicants to achieve in practice as “outsiders” to this community. Understanding who the audience is, namely the admissions committee, their rhetorical background, and the purposes that the personal statement fulfills, allows applicants to better engage the reader as active members of the discourse community. Therefore, studying the personal statement as a genre of writing provides insight into techniques and methods that allow applicants to more effectively develop a cohesive narrative structure that, in turn, still serves the underlying purpose of communicating the applicants personal motivations and qualifying experiences.
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