7.6- Writing personal statements
If you have a poor undergraduate transcript or low test scores, but the rest of your application is strong, tackle that weakness head on in your personal essay. Despite thinking of myself as a hard-core mathematician during my high school years, the amount of love, compassion and care I experienced during my voluntary work at an institute for adults with learning disability was more than enough to sway me towards medicine. For example, I ended my essay for the science writing internship on the boat in Antarctica with the opportunity to work with your team would put me smack in the middle of one of the most exciting research labs on the planet.
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In this next module, I’m going to talk about writing personal statements. Personal statements are used for a variety of purposes for admissions to medical or graduate school, for fellowships and scholarships, for internships and even sometimes for jobs. So, I’ll keep my tips pretty broad. My biggest tip is that a personal statement should be personal. It should reveal who you are, authentically. A good personal statement should feel a little risky to write. It feels risky to reveal who you are, but that’s what a personal statement should do. When I review applications for graduate school, I take notes and I literally write down the word blah when I get a personal statement that’s just a stilted list of accomplishments and doesn’t show any flair or personality. I remember reading this great personal statement once where the author described how he group up in two different opposing cultural worlds and then he brilliantly connected that to having to balance opposing forces in medicine, wanting to spend quality time with patients versus having to be efficient. He revealed a part of himself and then tied it into why he thought he would be a good doctor. Second thing, use specific examples and stories. In writing, we call this show, don’t tell. Don’t just say you are committed to solving global health problems, show an example of this. Readers don’t remember abstractions. They remember stories. Third, the personal statement shouldn’t just be a listing of accomplishments that are already available on your CV. It’s just like writing the results section of a manuscript. In a results section, you’re not supposed to read the data line by line from the table. The reader can get that information from the table and the reader can get all your accomplishments from your CV. You only need to highlight the most important aspects of your CV, especially as it applies to the specific position or award you’re competing for. Next thing, don’t use big fancy words if you don’t have a good sense of how to use them correctly. I was reading a personal statement where the author said something like I want to better understand epidemiology and biostatistics doctrines. Doctrine isn’t the right word there. Doctrine implies a set of beliefs that are laid down as incontrovertibly true as in religion or politics. It’s not the right word to describe a set of scientific principles. And of course, don’t use cliches. Fifth thing, you want to butter your readers up a bit. Tell them why you love their institution or program. You are writing to people who are proud of the program they run. Show them that you’re a fan and show them that you’ve thought about how you as a person fit in with the program’s mission. Don’t be afraid to name drop some professors. This shows that you’ve done your homework and that you are specifically interested in their program. Finally, address any gaps or failures, any problems in your application head on. If you have a poor undergraduate transcript or low test scores, but the rest of your application is strong, tackle that weakness head on in your personal essay. Tell me what happened. It’s just like the limitation section of a manuscript. If you anticipate my concern and address them, that speaks volumes. That tells me that you are self-aware enough to realize your own limitations and to learn from your mistakes. Don’t just hop that if you don’t bring it up, reviewers won’t notice. Because they will notice and silence on the issue will likely get your application thrown off the pile, but a good explanation and show of growth might actually get your application noticed. Everyone likes a good story about overcoming obstacles or about an unconventional background. And of course, it goes without saying, never lie or embellish or make things up. That’s obviously unethical. The essay should start with a strong opening paragraph, a strong lead. Something that’s compelling and memorable. Don’t be boring and don’t be afraid to sprawl a little. A longer first paragraph is okay, if it’s compelling. Some of the most memorable personal essays I’ve read start with a story or a scene. I remember one where the person started by describing the heat in the African country, where that candidate was doing a semester abroad and she described how this doctor was treating a patient and he was the only doctor around who could do the procedure and the patient was tearful with joy. That story stuck with me, because it was emotionally moving. I remember another one where the candidate had been a crew athlete in college and she described being out on the river, rowing in the early morning and that image stuck in my head. I’m going to share a few example from students who agreed to share their work. I may have changed a few details here and there to protect their identities. I also dug through my own files and I managed to find some personal statements that I wrote many years ago. So, I’m going to share a few snippets from my own essays. Here’s one that a student wrote. It reads, growing up in Tanzania, I heard a lot about HIV/AIDS and its effects on our population. But it was not until my cousin contracted the virus and subsequently passed it on to her newborn baby that it really hit home. At age ten, I was shattered by the terrible news. And promised myself that one day, I would do something to tackle the epidemic and help those affected. The writer took a risk sharing personal details like this, but it’s so moving and it draws you into the essay. You immediately feel like you know the writer and you are rooting for them to succeed in their quest. This was the opening from my application essay for the UC Santa Cruz Science Writing Program, which I did after I finished my PhD. I was recently rereading an autobiography that I wrote in fourth grade. I had to list my favorite things to do. My top four were running, solving puzzles, reading and writing. The foresight of children is amazing and then I actually go on to talk about that I was a competitive runner. I solved puzzles through epidemiology and statistics, and I love to read, and then I finally get back to writing. Not surprisingly, my passion for writing has also resurfaced. When I was a child, I did not dream of being a doctor or a scientist. I dreamed of being a writer. I have been steered toward the hard sciences all my life. I have pondered careers in biochemistry, genetics and biostatistics. Yet unfailingly, I find myself drawn back to my childhood whim. When I’m asked what I’m going to do when I finish my epidemiology PhD, I always answer laughingly. Actually, I’m going to be a writer and that’s true. That’s what I always tell people during my PhD. You can see, it’s quite a long opener. I’m not even showing you the whole thing here. I rarely write paragraphs so long, but it was a story I wanted to tell and I was revealing who I am and why I wanted to go to the science writing program. Here is a more boring and blah opener. I made this up, but I see versions of this frequently. Inspired by the courses I have taken at X college, I have decided that I want to pursue a doctoral degree in Y. As a double major of A and B at X college, I gained excellent skills in C, D and E. Thus, I am well-prepared for doctoral studies and to pursue a career in academia. This is safe and boring. It doesn’t tell me anything unique about the applicant. I already know from their CV that they went to college X and double majored in A, and B. So, it doesn’t add anything to the application. Don’t be afraid to take that risk and be more personal. After the opener in the body of the essay, you will want to address the following questions. Maybe giving one, maybe two, paragraphs per item. One, where do you want to go? In other words, what are your short-term and long-term ambitions? Two, what experiences have led you to this point? Give some personal history that shows what’s motivated you to want to be a doctor or get a PhD, or work in this internship. Three, what makes you a strong candidate? Be specific and illustrate your strengths with stories. Don’t just list your accomplishments. This is also the place to explain any weaknesses you have and try to turn them into strengths, into obstacles you’ve overcome. Finally, toward the end, you want to show that you’ve done your homework. And say, specifically why is it that you’re interested in this particular program or institution. I’m going to give some examples now. This is from a student’s essay answering the question, where do you want to go? My interest in epidemiology and clinical research stems from an interest in neglected tropical diseases. A group of diseases that infect over a billion of the world’s poorest people despite existing treatments that cost less that a dollar. There is a startlingly large gap in scientific knowledge concerning fundamental questions about neglected diseases from basic concepts in disease transmission to optimal treatment delivery strategies. As a graduate student and future academic, I hope to provide solutions to these questions. These student knows very clearly what he wants to do. He wants to go to graduate school and then into academia to study a set of neglected deep diseases that predominantly affect poor people. This is where he thinks he can make a difference and his full essay goes on to talk about the research experiences he’s already had answering some of those questions. Here’s another example from a student’s essay where he’s describing an experience that led him to decide that he wanted to pursue a career in HIV prevention and research. There, I saw many children suffering from AIDS and opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis. This environment was scary at times, because it was my first time witnessing children in the advanced stage of HIV infection. It was painful to watch little kids suffer from various opportunistic infections and not be able to help them. However, I turned this experience into a motivating factor to pursue a career path in HIV/AIDS prevention and research. This is compelling writing. It’s moving. It draws you in and it’s clear reading this why this person has chosen this particular career path. Here’s another example of describing the experiences that have led the person up to this point. Despite thinking of myself as a hard-core mathematician during my high school years, the amount of love, compassion and care I experienced during my voluntary work at an institute for adults with learning disability was more than enough to sway me towards medicine. This person is describing that even though they thought maybe they would go into math, the ended up getting swayed into medicine. Because of this experience they had volunteering. Notice also that this person is subtly conveying something else. They’re telling us about the fact that they have a strong math ability and that was actually important to this application. So, they’re slipping that in there. Here’s another example. This is one from a personal essay that I wrote to get a science writing internship on a research ship in Antarctica. I’m a bit of an outdoors adventure seeker. In June 2000, I packed up my camping gear and touring bike flew to France and biked from Paris to Barcelona, Spain. I was also a competitive distance runner for many years and this taught me to always seek adventure even if it’s hard. Incidentally, I traveled so much for competitions in college that I developed an excellent knack for writing on buses, planes and trains. I expect this would extend easily to ships. In this essay, I’m highlighting strengths that I might not highlight for any other opportunity. But one of the concerns for this internship was motion sickness. You have to have a strong stomach to cross the Drake Passage on a ship. It’s about 36 hours of very big, rolling waves. I wanted to convey that I like travel and adventure and I was up to this kind of physical challenge, because it was relevant to this internship. Of course, notice I’m also suddenly conveying here a bunch of other qualities that I’m adaptable, a high achievers, focus, dedicated without saying any of those words. I’m showing not telling here. The next one is a made up example, but it’s reminiscent of the kinds of things I see on a personal statement that are less compelling where the author is just reading off their CV. Like I have submitted or published three first author publications and I am a co-author on nine additional publications. I’ve presented independent research at five conferences and participated in the implementation of six different research projects. Publications are absolutely pertinent to positions in academia, but just listing them off is boring and simply repeats what the reader can already see for themselves by glancing at the CV. It would be better to highlight one of the first author publications. Tell the reader about the experience. What was involved in that research? How did it feel doing that research? Was it exciting? How did it motivate you? Were the findings interesting? Did you come across any challenges that you had to figure out how to overcome? Show, don’t tell. You can get across the fact that you are competent, hardworking, persistent. A problem solver and that you have first all their publications without directly saying any of this by showing all of this through stories. Here’s an example of a better approach. This author, leading up to this had just described his work on a research project with a professor I’m going to call Dr. Smith. He describes the research and he writes, Dr. Smith and I are currently drafting a manuscript reporting our findings for journal submission. My work at IU has been invaluable as it helped me gain insights on challenges associated with recruitment and retention of vulnerable patients into a study. So this author does slip in the fact that this work is going to be published, but he spends more time talking about the experience and what he gained from it. Here’s an example that shows somebody talking, specifically about the institution they want to attend. I’ve changed some names, but the student had done an internship at Stanford previously and was able to name drop some professors she had worked with. Notice also here that the writer is slipping in some accomplishments here. She writes, the far-reaching implication of Professor Jones’s work, the untapped potential of using statistical methods to explore large databases of information. The opportunity to rediscover my old passion for mathematics through medicine and the driven, as well as welcoming people I met at Stanford created a priceless educational experience. Within three weeks, I had learned how to program in R and had produced under the guidance of Dr. Smith, a paper on and so forth. The writer here has slipped in a lot. They’ve praised Stanford and particular people at Stanford. Showed a specific interest and knowledge of Stanford. She’s also shown some accomplishments. She knows our programming. She wrote a paper in three weeks. This is again, much richer than just listing the volume of publications. This gets into the experience. And again, also shows a specific interest in Stanford. Now, you may not have had as deep of an experience with an institution as this. But even if you have just read someone’s work or seen them give a talk, mention this. Again, do you homework. Show that you understand the institution. At the end, you need a concluding paragraph where you summarize your interest in the program or opportunity. Consider wrapping it back to the opener. For example, if you started with a patient’s story, end with a reference back to that patient. Tell us what happened to that patient. If you started with an image of you rowing crew on the river, wrap back to an image. You could also end on a famous quote that inspires you or just with a parting thought for your readers. It’s okay to be lofty and aspirational here. For example, I ended my essay for the science writing internship on the boat in Antarctica with the opportunity to work with your team would put me smack in the middle of one of the most exciting research labs on the planet. It would give me a wealth of experience that would not only inspire beautiful writing, but would forever be woven into my future tales.
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