Getting into medical school may seem a life-and-death matter until you are caught in a Himalayan blizzard with your pants down (a fate decidedly worse than a rejection letter). Barring the latter eventuality, we think you should lighten up and thus are providing you with a paradigmatic essay (see below) which despite your best efforts, you won't be able to match, unless you are Siamese Triplets leading separate lives but endeavoring to get into medical school on a single application. If you think you don't measure up to the following, don't despair- relax. We can help you climb the mountain while strategically planting oxygen bottles along the way.
The Ultimate AMCAS Essay by Daniel Guttman
I felt fortunate to awaken from my weeks-long life-threatening coma in the Zimbabwe orphanage in which I was raised from infancy, until I realized the building was ablaze. After evacuating all the inhabitants including any stray insects who were drawn to the flames, I doused the fire with a water pump I had improvised from an old accordion bellows (on which I often played Bach fugues a la Albert Schweitzer) and a bamboo-like plant I had discovered in the jungle. I named the plant Medusa Abandona after my now forgiven American born mother, who forsook me in my cradle, only after it turned out to be an unknown genus and promised to have exciting anti-cancer medicinal qualities as well. When I was convinced that everyone in the orphanage was safe, I escaped the holocaust in the solar powered wheel chair I had developed to give myself more mobility after the unfortunate accident I had as a child, breaking my seventh vertebra while wrestling a lion that had terrorized the village.
When I was seven, the only doctor within a 300 mile radius took me under his wing. I shadowed him for ten years, which was quite difficult when you consider the dense jungle foliage and lack of sunlight at ground level. The fact that he was a witch doctor should in no way denigrate his skills nor the efficacy of his spells. If you accept me into your next medical class, I intend to teach my fellow students a series of hexes that will eliminate the need for Viagra, Allegra, Grecian Formula and Formula 409.
Most of my adolescence I spent draining swamps, eliminating mosquitoes and generally reducing the malarial plague in three contiguous countries in equatorial Africa. It was only after saving the lives of tens of thousands of people that I decided to become a doctor in hope that over the course of my career I might be able to save just a few more. The journey to medicine was difficult. It was a choice between being a doctor and being a shoemaker, but after I taught everyone in my village how to make their own shoes there was no need to pursue this noble profession.
Harvard was reluctant to let me go after I got straight "A"s as the first graduate in their new correspondence bachelors degree program but with five majors and 12 books to my credit they finally acknowledged (see attached letter) that they had nothing left to teach me. My economics honors thesis was entitled "Grade Inflation at Harvard: The Great Hoax."
Given my academic prowess, imagine then how mortified I was to receive only a 44 aggregate AMCAS score. Those of you at AMCAS reading this, who may have contributed to writing the April exam, should be ashamed of yourselves. In the passage on "Halitosis" you referred to the sufferer as having "bad breadth". The patient could certainly be circumferentially challenged but I assumed a typo had been committed and that you meant he had "bad breath" and answered accordingly. My fellow hapless examinees' incorrect answers to question 39 should be stricken and the exam be recalibrated accordingly.
In short, becoming a doctor may seem humdrum and a come down compared to my life so far, but I am willing to unlearn a few things so I won't be so far ahead of my fellow medical classmates. And don't worry about my disability; I can still perform an angioplasty and thread several needles while doing 500 one-armed finger pushups.
This essay was written by Daniel Guttman, a long-suffering parent of a medical school applicant, and is reprinted here with his permission. He is also the proud father and creator of Cartoonjazz.com which has some of the best medical, educational and other downright hilarious cartoons this side of the funny papers. They make great gifts for graduates, would be graduates and slackers as well for anyone who knows or has ever heard of the above. Go to cartoonjazz.com and enjoy or call 732-283-8700 and kvell.
Other Sample Essays
Part 2: How to Begin (Goal: Engage the Reader)
Before you begin to write, I recommend that you:
- Develop a list of qualities you want to demonstrate and
- Think of events or situations that highlight these qualities
Then, you should write about one of these events or situations in a way that demonstrates these qualities and captures the reader’s attention.
1. List Your Greatest Qualities
To answer the personal statement prompt more easily, focus again on the question of what you want admissions committees to know about you beyond your numbers and achievements.
I’m not talking about your hobbies (e.g., “I followed Taylor Swift to every concert she performed in the US during this past year”), although you could certainly point to aspects of your lifestyle in your essay to make your point.
Instead, I’m talking about which of your qualities–character, personality traits, attitudes–you want to demonstrate. Examples include:
- Extraordinary compassion
- Willingness to learn
- Great listening skills
- And so on
If you have difficulty thinking of your great qualities (many students do), ask family members or close friends what you’re good at and why they like you; that will take care of things :)
Finally, choose the two or three qualities that you want to focus on in your personal statement. Let’s use compassion and knowledge-seeking as the foundational qualities of an original example for this article.
(Note: I cannot overstate how important it is to think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your personal statement before choosing a situation or event to write about. Students who decide on an event or situation first usually struggle to fit in their qualities within the confines of their story. On the other hand, students who choose the qualities they want to convey first are easily able to demonstrate them because the event or situation they settle on naturally highlights these qualities.)
2. When or Where Have You Demonstrated These Qualities?
Now that I’m off my soapbox and you’ve chosen qualities to highlight, it’s time to list any event(s) or setting(s) where you’ve demonstrated them.
I should explicitly mention that this event or setting doesn't need to come from a clinical (e.g., shadowing a physician, interacting with a young adult patient at a cancer center, working with children in an international clinic) or research experience (e.g., making a finding in cancer research), although it’s OK if it involves an extracurricular activity directly related to medicine.
In fact, since most students start their essays by describing clinical or research experiences, starting off with something else–travel (e.g., a camping trip in Yellowstone), volunteering (e.g., building homes in New Orleans), family (e.g., spending time with and learning from your elderly and ill grandmother back home in New Hampshire), work (e.g., helping out at your parents’ donut shop)–will make you immediately stand out.
Let’s start with the example of building homes in New Orleans. Why? Because we could easily demonstrate compassion and knowledge-seeking through this experience. Notice how the qualities we select can choose the story for us?
3. Describe Your Event as a Story
Here’s where the art of writing a great personal statement really comes in.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays, most of which are very cliché or dry. Therefore, it’s critical that you stand out by engaging the reader from the very beginning.
By far the best way to capture admissions officers early is by developing a story at the start of your essay about the event or situation you chose in Step 2.
In a previous article, I wrote about the three critical elements for writing a great admissions essay story: 1) a compelling character, 2) a relatable plot, and 3) authenticity)
However, I want to go one step beyond that article and provide an actual example of how the same event can be written in a routine vs. compelling way. That way, you can avoid the common pitfalls of typical personal statements and write a standout one.
One of my most eye-opening experiences came when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans during the summer months of 2014. Up to that point, I had only heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to volunteer, it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.
New Orleans was hot and humid during the summer months of 2014–no surprise there. However, for a native Oregonian like me, waking up to 90-degree and 85% humidity days initially seemed like too much to bear. That was until I reflected on the fact that my temporary discomfort was minute in contrast to the destruction of communities and emotional pounding experienced by the people of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people was as much about lifting spirits as making physical improvements.
Many people may feel the Routine example is pretty good. Upon closer look, however, it seems that:
- The focus is as much on New Orleanians as the applicant
- The story is not particularly relatable (unless the reader had also volunteered there)
- There isn’t much support for the writer actually being touched by the people there
On the other hand, the Compelling example:
- Keeps the spotlight on the applicant throughout (e.g., references being from Oregon, discusses her reflections, interacting with Jermaine)
- Has a relatable plot (e.g., temporary discomfort, changing perspectives)
- Is authentic (e.g., provides an example of how she lifted spirits)
(You can find yet another example of a typical vs. standout admissions essay introduction to engage readers in this earlier post.)
4. Demonstrate Your Qualities
(Note: This section applies to all aspects of your essay.)
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given for writing personal statements, but further guidance or examples are rarely provided to demonstrate what it looks like when done well.
This is unfortunate because the best way to understand how standout personal statements demonstrate qualities through an engaging story is by reading two examples of the same situation: one that “tells” about a quality, and another that “shows” a quality.
Let’s take a look at the last sentence of each story example I provided in the previous section to better understand this distinction.
Telling (from Routine story)
“…it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.”
Showing (from Compelling story)
“…actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people…”
Notice how the second example demonstrates compassion without ever mentioning the word "compassion" (hence no bolded words)?
Moreover, the same sentence demonstrates knowledge-seeking: “Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals...”)
That’s what you’re going for.
Think about it. Who do you consider to be more kind:
- A person who says, “I’m really nice!”; or
- A person who you've seen do nice things for others?
Clearly, the second person will be seen as more kind, even if there's no difference between their levels of kindness.
Therefore, by demonstrating your qualities, you will look better to admissions committees, and also seem more authentic.