Example Medical School Admissions Essay

Part 2: How to Begin (Goal: Engage the Reader)

Before you begin to write, I recommend that you:

  1. Develop a list of qualities you want to demonstrate and
  2. 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
  • Kindness
  • Willingness to learn
  • Great listening skills
  • Optimism
  • Knowledge-seeking
  • Persistence
  • 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.

Routine

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.

Compelling

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.

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Sample Medical School Essays


This section contains two sample medical school essays

  1. Medical School Sample Essay One
  2. Medical School Sample Essay Two

Medical School Essay One

Prompt: What makes you an excellent candidate for medical school? Why do you want to become a physician?

When I was twelve years old, a drunk driver hit the car my mother was driving while I was in the backseat. I have very few memories of the accident, but I do faintly recall a serious but calming face as I was gently lifted out of the car. The paramedic held my hand as we traveled to the hospital. I was in the hospital for several weeks and that same paramedic came to visit me almost every day. During my stay, I also got to know the various doctors and nurses in the hospital on a personal level. I remember feeling anxiety about my condition, but not sadness or even fear. It seemed to me that those around me, particularly my family, were more fearful of what might happen to me than I was. I don’t believe it was innocence or ignorance, but rather a trust in the abilities of my doctors. It was as if my doctors and I had a silent bond. Now that I’m older I fear death and sickness in a more intense way than I remember experiencing it as a child. My experience as a child sparked a keen interest in how we approach pediatric care, especially as it relates to our psychological and emotional support of children facing serious medical conditions. It was here that I experienced first-hand the power and compassion of medicine, not only in healing but also in bringing unlikely individuals together, such as adults and children, in uncommon yet profound ways. And it was here that I began to take seriously the possibility of becoming a pediatric surgeon.

My interest was sparked even more when, as an undergraduate, I was asked to assist in a study one of my professors was conducting on how children experience and process fear and the prospect of death. This professor was not in the medical field; rather, her background is in cultural anthropology. I was very honored to be part of this project at such an early stage of my career. During the study, we discovered that children face death in extremely different ways than adults do. We found that children facing fatal illnesses are very aware of their condition, even when it hasn’t been fully explained to them, and on the whole were willing to fight their illnesses, but were also more accepting of their potential fate than many adults facing similar diagnoses. We concluded our study by asking whether and to what extent this discovery should impact the type of care given to children in contrast to adults. I am eager to continue this sort of research as I pursue my medical career. The intersection of medicine, psychology, and socialization or culture (in this case, the social variables differentiating adults from children) is quite fascinating and is a field that is in need of better research.

Although much headway has been made in this area in the past twenty or so years, I feel there is a still a tendency in medicine to treat diseases the same way no matter who the patient is. We are slowly learning that procedures and drugs are not always universally effective. Not only must we alter our care of patients depending upon these cultural and social factors, we may also need to alter our entire emotional and psychological approach to them as well.

It is for this reason that I’m applying to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, as it has one of the top programs for pediatric surgery in the country, as well as several renowned researchers delving into the social, generational, and cultural questions in which I’m interested. My approach to medicine will be multidisciplinary, which is evidenced by the fact that I’m already double-majoring in early childhood psychology and pre-med, with a minor in cultural anthropology. This is the type of extraordinary care that I received as a child—care that seemed to approach my injuries with a much larger and deeper picture than that which pure medicine cannot offer—and it is this sort of care I want to provide my future patients. I turned what might have been a debilitating event in my life—a devastating car accident—into the inspiration that has shaped my life since. I am driven and passionate. And while I know that the pediatric surgery program at Johns Hopkins will likely be the second biggest challenge I will face in my life, I know that I am up for it. I am ready to be challenged and prove to myself what I’ve been telling myself since that fateful car accident: I will be a doctor.


Medical School Essay Two

Prompt: Where do you hope to be in ten years’ time?

If you had told me ten years ago that I would be writing this essay and planning for yet another ten years into the future, part of me would have been surprised. I am a planner and a maker of to-do lists, and it has always been my plan to follow in the steps of my father and become a physician. This plan was derailed when I was called to active duty to serve in Iraq as part of the War on Terror.

I joined the National Guard before graduating high school and continued my service when I began college. My goal was to receive training that would be valuable for my future medical career, as I was working in the field of emergency health care. It was also a way to help me pay for college. When I was called to active duty in Iraq for my first deployment, I was forced to withdraw from school, and my deployment was subsequently extended. I spent a total of 24 months deployed overseas, where I provided in-the-field medical support to our combat troops. While the experience was invaluable not only in terms of my future medical career but also in terms of developing leadership and creative thinking skills, it put my undergraduate studies on hold for over two years. Consequently, my carefully-planned journey towards medical school and a medical career was thrown off course. Thus, while ten-year plans are valuable, I have learned from experience how easily such plans can dissolve in situations that are beyond one’s control, as well as the value of perseverance and flexibility.

Eventually, I returned to school. Despite my best efforts to graduate within two years, it took me another three years, as I suffered greatly from post-traumatic stress disorder following my time in Iraq. I considered abandoning my dream of becoming a physician altogether, since I was several years behind my peers with whom I had taken biology and chemistry classes before my deployment. Thanks to the unceasing encouragement of my academic advisor, who even stayed in contact with me when I was overseas, I gathered my strength and courage and began studying for the MCAT. To my surprise, my score was beyond satisfactory and while I am several years behind my original ten-year plan, I am now applying to Brown University’s School of Medicine.

I can describe my new ten-year plan, but I will do so with both optimism and also caution, knowing that I will inevitably face unforeseen complications and will need to adapt appropriately. One of the many insights I gained as a member of the National Guard and by serving in war-time was the incredible creativity medical specialists in the Armed Forces employ to deliver health care services to our wounded soldiers on the ground. I was part of a team that was saving lives under incredibly difficult circumstances—sometimes while under heavy fire and with only the most basic of resources. I am now interested in how I can use these skills to deliver health care in similar circumstances where basic medical infrastructure is lacking. While there is seemingly little in common between the deserts of Fallujah and rural Wyoming, where I’m currently working as a volunteer first responder in a small town located more than 60 miles from the nearest hospital, I see a lot of potential uses for the skills that I gained as a National Guardsman. As I learned from my father, who worked with Doctors Without Borders for a number of years, there is quite a bit in common between my field of knowledge from the military and working in post-conflict zones. I feel I have a unique experience from which to draw as I embark on my medical school journey, experiences that can be applied both here and abroad.

In ten years’ time, I hope to be trained in the field of emergency medicine, which, surprisingly, is a specialization that is actually lacking here in the United States as compared to similarly developed countries. I hope to conduct research in the field of health care infrastructure and work with government agencies and legislators to find creative solutions to improving access to emergency facilities in currently underserved areas of the United States, with an aim towards providing comprehensive policy reports and recommendations on how the US can once again be the world leader in health outcomes. While the problems inherent in our health care system are not one-dimensional and require a dynamic approach, one of the solutions as I see it is to think less in terms of state-of-the-art facilities and more in terms of access to primary care. Much of the care that I provide as a first responder and volunteer is extremely effective and also relatively cheap. More money is always helpful when facing a complex social and political problem, but we must think of solutions above and beyond more money and more taxes. In ten years I want to be a key player in the health care debate in this country and offering innovative solutions to delivering high quality and cost-effective health care to all our nation’s citizens, especially to those in rural and otherwise underserved areas.

Of course, my policy interests do not replace my passion for helping others and delivering emergency medicine. As a doctor, I hope to continue serving in areas of the country that, for one reason or another, are lagging behind in basic health care infrastructure. Eventually, I would also like to take my knowledge and talents abroad and serve in the Peace Corps or Doctors Without Borders.

In short, I see the role of physicians in society as multifunctional: they are not only doctors who heal, they are also leaders, innovators, social scientists, and patriots. Although my path to medical school has not always been the most direct, my varied and circuitous journey has given me a set of skills and experiences that many otherwise qualified applicants lack. I have no doubt that the next ten years will be similarly unpredictable, but I can assure you that no matter what obstacles I face, my goal will remain the same. I sincerely hope to begin the next phase of my journey at Brown University. Thank you for your kind attention.

To learn more about what to expect from the study of medicine, check out our Study Medicine in the US section.

Sample Essays

Related Content:

Tips for a Successful Medical School Essay

  • If you’re applying through AMCAS, remember to keep your essay more general rather than tailored to a specific medical school, because your essay will be seen by multiple schools.
  • AMCAS essays are limited to 5300 characters—not words! This includes spaces.
  • Make sure the information you include in your essay doesn't conflict with the information in your other application materials.
  • In general, provide additional information that isn’t found in your other application materials. Look at the essay as an opportunity to tell your story rather than a burden.
  • Keep the interview in mind as you write. You will most likely be asked questions regarding your essay during the interview, so think about the experiences you want to talk about.
  • When you are copying and pasting from a word processor to the AMCAS application online, formatting and font will be lost. Don’t waste your time making it look nice. Be sure to look through the essay once you’ve copied it into AMCAS and edit appropriately for any odd characters that result from pasting.
  • Avoid overly controversial topics. While it is fine to take a position and back up your position with evidence, you don’t want to sound narrow-minded.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Have multiple readers look at your essay and make suggestions. Go over your essay yourself many times and rewrite it several times until you feel that it communicates your message effectively and creatively.
  • Make the opening sentence memorable. Admissions officers will read dozens of personal statements in a day. You must say something at the very beginning to catch their attention, encourage them to read the essay in detail, and make yourself stand out from the crowd.
  • Character traits to portray in your essay include: maturity, intellect, critical thinking skills, leadership, tolerance, perseverance, and sincerity.

Additional Tips for a Successful Medical School Essay

  • Regardless of the prompt, you should always address the question of why you want to go to medical school in your essay.
  • Try to always give concrete examples rather than make general statements. If you say that you have perseverance, describe an event in your life that demonstrates perseverance.
  • There should be an overall message or theme in your essay. In the example above, the theme is overcoming unexpected obstacles.
  • Make sure you check and recheck for spelling and grammar!
  • Unless you’re very sure you can pull it off, it is usually not a good idea to use humor or to employ the skills you learned in creative writing class in your personal statement. While you want to paint a picture, you don’t want to be too poetic or literary.
  • Turn potential weaknesses into positives. As in the example above, address any potential weaknesses in your application and make them strengths, if possible. If you have low MCAT scores or something else that can’t be easily explained or turned into a positive, simply don’t mention it.

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