By Diane Spivak
As you prepare for the personal comments section of the AMCAS application, it’s helpful to remember an important point: it’s not actually an essay. It’s really a sales pitch. Here’s a crude way to explain this concept: Imagine that you, the applicant, are a roll of toilet paper and the Admissions Officer is one of those thirty-something moms seen in TV ads, agonizing over which brand to purchase. How does she choose? Consumers goods companies spend millions of dollars on this very question. Their goal is to get people to see differences in products that are actually quite similar. You need to have the same objective, because on paper you’re just like hundreds of other medical school applicants, with high marks, good MCAT scores and great extra-curriculars.
Admissions officers spend only a few minutes reading your statement. Therefore, you want to find a way to make them remember you, and to make your accomplishments and individuality stand out. One method to help you determine how to do this is to take a marketer’s approach. Consider yourself as a roll of toilet paper that needs a brand identity and you just might find a sharper focus for the interesting story of you that that those 5300 characters must tell.
How to Begin
You don’t need a marketing degree or a working knowledge of Mad Men, although it doesn’t hurt to search out and read a few articles about how businesses develop brand identity. One thing they do is spend time reflecting on the attributes and values of the brand, to help them consider how it is perceived in the marketplace. There are many standard exercises that companies they use as a starting point to this process.
Applying these exercises to a person may seem a bit silly, but they force you to think about what’s important to your identity, how others see you and how you want to be perceived. You have already been told that you should “be yourself” in your essay and in interviews. What you really want to be is your “best self,” someone who is mature enough to understand who s/he is, has thought deeply about what’s important to them, and has considered how their life experience has led them to a career in medicine. These exercises can be a step forward in that direction.
Exercise #1: Create a list of adjectives that describe your personality.
To help generate this, try searching word lists for adjectives that describe personal qualities. Or, think of the adjectives in terms of opposites. Are you outgoing or reserved? Pragmatic or impulsive? Logical or whimsical? Try to find at least ten adjectives that apply to you.
Exercise #2: List your strengths and weaknesses.
This is for your eyes only, so be honest and don’t judge yourself too harshly. Remember that the point of this is only to help find a focus for your personal statement, not to detail a list of your faults.
Exercise #3: What kind of car, type of animal, brand of cell phone are you?
Keep a lighthearted approach to this exercise but also take the time to reflect on the values you think your answers have. Ask your close friends for their opinions and note any important discrepancies. If you think of yourself a lion, but all your friends imagine you as a golden retriever, it’s worthwhile to spend some time considering why that may be and how you can ensure your essay reflects the image you want to portray.
Exercise #4: Develop a three or four word description for your life story thus far.
You’re in Hollywood, pitching a script of your movie bio to a producer. You’re writing a blurb as a bio for your highly anticipated memoirs. What would you say about yourself? This may be the toughest of all the exercises, but having a list of adjectives that describe you should make the process a little bit easier.
How to Apply This to your Personal Statement
The ultimate goal of the personal statement is to convince admissions officers that you have the motivation, focus, energy and sincerity needed to be a good medical student and a good doctor. Use the insights you’ve gained by doing these exercises to help create a more interesting story about your life experience.
The essay will be most persuasive when it’s the most authentic. If the exercises reveal that you are quiet, dependable and somewhat intense, a tortoise that can turn into mule, a Honda Civic who doesn’t need to flash your solid structure and fuel efficiency, then use that knowledge to your advantage. As you are writing, show examples of your focus, your long-term motivation and your determination to succeed as a doctor.
It’s also important that you don’t try to be something you are not. Mark was a pre-med student who also happened to play guitar and sing in a local band. The first draft of his essay hardly mentioned this fact, because Mark decided that it would be seen as frivolous. He felt the best way to persuade schools that he was a qualified candidate was to write about his work as a research assistant to a pediatric cardiologist. Mark’s MCAT scores were high, but in his first two years of university he was considering a future in music and his marks were less than stellar. When he switched from arts into sciences they drastically improved, but a slight discrepancy remained in his transcripts.
Mark struggled with his personal statement because it seemed quite boring. When he spent some time in contemplation of his personal ‘brand,’ he realized that that the creative side of him was crucial to his identity and too important to exclude. Once he made that decision, Mark had a story to tell and in his final draft, the first line of his personal statement went something like this: “I wasn’t always sure I wanted to be a doctor, because when I was younger, I dreamed of being a rock musician.”
The essay went on to explain what led Mark to change his focus. He found space to include some of the standard biographical features that are in most personal statements, including his experiences with patient care as a research assistant. He acknowledged his early lack of focus and spoke frankly about developing the discipline needed to achieve better marks. He was also able to discuss how his research work helped him understanding the creative element in medicine and how this experience cemented his excitement about his potential future as a doctor.
Mark’s understanding about what was important to him gave him the tools to tell a compelling story about his ordinary life. The content of his essay wasn’t much different from what other candidates might say. But his refreshing honesty showed maturity and allowed him to showcase his dedication and his eagerness to make a real contribution. He received several interviews and ultimately got into the school of his choice.
Sometimes, in order to create a brand identity, consumer goods companies invent differences in products where none really exist. That’s not advisable for you to do, but neither is it necessary. You aren’t a roll of toilet paper. You already are a unique individual with your own story to tell. Spending time thinking of you as a brand that needs to be sold to the world may feel a little bit uncomfortable. However, if it pushes you to write a more genuinely persuasive personal statement, it will be worth the effort.