Lying On Medical School Personal Statement

Last Wednesday I helped giving a tour around campus for 6th formers here for medical interviews. It was a lot of fun, but above all really nostalgic. Memories of my interview and applying to Medical School in general came flooding back. This gave me the idea to write a bit about my experience, and what the experience is like in general applying to Medical School. I hope current medical students can read this and think back to their own experience whilst prospective students can see that they’re not alone. Any one else not studying Medicine can read and see the ordeals we suffered.

Getting into Medical School is hard. 60% of applicants don’t get a single offer. Some people have to reapply, and reapply, and reapply. Some people have been going through the cycle almost 5 years. Getting into Medical School is hard.

Making the decision to apply isn’t a light one. Personally, I was considering it for quite a while, maybe since year 10, but never set my mind on it. It was only after I’d had work experience that I decided ‘this if for me’. Others I’ve talked to have wanted to be a doctor as long as they can remember, others weren’t really sure but they ‘had to choose something and they liked biology so it seemed to make sense’, others felt themselves pushed into it because their parents were doctors or their parents wanted them to be a doctor. Others do it purely for the money. But overall I’d say the Medics I’ve met really are passionate about the career path they’ve taken and their decision to study Medicine was a well informed one.

So… where do you start with applying? Essentially, applying to study medicine is like applying for a job. You are applying for a job. Not only does your employer want you to be good enough to do the job, they want you to have a good idea of what the job entails. And how do you do that in Medicine? Work experience.

This forms a large part of the application process, some Unis even specify the minimum number of weeks work experience they want you to do. Some unis want you to have experience in a hospital. Some want you to have experience in a GP. Regardless, work experience is pretty much a must. For many people organising this can be a nightmare. Unless you know a doctor or your local hospital runs some sort of work experience scheme, finding work experience can be difficult.

For me, I spent a week at my local hospital, rotating around most of the departments. It was really interesting and I saw a lot of cool (well for me) things: leg amputations, toe amputations, mastectomies, reconstructions, haematoma removals, hernia removals, endoscopies…I saw some things man, nasty things.

You’ve got your work experience and you want to be a doctor, what next? As the competition for places has increased year after year, Medical schools have been forced to adopt new methods of selecting students…thus the UKCAT arrives. The UK Clinical Aptitude Test is a lot like an IQ test, where candidates answer questions on basic maths, logic, reasoning, spatial awareness and most recently ethics related questions, all the while pushed against the clock with what is a ridiculous time limit.

My memories of the test were mainly the minute between each section where you could take a deep breath and mentally prepare yourself for the upcoming section. Whilst you try finding a pattern between the shade of round objects and number of right angles in a set of shapes, those surrounding you taking their driving theory test are frantically clicking on an onscreen horse.

The other ‘entrance exam’ for a few UK medical schools is the BMAT, which is used at Imperial. Oh boy. The BMAT. A much more science based test, I haven’t met a Medical Student yet who said this test wasn’t one of the worst experiences of their life. Do you want to demoralise yourself? Take the BMAT. Do you want to convince yourself you should have done A level Physics? Take the BMAT. Do you want to remind yourself why you didn’t take A level English? Take the BMAT.

This test entails a logic section, a science and maths section, and worst of all an essay section. I’m glad I took the test now, otherwise I wouldn’t have ended up at Imperial, but at the time I just wanted to erase it permanently from my memory.

The personal statement. Another huge aspect of your Medical School application and one you fuss over right up until 15th October. Although the personal statement is something everyone applying to uni goes through, there’s still quite some differences.

Whereas most personal statements are all about ‘how much you love the subject’ and ‘how you’ve read this book and think this topic is really interesting’, a Medicine personal statement is different. The main topic is not the subject you want to study, the main topic is you: it really is a personal statement.

Anyone can talk about how interesting three parent IVF is, this tells a Medical School nothing about how you’re suited to being a doctor.Instead, your personal statement has to be filled with all these examples of how you’re a wonderful, well-rounded person who feeds starving children in Africa and plays sport at national level and you’re a concert violinist.

This is exaggeration but you talk to people for whom the above description is at least half true. Medical Schools want students whose life isn’t just Medicine and more Medicine. They want people who have hobbies, they want normal human beings. If you’re going to be spending the rest of your working life in a busy, long-hours job, you need something to help you relax and unwind. Imperial definitely emphasises this, the Medical School’s motto is “work hard, play harder”.

Writing my personal statement was frustrating, I had to convey so much with so few words. Luckily I had a lot to work with: work experience, conferences, volunteering, hobbies…the typical stuff for someone applying to Medical School. There’s different attributes you have to demonstrate too, like empathy and leadership. But you have to stand out, you have to make an impact. Striking a balance between all these different aspects is hard. I lost count of the number of times I redrafted that thing. I had it checked by so many people, my careers advisor, my academic tutor, people I’d met on work experience, English teachers. Never will you feel so vain in your entire life.

Looking back, I’m pretty proud of my personal statement, it’s well rounded, well structured, it’s the best damn thing I ever wrote. I don’t even feel big-headed about saying that. I’ve never put so much effort into one piece of text and many other Medics I’ve spoken to feel exactly the same about their personal statement.

And then, you wait. And wait. And wait And wait. Then if you’re lucky, you might get an interview or two. I somehow managed to get an interview here at Imperial, and a second one at Newcastle. The interview is the final hurdle in securing a place at Medical School. The Uni likes what it reads about you, you look good on paper, but do you match up in real life?

Interviews vary quite dramatically. My interview at Newcastle was a thirty minute long, push you to answer tough questions kind of interview. My Imperial interview was like a casual chat in comparison. The content matter varies, from science to current affairs, and the format varies too, one on one, two on one etc. Increasingly popular nowadays are multiple-mini interviews, where applicants rotate between a series of interviewers and discuss different topics.

If you’ve lied on your personal statement, you didn’t read that book you said you did, or you said you volunteered somewhere you didn’t, chances are they’re probably going to figure this out. Your personal statement often serves as a plan for the interview and interviewers will want you to talk at length about the things you’ve mentioned.

For me, interviews were unnerving, I’d mince my words, fiddle with my hands, and spend each minute thinking about what I should have said in the previous minute. Then after the interview everyone would ask each other how their interview went and try to undermine their confidence and say stupid things like “oh I hope I get in, I forgot to shake their hands when I left, do you think they’ll reject me?” I actually heard that once, no lie.

And then the waiting continues. Scrolling through student room forums and checking your email every five minutes, it becomes excruciating. And rejection happens. I was rejected from Oxford (like 80% of students at Imperial) without interview. I applied to study Chemistry at Durham for my 5th option (We medics only get 4 choices) and was quickly rejected too…but then strangely two weeks later my rejection was changed to an offer.

For the majority of the application process I told myself I’d never get a single offer. Rejections can really depress you. You don’t just feel like you’re smart enough, you feel like you’re not good enough in general, you’re not caring enough or you’re not well-rounded enough. It doesn’t feel like the Uni has a problem with your application, but rather they have a problem with you as a person.

But don’t think like that! It’s so competitive out there. The majority of applicants are good enough to go on and be great doctors, the problem is that there just isn’t enough places. When I found myself really down and despairing that my dreams of being a doctor were over (ugghhh such cliché), a friend told me that it would all plan out eventually and everything would work out for the best. It sounds like such typical advice for being rejected, but it really was true. Imperial was definitely the right choice for me, everything has worked out for the best.

It’s easy to say everything worked out okay sitting here with a place at Imperial College Medical School, but what about those of you out there going through all his right now? It can seem like the end of the world right now, and for quite long time after, but eventually it gets better. You see why this happened and see it’s for the best. Eventually might mean a few weeks or it might mean a few years. Eventually might mean reapplying next year or it might mean realising Medicine isn’t for you. Just hold on for the eventually. I sound so naïve and Disney style happily-ever-after optimistic, but if I’ve taken one thing away from applying to Medical school, this piece of advice would be it.

I don’t really know where I was going with this, I should plan my blog posts more. This started off as an account of my time applying to Medical School, quickly turning into some sort of “How to” on applying to study Medicine before becoming a motivational speech. Maybe next time I’ll keep better sight of what I was aiming for…

Nevertheless, good luck to all those applying this year, the ordeal is almost over!

 

 

You have missed every football game for the last two seasons. You really—and I mean really—wanted to go to that party you were invited to last week at the sorority house. But, you didn't. You studied instead. You have paid your premedical dues, and then some, but you are finally beginning to reap the rewards. You are about to submit your AMCAS application with that sparkling GPA and stellar MCAT score. Your advisor, your mother, the “experts” at the campus writing center—they've all told you the same thing: just sell yourself to the admissions committee in that personal essay and you're in. Don't look now, but you're about to plunge yourself headlong off a premedical cliff that has swallowed more than a few of your fellows. If you proceed to “sell yourself” to the admissions committee you may soon find yourself in a situation unimaginable to many premeds—a student with a stellar GPA, MCAT score, and impressive extracurricular activities who is not accepted to medical school.

Such was the case for an acquaintance of mine with a 38 on the MCAT and a 4.0 GPA. He had been to Africa. He had volunteered for three years at the local hospital. Did I mention his 38 on the MCAT? “I just don't understand it,” he opined, “How could no one accept me.” After reading only the first few sentences of his personal statement, his “unbelievable” scenario made perfect sense to me. He was selling himself hard to the admissions committee. It wasn't quite as bad as the grimace-inducing onslaught poured over unsuspecting browsers at the local used car lot—but I was still grimacing. Here's an excerpt from his essay: “These hands-on experiences in the O.R. demonstrate my determination to finish whatever task lies before me—however difficult the obstacles may be. My many hours of real-world clinical experience in the O.R. separate me from other applicants who have merely observed. This fact, combined with my passion for helping underserved populations, makes me a highly-qualified candidate for medical school.”1 In my experience, most readers will be divided, roughly 50:50, on their reaction to the preceding excerpt. Some of you may be thinking, “That sounded pretty convincing.” The other half of you may have begun to see where I am going. Take a careful look at the language: “demonstrate my determination . . . My real-world clinical experience . . . others have merely observed . . . makes me a highly-qualified candidate . . . “

Simply put, the tone of these sentences is self-important and arrogant. Even if it doesn't strike you that way, trust me, it will strike most admission committee members that way. Arrogance, overconfidence and naiveté are three character traits medical school officers not only dislike, but are on vigilant lookout to expose. Arrogance is thinking you are superior to others. Overconfidence is being more confident in yourself and your abilities than you should be. Naiveté is deficiency in wisdom or judgment due to lack of experience. Especially in the medical field, the first two are clear evidence of the third. For a premedical student who has barely mastered the basic prerequisites, any degree of arrogance or overconfidence is by definition naïve. In other words, you simply lack the experience to be overtly confident about what prepares you for medical school, what makes you better than another candidate, or even what medical school will really be like once you get there.  

While very few people would consider arrogance to be a desirable character trait, admissions committees have very specific reasons to dislike it. There is a monumental difference between medical school curriculum and even the most demanding undergraduate curriculum. One straight-A student from an Ivy League school—no slouch by anyone’s measure—described it as “the difference between sipping from a soda straw and drinking from a fire hose.” And that’s just the curriculum. Add to that unbearable stress, screaming supervisors, and sometimes inhumane stretches of sleeplessness. If you haven’t experienced it, you just don’t know what it will be like—and to think that you do is—well—it’s very naïve. Admissions committees are fully aware of this fact and have seen more than a few medical students suffer greatly as they try to make the transition. What they have also observed is that it is quite often the arrogant, overconfident types that suffer most. When you have yourself up on a pedestal it can be a very long fall. By contrast, it is the humble, teachable students who generally struggle the least. They accept criticism and correction more easily. Perhaps they expected it to be difficult for them in the first place—so they aren’t surprised.

Furthermore, ego-nursing medical students are more than just annoying to their colleagues. The conflict that arises when arrogance and medical school reality collide often results in the one thing administrators fear above all else—attrition. For naïve premeds—and the rest of us—I’ll translate: attrition is a fancy word for the problem of medical school “drop outs.” Medical schools hate drop outs. They hate them so much they won’t even use the word—so they discuss attrition rates instead. In an effort to prevent this dishonorable situation, medical schools have tried to identify reliable warning signs—and yep, you guessed it, arrogance and naiveté are near the top of the list. It is for this precise reason that you will often hear admissions officers use buzzwords like: “self-aware,” “teachable,” or “easily corrected.” Interview questions and secondary prompts designed to uncover arrogance or overconfidence are commonplace. One such question, “Describe your greatest weakness?” is almost ubiquitous. A manual given to members of the admissions committee at one medical school gives committee members four major criteria on which to judge applicants, one of which is “their ability to recognize their own weaknesses.”

To drive this point home, try this exercise: Use words like humble, teachable, and self-aware to describe a used car salesman. How about that vacuum salesman who knocked on your door last week? Did he convey an impression of humility and self-awareness? I didn’t think so. At least the Oreck-Man was selling a product. Portraying humility becomes even more difficult when the product you are trying to “sell” is yourself. The bottom line is this: the concept of “selling oneself,” is an awful way to approach writing your personal statement--even if your advisor told you to do it.

David Trabilsy, former Assistant Dean of Admissions at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine lamented that one of his greatest pet peeves were “Applicants who . . . showed signs of arrogance—there was no room for these kinds of students at our school.”3

Just last week I was editing a personal statement for one of the students in our MCAT prep program. The same essay had been edited previously by the student’s pre-med advisor and by a counselor at the university’s writing lab. One comment challenged the student to “Make it more clear why you are better than the other candidates.” Another reviewer wrote: “You need to sell yourself to the committee.” Another commend suggested: “Imagine yourself like a lawyer before the court, you’ve got to make a stronger case for why they should choose you.” Obviously, this advice is somewhat in conflict with the tone of Dr. Trabilsy’s comments. There is no question Dr. Trabilsy is right.

Now you’ve been warned. Write convincingly, but always strive to portray yourself as refreshingly humble and teachable. Do NOT try to “sell” yourself to the committee. Here are a few simple Dos and Don’ts:

 

Do share impressive and unique experiences that demonstrate your positive character traits.

Do not overtly claim that you have a given character trait—let the reader draw that conclusion for themselves.

Do speak about what you have learned and how you have grown or matured.

Do not list off your accomplishments or “toot your own horn.”

Do focus on yourself. ADCOMS sincerely want to know you and understand what makes you tick.

Do not compare yourself to others. That’s the committee’s job, not yours.

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If you or someone you know is applying to medical school and could benefit from these kinds of insights, encourage them to follow our blog and to check out the Altius MCAT preparation course. 

Notes:

1. Excerpt from an actual personal essay submitted to the Altius Admissions Consulting Team in 2012. Reprinted with student’s permission. Name witheld.

2. Follow-Up Audit of Medical School Admissions, University of Utah. Report # 2003-07. Office of the Legislative Auditor General, State of Utah, July 2003. You can read the full report here.

3. Tralisby, David. Reflections of a Former Admissions Dean. An open letter to medical school students from former Assistant Dean of Admissions, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, 1987-2000. Read Dr. Tralisby’s full letter here

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