Personal Statements: Your Portrait in 5,000 Characters or Less

October 20, 2014

Have you ever taken to the task of trying to put on paper what is special, unique, distinctive and impressive about you and your life story? Well, if you are applying to graduate and/or medical school, you soon will in the form of a personal statement.

Personal statements are a standard part of the application and they give you the chance to sell yourself to the admissions committee. Often times, you are given a somewhat general and vague prompt to tell the committee about yourself and how their program fits into your longer term career goals. This type of prompt gives you much more flexibility. Other applications, however, might ask you to answer a specific question, or they may even require that you answer three to four different types of questions in shorter essay forms. Here are some things to keep in mind as you draft any personal statement:

If you are unclear about length requirements, then double check! Brevity is often preferred so make sure each line is clear and concise. Each school/program is a little bit different and it behooves you to make sure you are following the directions and answering the prompts perfectly for that specific program. This means tailoring each essay/answer for every school you are applying to!

How did you become interested in this field? What have you done to confirm this decision as your next step? Have you overcome any challenges or obstacles during this process? What skills/personal characteristics have been highlighted through your experiences?

Most people prefer to be told information through a story rather than reading a rote list of qualifications, so be sure to demonstrate your skills through concrete experiences in the form of anecdotes.

Sure, you are writing a personal statement but it shouldn’t be too personal, especially if you write about a topic that would make you uncomfortable to talk about in person. Writing about a topic alone at your laptop can be very different than speaking about that same topic in a room full of strangers (i.e., the admissions committee interview). Many times we see applicants who are shocked to be asked about something they wrote about in their personal statement. If you write about it, then be prepared to be asked follow up questions. Therefore, use your best judgment about your own comfort level, but remember to be judicious in what you share.

First impressions exist on paper too! Your first paragraph is often the most important – you will either pull the reader in or bore them. Concentrate on making your first paragraph as strong as it can be. If a theme emerges that you can sustain throughout each paragraph, then great; however, don’t feel beholden to this either.

The person reading your document has most likely read hundreds of applications before yours. Applicants forget that faculty read these and are looking more for professionalism than cute stories. Try your best to avoid clichés that will make your personal statement blur together with the stack of other applicants. Clichéd statements such as, “I want to go to medical school because I like science and helping people,” are much too vague. Be as specific as you can – your reason for pursuing graduate/medical school should emerge as the logical conclusion from your detailed experiences.

Remember basic writing tenets like using strong, active verbs and avoiding run-on sentences. It can be helpful to use spell check and to read aloud for errors like noun/verb agreement. Try to also avoid using colloquial language like “cool” too much. You want your personality to come out, but you also want to present the most polished, professional version of yourself that you can.

There isn’t one correct way to write a personal statement, especially since it should be representative of your personality, intellect and cumulative experience. For graduate school, you focus on a concise description of your past research experiences followed by a specific linking of how that relates to your interest in that specific program. The same is true for medical school, but you are highlighting a combination of both your research and clinical experiences. Take some time to be introspective during the drafting process, but be sure to seek advice and input from family, friends, colleagues, mentors and the OITE.

Some helpful videos to check out:

What Admissions Directors Think About Getting Into Graduate School:

Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School:

Writing Personal Statements for Professional School:

Graduate School Overview:


Preparing for the Application Season

June 3, 2013

Regardless of whether you are planning on applying to Graduate School or Professional school, a successful application requires preparation.  If you remember one word from this post, remember “Early.”  Take your exams (GRE, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, etc.) early.  Get your letters of recommendation lined up early.  Write your personal statement early.  Have someone look over your materials early.  Submit your applications early.  When you get an interview, show up early.

For those applying to graduate school:

You will want to have your GRE taken by the end of August or beginning of September.  This means you need to start studying now.  In particular, you need to go back and review your high school math.  If you don’t use, you lose it.  The chances are that you haven’t used much of what will be on the test in your four (or more) years of undergrad.  You need to take practice exams…lots of them.  Much of successful test taking is being comfortable and familiar with the format.  Reading about the format is not the same as practicing it.

So why do you need to get your GRE done so early?  So you can know whether or not to retake the exam.  If you are unsure whether your scores are strong enough for a particular program, ask the Director of that program.  Unlike Medical School, these programs are trying to recruit you.  Most of the time, the program directors will respond directly to your e-mail asking about the strength of your application.   Writing in with your scores early shows that you are prepared and organized.  Writing in late, shows just the opposite.

For those applying to professional schools:  This specific material is written for Medical School applications, but the principles apply to all professional school applications.

Submit your AMCAS as soon as possible (note, that is another way to say “Early”).  Ideally, you want to submit it with in two weeks of the opening. Do NOT wait for your MCATs.  You can always add more schools later depending on where your scores make you most competitive.  Your odds of acceptance decrease the later you submit your application.  You simply do not look prepared if your application comes in right before the terminal deadline.  Also, medical schools review applications in waves.  The sooner your application is in, the fewer competitors you have for the most number of invitations.

Once your applications are in, pay attention to your e-mail.  Even if you are on vacation, check it daily.  You want to get your secondaries turned around and back to the schools quickly.  You need to show that you are eager to get in and that you are organized enough to turn things around quickly.  If your secondary sits in your inbox for a week while you are relax on vacation, you look eager to relax on vacation and not attend medical school.

For all applicants:

Nothing is as valuable as face-to-face interactions with representatives of the schools you are applying to.  If you are in the Washington D. C. area, the NIH hosts a “Graduate and Professional School Fair” on July 17 in Bethesda.  This is really a first chance to meet admissions officers and make a strong impression.  There will be 153 programs in attendance to meet with postbacs and students as well as informational sessions geared toward specific disciplines such as med schools, dental school, pharmacy school, psychology programs, PhD programs in biomedical sciences.  If you are in the area, this really is an opportunity you do not want to miss.

Your Medical and Dental School Application Plan

January 31, 2013

It’s the end of January, which means if you plan to go to medical or dental school in August 2014, you need to start the process now.  You’re thinking to yourself, “What?  Most schools don’t have application deadlines until October, or even November.  Why are we talking about applications now?”  That’s a great question, and a simple one to answer: Getting into medical or dental school takes time and planning.

To keep from being overwhelmed or from missing an important deadline (when is your MCAT or DAT test date?) you need to create a schedule, complete with a calendar of important dates and deadlines.  OITE has put together a basic schedule that you can use to create your own, more detailed one.  The first step in creating your schedule is to go to the OITE Online Resources page and download the “Medical School Application Schedule for Admission in August 2014.” While you are on the OITE Online Resources page, take a look at the other resources OITE offers to help you with the application process.

Now that you have the OITE schedule, contact your undergraduate institution’s pre-professional advising office. Pre-professional advising offices offer a wide variety of services to assist you in getting your application together, and ensuring it is as professional as possible.  Contact your office, and let them know you are applying this year, and make sure you incorporate any of their deadlines into your schedule.

Your next step is visiting the American Medical College Application Service, or AMCAS, website.  AMCAS is a non-profit application service provided by the American Association of Medical Colleges.  You create an account, complete an online application, and select which medical schools you want to receive a copy of your application.  You create one single application and AMCAS provides that application to each school.  For those of you interested in Dental school, the American Dental Education Association has a similar service called the Associated American Dental Schools Application Service (AADSAS).

Most US medical and dental schools only accept applications through AMCAS or AADSAS. Visit the AMCAS or the AADSAS website to learn about the process.  Enter into your schedule deadlines for when you plan to complete the different parts of the application.  After you complete and submit your application it can take up to 6 weeks of processing before it can be sent to your schools.  You should plan to have all your application materials ready for submission to AMCAS or AADSAS in early June. That way, if your top choice school has an early application deadline, you will not miss it.

Finally, take advantage of the seminars and other resources OITE offers.  The Application Schedule for Admission in August 2014 includes the dates of workshops on writing personal statements and filling out applications.  You can also arrange an appointment with the OITE’s pre-professional advisor.

Don’t procrastinate and try to cram the entire application process into a single month.  Instead, build a calendar of deadlines and milestones that break up the application process into small, achievable steps.

NIH Resources Help You Get Where You’re Going

October 22, 2010

Thanks to all who participated in yesterday’s online chat on careers in big pharma. We had a RECORD 314 visitors for the chat! Our next “A Day in the Life of…” online chat will be held on Thursday, November 18, 2010, from 12noon – 1pm. Stay tuned for the featured career.

Arrow signToday I’d like to share two new NIH resources with you.

One is an upcoming online chat for all trainees considering graduate or professional school. The other is a fabulous website with information on genomics careers for trainees at all levels.

1) Next week, on Thursday, October 28 at 12noon EST, OITE will be hosting:

Getting In: Everything You Need to Know about Graduate and Professional School Admissions

This online chat will be hosted by Dr. Pat Sokolove, Deputy Director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education, and Dr. Bill Higgins, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Maryland and Pre-professional Advisor for trainees at the NIH, and an expert on getting to graduate and professional school and succeeding there. Bring your questions to this live chat to learn more about the ins and outs of applying to graduate and professional school.

Click here to set up a reminder email for yourself for next week’s event.

2) Genomics Careers

A colleague of mine in the OITE Career Center emailed me recently about a website created by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), highlighting genomics careers. I figured it was just another list of links to different career sites out there, but I visited the site and was impressed both by the breadth of careers featured and by the clever design of the site.

Genomics Careers invites you to rate careers of interest after reading about them, so you can track your favorites. It also includes a “Genomics Challenge,” which I fared very poorly on, I’m afraid. The Challenge involves watching – and listening closely to –  several video clips of professionals in various fields describing their career paths. Based on the information shared, the viewer has to guess which field they are in.

This is a novel approach to learning about a variety of career options, and I highly recommend you check it out!

And please pass along any great resources you come across–either within or outside of the NIH!