ADMISSIONS BLOG

Admissions Blog

The writer, Tan Chin Yee, is an MD-PhD candidate who joined Duke-NUS Medical School in 2015. He completed his first 2 years in the MD programme and is about to begin his PhD research abroad, in Duke University, Durham, NC.

I’d like to start off, perhaps disappointingly, by saying that there is no correct way to write a personal statement. In preparing for medical school and graduate school applications, I’ve consulted online resources [1, 2, 3] which provide guiding questions and even dos and don’ts of writing personal statements. I’ve also glanced through books of compiled personal statements (all scrutinized and allocated grades by an expert panel, mind you). To some extent, these resources are useful if you are just getting started. You might need a rough idea of the morphology and style of a personal statement, and these serve as useful starting material to help get your creative process going. However, be mindful that they are at best adjuvants. Remember that the personal statement is supposed to be personal, hence the mission here is to tell, in a matter of 1-2 pages and in your own words, your story from aspiration to application.

I’d like to imagine a scenario where somehow, your personal statement was misplaced and found by a passerby. She picks it up and reads it in its entirety. Now, the admissions committee appears in a sleek black limo and invites her for coffee at the café next door, and starts interrogating her if you are a good match for their programme. She does not have the foggiest idea what you look like nor what your motivations, interests, accomplishments and defeats, and aspirations are. But somehow, the words in your personal statement come to life in the passerby’s mind; they start taking form and tell a coherent, compelling and lucid story about how you came to become the person you are, how you arrived at the decisions you have made, how you are an excellent fit for the programme. In spite of you being a total stranger, this passerby in reading your personal statement has already been galvanized to your cause. She will fight tooth and nail to ensure you get called for interviews. This is the effect you want your personal statement to have.

How does one begin? I find that a useful framework for writing a personal statement comprises orientation, introspection, consultation and revision.

Orientation

It is important to first consider the question being asked in the essay topic. Some programmes require you to submit a personal statement, without any guiding questions. However if there are guiding questions, it would be reasonable to sculpt your writing to address those points, as it will provide the admissions committee with relevant and valuable information. It also helps you to keep your essay concise and to-the-point.

Introspection

Again, tell a personal story. As with anything to do with applications to a programme that will define the next few decades of your life, you need to be able to convince yourself of your reasons for applying. Be patient and take time to ruminate [4], challenge those thoughts and filter out those which do not hold up against interrogation. I found that it helped to pen down random, fleeting ideas that emerged in my reflection, and they eventually weaved their way either into the ideas dumpster or my essay. This also implies that the process of developing your personal statement should be initiated ages before you click the “submit” button; while the actual pen to paper may take only a day for some, you should begin the thought process well in advance.

Consultation

This is actually important. We have all been confronted with situations where we were utterly convinced of our beliefs only to find that we’re alone in our opinion. After visiting the barber, I am often convinced that I have secured a great deal in a symmetrical, tidy yet exceedingly stylish $3.90 haircut, only to receive scathing reviews from trusted classmates on Monday morning. As with the example of the passerby above, your personal statement has to convince a neutral party of your conviction and stand the test of their scrutiny. Get a diverse group of people to read your essay, and see if they get the message you are trying to convey. Beyond helping to spot grammatical and spelling errors, these reviewers could help pinpoint areas which require elaboration and strengthening. Which statements are superfluous? Which ideas could be further developed? Elicit their feedback on what can be better expressed, and iteratively improve your essay.

Revision

Lastly, a personal statement isn’t a timed essay spewed out from an exam cubicle. Take advantage of this. Draft after draft, your writing is bound to improve, especially with feedback from others. You will get tired working on this essay, as I did. Thankfully you have 3-4 more essays to write while you take a break from the personal statement, so revisit it with fresh eyes later.

TL;DR: 3 things.

1) Tell a story. Make it personal.
2) Seek feedback.
3) Start thinking and planning early.

I wish you all the best in your writing and in applications. Hope to see you around school.

By: Tan Chin Yee (Duke-NUS MD-PhD candidate)

Resources
1. Carnegie Mellon University Health Professions Program: https://www.cmu.edu/hpp/apply-to-schools/personal-statements/tips.html
2. Berkeley Career Centre: https://career.berkeley.edu/Grad/GradStatement
3. University of Maryland, Baltimore County Career Centre: http://careers.umbc.edu/students/gradschool/personal-statement/
4. The surprising habits of original thinkers: https://www.ted.com/talks/adam_grant_the_surprising_habits_of_original_t...