Personal Essay

The AMCAS, ACOMAS, AADSAS, and VMCAS applications, as well as the applications for non-AMCAS schools, will require you to include a one-page essay, the “Personal Comments.”

For AMCAS, the essay is limited to 5300 characters (including spaces). The directions for the essay are deliberately somewhat vague. They read:

“Use the Personal Comments essay as an opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants. Some questions you may want to consider while writing this essay are: Why have you selected the field of medicine? What motivates you to learn more about medicine? What do you want medical schools to know about you that hasn’t been disclosed in other sections of the application? 

But you should not let these prompts prevent you from writing an interesting and enjoyable composition. Also, do not let the vague directions lead you to write a vague, philosophical essay. This is not an exercise in creative writing; its purpose is to provide solid information about you to the admissions committees. Remember, not until you arrive for an interview will the admissions committee members have the opportunity to get to know you in person, so initially, your essay needs to speak for you.

Your Essay Reflects You

Although a poorly-written essay may not prevent an applicant with an outstanding academic record from being invited for an interview, a well-written essay might make the difference to those committee members who look for evidence of personal strength as they decide whether to interview an applicant with an average academic record or whether to admit an academically qualified applicant. Your essay should distinguish you as a candidate.

Another common use of the personal essay is to provide a background for those committee members who will interview you. In some cases, the interviewer will have no other documents available except the essay, and he or she will conduct the interview “blind.” The questions directed to you will concern the activities and interests that you have included in the essay, so the overall theme of the Personal Essay should be your career motivation. Simple declarations of strong motivation, however, will not convince anyone. An effective application essay is built on deeds rather than thoughts.

Personal Essay Subject Matter

How much you want to be a physician/dentist/vet will show in the manner in which you have chosen to spend your time in the most recent years. To make the strongest case for yourself as a candidate for admission, you should discuss your accomplishments and activities to date rather than mention all the things that you think are wrong with the health profession and its current members. The three most common subjects for successful personal comments essays are:

  • Academics. A particular academic or intellectual interest, independent study, study abroad, any uncommon academic experience. Here, you should include an explanation for any unusual circumstances such as a leave of absence.
  • Extracurricular interests in college. Volunteer and service activities, work-study placement, organizations in which you have played an active or leadership role.
  • Personal interactions. With patients, teachers, role models, etc.

Personal Essay Space Limitation

A 5300-character essay can rarely treat all three topics well. Some applicants have a particular interest that spans both their academic life and their extracurricular one and will be able to use that interest as a thread to tie their essay together (e.g., a person who has been interested in the biology of AIDS, done research in an AIDS lab, and volunteered with patients who are HIV+ or have AIDS). Sometimes an applicant has something quite interesting about herself or himself that has absolutely nothing to do with her or his interest in medicine but may help her or him to stand out from other applicants as someone a screener might want to meet. Do not sacrifice details in order to list every group membership and volunteer experience. The essay will sound like an uninteresting list and will say nothing about you that cannot be said for most applicants. Some key points to keep in mind when writing the personal essay:

  • Don’t be wildly creative
  • Be positive
  • Use perfect English
  • Don’t list
  • Don’t over inflate or under-inflate your accomplishments/activities (don’t use the term “co-founder of ___ club” unless that is the case)
  • Check for typos and remember that spell checkers don’t catch all errors (e.g., “there” rather than “their”)
  • Don’t misquote anyone (if your lab mentor said “We are going to submit a paper that includes your data” don’t say “My data was used in a published paper”)
  • Don’t include inaccuracies or unsubstantiated claims
  • If your essay only repeats what is already in your application, you have missed a golden opportunity
  • Don’t place blame on others for you own mistakes
  • Avoid phrases such as “gained valuable experience” and “became intrigued with the human body”
  • Use action verbs and active voice rather than “I was given the opportunity to volunteer (or work) in”
  • Circle all the times you used “I”–you will know if it is too many (commonly called “I disease” by admission committees)
  • Be personal rather than distant
  • Don’t be gratuitous (“Let me start by thanking you for reading this essay.”)
  • After you’ve written a draft, ask yourself, “How many other applicants could have written this same essay?” If the answer is many, tear it up and start again.

Note: Fisher Price made a lot of money selling the plastic “doctor kit” that helped you (and thousands of others) “know” that you wanted to be a doctor. Even if you believe this to be the case, spare the committee from reading about yet another Fisher Price epiphany.

Essay Revision

The essay you submit to HPA should be a draft of the essay you intend to submit to the common application service. Please keep in mind that your finalized draft – when you submit it to the common application service – should be approximately 5300 characters.

During the spring of the application cycle, you will receive general feedback from your HPA interviewer on the draft of your personal statement you have submitted via your myHPA profile. While we do not expect the draft to be of final quality, it would be wise to put significant thought and work into the draft in order to take advantage of feedback your HPA interviewer can give on your essay.

Because of time constraints, we will be unable to comment on later drafts. If you change your essay considerably, however, you may submit a revised essay directly to your HPA interviewer for inclusion in your file. Like medical school admission committees, we will use the essay to develop a further understanding of your motivation to pursue a career in your health profession of choice.

Resources

Duke-Only Resource: Tools to help assist you with your essay are available in the Application Process section of our Resources page.

Write for Success: Preparing a Successful Professional School Application, by E. W. Jackson and H. R. Bardo. This excellent publication is available in the HPA office and at the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions website.

Writing About Me, by Barbara Huntington (the prehealth advisor at San Diego State University), available on Amazon.com)