Avoiding Common Pitfalls When Applying to Med School

Over 50,000 doctor-hopefuls will apply to medical school this year and most won’t get in. That’s a somewhat depressing statistic if you’re getting ready to apply to a med school program. So what can you do to escape the grim fate of failure and help your chances of receiving that coveted acceptance letter?

Many of those who get rejected from medical schools fall into similar traps. AdmissionsConsultants sees applicants make the same kinds of mistakes year after year. They cite three common weaknesses in medical school applications—personal statements, recommendations, and interviews.

Pitfall #1: Personal Statements

Your personal statement may be the most important writing you do in your career, and yet, it’s one of the biggest problem areas for med school applicants. The key thing to remember about your personal statement is that it should tie the rest of your application together. Instead of simply restating the information in your application, your personal statement should give the admissions committee important insights it might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn about you. An unsuccessful personal statement has the potential to destroy your candidacy.

“The personal statement makes sense of the application data for the reader,” says Dr. Tim Wu, who served on the SUNY Downstate College of Medicine admissions committee. “A good personal statement will serve to give the admissions committee some added insight into your candidacy—something your application and its data would otherwise not communicate. A weak personal statement destroys any chance you may have had at communicating with the admissions committee prior to the interview. The personal statement is your chance to prove your worth for an interview slot.”

Dr. Tom Boyd, who has served on the admissions committee for the medical school at Ohio State, agrees. “Your personal statement may be the most important single piece of writing you do in your entire medical career. Do not use this precious space simply to reiterate accomplishments that the committee can learn about from the rest of your portfolio. Instead, use it to capture the attention of the readers and convince them that you have meaningful personal motivations for a career in medicine and have pursued your interest in a way that has prepared you for its challenges.”

Dr. Mark Edney, who served on the admissions committee at Dartmouth Geisel Medical School, emphasizes that the quality of the writing is as important as the content. A poorly written personal statement can make a very bad impression. “In a typical year on the committee at Dartmouth, I would personally read about 200 essays,” Dr. Edney says. “They are the most time-consuming part of the application to evaluate. Poorly written and edited essays are a drag to muddle through.”

Dr. Edney offers three pieces of advice to help applicants ensure they submit well-written essays. First, find someone who will give you objective feedback. Ask him to review your essay for style, grammar, and content. Next, be brief. If you can say the same thing in fewer words, you should. Finally, use the statement to reveal something insightful about yourself. Instead of just saying you went to Russia to teach English, explain how the experience changed you and your perspectives.

“An effective statement needs to be a good piece of writing that is well edited and reveals something about who you are that is not apparent elsewhere in your file,” says Dr. Edney.

However, while good content alone isn’t enough, nor is a well-written essay. You must have both quality and content that stand out. Try to avoid using the same reasons as everyone else for wanting to go to med school. “This is what I’ve come to call the ‘September 11th response’ to med school applications,” says Dr. Wu. “Shortly after 9/11, many med school applicants turned in personal statements that cited the events of 9/11 and its human loss as their reasons for wanting to go to med school. It was a little difficult to believe they were all being sincere.”

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