At this time of year, people start to think about their personal statements. We aim to have a series of our tutors write their take on this important piece of scripture. Here is our expert from last year:
The time of year has come around where you need to be doing some serious thinking about your UCAS form. Getting the right mix of academic, extracurricular and work experience information into your personal statement is crucial. You can have all the A*’s in the world, but that may not get you past the first hurdle if you can’t articulate how strong a candidate you are. Medicine is getting more and more competitive every year, and it’s a sad truth that many capable, diligent candidates don’t even make it to interview because they didn’t approach their application seriously enough -so showing due care when it comes to your personal statement is of utmost importance.
It’s mid-September now, later than I have written this piece in the past, but hopefully your school will have given you some useful advice on how to approach your personal statement, and here I aim to provide you with some details on the medical personal statement specifically.
Have you thought about what your reasons are for doing medicine? You will be asked this time and time again – from the personal statement, to the medical school interview and onwards for the rest of your career. You have to convince the reader is that you are someone who wants to help others, gets on with others but also that you are intrigued/attracted to/ideal for a lifetime pursuing a scientific path. Medicine may be very practical, but as an undergraduate you must display an interest in human science - this is particularly important for Oxford and Cambridge medical schools.
For most people, this will tend to be the bare bones of the first paragraph. If you have another great reason then share it, but know that you must be prepared to be grilled on this in an interview if your reasoning is eccentric or unconventional. I know of some people who over-weighted the idea of helping people in their personal statement, and were pointedly asked why they weren’t becoming aid workers, and others who over-emphasized the academic side and were duly grilled about their lack of compassion. Getting the right balance is crucial.
1/ Your first thoughts when you entered this world don’t necessarily have to have been “I want to do medicine.” People have lots of varied and good reasons for wanting to be Doctors, and many applicants seem to believe that they will be disqualified from this unless they say that they have wanted to be a doctor since age 5. In many ways it may show that your decision was more mature and considered.
2/ Beware the epiphany – People’s reasons for doing medicine are weird and wonderful, but beware saying that you had a dream or saw a man die and therefore want to save lives. The universities may feel that this is a little impulsive and may also doubt your soundness of mind. Many people have grown up around infirmity or had a particularly difficult experience as a child and subsequently decided that they want to make a meaningful contribution, but this is completely different from the “evangelist’s approach”. Medicine is a life choice and not something to be taken lightly. See the section on work experience.
This is an area that you should not need to comment on. Your grades are self-evident, and your referee should know to discuss your academic aptitude in their part of the statement.
Your work experience –
If you are applying to medical school this year, then by now you need to have conducted some work experience!
Now I know that it is incredibly difficult to get any work experience for young people these days unless you have family connections. Hospital trust administrators are notoriously pernickety (something which will undoubtedly plague you for the rest of your career) requiring mountains of paperwork before you even get near a hospital – but persistence is the name of the game here, and if nothing else it shows that you have the motivation to overcome adversity.
You need to have done some work experience to show that you understand the realities of medicine – this is a career that is not for everyone, and you must demonstrate that you understand all of the implications that illness and infirmity can have for an individual and their families, and thus can understand the importance of your decisions and demonstrating a keen sense of empathy. Furthermore, you actually need to make sure that this is the right thing for you. 6 years is a long time studying, and 30 years practising is even longer, so make sure you like the idea of working with people from all walks of life, and that you can stomach the idea of your Saturday night spent in A&E and a lifetime of studying!
Most medical schools will like you to demonstrate what the work experience meant for you. Whether it was a liver transplant, excision of big toenail or groin swab that you have seen, what did this mean for you? What have you learnt from the experience, and how did your perceptions change from when you first entertained the prospect of studying medicine?
The T-word - sigh, the word team is an over-used, but highly important word in medical school interviews and personal statements. Do you really know what an MDT is (mutli-disciplinary team for the un-enlightened)?
I am sure this is no news to you, but no one is going to let anyone into medical school if they don’t realise the importance of the nursing staff, the physiotherapists, the occupational therapists and the rest of the hospital staff. If you are mean to nurses they will bite. FACT. It is the nurses who will save you when you do your first on-call night 6 years from now and can’t quite work out what to do with this urine specimen or that blood form. They will be your best friends, so neglect them at your peril.
EXTRA-Curricular – This is your chance to wow us all with just how awesome you are. Whether you are the world underwater chess boxing champion, serious gamer or Greco-Roman wrestler extraordinaire, be sure to mention this and what you have learnt from it.
The personal statement is an opportunity for you to display a small part of your personality and to shine. Why would you study for 13 years and then not give due care to this snapshot of your life. It doesn’t have to be the most mellifluous piece of prose, but it certainly should capture the reader’s attention. Be succinct and make sure you aren’t shy – if you aren’t prepared to let the reader know about your hidden talents or display your passion for medicine, then there is a strong chance you might not get that medical school place you deserve. Get writing early, and show it to your reference writer as soon as possible. Good luck!
Tom is an Oxbridgemedicine tutor and studied at Oxford.