It had been quite a long day for the members of the admission committee for our esteemed medical school. We were part of the gatekeeper regiment and our  function was to  review the essays proclaimed “Why I Want to be a Doctor”
The essay usually fell in two categories-there were the highly polished sheen of those who appeared to have been written by a $300 per hour consultant to those who appeared to burn the midnight oil trying to make their case. Our eyes glazed over when we read yet another story of how my mother, father, aunt, sister, brother etc. was ill when I was a little child and I felt so helpless and decided then and there to save the world. And then he or she proceeded to do first aid on the doll baby, dog, little brother etc. Advancing through school or how they planned on reaching the heights of Paul Farmer or Albert Sweitzer.

Just as our eyes had started to glaze over, one of the essays made us sit up and pay attention. Crisp and well written, the essay had the pathos of Job but the detailed storytelling that was reminiscent of John Steinbeck. She wove a tale of illness that had stuck her family in their southern rural community and how taking care of her ill mother had cut into her school time and how she had to mature at an earlier age. All of us were at the point of tears when the essay was over except for one of our readers who we had nicknamed “Ms Sunshine” a tribute to her dour personality. She sat there, arms folds, looking cold as a stone. I summoned up my courage and asked “Why the long face?” “Well, it is a great essay, and it was great when I read the same essay last year”.

Let’s face it, most applicants have not wiped out cholera in Haiti or have discovered novel therapies for leukemia. As a result, the majority of the essays that I have received over the years fall into three main categories.

  • The Family and/or Personal Health Tragedy Category

Usually this involves the tragic illness of a close relative (or applicant) that strikes at an impressionable age (6-12) that shook the applicant to the core and inspired this devotion to the field.

  • The Love of Mankind Category

These essays fall into the category that “I want to save the world, I am a loving, giving person – I would even work for free in order to serve.” Well, here is the rub – every year we read hundreds of interviews that are variations of those two themes, so after a point it is difficult to find essays that are different and distinctive or unique. On scenario number one, while it is a touching story, it is about identification and service to a family member. As an essay reader, how do I know whether the applicant’s empathy will extend to the homeless drug addict and not just a blood relative? And in scenario number two, it is not sufficient to tell me how altruistic you are, one must show me examples of your altruism. One cannot substitute platitudes for effort – you cannot just talk a good game. In the essay you must give concrete examples of your devotion to the field – volunteering at a hospital, providing company for shut ins, tutoring children – these will not win you a Nobel prize, but are significant nonetheless. It is difficult to recommend an applicant who has all the best intentions but no concrete examples of service to the community.

  • The “Hook Them With Curiosity, and Hold Them With Conflict” Category

After having read literally hundreds of essays, the personal statement must be entertaining– if I have twenty essays sitting on my desk, if my attention is not captured almost immediately, then my mind wanders. As you write your personal statement, think about these lines:

“Call me Ismael” Moby Dick — Herman Melville

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred years of Solitude — Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“I am an invisible man” Invisible Man — Ralph Ellison

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  1984 — George Orwell

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”  The Trial — Joseph Kafka

In telling your story, you must hit the ground running. The first sentence in the story must be the most stellar sentence in the story. Examine the first lines of the novels above and I challenge any reader not be intrigued and anxious to keep reading. Introduce your character, but don’t dwell too long on the inner monologue before starting to tell your story. Something has to happen to someone. Avoid the habitual past, and get right to the direct, moving action.

Next, introduce the concept of conflict. Conflict is an absolute necessity of fiction short or long. Otherwise, what makes it worth reading? Will your conflict be, differences to reconcile, winners vs. losers, good guys vs. bad guys, inner struggles, existential angst, arguments, or merely difficult decisions? Whether trivial or magnanimous, the conflict is at the heart of both character and plot. And somewhere in the plot, this conflict often results in a significant shift in the personal universe. Avoid the obvious and the predictable. The essay should unfold as in entering a Japanese garden in which the concept of concealment is key.

“The Zen Buddhist garden is meant to be seen at all once, but the promenade garden is meant to be seen one landscape at a time, like a scroll of painted landscapes unrolling. Features are hidden behind hills, trees groves or bamboo, walls or structures, to be discovered when the visitor follows the winding path.”  Lead our reader down that winding path.

Furthermore, the utilization of irony truly can create interest in your essay. How can one do this? What is Irony? Irony is a disagreement or incongruity between what is said and what is understood, or what is expected and what actually occurs. Irony can be used intentionally or can happen unintentionally. Why is it important? Authors can use irony to make their audience stop and think about what has just been said, or to emphasize a central idea. The audience’s role in realizing the difference between what is said and what is normal or expected is essential to the successful use of irony. How do I do it? Create a discrepancy between what is expected and what actually happens, as in these examples. Stories are about change and hopefully maturity. This change is often propelled by a choice one must make as Robert Frost noted “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” But with the change comes the consequence– which may be good, bad, tragic unexpected or more but is essential in development of the central character. And this all builds to the climax where one has resolution, or reverberation or perhaps relief.

Writing Hints

  1. Use the active voice. The active voice is stronger than the passive voice.
  2. Every noun does not need an adjective.
  3. Reexamine every adverb and throw away at least half of them, especially those that end in “ly,” and almost all of the ones that end in “ly” to modify how a character has just said a line of dialogue.
  4. Choose strong words. Choose the right word, as Humpty Dumpty states in Alice in Wonderland “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”.

Jeffrey Mazique, MD is an Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences College of Medicine and Medical Officer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Dr. Mazique is also a board member of the National Youth Leadership Forum .

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