What Your Personal Statement Doesn't Say About You

Liana Meffert, MD


June 21, 2022

Well folks, it's that time of year again. Whether you are in the precontemplation stage of your personal statement or have a finished first draft, the personal statement can be a uniquely challenging and vexing beast. The "personal" in personal statement is almost a misnomer because, for some, this might be the most widely read piece of writing you ever compose. Though your readership is vast, and said readership is responsible for making decisions about your future, remember, keep it personal.

Also: Maintain humility while speaking to your successes and demonstrate a single-minded commitment to volunteering, academic achievement, research, and fellow student community — all while pursuing hobbies that cultivate a deep interpersonal life as wild and thrumming with activity as an unpruned garden to help maintain the facade of a completely relatable, down-to-earth, 8-hour sleeping, 3-meals-a-day eating human being that sells handmade wax candles on Etsy, sends cards on birthdays, and calls home every Sunday.

One of my close friends works with medical students to help them navigate the fickle waters of their personal narratives. She is part editor, part therapist. Despite the many progressive steps medical education has taken over the past several decades, applicants across disciplines are still weighing the pros and cons of revealing intimate details of their lives. Should they mention that they have a child (or are planning to), suffer a chronic disease, or disclose a time they struggled, and, get this, didn't prevail? When I was applying to medical school, I considered writing about a series of hip surgeries I had in my early twenties. I was cautioned against it — the concern being that I would come off as weak or fragile. What is there to say other than those scars are still here and so am I.

What I know about writing personal statements is that we are taught, either implicitly or explicitly, that weakness should be overshadowed by triumph. Everyone wants to hire a winner. Which returns us to the perennial struggle of the personal statement: The narrative arc of living is created in postproduction, and those sharp edges where life starts to unspool are, winner or not, where most of our growth takes place. I don't know if I'd want to hire a winner so much as a survivor. Anyone can get a good hand, but not everyone can survive a bad one. 

The title of this essay began as "5 Tips for Starting Your Personal Statement." But when I started writing, I realized that more than tips (many of which can be found with a simple Google search), students need commiseration. If you have been rifling the treasure trove of your lived history for the past several months and struggling to fit the most defining elements of your life into an essay (no more but really no less than a single page), you are far from alone.

Well, I do have one tip for you. When seeking feedback on your essay, be mindful of the number of people you ask and of asking mentors with different strengths. When you ask more than 3 or four people to give you feedback on your essay, you will soon find that there are as many different perspectives and opinions as there are people. In the end, if it feels impossible to compose a crowd-pleaser, and that's because it is. If you stick with several trusted editors with different strengths (say, a close friend, a colleague with a lot of writing experience, and a physician-mentor), it will make the process feel more focused and probably less frustrating too.

Can we talk about writer's block for a second? Does it help if I tell you that no one is immune? Let's take a deep breath and admit that the anxiety surrounding personal statements, and writing in general, can be massive. It's incredible how the white abyss of a computer screen can wipe your mind like a tabula rasa punctuated only by the irksome cursor blinking back, if only to remind you that it's you, not the screen, that is frozen.

Nothing I say here will apply to everyone, but it will probably apply to those who need to hear it most.

Approach this essay from the least threatening direction, like you would a scared animal who you don't want biting. Brainstorm with friends and jot down what comes to mind, things that feel like they need saying. Go for a walk and take notes on your phone. You do not need to birth completely formed thoughts, sentences, or ideas. I repeat: just a word, a concept, or even a concept similar to the concept you wish to illustrate. Just a scribble to make the page a little less blank.

Part of the struggle of the personal statement, and writing in general, is that they require a recall of some of those personality traits medical school unfailingly selects for: obsessiveness tinged with anxiety, an unhinged zeal for details, and an enduring — at times crippling — fear of mistakes (as though caution alone were the cure).

Who could ever write under these conditions? Medicine has never been a culture of do-overs; it can't be. But in my professional opinion, this environment is anathema to every creative cell in your body.

The anxious mind builds a wall brick by brick of everything you believe this essay must consider, contemplate, and achieve until the wall is so tall that it's insurmountable. You don't climb that wall; you tip-toe around it, scribble by scribble.

And if that doesn't ease your mind, maybe this will. The best and most terrible part of this whole ordeal is the mere minutes that someone will spend reading this piece. Oh, the anxiety-allaying, soul-crushing, insignificance of it all.

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About Liana Meffert
Liana Meffert recently graduated from the University of Iowa College of Medicine and is an emergency medicine resident physician at MedStar Georgetown/Washington Hospital Center. She has previously been awarded an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, Stanford's Irvin David Yalom Literary Award, University of Iowa's Carol A. Bowman Creative Writing Award, and the F. Sean Hodge Prize for Poetry in Medicine. Her writing has been featured in JAMA, The Examined Life Journal, and The Healing Muse , among other publications. You can find more of her work at


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