Advice for people writing their medicine personal statements

young doctor checking a patient's blood pressure

Whether you're just getting started or finishing off, these tips will help you

When you're writing your personal statement, it's always best to start early. People generally get through reams of drafts before settling on something they're happy with, so building in lots of time is always helpful.

That said, if you're reading this with the 15 October deadline looming large: don't worry! The tips in this article will help you put together a personal statement you're proud of, with a minimum of stress. The advice that follows has been built up over time out of contributions from medical admission tutors at UK universities. 

Below, we'll go through the key areas to cover in your personal statement, providing a general format to follow. You don't have to slavishly copy the format, but do make sure you cover each area.

Before you start, be sure to check the websites of the universities where you want to apply. They may provide specific advice on what they want to see in your personal statement (different universities may have different things they want you to include).

Writing an introduction for your medicine personal statement

Aim for an introduction that is both original and interesting. People wrestle with their opening lines endlessly, but what you need to do is really quite simple: explain what attracts you to medicine and why.

There's no need to lead the reader in; just write concisely about  what you feel is important in your desire to become a doctor. If you say that you find X interesting, make sure you then talk about why this is.

Most importantly, be honest. Originality is one thing, but it shouldn't come at the expense of truth. What you're looking for is wording that is original - the reasons that you explain are almost certain to be cliched to some extent. After all, thousands of applicants over the years will have the EXACT same reasons as you. Just write honestly and from the heart and you'll be on the right lines.

Writing your work experience paragraph

There's no need to mention specific places. 'I helped out at a hospital' is fine, rather than 'I helped out at Birmingham hospital'.

It's useful also to mention that you arranged it yourself (by starting the sentence with 'I arranged...' or something similar). This is a good way to show personal organisation as well as motivation.

Next, focus on what you learned about the reality of life as a doctor. Discuss the pros and cons and why you want to be a doctor despite the cons. Don’t just say that there are negative aspects - talk about them, but not in too much detail. After all, this document is your way of showing you want to be a doctor.

Another good thing to include in your work experience would be any skills you realised it was useful for doctors to have, and why these were so important. For example: don't just say 'I realised the importance of teamwork,' talk about why it's important. If you have experience in both hospital and general practice, then think about comparing them.

There are a few things you should avoid getting into. Don't list the procedures you saw or places you went. Especially don't list any clinical skills you got the chance to practise. Whilst injecting a fake arm may well have been enjoyable, it says nothing about you as a person, and is irrelevant in terms of getting into medical school.

If you need to know clinical skills like that, then you'll be taught them at medical school. Having had previous exposure to these procedures does not gain you any brownie points.

The same can be said for watching operations. Bearing in mind you'll have next to no knowledge of the pathology, reasons for that intervention and relevant anatomy, it's not worth your time writing about it, and potentially being quizzed on it at interview.

If you carried out any clinical skills on a real patient while on work experience, think twice before mentioning them. It can be argued you shouldn't have done it in the first place, as it is outside your competency. The GMC and medical schools are very strict on this, and have clear guidelines about students (and even doctors!) not working outside their competencies.

If you are applying for deferred entry or applying during your gap year, it might be a good idea to include a short paragraph on what your plans are for the year and what you hope they will teach you.

Writing your voluntary work paragraph

Your aim in this section is to talk not only about the voluntary work you have done, but what you have learned from doing it. Simply say what you did/do, then what you learned from it. You might sometimes explain why that is useful, but not at the expense of it being interesting. You can include things like peer mentoring and prefectships here.

Don't repeat things you learned. You only need to demonstrate each characteristic once each throughout the statement. You don’t need three examples of how you can handle responsibility!

Other characteristics you might cover include teamwork, empathy, communications skills, leadership and confidence. You will certainly be able to think up others, but don't worry about including them all.

Writing your extracurricular paragraph

This paragraph is for describing what you do in your spare time, and why you enjoy it. It's an important section because medical schools want students to contribute something to their school life - through drama, sports, whatever.

You can even mention listening to music, socialising, the gym, as long as you can say how these have helped you. You also need to recognise that hobbies are important to relax and unwind away from medicine.

People often write about skills they've learnt that don't really relate to medicine, such as improved hand-eye coordination or the ability to use computers. If you do a hobby just because you enjoy it, fair enough, but don't try to justify it in a way that doesn't correspond to medicine.

If you have a choice, put ones in which demonstrate communication skills, leadership, teamworking, compassion and coping with challenges.

Writing the conclusion to your medicine personal statement

To close your personal statement, you need to sum up why you want to be a doctor and why you're suited to the career. Don't display arrogance by assuming you're going to get into medical school (eg 'I look forward to seeing you at interview'), but do show confidence.

Don't suddenly bring in things if you've never mentioned them before, such as 'I can cope with the stresses on a doctor' when throughout the statement you've never addressed them.

Avoid the phrase 'ideal candidate' as each medical school will have a different idea of what this is. Don't refer to the university directly ('your university') as this comes across as very insincere considering you're applying to four or five universities.

Other things you might add

Some people choose to include something about the A-levels/IB they're doing, explaining how they're relevant to medicine and why they chose them. Some people discuss an area of medicine they particularly like and explain why.

Never say you definitely want to be a certain type of doctor though. You don’t want to come across as naïve or closed minded. These points often go in a paragraph before the work experience is mentioned. A lot of teachers/tutors are hot on telling students to write about every subject they study and why, but a big paragraph on your A-levels doesn’t explain much about you so don’t bother.

Instead of talking about what you study, try including an 'academic paragraph' to include an area of medicine that interests you. It will demonstrate that you've read around the subject and will make you look more original.

This would be the place to put in an extended science project or out-of-school science lectures you have been to. It is important to demonstrate scientific curiosity and a love of learning, especially for the more academic medical schools.

If you have read a specific book or journal, then this would go in here. However, there is no point in just saying you've read something as anyone could do that. Instead, talk about what you found particularly interesting (about the book) or an article you found particularly interesting (from a journal) and why you found it interesting.

Don't have ANY sentences that put yourself down- even if you try to turn it round, it's better not to say anything negative to start with.

Advice on writing style for your medicine personal statement

This has been compiled from my experience of reading personal statements over the years. It is aimed as a guide to prevent these mistakes from creeping into your PS. Any statistics I have used are only to be used as guidelines and are based on PS Help reviews. They are not guaranteed to be accurate. ~ Kyalimers

Punctuation

1. Capital letters

Capital letters should only be used when a proper noun is being used. Countless people capitalise the following words: medicine, chemistry, biology, doctor, hospital, general practice. The words are correct as written there. Exceptions to this do exist if you write the word as a proper noun. For example, if I were to write 'I am applying for the Medicine A100 course,' then capitalising the 'M' would be correct. Similarly, if I were writing 'I worked at Central Manchester University Hospital for a period of three weeks,' then it would be correct to use capital letters. At least half of all statements make a mistake with incorrectly capitalised words.

Something which should always be capitalised is 'I'. It is correct to say 'I am twenty years old and I like to play the piano.' It is not a very common mistake, but it has been seen.

2. Commas

It is rare to see the perfect use of commas throughout a personal statement. More often than not, commas are completely missed out from sentences. Most commonly, this occurs after a clause such as 'During my hospital work experience, I learnt about empathy.' More than three quarters of all statements will miss out the comma after the first clause. A comma would therefore also be needed here: 'In September, I played a football tournament.' A final example where commas are often missed out is when coordinate clauses are used. 'Medicine, in my opinion, is the perfect career choice for me.' Similarly: 'I like the rewarding nature of medicine, but I am not too fond of the hard work.'

3. Semicolons

Generally used incorrectly or not used at all.

The semicolon has many uses. Its main use is to separate items of lists or series. For example: 'I observed several departments: I watched surgery in Orthopaedics; learnt about ECGs in Cardiology; was taught about diabetes in Endocrinology and viewed a CT scan in Radiology.'

It can also be used between independent clauses which are related. 'I went to A&E; it was really busy.'

It is also used to link clauses and semi clauses. 'It is most common on wards 6 and 9; however, it is not restricted.'

If you are not sure whether to use a semicolon or not, alter your sentence so that you don't have a need to.

4. Colons

As semicolons, colons are usually used incorrectly or not used at all.

The colon is most commonly used to introduce a list. 'I went to three wards: ward 4, ward 9 and ward 14.'

It is also commonly used when one sentence is linked to its preceding sentence via consequence or effect. For example: 'I had a wonderful romantic dinner last night, but I awoke with a stomach pain: it must have been dodgy food.' Similarly, it can be used in apposition: 'I couldn't get up for hospital: I was still hungover.'

5. Apostrophes

This is something that really annoys me. First, when not to use them. If you are turning something into a plural, there is no need to use an apostrophe. For example: GCSEs, GPs, PSs.

Having read an endless number of personal statements, the most common apostrophe mistake concerns the word patient.

patients - this is the plural of patient ie There are many patients in this waiting room.

patient's dignity - this is the dignity of one patient ie I was concerned about the patient's dignity during the PR exam.

patients' views - the views of many patients ie The patients' views regarding Dr X were very positive.

patience - this is a totally different word ie That man has been waiting for five hours! I'm amazed by his patience.

6. Inappropriate punctuation

Avoid the temptation to use brackets, slashes and dashes in your personal statement. This is a professional piece of writing and including these in your writing make it look less formal. The same can be said of exclamation marks. Very rarely do they warrant use. Some applicants try using rhetoric in their statements. Once again, this is not formal or professional and should be completely avoided. Therefore, it is also unlikely that you will have the need to use a question mark in your statement.

Grammar

There is a really good internet tool to check your grammar for you: https://www.grammarly.com/

1. Spelling

It takes no longer than a couple of minutes to check your spelling. Paste your personal statement into Microsoft Word and do a spell check or use an online tool such as http://www.spellcheck.net/english_united_kingdom_spell_checker.html. There's nothing worse than starting your paragraph with 'Medecine is the perfect career choice for me.'

If you're not a confident speller, ask someone to read through your personal statement to check the spelling. Spellcheck software can only spot misspelled words - not misplaced ones. For instance, it would not pick up on the error in 'I regularly pour over medical journals'.

2. Numbers

Numbers describing age or time periods (for example) should always be fully spelled out. For example: 'When I was fourteen years old, I conducted a three week course in A&E.' If you are writing a specific date such as 1998 or 2012, then you do not have to spell this out.

3. Using apostrophes to shorten words

Don't use 'don't' in a personal statement (ironic, huh?). Always use the full word. Mustn't should be written as must not and can't as cannot. The same applies for I'm which becomes I am. Don't even consider using I'd, which could stand for 'I had,' 'I did,' 'I would' or 'I could.' These are self-explanatory but are very common mistakes in around 20% of statements.

4. There, their and they're

Really common mistake made in under a quarter of statements.

'There' is a word which aims to indicate a location or an expletive word which can be used to start sentences. For example: 'There are seven consultants on the ward.' 'It is over there near the table.'

'Their' is a word used to indicate possession. For example: 'It is their box of chocolates.'

'They're' is the short form of 'they are.' So in a sentence it may be used as such: 'They're over there. Look, they're both really busy.'

5. Its and it's

Its is a possessive form of it. Use it when something belongs to another object ie 'The cat licked its paw.'

It's is a short form of 'it is.' So for example: 'It's cold in the hospital today.'

6. Using also, furthermore, however and therefore

Essentially, try not to use the word also. Especially, if every other sentence is starting with it. It is a waste of characters and becomes repetitive.

7. Etcetera and exempli gratia

You should not consider using 'etc' and 'eg' under any circumstances. It does not appear professional and your sentence can almost always be rephrased to avoid use of them.

 

Clichés

There are some words, phrases and sentences that come up too often. These include, but are not limited to: passion, fascination, love, aspiration, intrigued by, broadened my knowledge, enhanced my skill, as a result, affirmed/confirmed my decision, fuelled, enthralled, quenched my thirst for and sparked my interest in.

 

Stages in the drafting process

If you are having trouble putting a PS together, try these steps:

1. Write a list of everything you want a med school to know about you (achievements, talents, experiences, personal qualities, etc)

2. Allocate each item to one of the paragraphs in the recommended PS structure (you can reallocate things later if you decide there are better fits).

3. Write each paragraph so that you cover all the items allocated to it, but without worrying too much about phrasing or character/line limits (but don't be too flowery). Don't worry if the intro and/or conclusion are hard to write - just get something down on paper (you can improve it later).

4. Now start hacking. Combine sentences, reorder sentences, shorten sentences, delete anything that doesn't add much. Phrase everything for maximum impact, and save every character (the lines will take care of themselves, almost). You'll spot opportunities to rephrase sentences, but don't strain the rules of English grammar to force it - it's all got to flow nicely.

5. You can save characters by using abbreviations, but beware of using unfamiliar ones. Anything that appears on a med school website, an NHS website or BBC Health should be OK, likewise common abbreviations used in the education system (GCSE, EPQ, etc).

6. Don't ask people to do a proper review until you are close (within 10%) to the character limit (you can make an exception for close family, but most reviewers will only do one proper review for you). Ask several people for opinions but make your own mind up about what changes you make (not all reviewer opinions are compatible with each other). Be very careful about using medical terminology - if you can get a medic to take a look, that would be prudent.

7. If you are struggling with the line limit and using Word, try this tip... convert the text to Courier size 9, a font in which every character occupies the same space on a line. Then adjust (drag) the margins to show exactly 94 characters on each line (no more, no less - insert a string of 94 characters on the first line to help you get it exactly right). Now you can see where characters are being 'wasted'. You'll have 'wasted' spaces at the end of some lines, because long words don't fit and move to the next line, and you may have paragraphs with 1-2 words on the last line - a small cut could save a whole line.

8. KEEP ALL YOUR DRAFTS! Good stuff goes missing during editing, so save each draft with a different filename (PS01.docx, PS02.docx, etc)

Still need help with writing your medicine UCAS personal statement? Use the The Student Room personal statement builder and get a headstart.

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