"Shock tactics don't work in personal statements," Dr Kevin Murphy, admissions tutor for medicine at Imperial College London, says. "Sometimes candidates describe a scene from their work experience where someone gets their leg sawn off in the jungle – or something similar. But that's not the most effective way to start."
Some medical schools take personal statements more seriously than others – while Cardiff, Leeds and Keele formally assess non-academic aspects of a student's application, other universities, including Oxford and Imperial, use them more informally to get an impression of a candidate's suitability.
They all agree, though, that a personal statement gives students a chance to relay what they've learned from work experience and demonstrate that they have the non-academic skills required for medicine.
"Becoming a doctor is hard work," says Helen Diffenthal, assistant principal of Farnborough sixth-form college in Hampshire. "So use a personal statement to demonstrate your commitment, and that you won't give up when the going gets tough."
One way to show tutors that you are committed is through your work experience. Use it to prove that you have a realistic view of the profession.
Admissions tutors warn against naming places where you have worked, without any reflection on your time there. "Too often we get applications that look like a shopping list," says Paul Teulon, director of admissions at Kings College London. "We'd like to hear about a patient a student has come into contact with, or an experience they've had. It's just as valuable to have spent time with a hospital porter, as it is to have followed around the lead clinician."
Think also about the things you've done outside of school and how they demonstrate your skills. Teulon says: "A student might be involved with scouting or guiding, in a church group, or have done the Duke of Edinburgh."
Don't be afraid to include more unusual activities, as these can stand out. "If you were in a rock band, you could explain that you formed, led and developed it," Mike Jennings, senior lecturer at Sheffield Medical School, says. "Students might think a medical school won't be interested in that, but it shows staying power, teamwork and leadership."
Medical schools give varying advice on how to structure a personal statement, and about what skills they want applicants to demonstrate. This can make it difficult for students who want to impress a range of schools with one application.
"It can be a minefield for an applicant to work out whether they meet the criteria for different medical schools," admits Dr Austen Spruce, who is in charge of admissions for medicine at Birmingham University. "I advise students to write their personal statement to the highest threshold set by any of the universities, and then it will meet the criteria for all of them."
If you're applying to more than one school, check to see if they ask for different skills. "There's a certain amount of game-playing involved," Mike Jennings explains. "Applicants can phrase something in a certain way to meet more than one school's requirements."
When you've figured out what to include, it can be difficult to know how to begin your personal statement. Some teachers advise pupils to start with the second paragraph, get the statement written, and then pull out an interesting sentence or quote to use as an introduction.
"We tell them to write the first paragraph last," explains Diffenthal. "The first paragraph is often the weakest, so start with the second – a sentence about your experience might stand out and you can reorganise it afterwards."
What introductions should students avoid? "The weakest personal statements begin with 'I want to do medicine because my grandfather had a disease'," says Kim Piper, from the school of medicine at Queen Mary University. "I'd be nervous about someone who wanted to go into medicine for personal reasons, because they could be a nurse rather than a doctor."
While a well-written and coherent application is a must, students should be careful not to use overly complicated language. "Don't write your personal statement and then use a thesaurus to make it sound more grandiose," Paul Teulon says. "You're not using the language you would normally use, and that comes across."
The difficulty is in trying to tell everyone how fantastic you are, without being boastful, says Murphy. "It's a hard line to toe. I warn people against making grand pronouncements that they know they'll make a great doctor."
Ask for help if you need it, but avoid asking too many teachers or family members to go over your personal statement. "We want to hear the voice of a young person," says Teulon, "not a 55-year-old parent. I don't mind if they say they want to change the world because, frankly, if you can't say that at 18, I don't know when you can."
So be honest. Explain how you came to love medicine, and why you will be able to cope with a course that is tough, demanding and competitive. "The goal should be to receive one offer," says Paul Teulon. "Any more than that is a bonus."
And once you've sent it in, keep a copy of your personal statement and be prepared to back up everything you've written, because some medical schools will use it as a prop for an interview.
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Below is a personal statement from a recent applicant for A100 Medicine at Oxford. It is not perfect and it may not be suited to every medical school. There is no single template for success in terms of an application to Oxford. Other styles can be equally effective: we encourage individuality and diversity in our students. This statement is however a good example for an Oxford application because it helps us see that the applicant is attempting to match ourselection criteria.
An applicant's personal statement is likely to be discussed by tutors during interview.
A well-written statement will not in isolation gain you an interview or a place. It forms one part of an application from a gifted applicant that can be considered alongside other information - academic record, BMAT score, school reference, interview performance - in the selection process at Oxford.
Statement & comments
Choosing to study medicine is not a decision I have taken lightly. It isn't a career I have wanted to do since a particularly young age, nor did a life changing event prompt my choice. I have thought very long and hard before deciding to apply.
Admissions tutors may be sceptical of exaggerated descriptions of a revelatory moment or lifelong desire to become a doctor.
At first glance, this might seem like a down-beat opening paragraph. Although you may think that an arresting opening statement will impress, admissions tutors may be sceptical of exaggerated descriptions of a revelatory moment or lifelong desire to become a doctor. This introduction shows honesty and a degree of introspection. Throughout the statement, the applicant works hard to show that they have a realistic view of medicine. You won't prove that you have the motivation for medicine by simply saying that you do: it is what you have done to inform yourself about the career - and the views that you have formed - that will convince us that you really know what being a doctor is like and that this is what you want to do.
Various periods of work experience have taught me much about the career. A local hospital placement gave me the opportunity to visit A&E, Radiology and Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
You won't prove that you have the motivation for medicine by simply saying that you do.
Whilst fleeting, these visits to the departments highlighted the variety and diversity of the fascinating specialities medicine encompasses. A placement shadowing a clinic staff was hugely informative regarding daily life as a doctor. During the day I sat in on consultations ranging from routine post natal checkups to discussions of treatment for young people with diabetes and overactive thyroid glands.
You won't be judged on what you've done: we want to know what you learned from doing it.
This student describes their experiences of healthcare that have helped them decide that they want to study and practise medicine. We understand that opportunities to obtain experience vary, so you won't be judged on what you've done: we want to know what you learned from doing it. The description of the placements here isn't over-exaggerated, and the applicant takes care to explain what they have seen and done and the insight each opportunity afforded them. The relatively detailed account of the infant's check-up conveys the impression of engagement during the placement and suggests an intellectual curiosity to understand the infant's condition and its treatment. The applicant also takes care to point out an example of the importance of good communication skills and argues how their sales position has helped them develop such skills.
Throughout my time there the doctor's genuine interest in his cases and unfaltering motivation highlighted to me the privilege of having such a stimulating profession. This, together with the ever advancing nature of a career in medicine, was brought to the fore by an infant who was having a check up as a result of her being put on an ECMO machine after her birth with Meconium Aspiration Syndrome. The ease with which the doctor broached and dealt with sensitive subject matter also emphasised the importance of a warm, approachable manner and an ability to communicate to a person on their level of understanding. I believe I have honed these skills and gained invaluable experience of the eccentricities of the general public myself in my job as a salesperson.
It is important to convey an impression of engagement and intellectual curiosity when talking about any work experience/placement/voluntary work.
Since February of this year I have volunteered in a care home for a couple of hours each week. I assist with serving meals to the residents as well as feeding one of the more infirm ladies. My time there has brought to my attention the more unpleasant side of medicine and has proved by far the most useful work experience I have had; preparing me for the stark realities of physical ageing and senility. In spite of this, I genuinely enjoy my time there; giving residents, some of whom go months without visitors, 10 minutes of my time to chat can be very rewarding in the obvious enjoyment they get from it. The experience has shown me very clearly the importance of caring for the emotional as well as the physical needs of patients.
The applicant presents evidence that they have become well-informed about the realities of healthcare.
This paragraph reaffirms the applicant's motivation for medicine. They admit that working in a nursing home is not glamorous but explain how rewarding it has been. There is evidence of analytical skills here and there is no doubt that the applicant has become well-informed about the realities of healthcare. Empathy comes across as well, with the applicant recognising that a brief interaction can have such a positive effect on the overlooked residents of the home.
Outside of my lessons I enjoy orienteering with a local club. As part of an expedition I took part in, we walked 80km over 4 days in torrential rain. The challenging conditions demanded teamwork and trust to maintain morale and perform effectively as a group; as well as calm rational thought in stressful situations. Also, through this activity and the people I met, I have become a member of the SJA which has enabled me to gain first aid qualifications and go out on duties.
Although the bulk of a personal statement should be academic-related, it is important to show a life outside of studying. The involvement in a club or association demonstrates wider spare time interests, and the description of the challenging walking expedition provides evidence that the student can work with others and can cope in an arduous situation, obliquely suggesting that they might have the capacity for sustained and intense work. The student also shows that they understand that taking time out to relax and manage any stress is important, and conveys the impression of good time management. The passing reference to the drama group reinforces the impression that this applicant is a team-player. It is useful to describe sporting or musical interests although, as, this applicant shows, these non-academic interests don't need to be particularly high-powered ones.
Other activities I enjoy include drama - I was a member of a local group for 6 years - cycling and playing the guitar and piano which allow me to relax.
Non-academic interests don't need to be particularly high-powered.
I know that medicine is not a "9 to 5" job and is by no means the glamorous source of easy money it is often perceived to be. I understand the hours are long and potentially antisocial and that the career can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining. It is apparent that becoming a medic will involve inherent sacrifice.
However medicine is also a deeply gratifying and fascinating career path. I want to be a medic because my passion and aptitude is foremost scientific and to me 5 or 6 years more of formal education followed by a lifetime of further learning sounds like a stimulating career option and, thankfully, a far cry from the monotony some jobs pose. Nevertheless, as an intrinsically social person, I would relish a career requiring the development of strong empathic relationships with patients too. Crucially, I know I have the enthusiasm, capacity for hard work and the open and enquiring mind needed to succeed in such a fulfilling vocation.
Fact-finding placements have given the applicant insight and motivation in order to decide upon a a career in medicine.
In the concluding paragraphs, the statement is emphasising that, although aware of the negative aspects associated with the practice of medicine, fact-finding placements have given the applicant the insight and motivation to be certain that it is the right career for them. The applicant ends by summarising the key personal attributes that they believe make them well-suited to medicine.
Verdict and advice for improvement
Of course, there is room for improvement with this statement. No reference is made to the scientific subjects that are being studied at school or to particular modules that the applicant has found particularly exciting: this could have helped convey enthusiasm and curiosity in science. Although the applicant asserts that they have an 'open and enquiring mind', there is no description of any extracurricular project or reading that the applicant might have undertaken, perhaps to help them understand a highly-charged ethical issue.
Despite those omissions, this is an effective personal statement. It is well constructed, connects with the reader, and the material flows in a logical sequence. It further conveys the impression that the applicant has done the research and knows exactly what is in store: they are not applying with a naive view or because that is what is expected of them. Writing a statement along these lines would provide a good foundation for a competitive applicant and offers lots of material that can be discussed at an interview.