1. Always keep in mind medical school selection criteria and the qualities of a doctor
When constructing personal statements, it’s important you base everything you mention (whether from your work experience, volunteering or extra-curricular activities) around almost universally adopted selection criteria. The GMC provides admissions guidelines for all medical schools in the UK and recommends universal traits and qualities to look for in applicants. How should you go about conveying these characteristics? 1) You should know what these qualities are, and should find examples from your experiences to confirm you are aware of and have come to realize the importance of such traits in a doctor. 2) You should also give examples of possessing these characteristics yourself, perhaps through your extra-curricular skills or a demonstration of competency when volunteering or during work experience.
Some of the qualities and traits medical schools look for are listed below (based upon Oxford and UCL admissions guidelines):
- Empathy: an ability and willingness to imagine the feelings of others and understand the reasons for the views of others
- Motivation: a reasonably well-informed and strong desire to practice medicine
- Understanding of a career in medicine: most importantly, the realities of being a doctor
- Communication: an ability to make knowledge and ideas clear using language appropriate to the audience and listening skills
- Attitudes: including honesty, integrity and humility
- Ethical awareness
- Intellectual curiosity: awareness of current scientific and medical affairs, for example
- Teamwork: an ability to work with others
- Capacity for sustained and intense work
- Individual strengths: social, musical and sporting interests or activities, for example
- Problem-solving: critical thinking, analytical approach
These cover most, if not all, of the characteristics medical schools are looking for in an applicant. Of course, you can’t fit all of it in, but you should cover as much of it as possible, which is why it’s important to try to be relatively succinct in your writing. Alongside this, you should have an alignment of values and behaviours with the values of the NHS constitution. Your understanding and appreciation of these values must reflect in your personal statement (and at interview).
You can find a copy of the constitution here.
On top of this, you should also have a read of ‘Tomorrow’s Doctors’ and consider incorporating some of its ideas into your personal statement or at interview.
Remember, although you definitely should give a personal and individual account of your experiences, you should also aim to tell medical schools what they want to hear. Here’s a tip, you could actually write out content for different areas (such as for communication, teamwork, empathy, etc.), grouping them under specific subheadings on a separate document, and then mix and match them all, inserting them at different places in your statement: this allows you to try out more options when writing your personal statement to begin with and forces you to prioritise certain content over others.
2. Limit your descriptions and focus on reflection
As repeated several times already, don’t go on too long describing what you did during your work experience or time volunteering, and focus instead on reflection, which includes talking about the things you came to realize and discovered about medicine in general and the specific qualities in doctors.
3. Provide support for every claim you make
It’s easy to claim to have various qualities and an understanding of what it means to be a doctor, but quite a few students we’ve come across fail to substantiate many of their assertions in their personal statements. For example, don’t say you have a strong interest in the sciences without actually providing some support that is this the case. Similarly, don’t spout out a list of qualities (teamwork, the importance of communication, etc.) without providing some real-world examples of why they’re important.
4. Ensure you have perfect grammar, a clear flowing structure, and a professional yet friendly writing style
Although unfair for those who don’t consider themselves strong writers, the truth is good writing makes a big difference. All too often, students send us personal statements littered with grammatical errors – for example, one of the big things many students seem to struggle with is the correct and effective use of commas. Our recommendation is that if you’re not a particularly good writer, you get somebody who is good to look through your personal statement, sentence by sentence, getting them to reword phrases for you. If you’re not a bad writer but want to find ways of making your personal statement read better, then consider checking out ‘The Little Red Writing Book’, which contains lots of tips and tricks to help you write in a personable manner. You should have a look at our selection of previously successful model statements because they can give you an idea of how to best phrase certain ideas or experiences.
When it comes to the structure of your personal statement, it’s simple – just be organised with your content. If two things aren’t strongly related, then start a new paragraph. For example, if you’re writing a paragraph on work experience in an hospital environment and want to talk about the GP next, it’s probably best to start a new paragraph for the GP; however, if you’re on the theme of communication, and you found a nice story that illustrate its importance from both the hospital and GP, then it’s reasonable to talk about this using examples from both your GP and hospital experiences in the same paragraph. In a nutshell, lump related things together to make the reader’s life easier. Along with this, try to have some kind of connecting sentence that links between different themes for better flow, but only if you have enough space.
5. Continuously redraft and don’t be afraid to make big changes
Our final principle is this: keep drafting your personal statement, chipping away at it paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence. Never be content with your statement until you’ve at least drafted it several times; many of us had drafted our statements at least 20 times before we handed it in. You should play around with individual sections of your personal statements – for example, set apart a day just to work on your opening paragraph or work experience sections. You can redraft based on your own thoughts (constantly reread your personal statement as if you were a super harsh critic), and you should constantly send out your personal statement out to doctors and medical students, as well as teachers – but make sure you send what you think is a strong draft (one you could pretty much submit) so as to not waste their time