No matter how many fascinating surgeries you’ve observed, hours you’ve volunteered at your local care home, or general insights you learned about medicine, all of the work experience you’ve done will only help your medical school application if it is well represented in the 47 lines you’ll send off to UCAS. In my experience as a 6med tutor, I have met many impressive medicine applicants who can tell me all about their wonderful work experience in person but whose written accounts are limp and lacklustre. This short article will help you to write dynamically about your work experience in your personal statement; you’ve done the hard work, just make sure you don’t sell yourself short when it comes to writing about it!
Quality over Quantity
Now when I talk about quantity, I am not saying that your work experience should only be mentioned in passing in your personal statement. On the contrary, work experience should form a substantial chunk of the statement and is often the first subject after the introduction (see articles for PS structure/how to write a PS etc). What I am saying is that it is far more valuable to write thoughtfully and comprehensively about a few different experiences than to reel off soulless lists citing the dozens of placements you have completed. This should come as good news because it takes the pressure off finding as much work experience as possible!
When you unpack and describe a particular experience it demonstrates that you were not only physically present, you were also mentally attentive. For example, Alex was sitting in a GP consultation with a diabetic patient thinking about what he was going to have for dinner. Laura was in the same consultation analysing and reflecting upon the doctor-patient dynamic, asking questions when appropriate and later looked up a drug she had never heard of before. Although both students did the same work experience, one was passively observing and the other actively engaging. Even if Ali did 5 more placements with the same attitude, Laura’s single experience at the GP is of much more value to medical school admission tutors. The only way that universities will know that you are a “Laura” not an ‘Alex’ is if you tell them in your personal statement! (See ‘‘how to get the most out of your work experience’ if you are unsure on this point)
Taking it to the next level
“Ok so quality over quantity I get it, I need to show that I was paying attention in my work experience but how exactly do I do that?” Well I like to think of three levels of description in this context:
- This is what I did
- This is what I learned
- These are some interesting details
Let’s unpack these levels a little further…
- “This is what I did”
This is the most basic part of writing about your work experience, telling the medical schools what you have actually done. Where you went, how long you were there, the things you saw etc. This is obviously a crucial place to start and if you find that you haven’t actually done very much then go out and find some work experience! (see article about finding work experience). However, don’t panic if you haven’t done loads, remember it’s quality over quantity and you can flesh out what you have done by taking your writing to the next level.
- “This what I learned”
If you leave your writing at level 1, as far as the medical school are concerned, you might as well have been an ‘Alex’, at the hospital perhaps, but on Instagram and Facebook the whole time! Every time you write about your work experience it is essential that you say why it is relevant by describing what you learned. Think carefully, there are probably many different lessons that can be taken from any one experience you’ve had. For instance, using the previous diabetic consultation example, you may have learned about the increasing prevalence of chronic conditions in primary care, the importance of good communication skills in encouraging behaviour change, and about the glycation of haemoglobin. Talk about what you learned, how you felt, what you found surprising/inspiring, how your preconceptions were challenged, how you think the doctor/health professional might have improved the patient experience, any examples of leadership/teamwork you witnessed etc. This is the kind of information that will really put flesh on the bones of your work experience writing and show medical schools that you are a ‘Laura’.
- “These are some interesting details”
While you should always take your writing to level 2, sometimes it is appropriate to go a step further and offer some more specific, anecdotal details. For example you observed a diabetes consultation (level 1) where you learned about the use of glycated haemoglobin to measure glucose control (level 2) which was especially fascinating because it built upon what you had previously learned about proteins in your A Level biology (level 3). These kinds of details can also be useful in linking together initially unrelated parts of your personal statement to make your writing flow better. For instance you could move seamlessly from talking about a diabetic patient onto any academic achievements of yours by taking a detour through your A level biology.
It is not necessary, or even possible given your limited word count, to take every point to level 3. However, used effectively and sparingly, the odd extra detail can act like icing on the cake, adding flavour to your writing and making your personal statement truly personal and therefore more memorable. A lot of the personal statements I read from students can be forgettable because they speak so generally. The human memory needs interesting and unique details to latch onto and you can provide them. This principle applies not just to work experience but to everything you put in your personal statement. For example, you’ve played the cello for 9 years (level 1) which has trained your capacity for sustained hard work (level 2) and you recently enjoyed playing Bach’s Prelude in G for your grade 8 exam (level 3). An admissions tutor is more likely to remember the one student who likes Bach among the dozens of others who have mentioned that they play musical instruments.
To Sum Up:
- Do engage with your work experience – be ‘Laura’ not ‘Alex’!
- Don’t panic about not having done tonnes of work experience, it’s quality over quantity
- Don’t just say what you did, always supplement it with what you learned
- Don’t be afraid to occasionally go into detail to make yourself stand out