Overview of the Series
In this series of articles, I will be sharing excerpts of case studies on several of my former students (with their permission, of course). Names and other identifying information have been changed, but the material facts — MCAT score, GPA, etc. — are unchanged. The full case studies are published in my book, Pre-Med Success Stories.
I’ll present each case study in three parts — an introduction of the student, followed by an in-depth assessment of the student’s profile and chances for admission to medical school, and then finally I’ll explain what happened to the student once s/he applied.
In this article, I will continue with part two on a client of mine, David.
Part II — David’s Core Themes
As with every student I work with, I try to tie their story together with core themes. These themes are the parallels that I find present throughout their personal story. They make it easy for the admissions committee to accurately assess applicants.
In looking through David’s application, I found a few core themes which I believed we could work with. David needed to make clear and explain his interaction with patients at Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Because David’s academic focus on Chemical Engineering didn’t require him to work with patients, David should fully explain his involvement with patients and how he felt about it. This, I felt, was crucial to David being seen as a well-rounded candidate instead of simply an engineering student with an intellectual interest in the puzzle of medical science. He also needed to focus on his strong and varied research background which would help paint him as a prospective medical student. And finally, since the death of his grandfather was so formative in his decision to pursue medicine, I told David he should touch on that so he can put his long-term aspirations of being a pediatrician in context. Aside from these more-important core themes, a few other parallels present in David’s story are his experience working with children, the heavy workload of chemical engineering, and his work with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters initiative.
David’s Personal Statement
For his first draft, David decided to write about his emotional experience working with Dean who was a 26-year old cancer patient. It was heartfelt, but I thought it was also too self-centered. It had aspects of self-pity which I didn’t think helped David’s case nor did it showcase how he would make a good doctor. He also used stock phrases like the “fragility of life” a few times too many throughout his work which didn’t really explain what he was saying. David also stuck to the standard formula of a five-paragraph structure and I pushed him to think outside the box — I asked him: if you could reorganize this to your liking, without these already-established compositional rules, how would you structure it?
By the final draft, I had limited David’s personal statement to only two stories — his experiences with Dean and his work with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. This gave him the space to really delve into both stories in full. This turned out to be a very effective strategy for him. Sometimes, applicants are so eager to go into all their strengths that they neglect to really explain any of them in detail. By focusing on these two stories, I think David explained himself very well. For the rest of the essay, David tied these two anecdotes together and this strategy definitely paid off.
(Author’s note: You can read David’s final personal statement in Pre-Med Success Stories.)
I had decided to give him the space to really delve into both stories, and to develop a sophisticated conclusion. This, I felt, was an extremely effective strategy— one that some med school applicants, in their eagerness to showcase all of their activities, never consider. Of course, it is also in some ways a gamble. If the decision is made to tell only one or two anecdotes, one must choose those stories carefully, and the extra space that is devoted to discussing their relevance must demonstrate strong character traits. In David’s case, I believe the gamble paid off.
In Part III, we’ll continue with David’s story and find out how well he did.