You have missed every football game for the last two seasons. You really—and I mean really—wanted to go to that party you were invited to last week at the sorority house. But, you didn't. You studied instead. You have paid your premedical dues, and then some, but you are finally beginning to reap the rewards. You are about to submit your AMCAS application with that sparkling GPA and stellar MCAT score. Your advisor, your mother, the “experts” at the campus writing center—they've all told you the same thing: just sell yourself to the admissions committee in that personal essay and you're in. Don't look now, but you're about to plunge yourself headlong off a premedical cliff that has swallowed more than a few of your fellows. If you proceed to “sell yourself” to the admissions committee you may soon find yourself in a situation unimaginable to many premeds—a student with a stellar GPA, MCAT score, and impressive extracurricular activities who is not accepted to medical school.
Such was the case for an acquaintance of mine with a 38 on the MCAT and a 4.0 GPA. He had been to Africa. He had volunteered for three years at the local hospital. Did I mention his 38 on the MCAT? “I just don't understand it,” he opined, “How could no one accept me.” After reading only the first few sentences of his personal statement, his “unbelievable” scenario made perfect sense to me. He was selling himself hard to the admissions committee. It wasn't quite as bad as the grimace-inducing onslaught poured over unsuspecting browsers at the local used car lot—but I was still grimacing. Here's an excerpt from his essay: “These hands-on experiences in the O.R. demonstrate my determination to finish whatever task lies before me—however difficult the obstacles may be. My many hours of real-world clinical experience in the O.R. separate me from other applicants who have merely observed. This fact, combined with my passion for helping underserved populations, makes me a highly-qualified candidate for medical school.”1 In my experience, most readers will be divided, roughly 50:50, on their reaction to the preceding excerpt. Some of you may be thinking, “That sounded pretty convincing.” The other half of you may have begun to see where I am going. Take a careful look at the language: “demonstrate my determination . . . My real-world clinical experience . . . others have merely observed . . . makes me a highly-qualified candidate . . . “
Simply put, the tone of these sentences is self-important and arrogant. Even if it doesn't strike you that way, trust me, it will strike most admission committee members that way. Arrogance, overconfidence and naiveté are three character traits medical school officers not only dislike, but are on vigilant lookout to expose. Arrogance is thinking you are superior to others. Overconfidence is being more confident in yourself and your abilities than you should be. Naiveté is deficiency in wisdom or judgment due to lack of experience. Especially in the medical field, the first two are clear evidence of the third. For a premedical student who has barely mastered the basic prerequisites, any degree of arrogance or overconfidence is by definition naïve. In other words, you simply lack the experience to be overtly confident about what prepares you for medical school, what makes you better than another candidate, or even what medical school will really be like once you get there.
While very few people would consider arrogance to be a desirable character trait, admissions committees have very specific reasons to dislike it. There is a monumental difference between medical school curriculum and even the most demanding undergraduate curriculum. One straight-A student from an Ivy League school—no slouch by anyone’s measure—described it as “the difference between sipping from a soda straw and drinking from a fire hose.” And that’s just the curriculum. Add to that unbearable stress, screaming supervisors, and sometimes inhumane stretches of sleeplessness. If you haven’t experienced it, you just don’t know what it will be like—and to think that you do is—well—it’s very naïve. Admissions committees are fully aware of this fact and have seen more than a few medical students suffer greatly as they try to make the transition. What they have also observed is that it is quite often the arrogant, overconfident types that suffer most. When you have yourself up on a pedestal it can be a very long fall. By contrast, it is the humble, teachable students who generally struggle the least. They accept criticism and correction more easily. Perhaps they expected it to be difficult for them in the first place—so they aren’t surprised.
Furthermore, ego-nursing medical students are more than just annoying to their colleagues. The conflict that arises when arrogance and medical school reality collide often results in the one thing administrators fear above all else—attrition. For naïve premeds—and the rest of us—I’ll translate: attrition is a fancy word for the problem of medical school “drop outs.” Medical schools hate drop outs. They hate them so much they won’t even use the word—so they discuss attrition rates instead. In an effort to prevent this dishonorable situation, medical schools have tried to identify reliable warning signs—and yep, you guessed it, arrogance and naiveté are near the top of the list. It is for this precise reason that you will often hear admissions officers use buzzwords like: “self-aware,” “teachable,” or “easily corrected.” Interview questions and secondary prompts designed to uncover arrogance or overconfidence are commonplace. One such question, “Describe your greatest weakness?” is almost ubiquitous. A manual given to members of the admissions committee at one medical school gives committee members four major criteria on which to judge applicants, one of which is “their ability to recognize their own weaknesses.”
To drive this point home, try this exercise: Use words like humble, teachable, and self-aware to describe a used car salesman. How about that vacuum salesman who knocked on your door last week? Did he convey an impression of humility and self-awareness? I didn’t think so. At least the Oreck-Man was selling a product. Portraying humility becomes even more difficult when the product you are trying to “sell” is yourself. The bottom line is this: the concept of “selling oneself,” is an awful way to approach writing your personal statement--even if your advisor told you to do it.
David Trabilsy, former Assistant Dean of Admissions at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine lamented that one of his greatest pet peeves were “Applicants who . . . showed signs of arrogance—there was no room for these kinds of students at our school.”3
Just last week I was editing a personal statement for one of the students in our MCAT prep program. The same essay had been edited previously by the student’s pre-med advisor and by a counselor at the university’s writing lab. One comment challenged the student to “Make it more clear why you are better than the other candidates.” Another reviewer wrote: “You need to sell yourself to the committee.” Another commend suggested: “Imagine yourself like a lawyer before the court, you’ve got to make a stronger case for why they should choose you.” Obviously, this advice is somewhat in conflict with the tone of Dr. Trabilsy’s comments. There is no question Dr. Trabilsy is right.
Now you’ve been warned. Write convincingly, but always strive to portray yourself as refreshingly humble and teachable. Do NOT try to “sell” yourself to the committee. Here are a few simple Dos and Don’ts:
Do share impressive and unique experiences that demonstrate your positive character traits.
Do not overtly claim that you have a given character trait—let the reader draw that conclusion for themselves.
Do speak about what you have learned and how you have grown or matured.
Do not list off your accomplishments or “toot your own horn.”
Do focus on yourself. ADCOMS sincerely want to know you and understand what makes you tick.
Do not compare yourself to others. That’s the committee’s job, not yours.
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1. Excerpt from an actual personal essay submitted to the Altius Admissions Consulting Team in 2012. Reprinted with student’s permission. Name witheld.
2. Follow-Up Audit of Medical School Admissions, University of Utah. Report # 2003-07. Office of the Legislative Auditor General, State of Utah, July 2003. You can read the full report here.
3. Tralisby, David. Reflections of a Former Admissions Dean. An open letter to medical school students from former Assistant Dean of Admissions, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, 1987-2000. Read Dr. Tralisby’s full letter here