The medical school application essay gives you 5300 characters to convince the admissions committee that you would make a great doctor.

Here are some tips on how to make the most of the opportunity.

1. Choose your selling points carefully and hammer them home.

Imagine you have arrived for your interview at your top choice medical school and find yourself in an elevator with the Dean of Admissions. You have thirty seconds to make your case. What points do you emphasize and what do you omit? This “elevator pitch” concept is usually associated with the business world, but it’s just as important in medical school admissions. While you’re unlikely to actually be in an elevator with the Dean of Admissions, at some point an admissions officer will present your application to the Admissions Committee, starting with a summary of the strengths (and weaknesses) of your application. Your essay is your best chance to control the contents of that summary.

Your essay should establish a clear narrative aligned with the strengths of your application, and emphasize the points that fit that narrative. If your strengths are your science grades and lab research, and you’re packaging yourself as a future physician-scientist, then focus on that, not your volunteer work. Stay on topic – 5300 characters is not much space to work with – and stick to your narrative.

2. Answer the key questions.

Every successful applicant needs to address two questions to the satisfaction of the admissions committee: Why do you want to be a doctor? and What do you plan to do with your medical career? While we don’t recommend starting your essay “I want to be a doctor because…,” you do need to answer those questions. It’s often fairly easy to answer the first question organically, but the second one can be trickier. The key is to convince the admissions committee that you see medical school as a means to a greater end, not as an end in itself. You don’t need to have your whole life planned out, but you should have some vision of your career, and the reader should get an idea of where you see yourself in 20 years.

3. Be creative, but not too creative.

It’s often said that a medical school application essay won’t get you in, but it can keep you out. In other words, an admissions committee won’t overlook major weaknesses in an application because your essay is just that amazing, but an essay that’s too “out there” (or has frequent grammatical errors, expresses attitudes contrary to the values of medicine, etc.) can sink an otherwise strong application. So make your essay interesting, and try to grab and hold the reader’s attention — but unless you really know what you’re doing, don’t overdo it. Excessive literary flourishes are more likely to annoy a reader than impress one. If creative writing isn’t your strength, there’s nothing wrong with a standard chronological narrative.

On the flip side, avoid clichés. If the first sentence of your essay is “I have always been fascinated by the human body,” the person reading it may have just read five other essays that use the same opening line. If they are in a cranky mood, your application could get sent straight to the recycle bin.

4. Solicit diverse feedback and leave time for editing.

Once you’ve written your first draft, send it around to as diverse a group of critics as possible. Your lab mentor can help you write about your scientific experience, but won’t help with your hospital volunteer work. By getting feedback from multiple angles, you can make sure you’re covering all the bases.

Editing takes time. Make sure to send your draft around early enough that you have time to get comments back, read them carefully, and revise your essay accordingly. You will go through multiple rounds of feedback and revision before you are ready to submit. Set a deadline well before the AMCAS submission date to finish your essay, and work backwards from there to set your editing schedule.

One last point on editing: make sure that at least one of your editors is a stickler for grammar, especially if you aren’t. Readers will notice if you swap “your” and “you’re,” and judge you negatively for it. Don’t rely on spellcheck to catch mistakes.

5. Be careful with sensitive topics.

Certain topics, including religious and political beliefs, personal health issues, relationship status, and plans to have children (or not), are off-limits in job interviews, and are generally not discussed in medical school interviews either. However, anything you include in your essay is fair game for discussion in your interview. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include these topics, but think carefully before doing so. For example, if you had a personal experience of illness that was central to your decision to pursue medicine, feel free to express that in your essay; just be prepared to talk about it in your interview.

Writing a strong essay is difficult, and takes considerable time and effort, but the benefit it will bring to your application will be well worth it. Good luck, and happy writing!

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