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Personal Essay Clinic Writing About Family

Tell my story? Fine, but how?

The common advice to "tell your story" has probably been around as long as the admission essay itself. But since when have high school students been afforded the time and feedback to practice telling their stories? And how are you supposed to approach this advice? What parts of your story are you supposed to share in your college essay, how, and why?

When I left teaching high school English a little more than two years ago, the curriculum even then was too packed with everyday academic concerns and standardized testing preparation to invite seniors to practice personal narrative with the same level of structured feedback that they received for academic writing. I have heard from high school teachers that this condition has only intensified since the rollout of the Common Core.

The five-paragraph essays and thesis statements they are accustomed to writing for class do students little good in personal writing, including on their college applications. These are inventions designed for American students to practice national conventions of argumentation—despite the fact that expectations for academic writing change from high school to college. Yet they are what high school students have to work with when put on the spot in their college applications.

In a way the college admission game is a standardized assessment, but it differs in that students are suddenly supposed to write not academically but personally. Given this lack of training in personal writing and the stresses of college admission, it’s important that students find a structured yet creative way to tell their own stories when dealing with low word counts.

So here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Only you, the student, can determine what is worth writing about. While family may have suggestions, it’s ultimately your story to tell and how.
  • In personal writing, there is no need to justify why you are writing about one thing or another. This is the academic habit of proving a thesis. When it seeps into personal writing, it limits the creative potential of the personal essay.
  • Choose one or two narrative moments and tell them in the moment. These moments are representative of your story.
  • It’s important to accept that any story you attempt to tell will necessarily be incomplete. Avoid the temptation of recounting your memory “exactly” as you remember it. Rather, remember that you are being assessed on the quality of your personal essay, not the quality of your memory. So use the memory as a starting point for the essay, but make sure you end up with a narrative that stands solidly and creatively on its own.
  • Try free writing without a prompt and without worrying about the word count—at least at first. A narrative will likely suit at least two of your college’s prompts.

The college personal statement is a strange beast. To my knowledge, college applicants are the only personal essayists who have to write about themselves because someone else expects them to and because big stakes are riding on it. From the birth of the personal essay—typically traced to Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century—the tradition of the genre is self-exploration and discovery, the personal somehow tied to universally human concerns, driven by the curiosity to know more about both. Yet this American rite of passage has given rise to a peculiar kind of de facto national literature.

In short, despite students’ ever-intensifying pressures, schedules, and responsibilities, I hope that by engaging with the genre of the personal essay, students can write for themselves with this sense of curiosity—first, for themselves.

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The best personal statements are memorable. They paint a picture in the mind of the reader and tell a story about who you are, how you got here, and where you want to go. The personal statement is vitally important because it is frequently used to help determine who gets interviewed and ranked.

Overarching theme:

Look over your CV and think about the experiences before and during medical school that inform what kind of family physicians you will become. Often there is a common thread that holds together even the most disparate of experiences – this common thread is usually one of your core values as a person. Identify this theme and write your personal statement so the reader could easily verbalize this theme in one sentence after reading your statement.

Experiences to highlight:

Use your experiences to give programs an idea of who you are. Be specific – talking about the aspects of care that you like in Family Medicine is good, but it’s even better when programs can see how your personal experiences reinforce aspects of family medicine that resonate with you as a person.

It’s okay to include patient vignettes and talk about your accomplishments, but be sure to relate it back to yourself. How did the experience impact you? What did you learn about yourself? How will the experience make you a better family physician? What about the experience demonstrates your commitment to the discipline of family medicine, your ability to work with others, your ability to work with patients?

Choose one experience and tell a story. This is a good way to open your statement, to develop your theme and make it memorable.

Commitment to specialty:

Talk about why you are choosing family medicine. Programs want to know why your’e attracted to a career in family medicine. What experiences convince you that this is the right field for you?

Strengths that you bring:

What do you bring to a program? What are you naturally good at? What specific skills do you have that will serve you well in residency?

Future plans/what you are looking for in a residency program:

At the end of this long road of school and training, what kind of work do you see yourself doing? What types of training do you want during residency to be able to accomplish this goal?

Organize your statement:

There are many ways to organize your statement to get these points across. One common way of organizing the personal statement is a three paragraph form reminiscent of those essays you had to write in high school. To use this approach the first paragraph tells a story to open the theme, the second paragraph fleshes out other experiences that highlight the them and discuss your commitment to family medicine, and the third paragraph reviews your strengths and future plans/training desires. However, this is a personal statement and you are free to write and organize it as you desire.

Do:

  • Write in complete sentences.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Make your writing interesting – use a thesaurus and vary sentence length and structure.
  • Have other people read your personal statement and give feedback.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to work on your statement and revise it based on feedback.

Don’t:

  • Rehash your CV or write an autobiography.
  • Use abbreviations – spell things out.
  • Violate HIPPA.
  • Start every sentence with an “I.”
  • Make it longer than one page, single spaced, 12 point font.
  • Have spelling or grammatical errors.
  • Write a statement that could be used for several different specialties (i.e. one that talks about wanting a primary care career but not specifically family medicine). If you are still deciding on a specialty and applying to different fields, write two different statements.

Sample Outlines for Personal Statement