What everyone writes for the AMCAS application
- Personal statement (5300 characters, spaces count)
- Activities descriptions (700 characters, up to 15 allowed)
- Three descriptions of most meaningful activities (an additional 1325 characters for each activity)
What some people write on the AMCAS application
- Institutional action explanation (1325 characters)
- Disadvantaged status explanation (1325 characters)
- MD/PhD essay—Why MD/PhD? (3000 characters)
- MD/PhD essay—Significant Research (10,000 characters)
- TMDSAS applicants—Personal Statement (5000 characters), Personal Characteristics essay (2500 characters) and Optional essay (2500 characters)
What you write beyond AMCAS–Secondary applications
WHAT EVERYONE WRITES FOR THE AMCAS APPLICATION
1. Personal statement – The prompt for this is “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.” Keep in mind that for the average applicant who might apply to 26 schools, this essay will likely be read by somewhere between 52 and 260 people.
First, good editing is good writing. Be prepared to go through a lot of drafts. Do not worry if your first draft is too long. There will always be things to cut. Do not get too attached to your first idea. Often you will not be able to figure out how something will sound until you write it.
Get feedback, but not too much feedback. Asking 10 people to read it may leave you confused. In the end, it needs to be your voice coming through. Listen to advice when a trusted reader tells you that something seems off. It will hit some medical school admissions committee members the same way.
Please note: Your main resource for feedback on your personal statement will be your assigned premedical tutor (non-resident or resident) in your House. If you are feeling stuck with the writing process or just want more general feedback, the writing center at Harvard can also be a valuable resource.
Here are some general issues to think about as you start to write:
- How do you know that you want to be a doctor? How have you demonstrated this interest?
- How has your interest in medicine changed and developed over time?
- How did you overcome your doubts?
- Why medicine and not other career fields, such as teaching, science, public health, nursing, etc.?
- Have you faced any obstacles in your life (for example, economic, familial, or physical)? How did you handle these?
- How have you been influenced by certain events and people?
- Recall a time when you had a positive impact on another person. How did you and the person change as a result?
- What were major turning points in your life?
- What do you want the committee to know that is not apparent elsewhere?
- Use a concrete anecdote or experience to draw the reader in; perhaps circle back to it at the end to create bookends.
- Approach the essay as a chance to share the arc of your journey to this point.
- Consider whether to discuss fluctuations in performance, hardship affecting academic record, and/or a personal or medical situation.
- Remember that if you write something in your personal statement, you may be asked about it in an interview. If you do not wish to speak about it in an interview, do not write it here.
Here are some specific “Do’s” for writing the personal statement.
- Tell a story.
- Keep it interesting by using specific examples and anecdotes.
- Provide information, insight, or a perspective that cannot be found elsewhere in your application.
- Describe experiences in terms of what they mean to you and what you learned.
- Make sure the reader learns about you, not just what you did.
- Use strong action verbs and vivid images; paint a picture.
- Be concise. Make sure every sentence needs to be there.
- Describe what you learned in your research, not the details of the specific research project (unless writing the MD/PhD essay).
- Allow plenty of time to write, revise, reflect, and revise some more. Step away often so you can revisit your essay with fresh eyes.
- Proofread. Spell checking will not catch everything! Then, proofread again and get someone else to do the same. Read the essay out loud to catch typos your eyes may have missed.
Here are some “Don’ts” for the essay.
- Just list or summarize your activities. This is not a resume (and your activities have their own section).
- Try to impress the reader with the use of overly flowery or erudite language.
- Directly tell the reader that you are compassionate, motivated, intelligent, curious, dedicated, unique, or different than most candidates (“Show don’t tell”).
- Focus only on childhood or high school experiences.
- Use slang or forced analogies.
- Lecture the reader, e.g., on what’s wrong with medicine, what doctors should be like.
- Make excuses for poor grades.
- Begin every sentence or paragraph with “I”.
- Overwork the essay to the point where you lose your own voice.
- Use generalizations and clichés.
- Follow the advice of too many people.
Try to share everything there is to know about you.
- 2. Activity descriptions—You are allowed up to 15 activities in this section and for each activity you are allowed 700 characters to describe the experience. This amounts to about 5 or 6 sentences. Some activities will not require that much description. From the AMCAS 2020 manual (aamc.org): “Medical schools receive all text entry responses as plain text. This means that formatting options such as bulleted lists, indented paragraphs, and bold/italic fonts do not appear for reviewers.” Because of this and for the ease of the reader, it is preferable to write these descriptions in sentences rather than using a resume style of writing.
- 3. Most meaningful activities—You are allowed to designate three of your activities as “most meaningful.” For these three, you will write the 700 character description, but then are allowed to write an additional 1325 character narrative to discuss why it was most meaningful. Again, this should be in sentences. This may give you an opportunity to speak about an experience in detail that is not part of your personal statement.
WHAT SOME PEOPLE WRITE FOR THE AMCAS APPLICATION
We will first focus very briefly on the parts that only some people write.
1. Institutional Action explanation—You are required to disclose certain kinds of institutional action that may have occurred in your academic career. If this has been the case for you, we strongly advise you to make an appointment with your House Resident Dean and with an OCS Premedical/Health Careers Adviser to discuss the situation and strongly advise you to ask for advice regarding this explanation.
2. Disadvantaged status explanation—If you believe you grew up in a situation that could be described as disadvantaged, you are allowed to explain this. If you are unsure if you qualify, this is also a good topic for an advising conversation. Again, we suggest letting someone at OCS or in your House team review this explanation.
- 3. MD/PhD essays—Candidates for combined MD/PhD programs are required to write two additional essays. You can get advice from your House tutor team or your research mentors as you write these essays. The first focuses on why you want to get the combined degree. The second, much longer essay, focuses on your research experiences, including your supervisor, the nature of the problem studied, and your contribution to the project. These essays are sent only to the schools where you select the MD/PhD option.
BEYOND THE AMCAS SECONDARY APPLICATIONS
Some schools screen applicants prior to sending secondary applications but most do not. Secondary applications will begin coming as soon as your AMCAS application is verified and sent to schools. A few may come even earlier. You should make sure you set aside time to do these applications promptly and efficiently in the summer. Ideally, plan to turn each one around within 10-14 days and do not prioritize any schools when completing these. Error-free documents are critical, so if you have to hold on to it an extra day to check it, then you should do so. You need to be able to check your email virtually every day in the summer. Check your spam folder every day.