Harvard Personal Statements

Last year, a student who'd applied to Harvard on his own called me in a panic.

"I've been waitlisted!" he told me. "What should I do?"

I'd known this student for a few years, so I knew that his grades and SAT scores weren't the problem. It was his essay.

It turns out that he'd talked about his dual interest in business and science. But clearly his essay hadn't been personal enough to make him stand out among all of the other remarkable applicants.

Over the next week, I helped him write a much more personal essay that showcased his vibrant personality. Explaining that he hadn't fully expressed himself in his first essay, he sent it in to the admissions office in the form of a letter.

A couple of weeks later, I received an email from him titled "!" He'd been accepted off the waitlist!

This is the power of telling the right story.

If you're a senior and you haven't yet finalized your personal statement for the January 1 deadline, you're probably wondering what the "right story" is for you. I've put together a list of the Top Three Qualities of a Remarkable College Application Essay.

1. Tell a deeply personal story about profound change

Now before you get nervous about this word "profound," let me clarify. I don't mean that you have to talk about how you became an Olympic gold medalist or how you traveled to Tibet to live with the monks. I mean that you want to tell a story of change that is significant to you.

Start here: think about what you were like at the end of middle school.

Got that image in your head? (If you're like me, you're thinking, "Awkward, self-conscious, socially anxious." Yeah, middle school's tough.)

Now ask yourself, "Who am I now?" What experiences or people have been important in creating that shift? It doesn't have to be a big, dramatic event. It can even seem quite small on the surface.

For example, one of my students who was accepted to Tufts wrote a beautiful essay about how wearing her hair in a ponytail changed her life.

This student had grown up using her pixie haircut to hide her cheekbones, which she felt were too wide. Creating the appearance of a narrow face became so all-consuming that she never went anywhere without a comb or a mirror, never played sports or drove with the windows down or went outside on windy days. So, when she finally got the nerve to pull her hair back, she freed herself from the prison of other people's ideas about what is beautiful.

This kind of internal shift, regardless of what caused it on the outside, is the kind of story you're looking for, too.

2. Make it vivid

If you want your reader to connect with your essay, your opening needs to leap off the page. Try to get as many senses involved as you can: sight, sound, smell, taste, feel.

Here's an example of a magnetic opening that I helped one of my students write a couple of years ago. (She's now attending NYU, her top-choice school.)

"My cousin Jack and I leap across the cushions of my parents' couch while a Japanese girls' group blasts from the speakers. A pair of leggings is draped around my neck, and one of my mother's red heels hangs from my left foot while my right foot is stuffed into her striped sneaker. Jack runs in circles around the living room, tripping over the yellow silk blouse he's wrapped around his waist, and pumps his fist to the music as he yells to our invisible fans, "Sing with me!" I hold out my cucumber microphone to the audience and urge them to join the chorus. "I can't hear you!" I scream."

Can you feel the energy of this opening? You can see, feel and hear these kids' love for music and performance. You know from the opening that the student is going to go on to talk about how creativity and love for music was so important to her development. In other words, you set the stage for the heart of your essay with a vivid scene.

You won't have space to weave in this level of detail throughout the whole essay, but once you've set the stage like this, a few colorful details woven throughout your essay will keep your story full of spark.

3. Offer a bit of mystery at the end

One of the hardest things my students struggle with is the ending to their essays. Either they feel like they have to tie everything up in a neat bow or they end up with overly-generalized and clichéd language.

Remember that you don't need to have everything figured out. It's okay if you don't fully understand how to make sense of your experiences. What's important is to make it clear that you're willing to stay with this confusion until the answers become clear.

One student wrote an essay about an uncomfortable experience she encountered on a trip to Laos and was struggling with how to end it. I encouraged her to let the discomfort remain in the ending. Here's what she came up with:

"Now, a year later, memories of the girls with the owl continue to force me to challenge ideas that I had always assumed were non-negotiable. And the girl in the threshold? For a moment that day, her gaze became mine, allowing me to consider the world from a perspective previously unknown. Those moments have enabled me to gain a little bit of comfort in facing difficult questions where the answers remain just out of reach."

When you allow a bit of mystery into the end, you let the reader know that you're okay with not knowing everything. That shows maturity, and it lets the colleges know that you're in a perfect place to dive into the complicated issues you're going to face in your college classes.

Elizabeth Dankoski has been working with elite students as a private tutor and college consultant for 15 years. Her unconventional approach -- ditching perfection in favor of passion -- has helped her students gain acceptance to all of the nation's top schools: Harvard, Caltech, MIT, Columbia, and Yale, among many others. www.elizabethdankoski.com

Getting Started

What everyone writes for the AMCAS application

  1. Personal statement (5300 characters, spaces count)
  2. Activities descriptions (700 characters, up to 15 allowed)
  3. Three descriptions of most meaningful activities (an additional 1325 characters for each activity)

What some people write on the AMCAS application

  1. Institutional action explanation (1325 characters)
  2. Disadvantaged status explanation (1325 characters)
  3. MD/PhD essay—Why MD/PhD? (3000 characters)
  4. MD/PhD essay—Significant Research (10,000 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 20 schools, this essay will likely be read by somewhere between 40 and 200 people. In general you are trying to hit many singles with your personal statement rather than focusing on hitting a home run. Memorable personal statements can be great. Risky ones are not so great.

    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 first. You can always change it if it does not seem quite right.

    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.

    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. 

DO:

  • 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. 

DON'T:

  • Just list or summarize your activities. This is not a resume (and your activities are included in their own section).
  • Try to impress the reader with the use of overly flowery or erudite language.
  • Directly tellthe 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 2018 manual (accessed via 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 formatting issue and just 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 activity—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 characters to discuss why it was most meaningful. Again, this should be in sentences and should be error free. 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 Academic Dean and with an OCS Premedical/Health Careers Adviser to discuss the situation and strongly advise you to ask for advice regarding this explanation. Others will answer “no” and write nothing here.
  • 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 OCS, 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. They pile up otherwise. 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.  

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