Show, Don’t Tell: Medical School Personal Statement

“Lead me through a story and use showing language as opposed to telling language,” is something I frequently advise students to do when writing personal statements or when communicating through interviews. Sometimes I say this so often that I feel like a broken record, but the truth is, this is something I believe in wholeheartedly. What is this exactly and what is the big deal? The ability to carefully lead the reader or listener through a story is a tremendously important skill to develop through the application process and demonstrates to admissions committees more than you think about just who you are as an applicant. Not only is the storyline more engaging and easier to follow, but the reader or listener is able to make observations about each detail or aspect you ultimately decide to emphasize or prioritize.

         For instance, I can write: “I had the opportunity to intubate the patient during my surgery rotation,” OR “The day started in small talk which eased my first-day anxieties. Before I knew it, the nurse anesthetist called me to the head of the bed where he was unpackaging the miller blade and dosing lidocaine and propofol. I felt the adrenaline rush through me, but I was meticulous to remain collected to those watching in the OR suite. I remembered what I had practiced, what seemed like decades ago now, from my first two pre-clinical years. Place the head into extension, insert the blade with the left hand and displace the tongue, lift up towards the ceiling and away, be mindful of the teeth and lips, and visualize the vocal cords. Before I knew it, I progressed the tube past the vocal cords, secured the tube, and listened with the stethoscope for the reaffirming vesicular breath sounds in the lung fields, celebrating that medicine is where I belong.” Can you see the difference between the two statements now?

Show Don’t Tell

As you can see, using showing language and leading the reader through the story demonstrates a great deal of more information than solely telling the reader what happened. From my initial statement, all you knew is the outcome, but through the “showing” statement, you had insight into my thoughts, composure, and what exactly I did in that moment. Highlighting these small details may seem unnecessary or irrelevant at first, but even the smallest details may clue your reader or listener into perhaps an essential detail about you which would not come through your application otherwise. I hope through reading this brief excerpt, you were able to place yourself in my shoes and visualize just what it was that I was doing in that moment – that was exactly my goal and should be yours too! Remember that while this is a writing sample, a similar technique can be followed verbally through your interviews whether the format be traditional, VITA, or MMI. This technique allows the reader insight into your thoughts, emotions, and actions, something of which is not tangible through a simple “telling statement.” 

Tell (Show) Your Journey to Medicine Story

         Along those same lines, do not forget that you DO have your own story to tell. You may be stuck in the pre-med mindset of comparing yourself to other students and inevitably fixated in the SDN and Reddit posts, but remember that your story is unique and no one else can take that away from you. You need not come from a family of doctors or have done all of the identical activities of most pre-medical students. Whether you worked as a scribe, preschool teacher, or construction worker, no matter. The important thing is that you have prepared yourself for your medical education and can recount your journey as well as remain proud of it. Not to mention, you also have the ability to transform your writing or communication skills and lead your reader or listener through that very story. Therefore, be confident and lead me and others through your story – we are eager to hear just what it is all about. I part ways with my classic advice: “lead me through a story,” I know this will show admissions committees just who you are as an applicant. 

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