When I first published “Personal Statement Failure Formula: Mistakes that will get you rejected” on SDN, people complained that there is no formula for writing a personal statement and that your personal statement should be unique.
They also told me that I shouldn’t preach my way of writing personal statements, the way that got me into schools like UCSF, UPenn, Pitt, Rutgers, and NYU. How Foolish!!!
Over the last year, I have helped hundreds of students turn their terrible first shitty drafts into a remarkable personal statement that guaranteed admission.
Each of these 120+ remarkable essays had a pattern.
- Do I have a compelling first sentence that will make adcoms read forward?
- Does my introduction tell compelling stories that make the adcom interested in me?
- Do I tell stories in my essay? Are the stories graphic, memorable and remarkable?
- Do my stories weave together logically?
- Do my paragraphs flow well?
- Is my content emotionally engaging? Are my stories colorful?
- Do I tell stories about what inspired me to be a dentist?
- Did I answer the “Why Dentistry?” and “Why dentistry is a meaningful career?”
- Shadowing: Do I tell detail graphic stories of my shadowing experiences?
- Do I just talk about what I did or do I talk about what I learned and what impact I made in the world?
- If I talk about my research in my essay, does it make someone curious about it? or does it make someone say ” This is too much details. I cannot take it”.
- Is it simple to read? Is it fun/interesting to read about my research?
- Am I using jargon, clichés or big phrases?
- Is my conclusion catchy? Is it memorable?
- Is the reader going to remember me 10 mins/10 hours/10 days after he reads my personal statement?
- Does my conclusion loop back to the stories I mentioned earlier?
- Do my stories logically flow well ? Do I have an overarching theme in my essay?
- Is each sentence earning its way into my personal statement? or am I just adding junk/useless sentences?
- Is it under 4500 character limit?
- Did I check the grammar?
- Do I come across as likable? Will the adcom be interested in interviewing me?
My wife kept asking me to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi and I kept postponing it. Finally,last weekend, I took out 2 hours to watch it.
The movie is about Jiro, a 85-year old world-class sushi master.
Jiro is obsessed with making sushi. Even in his dreams, he is coming up with recipes. His obsession with details is fascinating. Although his obsession is borderline unhealthy, sometimes that is what it takes to be the best in the world!!
Jiro is very methodical and systematic. Every plate of sushi he makes is unanimously a masterpiece – the taste, texture, and appearance is always the same and top-notch. Even then, he does not stop. He is still on a relentless pursuit of improving his skills.
When one look at Jiro and his flawless sushi making art, one can’t help but think “I COULD NEVER DO THAT, he’s naturally talented”. But as you watch the rest of the documentary you discover the only thing that distinguishes Jiro is his passion, hard work and eagerness to improve himself. For 50 years he learned, made mistakes, persisted, and worked hard before finally becoming the BEST SUSHI CHEF in the world.
Being a master dentist also takes a burning passion, hard work, practice and relentless pursuit of improving your craft. It takes time to be
But you may ask : “Muhammed, I thought this is a post about personal statements. Why are you talking about a sushi chef?
A great personal statement is like a masterpiece sushi made by Jiro.
However, acknowledge that, your first draft will be far from the great draft you will send to dental school.
But that’s not true.
When I started writing my own essay, I struggled a lot. I didn’t know what to write. My mind was blocked. In my brainstorming phase, I looked at a blank page for two hours thinking what I should write. I literally started crying because I didn’t know what to write.
Then a dental student friend of mine told me, “Zia, just get something down on paper.” And I wrote anything down that came to mind.
It was terrible. But it was good enough for a shittty first draft.
I accepted that my first draft will be terrible and I needed to improve on it.
But how did I take a shitty first draft to a GREAT personal statement that got me into Penn and UCSF?
It’s no magic.
A great body of work is like an iceberg. You only see the visible result. 95% of an iceberg is hidden beneath the surface. You will never see it. That 95% = hard work, and relentless improvement on the first shitty draft.
You will never see the 50+ hours I spent crafting a GREAT personal statement. (The draft I uploaded on AADSAS application was my 25th draft.) But you will see a beautifully crafted personal statement
I always, put in double the effort than someone else doing the same thing. By putting 2X the effort, I reap 10-20x the reward. That’s why interviewers cry after reading my disadvantaged statement. And that’s why dental school interviewers become more curious after reading my application essay.
I put in a lot of work writing posts at SDN. Sometime to write one post, I spend 12-15 hours. But it’s totally worth it. Most of my posts get more than 3000-4000 views. The last post I wrote on personal statement was no different. I got 35+ requests from pre-dentals to review/edit their personal statements. Currently, I am having to turn down people because I am swamped with PS review requests. But you can read all my blog post on dental school coach blog.
I work hard, but I do it systematically. In that sense, I am almost like Jiro. However, for my systematic approach I have gotten comments like this:
Systematic approach is better than random act of non-productive techniques. If you are a pre-dental, you know how important systems are. Do you think dental schools will accept you if you didn’t submit your LORs or forgot to upload your transcripts? They probably won’t. (Dental School Application is a systematic process)
And yes! I do think in systematic, linear manner. In fact 99% of us do. The 1% of the human population probably don’t need a system (Good for them). For the 99% of us, systems liberates us and gives us opportunities to improve.
People who have criticized me by calling me a robot, should know better. Health professions are just full of systems, protocols and checklists. Read the book called The Checklists’ Manifest for your information.
Because I follow a systematic approach, I produce high quality results CONSISTENTLY. (ex: I attended Penn Undergraduate and got into dental school like UCSF and Penn).
I helped my friends using similar systematic approach to edit their personal statements and they all got into top tier ivy league schools in different fields of study. Not here to brag or anything.
In this post, I reveal THE SYSTEM I follow to consistently write high quality personal statements. It’s simple yet amazingly effective.
Let’s jump right in
a) Brainstorming + Creating a story Toolbox
Brainstorming is the hardest part in the essay writing process. Some people really struggle with what they should write about. See below
When I was in Ghana, my friend wanted to hook me up with girls. As a conservative Muslim, I didn’t know how to “hook” up with someone nor did I know how to talk to girls. ( I used to be a weirdo!)
So, my friend suggested I keep a story toolbox that will have pick up lines, jokes, etc. to tell when I approached girls.
The idea of a story toolbox has been pretty powerful in my life. I did not use it in dating, but I have used it to write master personal statements and win multiple interviews.
If you look at my personal statements, it’s full of stories.
How did I collect that many stories?
The answer is pretty simple. I keep a daily journal.
For example, when I was shadowing an oral surgeon, I kept note of things that I observed on a regular basis. If I saw something unusual/interesting, I made special notes about it. Once a patient came to the office with severe neuralgic pain. Dr. P patiently listened to him. When the patient finished ranting, he calmed and reassured him that he’ll be just fine. Instead of giving him any injection for his pain, Dr. P communicated to a pain psychologist and created a treatment plan for the patient.
A dentist calling up a pain psychologist !!! I have never seen that. That’s unusual, so I jotted it down in my journal.
Effective story telling is hard. It’s tough not because we suck at story telling. (You may be a story telling expert when you are hanging out with your friends.) But the stories you want to tell won’t readily come to your mind when you are sitting down to brainstorm for your personal statement.
So when you sit down to brainstorm, I recommend, do it in two or three different sessions.
Spend 30-45 minutes for the first session, take a 2-3 hour break and come back for another session. During the break you should take walk, run or shower. I recently read a book called The Power of Full Engagement. In the book, the authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schawartz illustrate a provocative study by Michael Gelb:
In his book, How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci, author Michael Gelb poses a wonderfully revealing question: “Where are you when you get your best ideas?” He asked that question to thousands of people over the years, and the most common response he gets include, “in the shower”, “resting in bed”, “walking in nature”, “listening to music”, “jogging/running”, “meditating”. “Almost no one claims to get their best ideas at work”- Gelb said.
You can sit at your desk, stare at a blank paper for all day and get frustrated because you still don’t know what to write.
Or you can brainstorm for 30 min. Write down your ideas. Take a break. Come back. Throw away all the bad ideas. Brainstorm some new ideas.
Here are some questions you should try to answer while brainstorming;
- What incidents inspired you to be a dentist? Who inspired you become a dentist?
- Do you have soft qualities that a dentist may possess? What are they and how did you come to acquire them? (ex: I talk about my immigration story and relate that to patience and perseverance, skills most dentists have)
- What did you learn at your dental shadowing? How can you apply what you learned as a future dentist?
- What did you learn at your Extra Curricular activities/Lab Work etc? Can you relate these activities to dentistry?
- Do you have any academic accomplishments that you are proud of and want to mention in the personal statement ( publishing a paper, etc)
- Did you pick up any manual dexterity skills ( playing guitar, violin, working at a science lab, etc)?
[In case you need help brainstorming, talk to someone who knows you well (close friends, parents, siblings, etc.). It really helps.]
c) Write Shitty first draft:
Once you have those ideas down on paper, take a break. Come back and write your shitty first draft.
Ann Lamott, author of Bird by Bird says,
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”
Just write something down on paper. Don’t worry about its quality, style, grammar. JUST WRITE.
Come back one or two days later. Print the essay out. Do a cold read of the first draft. Ask yourself, “What do I like and what do I not like about the essay? Does it logically flow? If I were an adcom, would I be interested in meeting this person?
d) Making an Outline:
After you have written your (shitty) first draft, make a detailed outline of the essay.
For example, my essay outline was:
- Intro: How I became interested in dentistry? (story: My grandmother’s financial situation prevented her from getting dental care)
- How I immigrated to the US? (relating how I learned to became patience and perseverant, skill dentist need)
- Told stories about generosity and empathy ( First, I mentioned how generous my dentist was and then related that to how I showed kindness and generosity to a Somali refuge).
- How I started “Community Dental Disease Prevention Society” and what impact I made. (Story of Tagita, a student I taught through the club).
- My sculpture class and examples of my projects
- How I honed my manual dexterity + Accomplishment in my research lab
Making a rigorous outline will take some time. But once you make that outline, writing a better draft would be a matter of time. I recommend writing this outline on a whiteboard. If you don’t have a whiteboard, do it in post it notes. Make the outline as visual as possible. Check if your essay outline is flowing logically. Send your outline via email to a few friends. Ask them to assess if your outline is logical.
Spend some time perfecting the outline. I used 3-4 hours white boarding until I knew I had an excellent outline.
e) Rewriting, revising and rewriting
Once you are satisfied with your outline, write the second draft of your essay.
(what are they revising? what are some elements they are looking to edit and what kind of a checklist should they follow in terms of what makes a good draft)
f) The best $5 I ever spent:
Once you are done with your second draft, start reaching out to your friends and professors.
Once I was done with my essay, I took my friends out to Starbucks, bought them a latte ($5) and asked them if they could read my personal statement. If they said yes, I immediately pulled out two printouts of my PS. My friends were brutally honest but that’s what I was looking for.
[I also reached out to my professors that knew me very well and ask them if they could review my PS. Some of them were busy, so they politely declined. But some of them got back to me immediately and offered to read my personal statement.]
g) Revise, Rewrite, Rewrite, and Rewrite
This is part of the iceberg that no one sees. Rewriting and revising is not fun. It’s boring and tough. But repeated rewriting is an absolute necessity to get to the perfect personal statement.
I rewrote my essay 25 times. Each time I re-wrote it, I printed my essay out, did a cold read, and ask “if I were an adcom, would I select myself for an interview.” I rewrote until the answer was yes.
To make your personal statement perfect, You’ve got REWRITE, REWRITE AND REWRITE.
Getting to the Perfect personal statement is no magic! You need to put in the hard work. Hard work is tough, challenging, and boring. Most people hate working hard.
Just remember, you are going to spend time and energy to write that personal statement; why not spend twice the time and energy to make it the world’s best personal statement.
On Thursday I will analyze my own personal statement and show you why it’s a GREAT personal statement.
Over the weekend, I will share the checklist that I used to review my rewritten drafts. I will also write a post about how to stay motivated (like an olympian) during the application season.
(9800+ views on SDN)
Last weekend I got to edit a couple of personal statements. Some had really great points and stories, but the rest was just total crap. Now, I don’t mean to offend anyone. People whose essays I read are great writers, but they are making some serious mistakes in writing personal statements.
I have spend at least 3 hours on each essay– dissecting it to pieces, critiquing rigorously and then uploading video screen-flow of those essays so that students know a) I am a real person reading their essay and they can always reach out to me for a second review, and b) they had a quality review process.
When I reviewed those essay, I was ruthless. I went to deep to point out mistakes that students were making and some people will be hurt by this review. But, in retrospect, they will respect that I was ruthless with their first essay draft.
Now, going back to my earlier point, I have seen some major mistakes that students repeatedly made. Not just 1-2 students, I am talking about 15+ students. If you are making those mistakes, trust me, your application will be in the rejection pile.
Personal statement is the best way to get your foot in the door of the dental school and to secure an interview. Not taking full advantage of it can really hurt your chances of getting into dental school !!!
So what are these mistakes? Let’s talk about them:
# 1 ) Not writing a “storified” introduction
I have seen really terrible generic introductions. If you write them, the ad-com will just hit “REJECT” key. Let’s take a look:
College is my time of seeking directions and facing many uncertainties. There are times I feel the hours of studying and working part-time jobs have no destination, thus the feelings of disappointment and distraught always are always on the back of my mind.
or the following:
I am different from the average applicant to dental school……
If you write these type of introduction, you will be in the rejection pile immediately.
Do you know the purpose of the first sentence of your personal statement?
It is to compel the reader to read the second sentence. And the purpose of the second sentence is to make the reader read the third sentence.
Every single sentence in your essay has to make the reader say: ” I am curious, I wanna read whats next.”
Every paragraph has to be compelling. But the first paragraph has to be SUPER DUPER compelling.
How to fix it:
a) Write a story. Take a look at the following example from my personal statement ( #humblebrag)
‘Shri Ramajeyam!’ chanted the village magician back in Bangladesh, as he tried to heal my grandmother’s toothache for 40 Taka (equilivalent to $0.50 in the US). The cheap hocus pocus failed and ultimately, an oral screening at a local hospital diagnosed an oral lesion in her mouth. However, it remained untreated because of my family’s limited finances.
These financial challenges that have continually haunted my family have helped ingrain the value of patience within the very essence of my personality. Our patience in reapplying for the Diversity Visa Lottery over and over finally paid off the 9th time, when we won. We thought our financial distress would improve, so we happily left for America. But, surprises ensued. Extreme poverty, accompanied by a sudden cut in Medicaid forced me to curtail my visits to the orthodontist, but I continued to wait, as I had always been, for a change in fortune.
“Mom, mom! Amy just fell!” I cried out loudly as I saw my sister Amy accidentally fell of the bed while playing with me. Blood started gushing out of little Amy’s mouth.
My mother rushed into the room. Fortunately she called 911 and took Amy to the nearest ER. After stopping the blood, the ER nurse told us that Amy’s central incisor is broken. Amy was immediately referred to an endodontist and a cosmetic surgeon. It took a root canal, years of therapy, and many more cosmetic processes to replace the damage done by the fall.
Growing up with cracked incisor, Amy was made fun of in her classes and was bullied because of the way she looked. She did not have any self-confidence. However, when she got her last crown just a few years ago, she started feeling more confident and comfortable with the way she looked. The powerful shift in Amy’s self-image inspired me to pursue dentistry. I realized that a dentist not only has the power to beautify someone but also has ability contribute to someone’s mental health and well-being—a crucial reason for me to choose dentistry.
b) Evoke Emotional Response. Instead of writing a ROBOTIC introduction where you just about yourself, tell me a story. Trust me, YOU ARE A BETTER STORY-TELLER THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE.
#2) Selling yourself Short
Ask yourself: Why are you writing a personal statement to a dental school?
You are not begging for a favor from the ad-com to take you into their schools.
You are writing this statement because you ARE a qualified candidate for dental school AND dental school should know EXACTLY why you are qualified.
If you sell yourself short in your personal statement, you will be in the REJECTION pile.
Let’s see the example below:
Although my duties were simple, such as providing suctioning, by personally working along side dental students, the experience has gave me a glimpse to what it would be like to work as an actual dentist. This edifying experience has cemented my dedication of pursuing dentistry as a life long career.
Do not write anything that trivializes the impact you made during your shadowing, extra curricular, and research, etc.
Dental school adcoms know that the things you have done during your shadowing or research, may not be world class. They are completely okay with that.
What they want to know are:
a) How did the activity motivate you to become a dentist? and
b) What IMPACT did you make in that specific activity?
So, I repeat, do not sell yourself short!!!
Even if you felt that you did not make an impact while you shadowed a dentist, talk about how you were inspired by the variety of patients that came into your dentist’s office. For example:
While shadowing Dr. XYZ, I remember a new patient, who walked in with severe trigeminal neuralgia pain. Dr. XYZ will be his 7th dentist! He traveled from all the from Maryland to see my dentist (in Philadelphia). His neuralgia pain was unbearable and none of the other dentists were able to cure the pain.
I was amazed at how Dr. XYZ listened to the patient and comforted him. Instead of jumping onto giving a morphine injection, like other dentists, he consulted a pain psychologist and came up with a treatment plan for the patient.
Trust me you are impacting somebody by your work and you should talk about it.
#3) Lots of Generic Sh*t, No specific example/stories
Read this paragraph and tell me what you got out of it about the applicant:
My volunteering experience gives me the opportunity of witnessing many dental procedures. The limitless uses of materials to restore teeth and form impression for braces confirm my interest in dentistry. The medical knowledge, which the dentist possesses to counsel patients in preventative actions for oral diseases, is very appealing to me. I am amazed that medicine is also practiced in dentistry through administration of anesthesia. I am truly passionate about dentistry because it revolves around practicing the art of tooth restoration. Thus, dentistry is my career of choice.
Can you tell me anything about the person from reading this statement? Nope!
How to fix it:
Dental School DO CARE about your invaluable leadership and management skills. BUT SHOW IT TO THEM. Don’t tell them what you know. Show them the result and convince them that you are qualified.
Here’s look at an example from my Personal Statement:
Aside from my involvement with the community, I found personal gratification and further enhancement of my endurance while I was taking a sculpture course. After the caffeinated nights and clay-stained hands at the studio, looking at my first project – a clay bosom of Abraham Lincoln, an unprecedented sense of pride flooded through me. Right then, I knew that in order to be fulfilled I would need manual involvement in my future profession.
The unique opportunity offered by dentistry to integrate my manual dexterity with my love for science further drew me in. My passion for science grew in a crowded lab-hood at my organic synthesis lab, where I endured repeated tedious phases of optimization of the reaction conditions. Ultimately, I experienced a deep sense of satisfaction as I produced newer molecules in high yield culminating in a co-authorship of a paper in Organic Letters.
I talk about RESULTS — Something that dental school adcom can visualize. They can juxtapose these results and my application and can recognize me for these achievements.
Tell stories of things you have accomplished (eg. projects, publications) and leadership position you have held. Show me specific results of your work.
P:S: Talk about your success and accomplishment without coming across arrogant.
#4) Lack of stories in the statement
Personal statements that don’t tell stories are BORING. If you tell meaningful stories that show some of your characteristics, adcoms will remember you 10X more than the kid who didn’t tell stories.
Bill Clinton said,
Telling purposeful stories are the best way to persuade, motivate, and convince who want to do what you need.
Look at the beginning of a personal statement written by aqz. Study how graphically she portrayed herself playing tennis. Now this is a compelling story that ad com would like to read forward.
Adrenaline began rushing through my veins as I prepared to return my opponent’s serve. All of a sudden, the tennis ball zoomed across the court, blistering deep into my forehand wing. Eyes on the ball, I rapidly shuffled over to the right as the energy stored in my calf muscles channeled into my arms. In a split second, I whipped my racquet through the air, smacking the ball right on the sweet spot. The ball soared over the net to the other side, landing only to briefly graze the baseline. Triumphant, I flashed a smile as the ball smoked past my opponent and slammed soundly into the fence.
Simply put, the return of a tennis serve is one of my greatest fascinations. Contrary to the belief of an unsuspecting passerby, my pleasure does not purely come from hitting a winning shot. Rather, it is from the technical execution of the shot that I draw a sense of inexplicable satisfaction. From the footwork to the follow-through, each technique is a complex art that needs to be perfected in order for the shot to be carried out flawlessly. It is the unseen reason behind why some shots end in failure while other shots become sensations. Hence, I have come to value the underlying process rather than the final achievement itself.
or check this PS written by a medical student at UCLA ( I know he’s med student but the point is story is powerful).
I’m sure, you have better and more graphically stimulating stories to tell. Just remember that it takes some time in getting good at story telling. The more you practice telling those stories, they better it will be.
#5) Not Having an outline for your essay
This is a killer! If you are writing a PS and you don’t have an outline, go make one. Otherwise, you will write paragraphs like this.
I love that the satisfaction of the dental profession comes personally through patient interaction. I acknowledge the bond between the dentist and his patients is long lasting because the dentist I volunteer with has a lot of long-time patients. Thus, dentistry is truly my career of choice because I will have a chance to close a gap between a health professional and a patient through regular interaction. Through this, the patients will be more likely to trust the dentist’s goodness in his treatment suggestion and comply with the dentist’s treatment plan. By promoting patient-dentist trust, I will not feel alienated from my future patients and will have the family environment in my workplace setting. Thus, this environment will help me feel relaxed and more focused on harnessing my skills in dentistry.
From reading this, you might think this is a crappy conclusion, but it’s actually a body paragraph. To Avoid writing crappy paragraph like this, make sure you make an outline.
Now, if you are just jotting your thoughts down and writing your “first sh*tty draft”, it’s fine to write paragraphs like this. But then make sure you have a coherent structure that you are following to write your personal statement.
For example, here’s a structure that I suggested to someone:
Talk about your experience as a patient and how it motivated you to become a dentist; mention that you want to create impact that your dentist had on you
Transition to your public health internship where you had real impact on people’s lives and how you see dentistry as a way to give people a good life. Also make sure you tell stories of people you had interacted with. Don’t just tell me, show me with examples and stories.
Mention your experiences shadowing. Talk about one or two unusual but interesting cases you have seen.
Talk about your research and academic accomplishments. Mention how your research instilled in you qualities that will make you a great dentist
Wrap it up with some concluding statement mentioning why dentistry is a career you should choose.
Your structure will be different. But bottom line is : Having an outline will make the PS writing so much more enjoyable.
#6) Lack of Clarity
I have read something like this:
After seven application cycles, I was so grateful when my father told me he was accepted to a residency program—he was finally going to become a physician in America, a dream he had pursued ever since my parents immigrated to the United States from **a developing country** in 1989. My father has inspired me to pursue higher education so that I may help serve others—and I have found dentistry to be the best way for me to do so. First and foremost, I want to have a meaningful occupation in which I may provide others with some type of benefit. However, I am a very family-oriented person, and I also desire a balance between my professional life and family life. I like how dentistry is hands on and requires fine motor skills, which is an exciting challenge. I found myself enjoying the outpatient setting as well as the wide range of patient populations.
What is this supposed to tell me? The sentences are unclear and fail to draw attention to the main purpose the person is writing the PS. Clarity is one of the most important part in a successful application. If your statement is not clear and to the point, it will be in the rejection pile.
How to fix this:
A technique that has helped write clear essay/blog post is the following:
- Create a solid outline of what you want to write
- Write the essay
- Get off of your chair and go for a walk/run or do something else (This will refresh your mind)
- Come back after 2 -4 hours and READ the essay out loud
- If something is not CLEAR enough, you clarify it. If need be, throw away the entire essay and start writing again until you attain 100% clarity.
These are some of the major mistakes I have seen. Make sure you avoid them if you want to get into dental school. If you want to get rejected from dental school, I recommend trying out some of these mistakes.