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How to Write a Great Dental School Personal Statement

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. 

When you look at a personal statement from an accepted student (like mine or aqz’s ), you are probably thinking, “I COULD NEVER WRITE THAT WELL”.

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: 

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 11.54.21 PM

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. 

Systematic Approach
Random Tactics
Random Tactics

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

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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:

  1. Intro: How I became interested in dentistry? (story: My grandmother’s financial situation prevented her from getting dental care)
  2. How I immigrated to the US? (relating how I learned to became patience and perseverant, skill dentist need)
  3. 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).
  4. How I started “Community Dental Disease Prevention Society” and what impact I made. (Story of Tagita, a student I taught through the club).
  5. My sculpture class and examples of my projects
  6. How I honed my manual dexterity + Accomplishment in my research lab
  7. Conclusion

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.

Stay tuned.


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