This post was written by Kristen Thomas in August 2016.
So you’ve got this personal statement to write. Someone has asked you to dig deep and put to paper your thoughts and motivations for clawing your way through the wringer that is veterinary medicine. YOU are completely certain of your choice, but now you have to convince someone else completely certain of your choice.
And you are told to do this by using this VMCAS prompt, listed below:
“Discuss briefly the development of your interest in veterinary medicine. Discuss those activities and unique experiences that have contributed to your preparation for a professional program. Discuss your understanding of the veterinary medical profession, and discuss your career goals and objectives.”
Somehow, you need to find the words to convince not just anyone. You need to convince your professional elder and then some. Someone who knows more about what your academic and professional future holds than you even do. Hell, this person might even be a DVM themselves, your potential colleague.
So what do you even begin to say? And no, the first thought that might come to mind, “I lurve animals!”, is not going to cut it.
A passion for animals is a given. We’re all here, pursuing veterinary medicine, because of a commonality between us. Because something about animals captivates us enough to be here. Maybe its the captivating connection of the human-animal bond or just how enraveled animals are into the human experience. Maybe its their physiology, how it can be so familiar and yet so foreign from our own. Maybe its being an advocate for those who do not have a voice.
Whatever it is has enough of a draw for you to consider a field where your patients might always fear you rather than appreciate what you’ve done for them, a field where the stakes are high enough and the pay low enough that you’re here because of a calling and not because of benefits or glory.
THIS is the overlap in all of us who aim to make veterinary medicine a lifestyle. But medicine is not one size fits all.
Within this group of impassioned people exists – just like the diversity found in the field itself – a diversity all its own. No two vets are the same, whether you’re looking at vastly different vets like a veterinary neurologist or a zoo vet or a research vet or a pathologist. The day to day of a vet can vary so dramatically depending on what species or biological system you’re working with. And…yeah. Duh. But even within vets of the same practice, you have two entirely different people who practice entirely different medicine.
Each vet has carved out for themselves a niche within the profession. They certainly didn’t get there by traveling the same road.
And YOU, as your own fledgling member of the veterinary community, have a different path to take to veterinary medicine than any other vet before you has taken. Own that road with pride.
Yeah yeah yeah. Personal path, okay, got it. That’s all well and good, but you’ve got a personal statement to write. How do you even start?
Step one: mentally prepare yourself. Pouring your soul onto paper and somehow fitting it into an absurdly limited span of characters, so that someone can take all that you are, all of that which is so precious to you, and judge it for its worth.
You’re putting it all out there and risking rejection. And nope, I’m not here to tell you how to make that easier. That will never get easier. Not when something truly matters to you. This is one tough climb that you can’t make any shorter or less of a beast. You have no control over the challenge itself. But you have control over you. So ground yourself first.
This might involve taking a step back to notice how your mind is building frustration and roadblocks and how a pit of stress has settled in your chest. Breathe. Acknowledge your fears, because they want to be heard. And then when they start to settle – and, trust me, they will – then you start to write.
And as you write, don’t concern yourself with the length. Whittling your story down and figuring out what will make the final cut is best done last. After you’ve said everything you have to say, then figure out how to say it with precision and brevity. Worry about that later, we’re not there yet. That will come later.
For now we start by going back to the beginning.
It all started when you were a kid. Your journey, I mean. And maybe your interest in veterinary medicine. For many, the start to veterinary medicine began as a kid. And for just as many, it did not. There is no right or wrong time or place to pique an interest in veterinary medicine. Your path is different, remember? Always keep that in mind.
So we begin by channeling who you were when you were a kid. Because that individual is still a very real part of you and you’re going to need each other. Kid you and adult you each have their own part.
So what does the kid bring?
Whatever the reason for your excitement for veterinary medicine, it is an impassioned kind of excitement. You know. The fiery kind. And it has to be. You don’t last long in veterinary medicine if it is not. This is not just a job, a means to an end. This is something purpose driven. And if its purpose driven, somewhere in there is the purest form of excitement and joy that there is, the unbridled joy of a child.
So did you find your inner kid? Good. Now introduce them to your adult self. You need kid you. Kid you will be how you remember why you’re here when your chosen career wears at your soul. But you also need adult you. Because adult you needs to be the one driving and protecting the both of you. So here we have it, adult you meets kid you.
You make a stellar team, you two. Because the two of you have been through a LOT.
Now. Literally, tell me all about it.
Who have you been and who are you shaping up to be?
What I know so far is that you have an interest in veterinary medicine. Something in the way that you are and the life that you’ve led has brought you to this place. So track your development in veterinary medicine by painting a picture. How have your experiences built that big picture?
How did you know you wanted to become a vet? What defining moment in your ADULT — not your childhood — life, did you know? Because, remember, your inner kid is the one bringing the excitement. But that kid will need the guidance and protection an adult has to offer. So the adult should be the one calling the shots, making the decisions. And the decision to become a vet is not a kid’s to make.
Like the overlap there is between every vet, you and your inner kid should have areas of overlap. But there will also be areas of dissonance. The kid gives you the heart and the adult gives you that solid head on your shoulders. So connect the story. So how did you get from kid to adult and where does veterinary medicine fit into that picture? This question will ultimately end by you chronicling how adult you sees and understands veterinary medicine and how you will use that to protect your inner child.
A hint, here is the time to draw on individual experiences. Your resume may provide you a map. But careful! Do not relist your resume. That is not what a personal statement is for.
This personal statement is your way of showing the things your resume can’t. Because your path is different, remember? Your resume may not show that. You could put some kid through the exact same experiences you did, but that does not make them the same person you are. And that does not make them ready for veterinary medicine like you are.
VMCAS wants to know. What is the background of your interest in veterinary medicine? How and why are you here? This question directly addresses your inner kid. What makes you little-kid-on-your-birthday excited about veterinary medicine?
But the next question is addressed at the adult in the room. Are you an adult in the room? And do you understand what you’re getting yourself into? Do you know the diverse roles you could play as a veterinarian? Do you know the scope of work that a veterinarian could pursue? Small animal, large animal, pathology, exotics, etc? Do you understand the challenges a veterinarian will face and do you have the emotional intelligence to tackle those challenges? Have you developed professional skills?
So don’t just list experiences again or how smart you are. Because if you’ve made it to this stage of the game, you’re one smart cookie. But brilliance is the baseline criteria for making it through the application process; its not going to be the clincher that gets you in.
Detail your toolbox of skills that you have gained from your experiences and how you will use those for veterinary medicine. Be explicit about lessons learned, how they shaped your understanding of veterinary medicine, how they have built invaluable tools you will need, and what your place is within this profession.
There’s no getting around it, the personal statement is tricky to write. But the attitude with which you approach it goes a long way.
View your personal statement as less of a chore and more as your opportunity to show the human behind the resume. Because, despite being a field with a strong focus on animals, veterinary medicine is deceivingly centered around humanity. And thus, the personal statement is likewise centered around humanity. So build your story with more than just grades and accomplishments. Instead, chronicle your unique path to help the reader understand your humanity, and make them want to learn more about you in an interview.
Your Application writing for Medical/Vet/Dental school (or other health professions schools), is another essential part of your application.
Along with the numbers on your transcript and MCAT score, the medical schools have only two ways to learn more about you personally, including your motivation, and readiness—what they read about you in the Letters of Evaluation, and what YOU have to say for yourself in your own application writing.
After all the dedication, work, and involvement you will have had to become a strong applicant for medical school, it is important to respect the journey you have been on and take the time to assess, consider, and reflect on the journey itself so that you can do your best writing.
The Writing Portions of the Application
The Primary Application Writing (ie: one common app sent to about 20 schools)
- A personal statement/essay: 5300 characters (about a page and ½ single space), that will be answering the question, "Why Medicine?", for you-and how your experiences back you up.
- An experiences/activities section: 15 boxes available. Each allow 750 characters (a paragraph) and you will choose 3 of those and add up to another 1200 characters discussing why they are "Most meaningful." Medical schools don't take your formal resume.
The Secondary ApplicationWriting (an application from each individual school, so approximately 20 secondary apps)
Writing an excellent application for medical school requires
Contemplation and Reflection
Collecting and reviewing your memories about meaningful academic, extra-curricular, scholarly, and life experiences-as well as influential people, personal growth evolutions, and the development of your perspectives, inspirations, and motivations. As such, you will be keeping in mind their relevance to the goal of Medical/Vet/Dental etc. School.
Once you have a sense of what you want to say, it takes time and intention to take all that and produce a skillful and well-written product that will be compelling to read.
What makes an essay interesting? Excellent writing. An applicant who is prepared to apply will have all the "material" they need to write a strong application. What makes it compelling and meaningful for the admissions committee when they read it, is excellent writing. Take the time to write skillfully. For instance:
- Use active language rather than passive
- Integrate anecdotes. Illustrate what you mean with examples
- Be genuine
- Work on cohesive writing with an introduction, excellent transition sentences between paragraphs, and a conclusion.
- Don't be hyperbolic, or overstated.
- Don't pontificate, be grounded in specifics of your own actual experience
- Don't be afraid of multiple drafts to get to where you want to get. You have to start somewhere, and it will lead you to the essay you want to write.
Important points to remember
YOUR motivation for becoming a physician
It is not important to have a wholly unique reason that you wish to become a physician/medical practitioner. It is important however that you write about your reasons as only you uniquely can. There are certain elements that many applicants will inevitably have in common. For example, many applicants will likely have some array (each uniquely developed or balanced) of service experiences, scholarly experiences, and clinical experiences. Many were inspired in part, by a family member or the medical experience of someone close to them, exposure to healthcare disparities, or a love of research. These are natural similarities because one needs certain kinds of motivation and growth to prepare for a medical profession. However, it is important to be able to articulate your narrative and show through your writing how you have uniquely developed your motivation intellectually and through your actions.
Work on your activities section in parallel
As you do so, it will help you clarify what you can focus on in those 15 activity blurbs vs the main essay, and what you can hone in on the essay.
It is important to have some readers and get honest, thoughtful feedback. Your Pre-health Advisors are happy to give you feedback on your writing as well. On the other hand, be mindful about not having "too many cooks in the kitchen." In the end it is your essay/activities, and your writing.