Personal Statement

Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a Memorable & Winning Personal Statement

FRANCISCO MARGARET

Maggie Francisco, SCCO, Class of 2016

For all optometry school applicants busy writing personal statements, this article may help. I highly endorse its wisdom.

After Maggie shares tips on how to write a memorable and winning essay, included at the end of this article is the very essay she submitted with her application. It is a perfect example of how to “show-and-not-tell,” revealing through its narrative her unique personality, her professionalism, preparation, and passion for optometry.

Article and Personal Essay Written by Maggie Francisco, Optometry Student, SCCO, Class of 2016

According to Dr. Munroe, the goal of the personal statement is to show the admissions team mainly three things; 1) your personality, 2) your commitment to optometry, and 3) your passion and motivation that will help guide you through optometry school—the “fire in your belly.” Your GPA and OAT scores will speak for themselves, but the personal statement is your one opportunity to show them who you are and what sets you apart from the sea of applicants they are wading through each day. What makes you different? What makes you… you?

Welcome Back BBQ: pictured here with Dr. Jane Ann Munroe, left, along with Bridget Anderson, and Maggie Francisco, both from Class of 2016

Welcome Back BBQ, pictured here with Dr. Jane Ann Munroe (left), Bridget Anderson (center), and Maggie Francisco (right), both from Class of 2016

These are often tough questions to answer, especially when many of us in the application phase are at the age when we are just starting to figure that out for ourselves. That is why people typically come up with the same or similar, slightly monotonous story—they got glasses when they were little, their grandmother had glaucoma, they liked their optometrist, they had a lazy eye, etc.—and they discovered, “Hey, optometry is pretty cool…” Which leads me to my first “don’t” for writing a memorable and winning personal statement:

1.  DON’T Be Generic

Yes, these stories are important to how you discovered optometry and why it is so important to you. So don’t leave them out completely! But don’t focus too much on it because everyone has glasses or a grandma with glaucoma or a cool optometrist or a lazy eye or something that inspired them to pursue optometry. Use this opportunity to write about your UNIQUE experiences and don’t feel like you have to linger on your back-story. Just mention your story briefly and move on to the good stuff—what have you done to learn about or invest yourself in the optometric profession? What are your goals? Your dreams? That is what they care to read and what makes your story unique.

2.  DON’T Tell Them; Show Them

Telling your story seems like it should be the main goal of a personal statement, but you don’t just want to tell them a story—you have to show them! Paint them a picture, something they can relate to and that tells them more about you than do the words alone.

Personal Statement Example One:

“When I was a child, my pediatrician inspired me to become a doctor because she was smart, nice and always made me feel better. I vowed to be just like her.” (1)

Personal Statement Example Two:

“I remember the first time I went into my pediatrician’s office: pure fear. Like most kids, the doctors was the last person I wanted to see. The interesting thing is that over the years I started to like Dr. Green because she was not only smart but able to relate with me and explain things in a way I could understand. She made scary experiences much more tolerable. I later went on rounds with Dr. Green at the hospital and felt my desire to be a doctor increase. I saw how hard she worked and what was required to be a good physician. The exciting thing is that I found these high standards didn’t scare me; rather, they motivated me to excel in school and become a physician just like her.” (2)

Example one simply tells the reader who inspired them and why, but in an extremely generic, unemotional and lackluster fashion. Example two, however, shows passion and humanity, all while showing her understanding of what a good doctor does and what type of doctor she would like to be.

This is the goal! Show, don’t tell.

3.  DON’T Accentuate Your Flaws

One question applicants always ask is, “should I explain why I got those C’s?” or volunteer some information of that sort. The simple answer is just this: don’t do it.

The personal statement is a venue to show the admissions team what would make you a great asset to an optometry program,

Maggie at the Class of 2016 White Coat Ceremony being congratulated by MBKU President, Dr. Kevin Alexander

Maggie at the Class of 2016 White Coat Ceremony being congratulated by MBKU President, Dr. Kevin Alexander

so why would you waste a precious word on something that you did wrong? If there is really a valid explanation for a slump in your GPA or a strange gap in your academic transcript—there was a death, illness or injury in your family or something of a similar, serious nature—there are other ways to express this. Some schools will have a “If there is anything else you would like the admissions office to know…” section on the application, or in the case of SCCO, you can email odadmissions@ketchum.edu an official letter (pdf/doc) to go into your file that can disclose details that did not fit within the rest of the application. Feel free to explain yourself in this manner, but definitely don’t feel like you have to. The admissions officers understand that sometimes life happens or a class was particularly hard, so just stick to talking about why you rock!

4.  DO Be Genuine

The worst thing you could do in a personal statement is to lie or misrepresent yourself. Admissions officers read hundreds of letters each season—they can pick up on insincerity from a mile away.  So maybe you didn’t do as much community service or extracurriculars as the next guy. That’s fine!  Accentuate the things you did do—your shadowing, your passion. Don’t try to fool anyone with outlandish, highly exaggerated stories.

5.  DO Keep It Positive

This goes very nicely with rules 3 and 4, but begs to be said.

Perhaps you went through some hard times in your life and you think it this is important to discuss to explain how you came to be who you are now; that’s understandable and commendable. But don’t dwell on it for an entire essay. As said in rule 3, you should be using all the space you have to talk about how great you are, not waste it on describing a sad moment in your life. You can mention your situation and how it changed you, but droning on and complaining about it makes it feel more like a manipulation tactic. Talk about how you grew as a person, how it made you stronger, how it changed your outlook on things, all for the better.  And if it has nothing to do with your pursuit of education or optometry, maybe think twice about mentioning it at all. Most importantly, don’t hide behind a sob story in hopes of gaining the admissions team’s pity. Pity will not get you an acceptance—determination and achievement will always win out.

6.  DO Professionally and Unapologetically… Be Yourself!

I think I’ve been working toward this main point throughout this article. You have worked hard, you’ve done your research—show them who you are and what you’ve got! Show your personality, while promoting yourself as a professional, competent potential-doctor.

Summary:

  • DO talk about the important things and what makes you, …you
  • DON’T dwell on the negative
  • DO be professional and passionate
  • DON’T be afraid to be yourself!
Welcome Back BBQ: Maggie with classmate, Lynn Huffman, right

Welcome Back BBQ: Maggie with classmate, Lynn Huffman, right

Maggie’s Essay

I felt something splash my arm―through my car’s open window, a bird had decided to drop “a little surprise”. It was a horrifying and unexpected interruption while driving home, still reeling over my day at the local VA Medical Center. The last patient of the day had a congenital retinal macrovessel that everyone in the office gathered to see. I felt lucky to have seen something so rare on my final day of shadowing in the Ocular Disease Residency program.

My introduction to optometry was typical―In third grade, I received glasses to correct my -3.00 vision and, as you can imagine, my whole world changed. Optometry became a potential career when I took a survey in my sophomore year that matched my interests with professions. Science courses were my strength, especially the active lab portions, so it seemed obvious that a survey would recommend a health sciences field. But, at that time, my passion was musical theatre. I loved to sing, dance, direct and perform on stage. Optometry offered flexibility―I could pursue community theatre after hours and have time for a family. So, my college aspirations were to do both; music and biochemistry.

The reality of the biochemistry workload made me realize that I could not do both well, so I had to put performing on hold. During the summer after my freshman year, I interned at Family Care Optometry, a small partnership in the suburbs. I learned about practice management; how to manage appointments, order and fit contacts and glasses, and manage patient issues. I sat in on exams and performed preliminary auto-refractions and visual-fields. I enjoyed the camaraderie with the doctors and experienced a warm satisfaction when a patient left with better sight or a healthier outlook. This experience, although limited mainly to refractions, confirmed that I wanted to practice optometry. However, for my next shadowing experience, I knew I wanted exposure to a broader variety of cases.

A few months later, I shadowed at an ophthalmology-optometry office managed by a large medical group. Dr. Smith didn’t have to worry about practice management or glasses/contact lens sales. He preferred this, stating that he felt free to be strictly a health care provider, not a salesman. Due to his relationship with the ophthalmologists, he had more treatment privileges and his patients had a larger range of issues, which made the day much more interesting and varied. I noticed the general respect his patients had for him and vice versa; he knew them, they knew him. They teased and complimented him. It was a fun environment, yet serious when necessary. He had to explain to a diabetes patient that her high glucose levels at Christmas time had caused bleeding in the eye.  Placing himself in her situation, he explained the issue delicately, helping her understand the seriousness of the risks without scolding or degrading her. I admired his candidness and hope to model my patient-interactions after him.

I attended information sessions at several schools, so by the time I got to the VA Hospital, I was a shadowing-pro. I felt more prepared to ask questions, and was excited to be in a teaching environment with students in the residency program and on 4th-year rotations. I asked about the instruments and how they worked. I wanted to get involved―to work the slit lamp and phoropter―constantly reminding myself, “Don’t touch” or “Don’t answer that patient’s question, it’s not your job yet.” Looking through the slit lamp’s microscope was fascinating; examining cataracts, implants, macular degeneration, and more. I discussed with the head doctors the benefits of doing a residency and the future of our scope of practice in California. I began referring to optometrists as a “we”, not a “they”. During my last day at the VA hospital, I dreaded my departure and longed to stay just a few more days. I couldn’t get enough.

No matter the type of practice I choose, my shadowing experiences have showed that what I love about optometry is working with patients. I always thought that I would enjoy the business side of private practice, but now I think I’d be happy just showing up every day to a lobby of patients, waiting for my undivided attention. I’m not ruling out private practice, but I want more days like the one at the VA. Since I couldn’t focus the equipment, I only saw pictures of that last patient’s macrovessel. I just hope the day I finally get to see one up close―the birds keep their excitement to themselves. (Published with Maggie’s permission.  Names and places have been changed to protect identity).

Footnotes:

(1)  Fleenor, Jeremiah. The Medical School Interview: Secrets and a System for Success. Denver, CO: Shift 4 Pub., 2011, 15.

(2) Fleenor, Jeremiah. The Medical School Interview: Secrets and a System for Success. Denver, CO: Shift 4 Pub., 2011, 15.

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