Writing your medical school admissions essay biography
Last edited August 26, 2001

Summary Facts:

Writing your Autobiography

Tell me about yourself:

Well, I'm a single, 5' 8" Asian male. Black hair, brown eyes. With my bulging athletic frame, I have often been mistaken for Arnold Schwartzenegger, until people approach me and realize that I'm much, much, bigger. I enjoy cooking, and taking long romantic walks on the beach... Oops! Wrong bio. :)

Despite the manner of the above bio, which you should never, ever, use in your med application, the essay that you do submit should mirror the above in one simple, direct way:

Sell yourself.

Sell yourself. Because if you won't, and don't, who else do you think will? Think back to each time that you meet someone, how first impressions form within minutes. Be honest. A basic reality for most people during an initial contact, is that they start to form a stereotype to classify neatly each person they meet. That initial pre-conceived idea, no matter how inaccurate it may be, will often colour and influence the conversation for some time to follow. Since your biographical essay is the "first impression" that the med school admissions committees (and interviewers) will have of you, it's crucially important to develop a strong, concise essay that hits all of your major positive points without losing them in a sea of less important details.

Beyond that, the most important aspects of a biography are to make it engaging and interesting. Your transcripts and MCAT scores will determine your academic standing; use the autobiography to highlight your personal side. The exception here is that while you don't mention your MCAT scores and GPA, if you receive any, you should definitely note any academic or social awards you have received. If the admissions committee isn't anxious to meet you after reading your essay, then you have to look at whether it's the presentation, or the content of your submission.

With that said, it's obvious that the grammar and spelling of your essay be absolutely impeccable. Word-process the document, and have it printed in a professional manner. Don't try to fit an extra 200 words by shrinking the font size and decreasing the margins to infinitesimally small limits. It makes reading the paper incredibly irritating, and is dead-obvious after you've read a few hundred essays or so. Try not to over-use the dictionary/thesaurus in a false attempt to sound over-educated. Unless you usually write that way, in which case it will look natural, you'll look like an ass. Imagine that other people are reading your essay and grading it, because they are.

That's the breaks; when you have your one shot, you have to make it count. Make the presentation neat and professional. Enlist the help of many friends and adults to read the essay and check for possible improvements in organization, grammar, and spelling. You control the content of the esssay; your friends, as proof-readers, should decide the presentation. It should be obvious by this point that the essay is not something you should start at the last minute. I recommend leaving a minimum of two weeks to go from start to finish. Ideally, I would start two months ahead, as that gives sufficient time for you to do some really good brain-storming, to write the essay, and to solicit lots of feedback from friends.

As far as the presentation and essay format, I feel there are two major styles. Some people prefer to use a chronological style of writing, listing and describing their achievements by dates, and linking their personality to those anecdotes. This has the advantage of being an easy to follow system where the reader can easily visualize your personal development. However, it can be easy to get sidetracked using this method by focussing too much on each particular experience. It's also very easy to see any gaping holes if you have an unproductive period in your life.

Sample chronological essay

Here's a quick example of the chronological system:

"That's yours Phil... Yes! We won! We won! We won!" In 1996, our school reached a new milestone. For the first time in its 90-year history, we had won first-place in the Provincial badminton championships. I was honoured to be a member of that triumphant team. The award was a simple brass medal, but its faux-gold glitter bespoke countless hours of training, and heartache for the team members. We encouraged each other, always giving smiles and hugs after each grueling game, never allowing a team-mate to falter. It was here that I truly learned the value of team-work.

The following year, as I started university, I devoted my extra-curricular time to high school tutoring. While sports have their place in a healthy life-style, student loan debts don't disappear without hard work. However, when working with my student, I discovered there is a great deal of team-work in the student/teacher relationship. The same encouragement , smiles, and jokes are as crucial for competing in tournament-level badminton as they are for succeeding in high school mathematics. I was able to bridge the gap between our skill levels by showing my partner the importance in dedication and discipline, with the occasional break to relax. In turn, she showed me the value of humour and mutual co-operation, and I take those tools into every environment I encounter. To learn is to share, and I hope to have the opportunity to do this as a doctor.

Sample personality traits essay

Another method of presenting the content is to list 4-5 of the major personality characteristics that you feel you have, which are crucial to becoming a good doctor. Then, you describe experiences in your past where you have exhibited, or have worked, to develop those characteristics. As I feel that every good doctor is a good person first, generating this list is particularly easy. In good people, I look for honesty, reliability, dedication, and patience. There are obviously many, many, other characteristics out there.

Pick whichever you feel are most relevant. Then, look towards your curriculum vitae to find experiences that relate to each of these categories. This system forces you to spend equal weight on each characteristic, which will make you look more well-rounded. If you have had an unproductive period in your life, using this type of an essay format will help "camoflage" that time period. A disadvantage is that you may have to exclude experiences that don't fit into the personality criteria you have already selected.

Here's a sample possibility, using the characteristic of honesty:


"Excuse me young man, but where do you think you're going with that acid?"

"Oh this beaker Mr. Fisher? It's not acid, it's just water."

"Oh reeeeally? Are you sure it's water? Let's test that."

This experience in grade 12 chemistry has stayed with me to this day. I had just filled a beaker half-full of hydrochloric acid, and was walking it back to my lab bench, when I stopped to chat with a class-mate friend. My teacher had watched the entire episode and had confronted me as I stood gabbing, completely unmindful of the 10 molar HCl in my hand. As I steadfastly denied the beaker being filled with acid, he produced some sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and dropped it into the beaker. The fizzing bubbles of carbon dioxide indicating an acid solution sunk me with the force of a capsizing ship.

It took a great deal of work to regain his trust and confidence in me, and it's been an experience I will never forget.I realise now that I could have easily injured a friend, a comrade, with my bravado and false assurances. As a doctor, lying or deception could easily lead to the serious harm, or death of a patient. I learned my most important lesson in chemistry that day, and I believe that a good doctor must always be honest with his working peers, and his patients. I have endeavoured to achieve this trust with each new relationship I help create.

I believe that the above two formats are the most common ones used to write autobiographies. You can either focus on listing your experiences chronologically, or you can group them into specific personality traits.

See? An autobiographical essay isn't really that difficult. It's not as mind-bending as trying to wrap your head around the formula for calculating the volume of a vase using calculus, nor does it require the draining memorization of biochemical structures. What it does take however, is an acute and detailed examination of your personal life. Everyone always mentions that each person on this planet is unique and special.

What makes you special? What experiences have you had that make you a more desirable candidate than the next person?Have you travelled? Do you play any musical instruments, or are you involved in sports? Have you worked or volunteered in any interesting jobs? What hobbies do you pursue in your spare time?

My simple rule for writing such essays is to use honest anecdotes that high-light your personality. You'll notice in the above examples that I backed up my statements with events in my past. Just as in the reference letters section of this web-site, examples and anecdotes count. If one premed described himself as a natural teacher, and another applicant stated that after tutoring, his student increased her test scores by 25%, who would I believe more? Always give examples to back up your statements. Without examples, statements aren't much more than hot air. Your application to med school deserves better.

Next, you've got to decide what to include in your autobiography. My recommendation is to avoid the negative details, unless you mention them in the context of having changed them for the better. An example would be like the above sample paragraphs where a negative experience is used to convey the importance of honesty. I've certainly said it enough times, but be honest, because chances are good that you will be asked questions in your interview regarding your autobiographical essay. Don't write that you enjoy pithing frogs at midnight for extra-hours research unless you really mean it. Liars are usually pretty easy to spot, and they get weeded out, as they rightfully should be.

So what are the main points? Sell yourself honestly, because if you don't you'll be hard to notice. Use the essay to focus on non-academic qualities except in the case of awards. Give examples from your past history to lend weight to your statements. Once the skeleton of the essay has been built, send it out to your friends for proof-reading and improvement suggestions. On each revision, you'll probably find difficult sections that you want to edit, in the process often creating a new batch of problems that need to be edited.

After you're done the proof-reading, check it over one last time. Your essay should be engaging, visually-appealing, and grammatically perfect. Now, you should probably sit on the essay for a week or two, and then look at it again to see if you remember any additional material that you could include. Now, it's time to proceed to your reference letters, the next major hoop to jump.

Recommended Links

The Writing Web
Jose Fuentes Advice on writing your statement of purpose
Mike Smith's successful Med School Autobiography
Andy Kahn's Application to UTMB medical school in Galveston, Texas