Medical Writing a Compelling Personal Statement

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Podcast interview with Mary Mahoney1.jpg
How can you write a stand-out personal statement? [Show summery]
Dr. Mary Mahoney, Associate Professor of English at Elmira College and Accepted consultant, draws from her expertise in the medical humanities to deliver advice for writing a compelling personal statement. Listen to the show!

A professor of English and Accepted admissions consultant shares top writing tips [Show notes]
Our guest today, Dr. Mary Mahoney, is Associate Professor of English at Elmira College and a recent winner of the Barnhill essay contest at that college. She focuses much of her work on medical narrative and medical humanities. This work, in Dr. Mahoney’s words, helps students understand and articulate why they want the medical career or healthcare career they are pursuing. In addition, Dr. Mahoney serves on the Elmira College Committee that reviews personal statements and provides feedback on interviews for Elmira students.

Who can better help you tell your story through your personal statement?

Can you tell us a little bit about your background? [2:07]
The story that I tell that brings home a little bit of who I am and how I was raised is that I’m the youngest of five children in a pretty typical Irish family. When I came home from high school one day and told my mom that I wanted to be a poet, she said, “That’s terrific, but not until after you go to nursing school.” So that’s what I did. I had a bunch of friends who were going into nursing school, and I had no other clear direction. I came from a family of math people. Auditors, accountants, all math people. And while I liked math, I really had no interest in doing anything like that. So nursing sounded good to me. I was an empathetic kind of teenager. So I went ahead and did that.

I was a nurse by the time I was 19, and started working as a nurse when I was 19, but just continued going to school full-time over and over and over and over and over again, all the way through to the PhD. I didn’t know that there would be a way to bridge the two, but I started writing about being a nurse when I was in my Master’s program at Sarah Lawrence College and received a whole lot of encouragement to continue writing that way, because there was so little representation of a nurse’s point of view in essays and stories and articles and things like that. People thought that it felt fresh, in the sense that it wasn’t a writer writing about being a writer. It was a writer writing about being a nurse.

I found a conference at Duke University, a conference on poetry and medicine, and it was all about the medical humanities. That was how I found out about the medical humanities, in addition to seeking out journals where my writing would be suitable.

What are the medical humanities? [4:14]
The medical humanities is an interdisciplinary focus on studying what living is, what life is, what it means to be a human, what it means to be a person, what it means to live in a body that gets sick. What it means to be mortal. What that means in relation to the people that we have relationships with, our cultures, our communities, and also, how all of that informs who we are as individuals, which brings up really abstract aspects to who we are that are frequently unseen in the communication between health professionals and patients. It’s trying to bring the fuller, more comprehensive aspect of being human into the space of medicine and vice versa so that there’s a much more reciprocal relationship between a practitioner and a patient.

The distinction between “humanities” and “medical humanities” is that the focus has something to do with bodies that fail. Also, I think the medical humanities are really for anyone who might be interested in it, but I think the idea of it as a curriculum is that it fosters empathy and teaches how to recognize empathetic feelings or empathetic moments as meaningful for people who are headed for the health sciences as a profession. So there is some sense of impacting one’s learning that is specifically for people who are going into healthcare careers: nurses, doctors, PAs, on and on.

And what is narrative medicine? Is that synonymous? [6:13]
Rita Sharon over at Columbia University practices narrative medicine and has a narrative medicine certificate program, I believe. She is a physician. And when she was on sabbatical, she then entered the graduate program in literature at Columbia University to see what she could do with it as a physician. And she believed deeply that this whole idea of narrative is something that would benefit physicians in their practice and healthcare practitioners in their practice: communicating with patients, listening to not only what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it, reading about patient experiences in order to recognize situations where someone’s aloneness is making their suffering worse.

How do you use narrative to foster a bond between the patient and the healthcare practitioner in order to minimize the sense of aloneness so that you sort of stand in illness together? I think that’s Rita Sharon’s phrase. To sort of stand tall in illness together. That will then, possibly, help healing. Though not necessarily curing, if the distinction is clear.

When people are not isolated, when they have community, their suffering seems to be a little less, their coping seems to be a lot better. Think about the professional relationship of the healthcare practitioner as someone who’s part of that patient’s community, or someone who is newly entering that patient’s community, to be sort of standing in it with them, as opposed to feeling disconnected.

In this current situation, I think more and more people can see and feel how devastating isolation is, and it’s happening en masse. It’s happening to so many people and consequently, so many families, right? Because illness never just affects one person, but it affects the whole family. The whole family gets sick, so to speak. It’s almost like an existential crisis, where you are so alone for so long and it’s in a time of need and you’re so disconnected. And I think that it’s very traumatic. I’m sure that there will be a lot of PTSD for survivors of corona. Even people who never went to the hospital who felt that they were very, very sick and in bed for like a week or a week and a half report back that it was just horrendous.

Let’s turn to the med school application. Do you have any suggestions as to what applicants should do before they start writing a personal statement? [10:14]
I’m a real believer in making sure you’re writing something that you care about, that you’re saying something that you really mean. From my experience, especially for science students, leaping over into the space of feeling, to say something sort of exposed where you’re revealing something about your inner self and you’re putting it down on the page, I think that it makes people feel vulnerable. I think it’s difficult to do because it’s a little bit counterintuitive to the way the scientists think. It’s not necessarily rational, but it is fluid, right?

I’m a big believer in pre-writing. My advice is: Always start with a prompt, but don’t feel compelled to stick with the prompt, but follow yourself intuitively. And the only rule in the pre-writing is to set a clock: 15 minutes, 20 minutes. Never stop typing, or if you write long-hand, never stop writing. Even if you digress, let yourself digress because you know on some intuitive level you’re going somewhere, and you don’t have pressure on yourself to say something astute or profound right out of the gate. And then you go for a walk, you come back, you do it again with a different prompt or explore something from the past. An experience that you really feel like you need to unpack a little bit in order to be able to tell it right, that is in some way a formative moment in your upbringing. Suddenly, you now understand that that experience has a lot to do with why I want to be a doctor and really will be a doctor in my future. That it’s destined for me. Go back and explore those experiences in writing.

The biggest writer’s block is worrying about what to write. Nobody has to see it. Nobody has to review it. To do it according to the clock, I think, really gets things flowing. Sometimes I encourage people to read a little bit, to go into a book and read for a little while. Because if you’re caught in a book where the book is kind of taking you somewhere, you’re going to step away from that book still kind of writing in your head. And that’s a good way to sit down and just start writing. Sometimes music puts you in a relaxed state. Play it as you like, and write while you’re doing it.

How can applicants write in a professional way and still maintain their voice, sound like themselves, and tell their story? [13:36]
Finding voices is kind of tricky. I think it takes a little while for that to happen for most people. I think initially, apprehensive writers will write in a way where their writing feels a little bit stilted or a little stiff. Sometimes we’ll start writing and it’ll sound way too academic, or it sounds way too much like you’re sort of building a pedigree.

Storytelling seems to me to be the way to go. So how I explain that sometimes is this: The word essay actually means to weigh something. You choose an experience to explore, but you’re not arguing. You’re not trying to correct anything. You’re not trying to incriminate anyone. You’re not trying to walk out into a major epiphany. You’re just trying to weigh it, to look at it for a little while and stay with it. And once you begin that, I think voices start to soften and they start to relax into their own kind of language. And then we go back to the revision process over and over and over again, until you kind of stand with every word that you use. That’s one way.

The other way is to take something you’ve written and read it out loud. If you’re stumbling through what you’ve written, you’re not really finding your voice. We have rhythms, and we have paces, and we have patterns to our voice on the page. It might correspond a little bit with our conversational voice, but it’s not the same thing as talking.

There’s a belief, a conceit, that narrative is a sense-making mechanism, and that as we live our lives, at a very, very young age culturally, we are shown how to turn our experiences into stories. If we wanted to communicate experiences from our lives, we really would just be following a clock. We would be going through sequences in time, but we wouldn’t necessarily be creating anything that had any kind of curve that was an emotional curve that gave the story some currency.

So we use narrative to make sense of things. We either make sense of our experiences toward universal narratives, the way we expect experiences are supposed to go, or we experienced something that shatters the universal narrative. And then we have to write something up in order to explain the truth of something that didn’t go according to the universal narrative.

We use narrative as a sense-making mechanism. Even in therapy or talking something through until we can kind of figure it out takes an experience that’s outside language, and it moves it into the space of narrative form until we can author it to a truth. That’s what narrative does. So when someone loses their narrative, they’ve lost the continuity of making sense in the thread of what they’ve been writing. They jumped tracks, or they’ve moved over into saying something that maybe they feel they’re supposed to say, instead of what feels like what they should be saying, according to their own truth that they’ve set up on the page. So suddenly it dissolves, or it hops off path.

I attended a conference once, an interdisciplinary conference in Vienna, Austria, actually. It was a wonderful conference, and it was all about death and dying. There was a gentleman there who was a professor at the University of Tel Aviv, and he had just completed some studies on grief. And he had lost a son as a soldier. The son was a soldier and he died in service. And they belonged to a parent group for parents who had lost children in the war. The parents were processing grief, and the counselors or the therapists who were working with them told them that this is what you could expect, that this will get easier in time, and that you’ll start to forget. And the parents became very, very upset, and they said, “no, no, no. We’re never going to forget. We might be able to cope a little bit better, but that does not mean we’ve forgotten anything.”

So they stuck it out and stayed with it, and the therapist also had a timeframe for appropriate grief. And the parents said, that’s not right. That’s absolutely not true. They continued in these groups, coming back in and telling these stories. And the stories would get written down or taped. And they saw that the emotional currency of the stories that they told didn’t change in time. They didn’t soften and change according to that timeline. Maybe the extent to which they told the story changed; maybe the story got shorter. But the emotional currency of it didn’t change. Their efficiency in telling their truth of that same story over and over again got more confident. Their sense of their authority and being the author of telling the story became something that they took command of.

They ended up changing the data and the research for grief counseling. And it had to do with knowing their narrative, sticking with it, and telling their story over and over and over until they would be accepted. And they changed it. It was fascinating. That’s narrative. These stages, these flow charts that we hang on to that show us the movement of our emotional lives toward a space of healing, they end up not being how it goes, when the truth really relies upon the narrative as opposed to the steps, the nuances inside narrative you change.

You and I could write similar stories. One of my sisters passed away when I was 34 and she was 39 of a rapid, radical cancer. And she had two teenage children. It was devastating. Actually, her oldest daughter just had a baby yesterday; that would make my sister very happy. We could write these stories of these intimate losses that go against the universal narrative. They’re not supposed to happen that way, not the way things are supposed to happen. But the way you would write yours and the way that I would write mine would have differences.

There’s a poet, Li-Young Lee, who says, “A story and a poem, they have three bodies. They have the body of what’s said, the body of what’s inferred, and the body of what’s not said.” So inside narrative, it’s never just the words that you choose, but it’s the mood and the tone and the inference and all of those things that come out when we develop a relationship with language that corresponds with the sound of our voice, and not necessarily a spoken voice. All of those other textures are what make us individuals. And they come through in the body of a narrative.

Let’s bring it back to admissions. How should the statement of purpose for grad school differ from the medical school personal statement? [26:28]
The thing that I think is a very distinct way to separate the two is that the statement of purpose looks forward and the personal statement looks backwards. We look back at our experience, or an experience, or several experiences that somehow bring us to the present of who we are so that you understand me better. Whereas the statement of purpose looks forward. How can I show you that I’m ready and I’m suitable for what this program is and the type of people that you educate? One looking forward, one looking back.

What do applicants frequently misunderstand about writing a medical school personal statement? What should they grasp before applying? [27:33]
You don’t want to write about your accolades. It’s not about documenting your achievements; it’s about giving a snapshot of you. And yes, all these achievements are beautiful and wonderful and difficult to achieve. I’m not denying their significance, but this is a moment that’s about you, not about the awards and honors and achievements and GPAs and all of that kind of stuff. The UC system in California now is dropping ACTs and SATs. It will be interesting to see what that does to the application process and if it makes writing move to the head of the line.

What are your tips for editing a personal statement or other essays that comprise the medical school application process or the graduate school application process? [28:46]
I think there’s frequently a little bit of a reality check that when an applicant thinks he or she is done with the revision process, I can see maybe four more revisions ahead. Their idea of a final draft is short, and they need to keep pushing and pushing the narrative forward, and also the editing. Getting rid of excess words. Making sure a paragraph really works as a paragraph. Basic writing skills. I like to tell my students that even when we’re writing something that is purposeful for our lives, like these statements, they’re not writing them for fun; they’re writing them for an application. But there’s still this idea of composing them, like you would think about in art or music. You have a blank page, and that’s an opportunity to compose, and that the essay itself is a composition.

You’ve also been very much involved in mock interviews at your college. What’s your advice for interview prep? [30:12]
I know that this was a little bit controversial in the open forum that we did on the coronavirus about six weeks ago or so, but I still say know your stories. I’m not saying rehearse your stories, and I’m not saying memorize your stories, but I think to really spend time knowing the worthwhile thing that you can say about yourself. What would be the points of conversation that would add some integrity to the conversation that you’re having with someone?

I think when we talk to people, we’ve tried in different ways, in different circumstances, in different settings, to communicate with other people and share something about ourselves. And sometimes it fails and sometimes it succeeds. And when you know the ones that succeed, then we can refine them a little bit. This way, we carry them with us. And they’re not lies. They’re just stories that we have told before, but they do give good representation to who we are.

I also think that you have to think about it as an exchange with this other person who’s talking to you that it’s not just one-sided. It’s not an interrogation, but it is an opportunity to demonstrate a conversation. I’m all for having snippets and little things that you carry with you in your head that help to alleviate the anxiety that you might be having at the moment for speaking with a stranger during a pretty critical time. Have those things with you, and build the stories that you can tell, and know how to tell them. I don’t mean it’s something as inauthentic as memorization.

There’s more to who you are than all of the hardcore schooling that you’ve been doing. It is all-consuming, and it is very daunting to be good at it. But you have to show that there are other sides to you too, that it’s not just all about the goal, necessarily, but that you’re a human with dreams and vision, and you want to walk through this life in a certain way. And here you are.

Any last words of advice for the personal statement or statement of purpose? [33:22]
Be true. Be true to yourself. Sometimes I hear students and clients feeling as if they’re trying to construct, to have something to say, and they’re trying to read into a conversation with me when I’m talking to them about what they should say, as opposed to understanding their own truth. And, for any writing, to go in the direction of what you think you’re supposed to say is always going to be a problem. Go in the direction of the truth. You figure it out and you tease your way through it. There’s still pressure on people to feel as if their real experience somehow isn’t worthy enough, so they want to write what they think that they’re supposed to write as opposed to what they really know or have lived.

Is there anything you wish I would have asked you about? [34:33]
A quote that I love that actually came from some material that I was gathering together to teach class. It comes from an article about how the medical humanities became important in the education of a physician. “Authentic engagement is transformative.”

I love that: the idea that if a practitioner is having authentic engagement with a patient and the patient is having authentic engagement with the practitioner, that something suddenly becomes very transformative between them. I think that that is really the goal of the therapeutic relationship. I think that’s really beautiful, and I believe it. Authentic engagement is transformative. How beautiful.

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