Health Professions Advisor Views

Engage in Storytelling: A Fresh Approach for Your Personal Statement

Posted by Dana Lovold, M.P.H. on August 20, 2018

Once your letters of recommendation are submitted and your test scores are sent, it is time to draft your personal statement. Your personal statement matters. It is critical to take the time required to craft a captivating and uniquely personal story. Prehealth Career Counselor, Dana Lovold, M.P.H., and her team at the Pre-Health Student Resource Center at the University of Minnesota share helpful key tips for applicants who want to create a personal statement that is compelling and authentic. Take advantage of the proven technique she’s developed after reviewing hundreds of personal statements over the years. 

Here is how to get started. Familiarize yourself with the main topic(s) of the essay, formatting requirements and length limitations. In this case, the main topic of the Personal Statement should illustrate why an applicant opted to pursue a dental career and should give the reader a sense for your personality and character. While many unofficial resources on the internet state the essay topic in various ways, it is critical that you rely on the official ADEA source for the most accurate and up-to-date essay information and detailed instructions with regard to dental schools that will receive and review your personal statement. Note that only plain text will translate to the application, so avoid any special formatting. To review details about the essay, simply refer to the ADEA AADSAS® (ADEA Associated American Dental Schools Application Service) instructions. Once you know the essay topic and length, it is time to begin thinking about crafting your story.

Advisors at the Pre-Health Student Resource Center at the University of Minnesota employ a storytelling model to support students’ efforts to uncover and write a unique and authentic personal statement. Storytelling is an effective way of engaging with the reader because humans are natural storytellers. One critical aspect of storytelling is the concept of change. When a story lacks change, it becomes a recitation of facts and events, rather than a reflection of who you are, how you’ve learned and grown through your experiences, and what you value. Many students express concern that their experiences are not unique and wonder how they can stand out. Storytelling serves as a customized container that stores the personal qualities of an applicant and their journey, often underscoring your personal transformation over time. Focusing on changes you have experienced helps to capture the power of storytelling. Some questions you may want to consider when exploring ideas are:

  • What have you learned from your experience(s)?
  • How did you change as a result of your experience(s)?
  • What insight did you gain, and how does it pertain to your interest in dentistry?

By conveying your preparation and motivation for dentistry, the reader (typically an admissions committee) gains a deeper understanding of who you are and what you value. If you stopped there, your story would be incomplete. The next step is to connect that insight to how it links to your future and the impact you hope to make in the dental profession. This will convey your unique insight and demonstrate how you will leverage that insight as a dentist. Admissions committee readers will begin to understand what you hope to contribute to your local community or to the world as a dentist.

When exploring additional aspects of what to write about, we also encourage students to cover these four components in the essay:

UMN Prehealth_Aug 2018

  • Motivation refers to an applicant’s ongoing preparation and exploration for the health profession and can include their initial inspiration.
  • Fit is determined through self-assessment of relevant values and personal qualities as they relate to the profession.
  • Capacity is demonstrated through holistically aligning with the pre-professional competencies expected in the profession.
  • Vision relates to the impact or contribution an applicant intends to make in the field.

Many students find that writing about their motivation comes naturally. Where admissions officers see some challenges is in how you go about conveying your fit for the profession. When covering fit and capacity in your essay, think of experiences that you have had that demonstrate qualities that are valuable or important in the profession. There is no need to restrict these to only dental or healthcare experiences; in fact, please feel free to show various dimensions of yourself by including a seemingly unrelated experience, then connecting it to its relevance for dentistry.

Take Maria’s story as one example. During shadowing, Maria learned that important professional competencies in the dental profession are communication and interpersonal skills. She saw how the dentist created a space where patients could relax and feel comfortable, and what impact this had on the patient’s experience. Maria’s personal statement reflected on this skill, noting times that she had demonstrated similar qualities in other situations. For example, she thought about her experience taking class pictures at a local middle school. Maria noted that many students were reluctant to have their picture taken, with students often visibly uncomfortable and anxious about having their photographs taken. Maria sensed this and found ways to put students at ease­­ by asking questions about their hobbies or sports, telling a joke or reassuring them that the photo would turn out the way they hoped. Through reflection, Maria recognized that she had the instincts to know when people were uneasy, discovering that she had a knack for knowing how to communicate in a way that made students feel comfortable. She recognized that helping people feel comfortable and relaxed is an aspect of dentistry of genuine appeal to her. Maria wrote about this experience to explain how she plans to leverage these skills as a future dentist, helping all of her patients have a positive experience in the dental chair. This story is effective because Maria first describes a “real world” everyday scenario when she uncovered and applied the skills, then links the skills with how they relate to her “fit” for the dental profession. What experiences do you have that could align with qualities you want to employ as a future dentist?

After you complete a working draft, go back through and see how you’ve covered each of these four components in your draft. Ask people who are reviewing your draft if they can identify whether you have covered these elements in your essay. If it is someone who knows you well, ask whether the story is true to how you are in your daily life. Often, people who know us well can help us see aspects of ourselves we don’t necessarily see as clearly. When you feel the draft is almost done, it is recommended that students ask someone to read the statement aloud to them. Listen for any missing words, confusion, unintended pauses and sentences that do not flow fluidly, et cetera, as these are useful indicators of things you may want to edit. Always conduct a spelling and grammar check, and do one last character count to ensure you are at or under the maximum.

This portion of your application may always feel unfinished—but it is helpful to provide a “point in time” view of who you are and highlight your journey! The measure of success that it is perhaps best to chart against is whether what you have written is an accurate reflection of who you are and why you chose to pursue a career in the health professions. Expect to continue growing and changing and finding new insights as your personal and professional journey continues. 

Good luck and best wishes!

About Dana Lovold, M.P.H.:

Dana Lovold

Dana Lovold, M.P.H.
Prehealth Career Counselor  
Pre-Health Student Resource Center at the University of Minnesota

Dana Lovold, M.P.H., currently serves as a prehealth career counselor in the Pre-Health Student Resource Center on the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota. Lovold teaches a course on writing a personal statement and has presented on storytelling for personal statements at regional and national conferences. Her work has been published in The Advisor and the Pre-Med Navigator. She believes every student has a unique and compelling story and enjoys working with students to help them find and tell theirs.