We live in a world of increasing competitiveness. Whether you are applying to college, applying to graduate school, or even trying to secure your first job – chances are you’ve felt the worry of your application going unnoticed. Some stand out by having top test scores while others stand out by having remarkable extracurriculars or incredible life stories. However, not all of us can cure cancer or score in the 99th percentile. For example, I’m currently applying to medical schools, some of which have over 13,000 applicants with only 2-3% acceptance rates. I did well in college, but so did all the other applicants; med school matriculants average a 3.72 GPA and 83rd percentile standardized test score.
My stats are “average” at most places.
However, I’m having a successful cycle because I’ve learned how to make my essays stand out. In this article, I’ll go over how you can boost your application in a similar manner – by crafting and communicating a cohesive personal narrative.
Crafting Your Story
The first step is to take a hard look at your activities leading up to this moment. If someone were to read a list of your activities, without any accompanying essays or cover letters, would they notice a common theme? Do your activities tell your story? Try and find commonalities in each activity that support the narrative you want to present. I’ll give you an example to illustrate my point. Since I’m into medicine that’s what I’ll use, but this advice applies to other fields as well.
Two Versions of the Same Story
Let’s take Tony, a rising 4th year Psychology major applying to medical school. Tony took an advanced biology class in high-school and found it interesting. Tony also comes from a low-income neighborhood fraught with homelessness. Growing up, Tony sees homeless individuals daily and notices a pattern – many are mentally ill. With this in mind, Tony begins to wonder about the origins of their illness and if there’s any way to help. He brings this curiosity to college and bases his choice of degree off it. He joins an organization that serves the homeless; here, he meets a physician providing volunteer medical services.
Inspired by his encounter with someone capable of understanding mental illness and having the capacity to improve lives, Tony begins to consider a medical career. He lands a job at a private practice to gain more clinical experience; here, he notices the disparities between the insured patients at work and the uninsured homeless. He spends the rest of college working at a free clinic, tutoring homeless children, and doing research on schizophrenia – a topic that can relate to the homeless he sees.
Tony gets “average” grades in undergrad, but he applies to medical school with a purpose. Every one of his meaningful activities illustrates his commitment to the underserved. Because of the strength of his narrative, Tony has a good chance at getting in.
Although this is a great narrative to present to admissions, there’s something a little off about this story. It’s way too perfect. In the real world, very few progress from point A to B in such a linear manner. Here’s a more realistic version of Tony’s story:
Tony takes an advanced biology course in high-school and thinks it’s pretty cool, but nothing revolutionary. Tony is from a low-income neighborhood and observes a lot of homelessness, many of whom are mentally ill. Part of him feels bad, but there’s not much he can do. In college, he chooses to major in psychology because it seems interesting. He has a passive interest in the medical field and joins a homeless outreach organization because volunteering will probably look good no matter what field he picks. Here, he becomes closer to the homeless population and finds the volunteer physicians inspiring.
Tony commits to medicine but realizes his extracurriculars are lacking. He applies to countless clinical and research positions, hoping to land something. The only job he gets is in a private practice that sees few low-income patients. He doesn’t get to continue helping the underserved, but it’s still good clinical experience so he takes it. To strengthen his app, he volunteers at a free clinic and tutors homeless children. It also takes Tony forever to find a research lab willing to take him. The only lab duty he lands is watching flies procreate. However, after 4 months he leverages this experience to get into another lab studying schizophrenia – a topic he actually finds interesting. Tony ends undergrad with “average” grades and applies to medical school.
Whether You Get In Depends On How You Present Your Personal Narrative
Notice how Story A and Story B are essentially the same story, but Story A finds commonalities in each activity and ties them together in a manner that tells a story. No one has a story as perfect and linear as Story A, but it’s possible to craft one.
That being said, you should never lie about your motivations – you just need to reflect on your path. Like I mentioned in my previous article on choosing extracurriculars, you should find activities you enjoy that can give you the conclusions as to why you want to enter in your chosen field.
Many of Tony’s activities illustrate a commitment to the underserved, and the ones that don’t still hold valuable lessons. The last sentence of Story A reads “Because of the strength of his narrative, Tony has a good chance at getting in.”. In reality, it should read “Because of the narrative he presents, Tony has a good chance at getting in.”. The beauty of a cohesive personal narrative is to take your messy journey (Story B) and present it in a linear manner (Story A).
Creating a “cohesive personal narrative” entails applicants emphasizing their personal story. What is your theme? What events and experiences led you to this moment? What are your motivations? What obstacles have you overcome? What do you value? How you present yourself to admissions staff and hiring managers is key. To answer these hard-hitting questions, applicants need to undergo thoughtful introspection. For some, myself included, this may take some time. I spent over a month crafting my personal statement, figuring out how to weld my entire life story, experiences, and motivation together.
Your story doesn’t have to be amazing; the objective is for it to be well-thought-out and cohesive. Everyone takes a different path to get to where they are; by virtue of your narrative being your own, it will be unique if communicated properly.
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– Byron R.