How to Write a Good Statement of Interest

How to Write a Good Statement of Interest

Picture this: I’ve hired you to be on the admissions committee for the MD/PhD (or graduate/medical) program at Call Me Doctor Doctor (CMDD) University. You have several applications to review and it’s up to you to decide which applicants are selected for an interview. All of the applicants are high achievers and have excellent MCAT scores, GPAs, and autobiographical sketches. So, how do you make this choice? It will likely come down to which applicants have written a good statement of interest.

The statement of interest (a.k.a. statement of purpose, letter of interest, personal essay, personal statement, etc.), if written well, is one of the best indicators of whether you will be a good fit for the program. This important document is one of the only chances for your personality to shine through prior to the interview. It gives the admissions committee an opportunity to learn more about your personal experiences and what makes you you!

Although this part of the application is one of the most important, it is also one of the most difficult. Many students approach this the wrong way at first, and end up with something that does not set them apart from other applicants. Keep reading for my top tips on how to write a good statement of interest for your next application to graduate/medical school or MD/PhD programs!

Use a personal story in your introduction

The first few sentences of your statement of interest are key for grabbing the reader’s attention. Many students start out with something formal such as:

I want to become a clinician-scientist because I want to have freedom and flexibility in my future career. I have always had a curious mind and love research, but am also intrigued by the human body and want to help patients as a physician. I am applying to the MD/PhD program at CMDD because I believe it will be the best opportunity for me to combine my passions for research and healthcare, and ultimately achieve my career goals.

The truth is, this introduction doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything unique about you. Of course you love research and medicine, otherwise you would not be applying to this program. Of course the MD/PhD program at CMDD is a way for you to combine those interests. And of course being accepted to an MD/PhD program is going to help you achieve your ultimate career goal of becoming a clinician scientist. All the applicant has done here is wasted space to tell the admissions committee what they already know.

Instead, try using a personal story to convey why this program is so important to you. If you don’t think you have a good story – think again! Applying to graduate school, medical school, or an MD/PhD program is a huge task and represents your commitment to an intensive program and career. People don’t just apply to these kinds of programs for funsies.

Me realizing that I was pursuing an MD/PhD program because I wanted to have freedom and flexibility in my career as a clinician-scientist.

When I was working on my applications, I honestly struggled with this part a bit. I didn’t have one of the classic tear-jerker stories about a loved one being struck with a horrible disease and passing away, nor a harrowing tale about a personal medical experience that opened my eyes to the intricacies of the healthcare system. But then, I realized that my personal story about why I wanted to pursue research and medicine wasn’t based on an external experience and that that was okay. What had really drawn me to this career choice was the freedom and flexibility it offered, and so I opened my statement of interest with a story about how when I was younger I used to constantly change my answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”:

When I was young, I constantly changed my mind about what I wanted to be when I grew up. One day it was a princess, the next it was a “plugger-inner” (I was three and my mother refused to let me plug anything into an outlet). I changed my mind dozens of times in high school, but my goals finally started to become clear in university. I recognized that in all of the professions I considered I wanted to be a leader who uses her talents and interests to serve others. Throughout my undergraduate degree, I discovered these talents and interests; I developed an interest in psychology and neuroscience and became fascinated by the anatomy and physiology of the human body. Also, my diverse research experiences ignited within me an interest in scientific discovery.

Looking back, there are definitely things I would change about this introductory paragraph (such as being more clear about how the story relates to my desire to have flexibility in my career, although I did explain this later in my statement). However, I believe it did a good job of grabbing the attention of the admissions committee, and conveying my personality a bit better than a formal statement. Remember that the reader will probably have several statements to read that day, and you want yours to stand out! Although I will probably be forever remembered as the “plugger-inner girl” to several admissions committees, at least I was memorable ?‍♀️.

Use specific examples to back up your claims

I see students making this mistake all the time – they make a statement about their skills (e.g., I have plenty of leadership experience), but provide little to no evidence for this. There are two major problems with making this mistake.

First off, making a statement without backing it up is simply not convincing. A critical reader has no obligation to believe your claims if you do not provide evidence for them.

Second, you are missing a perfect opportunity to tell another story about yourself. Remember, this is your only chance to show the admissions committee who you really are before the interview, so you want your personality and experiences to shine through.

I think this mistake is so common because students often think they are providing evidence for their statement, when they really aren’t. Consider this applicant’s statement:

In my position as a lifeguard, I was responsible for monitoring approximately 50 swimmers each shift. I had to monitor weather conditions and ensure their safety, makes me an excellent leader.
Being a lifeguard doesn’t necessarily make you a good leader. For all we know, you could have just been tanning all summer.

We can split this statement up into two sections, the claim: “I am an excellent leader”, and the ‘evidence‘: “I was a lifeguard for a total of 5 years; I monitored 50 swimmers and ensured their safety”. But, these are really just the basic responsibilities of a lifeguard. Are they actually evidence that this applicant is a good leader? Being a lifeguard certainly gives you opportunities to be a good leader, but it doesn’t make you a good leader.

An improvement on this claim would be:

I am an excellent leader, which is evidenced by several experiences I had in my position as a lifeguard. For example, I once had to quickly and calmly evacuate approximately 50 swimmers from the pool as a thunderstorm quickly approached.

This statement includes the exact same information as the first example, but uses a story to demonstrate that the individual actually has excellent leadership skills. It suggests that the applicant is able to remain calm in stressful/dangerous situations, effectively manage a large group of people, and truly cares about the safety of others. This applicant has used almost the same amount of space to tell an engaging story about themselves, and has actually provided evidence to the reader backing up their claim that they are a good leader.

Tailor your statement to the school

I get it. Application season is stressful, you are juggling many things, and writing different statements of interest for several schools seems like a daunting task. However, tailoring your statement to fit with the specific missions and values of each school your are applying to is one of the best ways to improve your application.

Medical schools look for applicants whose values are aligned with their mission/vision, kind of like they are looking for who has the best school spirit.

I really suggest tracking down the actual mission/vision statement and list of values for each school you apply to. This can usually be found in the ‘About Me’ section of the program’s website. If you can’t find it here, you can try the department’s website instead. The mission/vision statement will outline what types of issues the program cares about, and what they are trying to do for their community through their students who complete the program. To achieve this goal, they are motivated to admit students whose personal values align with this mission (e.g., Evans et al., 2020). It’s kind of like admitting the applicants that demonstrate the most school spirit before even being students.

For example, the vision statement for Shulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario (where I’m currently studying), includes values such as “collaboration and partnership”, and “innovation and scientific excellence in all that we do”. In my personal statement, I conveyed that I have similar values by discussing my recent collaborative projects, and my efforts/desires to implement a complex neuroimaging methodology throughout my Masters and PhD.

A word of warning: Please do not try to ‘game the system’ by lying about your values aligning with the medical school’s mission statement. I think that this exercise of looking deeper into each school’s vision is actually a good opportunity for you to consider whether you should even apply to that school in the first place. If your personal values do not align with that of a particular school, do not apply there. I know it is tempting to apply broadly so that you can increase your chances of being selected, but you will ultimately be unhappy if you are admitted to a school that you don’t believe in. Okay, warning over.

Another thing to consider is whether there are aspects of the school which are personally important to you. For example, in my MD/PhD statement of interest, I explained that I was very interested in the program at the University of Western Ontario, because this is where I had done my Masters and I wanted to continue my PhD research in the same lab. I also expressed that I wanted to conduct my neuroimaging research using the state-of-the-art MRI scanners available at Western, which are some of the best in Canada. This conveyed to the admissions committee that I was serious about studying at Western specifically, and that I wasn’t just applying there to increase my chances of getting into any program.

PS: if you are interested in applying to MD/PhD programs in Ontario, check out my summary of the programs available and their requirements.

So, who would you pick?

You’ve finally read through your stack of applications to CMDD university. There is one more spot available for interview weekend. Two applicants have identical MCAT scores, and GPAs. As a member of the admissions committee, who would you pick? The applicant who had a well-written, but somewhat robotic/template-like statement of interest with few personal touches, or the applicant with a well-thought out, specific, and entertaining document full of personal anecdotes and stories? You probably feel as though you already know the second applicant from reading their statement of interest, and are eager to meet them in person and hear more about their life. If it were up to me, I know who I would choose.

You, hopefully, after reading this post and writing an amazing statement of interest!

Hopefully this post helps you write an outstanding statement of interest, and helps you become the applicant who is chosen! Remember that your main goal is to keep the reader engaged. This will make your statement of interest stand out among the rest, and make you memorable when the committee is choosing who gets selected for an interview, or even a spot in the program!

Are you writing a statement of interest? Got any suggestions for future posts? Let me know in comments! I’m always happy to hear from you. ?

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