Writing the personal essay, as part of an application for a college pharmacy, can be a daunting task for some. As compared to very objective information like grade point average or PCAT score, the personal essay can seem like a very subjective exercise with no clear beginning and no clear end. The PharmCAS application states that: “Your Personal Essay should address why you selected pharmacy as a career and how the Doctor of Pharmacy degree relates to your immediate and long-term professional goals. Describe how your personal, educational, and professional background will help you achieve your goals.” What follows are a few tips for preparing and writing your essay.
There is no formula for the “perfect” personal statement. It is important to realize that different admission officers or committee members will look at the essay from varying vantage points. Reading an applicant essay is a bit like looking at a painting. Everyone’s interpretation will be a bit different. The statement above (from PharmCAS) is one that THEY have chosen to put on the front end of the application portal. That does not necessarily mean that it is what each admission reviewer is looking for. As a result, it is best to approach the personal essay without a set formula. Applicants often make the mistake of asking a student who has gotten into pharmacy school about how they wrote their personal statement. The belief is that the successful student has the golden nugget and if they can mimic their format, they will achieve the same end. These formats get passed from applicant to applicant with posting on different student website forums (e.g. studentdoctor.net). As a result, many of the personal essays that I read look and sound alike.
Prepare a rough outline before you begin writing a personal statement. Jot down the things that you think are important to tell about yourself. Focus on telling YOUR story. By the time a reviewer gets to your personal essay, they have likely reviewed a number of other aspects of your application including your course history, grade transcripts, PCAT scores (if required), background, letters of recommendation, etc. This creates the beginnings of a painting in their mind of who you are. The personal statement should continue to fill out this canvas. The narrative that you write must be consistent with the story that the rest of your application tells. For example, if a college transcript clearly appears “pre-med”, or marine biology, then it would ring inconsistent with a personal essay that states that the applicant has wanted to be pharmacist since they were very young. It is more important for a personal essay to be consistent and complementary to the application, than for it to have a “hook”, or interesting story that has to “set you apart”.
Why is it YOU decided to become a pharmacist? There are many different reasons that people decide to go into a healthcare profession (and pharmacy in particular). Before I was going to be a pharmacist, my college plans included being an architect, veterinarian, oceanographer, chemist, and park ranger. Hopefully your decision to go into pharmacy is a little more planned and thought out than mine. My point is that it is best to spend some thoughtful time about your choice and then translate that into some statements within your personal essay that are specific to you. Not what you think (or someone has told you) the admission committee wishes to hear.
Be honest and sincere. Again, there’s no formula for the successful essay. In reading many different personal essays, I get the impression that some applicants believe it is being graded like an essay question on a physiology exam with checks given to specific words, phrases and concepts. As a result, their goal is to try to infuse the essay with a set of “talking points” rather than telling a personal story. This causes many personal essays to read as detached, impersonal and formulaic, to the detriment of the applicant.
Fill in gaps in your application. Everyone’s path to pharmacy school can be a bit different. For example some individuals may have gone to college for a few years, taken some time off and then returned. Others might have started college as a first generation college student. Still others might have had difficulty adjusting at first, or run into a semester where personal events occurred that took their attentions away from their studies. The PharmCAS application includes a section that allows you to explain “Special Life Circumstances” (personal data section) that is separate from the personal essay. Be sure to use that section to explain gaps or lapses that might exist in your application. You may also use the personal statement to address how these events have refocused you on your goals and objectives. Don’t forget to use the essay to help fill-in or tie up loose ends that you feel may exist in your application.
Spelling, grammar and punctuation are important. The personal essay is a written communication and is being evaluated as such by the schools that are looking at your application. Just like the interview serves as an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the applicant’s ability to verbally communicate, the personal essay serves as an opportunity see how the applicant communicates in writing.
Have someone read your personal essay before you send it. This isn’t just to “proof” it. Instead, it is to help you understand what it is saying about you. DON’T ask your proof reader if they liked it. A good friend will likely tell that they do. You want actual feedback! Ask them to tell you the three important things that it says about you, including why you want to become a pharmacist. Make them point to where these are articulated in your essay. Sometimes we become too attached to the things we write. An external reader can give us a different view of what it is we are saying.
Avoid plagiarism! NEVER use personal essay websites, friend’s or acquaintance’s personal essays to write yours. Use your own original words to tell YOUR story. The PharmCAS portal states: “Please be aware that your admission essay may be subject to submission for textual similarity review to Turnitin for Admissions for the detection of plagiarism duplication and other potential violations of the applicant code of conduct. All submitted essays and other materials will be included as source documents in the Turnitin for Admissions reference database solely for the purpose of detecting plagiarism of such documents.” Plagiarism is taken seriously by PharmCAS and by individual colleges of pharmacy.
The interpretation of the personal essay is in the eye of the beholder. These tips represent my perspective on the personal essay as a pharmacist, pharmacy educator and admission officer. That being said, four different admission officers would likely give you four different sets of perspective on the essay, including what is important. Be truthful and be genuine. Allow the reader the opportunity to learn about who YOU are and why YOU have chosen to become a pharmacist. A genuine story tells itself!
Although you spend hours, even weeks, composing your pharmacy school personal statement, the admissions committee members only review it for a period of 3 to 10 minutes. This is why it is vital to make an impact right from the start. Your personal statement is like a first impression, although your personal achievements and grades are also taken into consideration. Remember, you only get one shot to make an inspiring first impression. The committee needs to see that you stand out from the rest of the pharmacist wannabes. Find out how to write a personal statement that will assure your placement in pharmacy school.
Understand Why the Personal Statement is Important
Over 50% of pharmacy school applicants do not get accepted into the programs of their choice. Most of these applicants have excellent scores on entrance exams, as well as an admirable undergraduate grade point average. However, grades are not all there is to the application process. Recommendations from professors and practicing pharmacists play a large part in the overall picture. In the end, however, it is the personal statement that makes you or breaks you. Pharmacy school admission committee members do not want to fill precious spots with mediocre candidates. Instead, they want to place candidates that will excel in this profession, and that success involves perseverance and dedication.
Consider Your Reason to Attend
Although those who major in one of the physical sciences have an equal chance of acceptance when compared with “pre-pharmacy” students, pharmacy schools want to see evidence of a real interest in pharmaceuticals and the practice of the profession. A real interest is often due to a real interest in people, as pharmacists are in positions to education and influence patients. There is always the consideration of job security, but no one really goes to pharmacy school these days to become rich. There are easier ways to do that, like the entertainment industry or business administration. Make sure your reason for attending is the right reason.
Convey What Led You to Pursue Pharmacy
Before you start writing your personal statement, understand that you are conveying to your audience why a pharmacy career is your life’s pursuit. This significant question should provoke you to make notes of every single reason that pops in your head. Often, the decision to pursue pharmacy is due to a combination of things, and your essay can show these unique factors. Your personal statement creates an impact if you explain the multiple factors fully, emphasizing exact life experiences and incidents that brought you here. You want the reader to have total comprehension of these factors.
Make Sure You Want to Do This
If you do not know what led you to pursue pharmacy, or you find that studying pharmaceuticals is not that captivating, you should stop here. Pharmacy school, along with post-graduate courses, is a laborious path, and if you are applying to this program just to please your parents or to deal with some external pressure, you will find yourself unhappy later down the road. Make sure your choice to attend is your own and not the decision of someone else. Hopefully, after reading this far, you now acknowledge the upsides and the downsides of this profession.
Ask Yourself These Questions Before you Begin
There are a few questions you need to answer before you compose your personal statement. These questions will give insight about your personal choices and decisions. Some questions to ask include:
– Why pharmacy?
– Why a pharmacist and not a medical doctor?
– What inspires me to work toward this difficult goal?
– What experiences have prepared me for a career focused upon helping others?
– What experiences have I had that will allow me to put my patients first?
– Who is my role model as a pharmacist and what qualities in him or her do I admire?
– Who is my role model in life in general, and why do I look up to that person?
– What people do I admire, and what qualities do they share with me?
– Why do I stand out as a candidate?
- Do start early – Be sure you begin writing a month or so before you plan to submit your application. You don’t want to be pressed for time. Whatever you do, don’t rush!
- Do use proper grammar and punctuation – You may want to brush up on the basics of writing to gain knowledge of correct use of the English language. You don’t want to turn in a statement that is full of grammatical errors and punctuation mistakes.
- Do structure it correctly –You should format your personal statement in a way that catches your reader’s attention immediately. How can you capture their interest in your first paragraph? This may be your only opportunity.
- Do allow your reader know who you are –If this means revealing personal stories or emotions, then don’t be afraid to do so. The personal statement is your monologue to the admission committee. Tell them who you are and what you are all about.
- Do show your commitment –You know how difficult the path is that lies ahead. The admissions committee needs to know that you realize years of struggles are ahead, with the actual practice of pharmacy being your only reward. This unique profession is reserved for people who are committed to excellence. Let the committee know that you realize the path ahead is sometimes demanding and toilsome, but also let them know that pharmacy will be rewarding for you. If you find this not to be true, reconsider your application.
- Do relate to your reader –Take innovative life experiences and relate them to how you hope to progress in this profession, and your reasons for doing so. Many pre-pharmacy students tend to do certain activities, either volunteering at a pharmacy or working in the local hospital during the summers. Perhaps you even shadowed a pharmacist during your college career. While that is admiral, don’t talk in simplifications about your experience. Pick one unique story, and tell it well.
- Do organize your essay –Introduce yourself in the first paragraph, and decide what theme (or themes) you plan to cover. Cover each topic concisely, and conclude each theme paragraph with a strong conclusion. Your statement should flow easily from topic to topic. Your ending should tie the entire essay together, and do so in a smooth manner. If you are unable to summarize, you may have included too much content and should refocus on a few main ideas.
- Do proofread –Five times is not too much. Read through the statement a couple of times for content and structure. Have friends and family read your essay, and ask them to offer comments. Have your college English professor, or someone who is knowledgeable about writing, review it for grammar and punctuation. Before you send your statement to the admissions committee, look at your use of the English language. This sounds easy enough, I know, but remember, inadequate proofreading can be disastrous.
- Don’t regurgitate your transcript – Remember, they have already looked at it. Also, they can look at it again at any time.
- Don’t stray from your topic – Be specific, concise, and direct. You have a subject in mind, so don’t stray from telling your story precisely.
- Don’t add filler and unnecessary information –You may feel that you need to add content to your statement to make it appear longer. This is what writers call “filler”. So, when you are tempted to add filler – DON’T.
- Don’t rush – Give yourself several months, and revisit your essay after completion. Put it in your drawer, and read it again a week or so, when you are rested and have a block of time to sit down and relax while reading it. Then, read it as though you are learning about someone else, and judge the essay from that viewpoint. Are you interested in getting to know the person who wrote this? If not, start again.
- Don’t include academic successes that do not pertain to pharmacy – If you have achieved some unusual academic success that is relevant to your aptitude and desire to attend pharmacy school, be sure to include that. However, if you won the fifth grade spelling bee, by all means, leave that out.
- Don’t embellish or use others’ work – Avoid hyperbole or plagiarism. The admissions committee members can see through this, and they always put your essay through a plagiarism program to check for use of others’ work.
- Don’t talk about controversial topics – The personal statement is no place for topics that are of questionable nature. You do not want to alienate someone who has a different perspective than you.
- Don’t discuss emotional experiences – If you relate an emotional experience, assure that you do so in a professional manner. Also, if you do not feel that you can rehash this during your interview, don’t write about that experience.
- Don’t make excuses for anything – Committee statement reviewers will not be impressed with your excuses, as your excuses do not excuse you.
- Don’t apologize for past mistakes or underachievement – The personal statement is your chance to shine and present your positive aspects. Don’t make the mistake of appearing regretful.
- Don’t use clichés – The reader will view this as a poor attempt to appear entertaining. Clichés are so cliché.
- Don’t talk about money – If that’s why you are entering the pharmaceutical profession, realize that this will make you look bad overall. Pharmacy is not that lucrative, and that should not be the reason for your quest for entry into this line of work.
- Don’t underestimate or overestimate the pharmaceutical profession– Pharmacy is stressful. Dealing with patients is frustrating. A pharmacist is NOT a doctor. The leaders in this field pride themselves on discipline, dedication, ability, and humanity. Don’t go into pharmacy looking for an easy career – you will be in for a real shock!
Now that you understand the components and steps to writing an effective personal statement, you should have no trouble getting into pharmacy school. As always, the pharmacy profession is prestigious and honorable – those with a poor work ethic need not apply. Good luck as you embark upon this new endeavor!
American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, 2013. Derived from http://www.aacp.org/resources/student/pharmacyforyou/admissions/Pages/default.aspx
Pharmacy School Admissions – The Truth, 2013. Derived from http://pharmacyschooladmissions.blogspot.com/2009/07/personal-statement-words-of-advice-part.html
Writing a Personal Statement?
Ben Frederick M.D.
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