5 Keys to Writing an Effective Personal Statement


Deciding what to write for a personal statement can be a daunting task. CASPA instructs you to write “a brief statement expressing your motivation or desire to become a physician assistant” for your essay.


Describe all of your hopes and dreams, and keep it under 5000 characters. Not 5000 words, each comma counts towards the tally.


With this limitation, you need to keep your thoughts concise and make every sentence count. Decide what you think are the most critical points that you want to be sure to cover.


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Then, develop an outline before you start writing to so that the summary is not cut short because you do not want to forego your early genius from the first few paragraphs. From there, use these 5 keys to craft an effective personal statement:


  1. Tell a story - Including a narrative story can make for a great essay. A well written story will make your essay stand out among the others. People love a good story, and it makes for a much more interesting and memorable essay.

  2. Make it personal - Do not relist what can be found on the rest of the application. This is your opportunity to show the admissions committee what they cannot already find on your application. Every applicant has met the minimum GPA, accumulated patient contact experience, and completed the prerequisite courses. Concentrate on conveying what makes you unique in a way that would be an asset to their program.

  3. Be realistic - Consider your audience. It is usually comprised of educators and PAs. A career as a PA is a very practical one, and usually practical people go into this field. Working with students and practicing medicine is routine for your audience. Being dramatic about wanting to be a PA since you were in the womb does not seem genuine.

    Talking about saving lives and curing disease comes across as you having inadequate knowledge of the everyday work involved in a medical career. Show how skills you already possess can relate to you being a great PA. Making this connection will demonstrate that you understand the role of a PA.

    Also, it is essential to show humility in your writing - you are working towards a goal and asking for the privilege to continue to do so. You have not yet climbed the mountain, so be sure that your words reflect that.

  4. Be specific - It is easy to slip into generalizations about helping people or working in medicine in your essay, but you have to show what specifically about being a PA helped your to make your choice. Ask yourself “could the same thing be said about a career as a nurse, physician, pharmacist?”. If the answer is yes, it is time to rework your idea so that it more clearly relates to being a PA.

  5. Make the connection - While you are probably trying to limit your character count by the end of the essay, be sure to finish strong with your summary. It is essentially a condensed version of your essay, summarizing the highlights to make your case to the admissions committee. Reference back to your opening story to make the essay come full circle. Show why your story together with your experience naturally concluded in your decision to be a PA.


First pass

Now, let’s look at how we followed those steps with a real-life prospective PA student’s personal statement. Before we begin walking through the editing process, check out the unedited first draft of the essay by clicking on "The Original Draft" image.


This prospective PA definitely did some things right on the first draft. First, he included a narrative story that was engaging. It needs a few edits, but the structure is there. Secondly, he made it personal, both with the back story and with relating his prior experience to his decision to become a PA.


However, when we examine the draft for our 5 key elements, there are few areas that are lacking with this early version. The essay needs some work on being a little more realistic, some of the wording and ideas expressed come across as a bit dramatic.


We also need to tone down some of the areas that seem a bit boastful, again being realistic by showing humility in prior accomplishments.


What to avoid in your PA school personal statementlBe a Physician Assistant

The other area that needs attention is with being more specific, particularly in the middle of the second page. The writer jumps from his undergrad work to a career as a PA being the perfect profession without much transition or a compelling reason for the decision.


Additionally, the reasoning that is provided for his career choice is not specific for a PA, it could describe many different professions. As you will see, it takes a couple of tries to nail this one down as it can be a difficult idea to communicate clearly.


The author concludes by making the connection in the summary well, threading together the key points of the essay including his prior experience and story and concluding with a goal. We just need to do a bit of work on being specific and showing humility in the summary.


We also want to look at the progression of the essay and see how to make the flow of the story seem natural.

Interest in medicine begins ⇒ College opportunities ⇒?⇒ Learned about being a PA ⇒?⇒ Steps towards PA school ⇒ Tying the timeline/story with future goal.


It is possible that this may be a good chronological story facilitating the flow of the essay, but as readers, we do not know yet that it is chronological because from the information provided, we do not know when being a PA entered the picture. Adding this detail should be able to facilitate the flow and smooth out the transition between topics.


Check out "The First Edit" to see the suggested edits to the author.


After incorporating our 5 steps in the review and suggesting edits, the author’s second draft was ready to be refined.


Second Draft

Now check out "The Second Draft". Things are starting to look pretty good, right? The tone is evened out throughout the essay to sound enthusiastic but not dramatic, and there is a definite shift towards modesty that highlights the character traits of someone ready to continue to learn and grow rather that someone who is already accomplished.


Importantly, we were able to keep the ideas that the author wanted to express and kept the story intact. Knowing Tom’s name somehow makes this story more endearing. However, there is still work to do on clarifying the “deciding to be a PA” paragraph on page 2 and adjusting the tone of this section added by the author in the second draft to match the more humble style of the rest of the essay.


With the author’s edits, we have confirmed that the story flow is indeed in chronological order: Interest in medicine begins ⇒ College opportunities ⇒ Learned about being a PA ⇒ Steps towards PA school ⇒ Tying the timeline/story with future goal.


With the added details in the storyline about learning of the PA profession, the flow is more natural. Our character count is now at 5246, so we need to do a little trimming where we can.

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Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the personal essay as well as PA program interviews is articulating why you want to be a PA without being too vague and without stepping into what can feel like a trap.


As you can see in "The First Edit", I commented about the author’s use of discussing a work-life balance. Some people would advise you to not mention quality of life or a work-life balance at all in your essay or PA program interview as a reason to be a PA because it may be interpreted as you wanting to be a physician but chose an “easier” path, but I think that is too simplistic of an approach.


Most PA students (over 65%) contemplate medical school, but very even take the MCATs. Quality of life is a major reason for choosing a career as a PA and this is no secret, but this has to be presented in the right way in an essay or during an interview.


If your essay story is centered around you traveling the world, participating in biannual overseas volunteer work, or being an amateur mountain climber, then by all means you can communicate that part of your decision making included choosing a career known for having a good work-life balance so that you can continue to live a life that allows for your other activities. If it is relevant, it is fine that this is part of your story, but you should not reference a work-life balance if it is not part of your overall story.


In fact, you should waste no sentences or characters on anything that is not part of your greater story, it distracts from what you are trying to communicate and stands out as a throw away line.


With some additional work in the areas mentioned, the essay was nearly finished.


Final draft

So this is where we landed with the final draft, whittled down to 4991 characters. It is a great example of the author’s original content and ideas made more compelling once our 5 key elements were incorporated.


Read both the original and final drafts as if you were on the admissions committee of a PA program, and you can see how focusing on these 5 areas can make a significant difference in selling yourself and your story to the people that can change your future.


Could your personal essay use some refining? Need help deciding on your opening story and constructing the flow of your experience? 


Check out my Personal statement review services. Each review includes a 30-minute one-on-one planning session and 2 fully edited drafts. We can start together from scratch or work to refine your first rough draft. 


Update: Check out the ebook 5 Keys to Writing an Effective PA School Essay, now available on Amazon.