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Addressing the 3 Most Common Concerns in Your Personal Statement

As yet another competitive cycle of professional school applications begins, we are receiving recurring questions and concerns from students who are drafting their personal statements. These questions are very valid and relevant, so we felt it would be beneficial to share what they are and how we solve them. Let's dive right in:

1. Should I include a "patient anecdote experience?"

A patient anecdote experience refers to a memorable patient encounter that applicants may choose to include in their writing. This is typically done with the intention of captivating the reader with storytelling and to highlight a pivotal moment in which the student felt that the dentistry, medicine, etc. would be a suitable career fit.

An example of this in a dental personal statement might be written along the lines of:

"During my internship at the community clinic, I encountered Joe, who was a recovering drug addict presenting with dental pain due to rampant caries and severe periodontal disease. I watched as the dentist diagnosed Joe's condition and explained that the extraction of the rest of Joe's dentition was needed as none of his teeth were restorable. Happy to have played a small role in Joe's experience, I felt a sense of fulfillment as I reassured Joe that heeding the doctor's recommendation would alleviate him of pain and that the extractions would be an intermediary step before dentures can replace his teeth."

Although there is no "right" or "wrong" way to narrate your personal statement, the "short-answer" recommendation we typically make when students seek help from us is to NOT include a memorable patient encounter in one's personal statement UNLESS it is truly a life-altering experience AND there is no concern regarding character count. Our reasons are three-fold: (a) the dental personal statement has a limited character count not usually conducive to writing a thoroughly immersive recount without detracting from other parts , (b) patient anecdote experiences frequently puts the limelight on the patient and provider rather than the applicant which is not advantageous if our goal is to make the personal statement revolve centrally around the applicant and his/her reflections, and (c) most patient anecdote experiences in the dental practice are not as unique as one might think if you can imagine it from the reader's perspective having read hundreds of similar paragraphs or even the dentists' viewpoint having treated hundreds of similar patients.

Instead, our preferred approach is to use precious character count to focus on specifically elaborating on the applicant's OWN unique perspectives, contributions, insights, lessons learned...etc. When working with our students, we try to help our students first paint out a generalized picture of the experience that doesn't dive into the specifics of any one singular patient, and rather focus on highlighting the commonalities of the student's patient encounters. This way, the reader can still understand what the overall setting is, allowing the student's analysis of his/her experience to make up the majority of the discussion.

Ultimately, different advisors will have their own differing opinions and stylistic approach. Please consult with a trusted writing specialist (or us at The Pre-Dental Guide) to ensure your decision flows well with the theme of your statement.

Writing specific patient anecdotes often puts the reader's focus on the patient and provider, sometimes at the risk of detracting attention away from the applicant.

2. Can I overlap "starred" experiences from the experiences section with those in my personal statement?

In the recent years, students are tasked to "star" their top experiences in the application (e.g. AADSAS). This relatively new change has most likely been implemented by the admissions committees, so their members don't have to necessarily sift through dozens of unorganized experiences in any given application as the student can now simply indicate which ones have indeed been the most memorable and profound.

But what if your "top experiences" have already been elaborated on extensively in your personal statement? Would it be theoretically more beneficial to highlight other experiences that did not already get discussed thoroughly in one's personal statement?

This is yet another valid concern on how to optimize your portfolio of experiences. On one hand, we want to convey some congruency that your "top experiences" are the same ones you chose to write about in your personal statement. After all, a strong personal statement usually already includes a deep reflection of anywhere from 3-5 experiences that are interwoven by the theme. On the other hand, a diverse myriad of highlighted experiences would more readily illustrate that you are a multi-faceted applicant with many skills and contributions.

Here at The Pre-Dental Guide, we have found a "2:1" ratio to be an effective approach. Suppose that you are allowed to "star" 3 experiences to denote their priority. What we would recommend then is to have two of the experiences selected to be ones that you may already have written about in your personal statement. This is being genuine because you acknowledge that the same experiences that has influenced you to choose the profession (personal statement) are also the ones you feel as most important (experiences section). With your remaining option, you can then select an experience that you did NOT talk extensively about in your personal statement. Again, this allows the reader to perceive that you are not just an applicant with the same rehashed experiences and may in fact entice the committee member to look carefully at other experiences that you did not star.

The "2:1" ratio can be used in the same way for applications requiring other numbers of "starred" experiences. For example, some applications (for different professional schools than dentistry) may require 6 starred experiences. One can choose to "star" four experiences already touched on in the personal statement, and then use the remaining two "stars" and highlight novel experiences. Please note that this does not have to be precise, and our recommended approach is simply a general guideline that we have found effective for our students over multiple application cycles (e.g. it will probably be ok to do a 3:3 ratio for an application that requires 6 starred experiences).

"To star or not to star?"

3. How do I address my interest in dentistry if my parents are dentists or healthcare providers?

This is another great question that will be relevant to many students we work with and even for those whom we have not had the pleasure to help yet. It is not uncommon for a number of applicants each year to be children of dentists, doctors, or other healthcare providers. In fact, Jenny herself from The Pre-Dental Guide comes from a family background intimately intertwined with dentistry. The concern here for this group of applicants is that they do not want to appear as if their parents are the main cause of why they are pursuing the same or a similar path in healthcare. Sometimes applicants in this situation may go so far as to actively hide the fact that their parents are dentists. After all, no one wants to be asked the question: "Are you only doing this because your parents are dentists?"

Based on our experience, we do not believe it is necessary, or even a good idea, to conceal your parent's career identity. On the contrary, we routinely encourage students to openly embrace the upbringing and family they grew up in. Let us be totally honest here - all of our decisions have been, at least in part, influenced by our nurture and childhood. This acknowledgement is actually the foundation of how we recommend writing one's personal statement. The Pre-Dental Guide philosophy is based on a thorough "deep dive" into each applicant's personal background, values, and motivations. We then sort through these factors to craft a "theme" that articulates how your pre-existing desires and skills have led to the decision that dentistry is right for you. In our experience, this is the most genuine and authentic way to write something that is as unique as your personal statement.

Given this desire for us to genuinely acknowledge our upbringing, it can actually be advantageous especially if one frames the profession as a shared way that he/she is able to find or sustain a meaningful connection with his/her parent(s). Or better yet, the focus here can be put on the values that the parents (as healthcare professionals) have imparted on oneself, and the profession is simply the chosen vehicle for the applicant to practice these familial values given his/her unique skillset and interests (e.g., interest in art or interest in science...etc). Essentially, we want to acknowledge the parent's' contributions to one's upbringing but also convey in our writing that the applicant is paving his or her own path forward.

Embracing one's upbringing and background can make for a compelling and genuine take on your motivations and career aspirations.

As you can imagine, this is NOT a cookie-cutter approach, which is why we routinely advise our students to partake in a brainstorming session (either with us or a trusted advisor) to dissect thoroughly each person's story. How we decide to uniquely frame the narrative is a task that needs to be handled carefully so we can emphasize the individuality of each applicant while at the same time honoring the upbringing that has led us to where we are today.


If you want personalized guidance in any part of your application (e.g. personal statement, COVID free-response, building a school list), please check the "Get Our Help" page.

If you found this information to be valuable, please show your support by donation and/or sharing our website with someone else you think would benefit from our advice.

We'd love to connect with you and answers questions! Follow us on instagram: @thepredentalguide and @drwilsonng.

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