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!