Do’s and Don’ts for Writing About Coronavirus in Your Personal Statement — Savvy Pre-Med

UPDATE: 4/16

DO Schools have announced their COVID-19 essay prompt for the 2020-2021 application cycle. See the addendum below for the full prompt.

By: Ryan Kelly

It’s hard not to feel sorry for yourself during this crisis. All the uncertainty makes it’s tempting to wallow in self-pity.

But all of us are struggling, and odds are there’s someone worse off than you. Surviving psychologically requires you to reframe your situation by comparing yourself to others and recognizing what you’re going through isn’t as bad as it could be.

This skill of keeping perspective is crucial when writing about coronavirus in your personal statement. First off, you don’t want to come across as negative or whiny. But you also want to avoid writing the same things as everyone else.

Avoiding cliches is Personal Statement Writing 101. For medical schools, the common cliches are: “I want to help people,” “my mom, dad, and cousins are physicians,” or “I find the human body fascinating.”

With the coronavirus, we don’t know exactly what the cliches will be. But we do know that medical and PA schools have announced that they will have a distinct essay prompt to ask about how coronavirus has affected your life.

So how do you write about the coronavirus?

You have to remember that EVERYONE has been affected. Everyone has had classes canceled, everyone has sheltered in place, everyone’s lives have been disrupted.

If you’re able to keep perspective, then hopefully your writing about coronavirus will stand out to the admissions committee.

1. Don’t Make the Coronavirus the Opening or Center of Your Personal Statement

“Caring for my parent with COVID-19 showed me I want to be a doctor.”

“My whole world was changed when my university sent us all home for the rest of the semester.”

“One day I hope to emulate Dr. Fauci.”

“It was a huge challenge coming out of my mother’s birth canal.”

What do these sentences all have in common?

They are all issues faced by every pre-med, especially in the time of coronavirus. and therefore they’re definitely not what you should focus on in your personal statement. 

This is a global pandemic, the historical event of our generation, so of course it makes sense that it has affected your desire to be a doctor. But since everyone in the world is going through this, it’s not a unique angle for your personal statement. 

Your personal statement is supposed to demonstrate your desire to become a physician, and hopefully (if you’re applying in 2020) you wanted to be a doctor before the coronavirus outbreak.

2. Don’t Use the Coronavirus as an Excuse for Deficiencies

“I couldn’t participate in any extracurricular activities.”

“I couldn’t find any leadership opportunities.”

“My letter writers were too busy to write me recommendations.”

“I never had the chance to shadow multiple physicians.” 

Coronavirus has been very disruptive in many of our lives, but you can still find ways to help from the comfort of your home (more on that later).

If you MUST explain some missed opportunity, save that explanation for one of your secondary essays (again, more on that later!). 

3. Don’t Write About How Doctors Should or Shouldn’t Behave

“The US response was poor, and this inspired me to become a doctor to fix it.” 

Statements like this are NOT profound, and they will make you sound naive, or worse, like a know-it-all. In general, negativity like this is a big no-no in admissions essays.

Even if we weren’t in a pandemic, it’s NEVER wise to criticize other providers or imply that you know better than people with decades of experience.

As folks like to say these days, “Stay in your lane.” 

4. Don’t Try to Predict the Future of Coronavirus

“This pandemic has convinced me that I will definitely seek out MD/MPH programs.”

“This will show the US government that we need universal healthcare.”

This is a bit like our advice in #3. If you make specific coronavirus predictions, whether about yourself or the world, you run the risk of sounding naive.

No matter how convinced you are about your specialty, it’s unwise to make that declaration in your personal statement (you don’t know, and it’s not clear what we’ll need). Save that for the “career goals” secondary essay.

Currently, some of the greatest political and economic minds are making predictions based on evidence and statistics, but even they are SPECULATING. So, it’s quite silly for you as a pre-med to make such definitive statements about the future.

5. Do Talk About Coronavirus’s Impact on You in Your Secondary Essays 

You will likely see the classic secondary question: “talk about a challenge you faced and how you responded to it.”

This could potentially be a great moment to talk about how you were affected by coronavirus, as long as you can demonstrate growth, leadership, and positive impacts that spurred out of the challenges from coronavirus.

Another place that you could write about the coronavirus is the common secondary about disruptions in your education. This would be the perfect place to explain your pass/fail grades, postponed MCAT, etc.

As of now, we know that the DO application (AACOMAS) is going to provide students some space to specifically discuss the coronavirus’s effect on their lives.  

But medical schools might even create some new secondary essays asking:

  • How have you been affected by coronavirus?

  • How have you impacted your community in the time of coronavirus? 

  • How has your desire to be a physician changed as a result of coronavirus?

In short, for most applicants, it’s better to avoid COVID-19 altogether in the personal statement and save it for these other essays. 

6. Do Focus on Stories or Activities Where You’ve Stepped Up in Your Community

We think that medical schools are going to especially value service to the community during this cycle.

Why? Because it will be relatively rare amongst applicants.

So, if you’ve been able to support your community in some capacity, it’d be wise to include that in your Work and Activities section, secondaries, and perhaps in a SHORT section somewhere in the personal statement.

Good Examples of Community Involvement:

  • Opportunities to work clinically on the frontlines (EMTs, ER scribes, etc.)

  • Research or scholarship on COVID-19 that you’ve shared somewhere

  • Students who worked in urgent care who could no longer help patients, so instead they did shifts packing food for the Food Bank to help those in similar positions as low-income patients they normally see

  • Students who worked as walk-in tutors on campus who now do online tutoring pro bono from home

  • Students who worked as translators in hospitals who now disseminate COVID-19 information in multiple languages online

  • Students who order and deliver groceries/medications for the local elderly population

7. Do Recognize How Harrowing It Is to Be a Doctor

Without going overboard, it’s always a good idea to acknowledge the challenges and demands of medicine in your personal statement – that could mean discussing high patient volume, incurable conditions, or struggles navigating limited insurance.

In light of the pandemic, it makes even more sense to cover your exposure to the “dark side” of medicine and show that you know what you’re getting into.

If you’ve been able to work on the frontlines during the coronavirus situation, that’s a perfect vehicle for making this point in your personal statement and other essays.  

COVID-19 is reinforcing the high stakes and grave realities of medicine, but you can explain how that’s part of what makes it so worthwhile and admirable as a career.  

8. Do Find a Silver Lining 

Has the coronavirus given you a greater appreciation for your health and the health of your loved ones?

Has it shown you your privileges? 

Has it evoked your creativity and innovation?

Has it opened a new avenue for helping your community?

Has it led to personal research into epidemiology or public health?

Candidates without proper awareness, guidance, or perspective (more than you think) will slip into negativity or melodrama when discussing the coronavirus.

So, positivity will be a rare commodity, and it’s in your best interest to find a silver lining. Admissions committees love applicants who spin negatives into positives and leave things better than they found them.

Remember that you will be compared to everyone else who is enduring the coronavirus pandemic, so stay humble and grounded! It sounds corny, but a positive attitude will go a long way in establishing the right tone in your personal statement.

Do you have questions about how to write about the coronavirus? Think we missed any important do’s or don’ts?

Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll respond to you personally. 

AACOMAS Essay prompt – covid-19

Additional COVID-19 Questions (Optional)

  1. Did your school move to offering only online curriculum during the COVID-19 crisis?

  2. Did you have an opportunity to receive a letter grade for any of your courses taken during the COVID-19 crisis?

  3. Please describe how COVID-19 has impacted your pathway to medical school. (2500 characters) Items to consider incorporating in your response may include but are not limited to:

    • Academic: Were you able to interact with your professors? Did you have to leave an academic program stateside or abroad? Did your school require you to move to pass/fail grading systems? Did your MCAT exam get cancelled, delayed? Other academic barriers?

    • Professional: Did you hold a job? Did have to go out and seek new job opportunities? Did you lose a job? Other financial or professional barriers that you faced?

    • Personal: Did you have to move out of a house or dorm? Did you have to cancel travel plans? Did you modify your planned experiences related to healthcare or volunteer opportunities? Did you seek out volunteer opportunities that arose from the crisis? Did you assist any family or community members that were affected?

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