How to Write a Personal Statement Hook
Writing a residency application personal statement hook that will get your application noticed
If possible, the personal statement for your medical school or residency application should start with you, in your underwear and a gas mask, crashing an RV in the middle of the desert. Let me explain.
A single admissions committee (or, in the case of residency applications, a single residency program) may read hundreds or thousands of personal statements over the course of a single application cycle. That’s a lot of personal statements. To get through them all, reviewers can only dedicate mere minutes to reading each personal statement. If you want them to notice, pay attention to, and remember yours, you need to make it stand out. And part of the way that you do that is by grabbing their attention from the very first sentence. In writing, we call that a “hook.”
Think back to some of the classic books you read in high school. Most of those stories started with excellent hooks–sentences which tease you, which titillate you, and which provide you with a small number of answers but with a much larger number of questions! Take, for example, the opening line of one of my favorite novels, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” This is a masterful opening sentence: it presents just enough information to intrigue us as readers and plants a number of questions in our heads. Who is Bunny? How did Bunny die? Who are ‘we’? What is ‘the gravity of our situation’? Is it related to Bunny’s death? (It seems like it is…) And what the heck does any of that have to do with the fact that the snow in the mountains was melting? Those questions have hooked thousands of readers into reading on for another 629 pages not to find out if someone died–we already know that Bunny did–but to hear more about how Bunny died, and about what it meant for the narrator of the novel.
In fact, I actually opened this blog post with a hook of my own. Well, not really my own–it’s a description of the opening scene of AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad. But that opening scene, in which a practically naked, gas-masked Walter White speeds across the desert in an RV with three other unconscious passengers, was enough to hook millions of viewers and make the series a household name. Can you really do the same thing with your personal statement? And if so, how? Writing a good hook is hard, but below, I’ll provide a few pointers on how you can craft a compelling and effective hook for your application essays!
Keep It Short
The power of a hook is in its brevity.
How brief should the hook be? When I was in middle school, one of my English teachers taught us that our essays in general should follow what she called “the bikini rule”: although they should be long enough to cover everything, they should also be short enough to remain interesting. In my experience, the bikini rule works equally well for hooks. Let’s go back to the opening scene of Breaking Bad. This scene follows the bikini rule. First of all, it’s long enough to cover everything: it introduces us to our main characters, sets up Walt’s “fish-out-of-water” introduction to the world of drug-dealing, and, with its frantic and quite literally off-road energy, teases the sort of antics that will pervade the series. It’s also surprisingly short. The events leading up to the crash last just over one minute. This brings me to my next rule of thumb: your hook should take up about 1-2% of the word count (or character count) of your personal statement. So, for a 5,300-character AMCAS personal statement, the hook should take up roughly 50-100 characters. For the ERAS-based residency application, personal statements are roughly limited to one page. Because this works out to about 800 words, your hook should take up roughly eight to 16 of those words. These are somewhat tight limits and so it’s okay to exceed them by a little bit if you feel that you must. That being said, under absolutely no circumstances should your hook even approach 10% of your total word or character count. If that seems outlandish, just take another look at that Breaking Bad hook: as the first minute of a 60-minute long television episode, it falls directly within that 1-2% rule of thumb.
Keep Your Distance
Once you’ve dropped your hook, it’s time to back off. After all, you’ve just hit your reader with something shocking. You want it to sink in, to stay in their mind throughout your essay so that it continually motivates them to keep reading. If you keep hitting them with high-octane hooks, they won’t know what to focus on, they’ll forget the essay’s opening, and they’ll eventually give up. Imagine if every episode of Breaking Bad was 60 minutes of the RV scene–it would quickly become totally exhausting. So once you drop your powerful hook, back off and keep a little distance. How do you do this? One really effective approach is to think of your second paragraph as an “it all started when…” flashback. In Breaking Bad, for example, we move from the meth lab RV accident immediately into a scene which we are told takes place “three weeks earlier.” We watch as Walt wakes up in his safe, normal suburban home and trudges through a lazy workout on his stairmaster before having a breakfast of eggs and something called “veggie bacon.”
This scene is boring. (That’s the point–in order to appreciate where Walt ends up, we need to know where he started.) But now that we know the story is going somewhere exciting, we’re willing to hear about the mundane details. The opening of the second paragraph is a great chance to create the same opportunity in your personal statement. (By the way, did you notice
that I used the same exact technique to open the second paragraph of this blog post?) Take the audience back to the beginning of your story and give them the background they’re going to need–now with the promise that all of this is going to help them understand that shocking hook with which you opened. And in the end, whether or not your hook keeps that promise can make or break your personal statement.
Keep Your Promise
Sometimes, students are reluctant to use hooks in their personal statements. (And it’s true that hooks aren’t for everyone–more on that below.) I’ve heard a lot of different reasons for this. It seems corny. I don’t think people will take my personal statement seriously. My personal story just doesn’t have an interesting hook. In my experience, all of these problems come down to the same thing: the hook that they wrote made a promise that their essay didn’t keep. What do I mean by that? Let’s take the idea that using a hook in a personal statement is corny, or contrived, or overly flashy. That usually feels true when a hook is over-promising. The big, bombastic hooks we see in The Secret History and Breaking Bad work because they follow
up with big, bombastic stories–stories of murders and drug-dealing. They make promises that the rest of these works are able to keep. If The Secret History and Breaking Bad turned out to be relatively boring stories, however, these hooks would feel contrived, too. So if your hook feels hokey, you may be overdoing it! Your hook is not supposed to be the most interesting part of any story; it’s supposed to be the most interesting part of your story. (This is also why I tell students that every personal statement, no matter how unexciting they think it is, can have a hook!) I use a simple test to tell whether or not a hook is on the right track (and whether or not it over-promises). I call it the ‘grandpa test.’ It works like this: imagine that your personal statement, hook and all, is actually a story that your grandpa is telling at a family gathering. And how do grandpas start their stories? That’s right: “Have I ever told you about the time…? It all started when…”
Try to fit your hook into this format. If it more or less works, your hook is probably on the right track! Let’s look at a couple of our previous examples: Breaking Bad: “Have I ever told you about the time I crashed an RV in the middle of the desert while wearing only my underwear and a gas mask? It all started three weeks earlier, when…” The Secret History: “Have I ever told you about the time the snow was melting in the mountains and Bunny had been dead for weeks before we realized the gravity of our situation? It all started when I transferred schools…” If the hook and the flashback fit easily into this format, then chances are that they work well as written. Next–and this is the really important part–if that ‘grandpa’ story introduction ccurately sums up what your story is going to be about, then your hook is probably making a promise that your essay can keep. If, on the other hand, it feels more like a bait-and-switch–if a listener would be irritated at grandpa for misrepresenting what the story was going to be about, and how interesting it was going to be–then your hook is probably making a promise that your personal statement can’t keep. When you find yourself making and keeping these sorts of promises, you’re well on your way to a great, attention-grabbing personal statement!
Keep Writing and Re-Writing
So, you’re on your way. You’ve finally got your hook. It’s long enough to cover everything, short enough to stay interesting, and you back off after dropping it to give your reader time to breathe. Perhaps most importantly, it makes a promise that the rest of your personal statement manages to keep. But it still doesn’t feel like it’s all the way there. What gives? Writing a good hook can be notoriously difficult. In fact, most writers would probably agree that the first sentence of any piece–whether it’s a novel, a scientific article, or a personal statement–is usually the hardest one to write. (Stephen King once told The Atlantic that he spends months and even years working and re-working his hooks!) It’s perfectly normal to struggle with your hook, and to continually revise it as you craft your personal statement. On top of all that, there’s actually an advantage to keeping your hook open to change. As you fill out the rest of your personal statement, the way you want to tell your story is naturally going to change. Maybe you decide to leave out certain details in favor of others, or maybe you realize that the lesson you learned through your experiences isn’t quite what you thought it was.
Either way, a flexible draft of your hook can easily be altered to fit the changes in your evolving personal statement, whatever they may be. For these reasons, some writers actually force themselves to write the first sentence of their piece last! When you know exactly where the writing is going, the thinking goes, it becomes comparatively easy to set up a hook and make your promise accordingly. Don’t be afraid to move on and write the rest of your personal statement even as you are still revising your hook to perfection.
Writing is hard. (It’s an art, after all.) If there were a set of rules that worked for everyone, it would be a lot easier–but a lot less powerful, too. The things I’ve written about here shouldn’t be taken as the be-all, end-all of personal statement writing. Not all essays need to have hooks, and, in some cases, a bad hook is worse than no hook at all. And not all great hooks look like the ones I’ve outlined here. But over the years I have found these ideas useful to students who are struggling to open their personal statements with a bang.
For more advice on personal statements, check back here regularly!