Personal statement do's and don'ts

Does anyone have an opinion on whether it is ok to start the personal essay with a quote from literature? I would like to do this, but I read somewhere that it is bad in general to take any risks with the essay, and comparing one’s life to fiction is considered risky. Not that I was planning to compare my life to the book, or make it the main theme in my essay. I wasn’t, but literature has been important in my life (college major, some research, etc.), and I was just hoping to start out with a quote from a book that has been particularly influential. Then I read this warning from a med school dean (in a book on how to write the personal statement), and I’m getting worried. Of course I don’t want it to seem like I’m using a gimmick.
Also, I basically just can’t seem to get anywhere with this essay! I just don’t believe in making the kind of earnest pronouncements about oneself that these things require. I find it pompous and annoying! Has anyone else felt this way? I tend to question things a lot–but the essay is looking for confidence and certainty, I get the impression. I do have plenty of confidence, but I feel ridiculous writing about how my experience volunteering in the ER has confirmed my initial interest in a health care career, and so on. Of course it has, but it’s just not ME to talk that way. Anyway… I know this problem is vague, but has anyone else felt like this and achieved some perspective on how to approach the essay?
Back to the quote–it’s about the twists and turns that people face as they search for their vocation. It’s just up my alley. But I don’t want to be misunderstood. I don’t know what to do!
Oh, and are there any things that should definitely be avoided in the essay? Any advice is much appreciated!

One book I read (after I had already made a ton of notes and drafts for my personal statement), had an essay that started off with a quote from Dr. Seuss. No kidding! The applicant said that he/she did it on a bet from a sibling because the essay’s author was really fond of quoting Seuss and the sib wanted to see if the applicant could work in a Seuss quote. It worked very well and was different.
That said, I say it depends on how well you can work in the quote, how applicable and uncontrived it feels to the reader. The only way you’ll know if it works is to write a couple of drafts and show it to a few people (e.g. supportive spouse/SO, premed advisor, professors, etc). Get some feedback from them. Write and re-write.
When I wrote my statement, I wrote it and then read it our loud. I kept at it until it sounded like me “just telling my story” and until it felt complete. It worked. When I read it to my advisor and others, their responses were “that’s you”, “that’s it”, etc.
So try it! If you read the thing out loud and it doesn’t work for you, you’ll feel it. Write, re-write, & re-write some more! You’ll get there eventually and it will be necessarily different from anyone else’s essay.
Good luck!

One strategy for the stuck: take a pass at it by saying the most sincere things you can about what brought you to this point, and say them out loud to someone who knows and loves you. Have them write some of that down. See where it gets you to put those things you said down on paper and organized into paper.
I tend to think that literary quotes are often a bit contrived in this setting for only one reason: they are someone else’s voice. You are old and wise enough to speak in your voice. I think that we tend to use these quotes in our early drafts (yep, me too, then ditched) because we think that someone else has said it better than we could.
But it’s very rare that the quote is actually a better use of space than your own true and honest writing. It’s possible, and you should keep the quote around in your old drafts folder, but unless the quote itself played a role in your decision or your process, then I’d try to see what happens if you ditch it.
The painful key to statements of purpose is simple: lots of drafts. Lots and lots and lots. I think I wrote four or five totally distinct approaches, each with a couple of drafts, and then I think five or six revisions of the final approach. Which is actually very few for me; generally one of my essays for publication goes through somewhere between six and fifteen drafts before being totally done.
The key to good writing is good revision.
Good luck.

This is a question I was wondering myself! I attended a seminar on applying to medical school this afternoon, and the director of admissions to my state med school made a point to caution us against doing anything too creative just to stand out. The central questions are “why do I want to be a physician, what led me to this decision, and what qualities do I have that will make me a good physician?” If the quote can help you resolve this theme into an organic whole, maybe you can use it. Otherwise, what is the essence of what the quote conveys? Can you take that essence and use the “sense” of the quote to help you explain why you want to be a doctor? I would advise you not to use a quote just to hook the reader. The director of admissions said, "the personal statement IS difficult, and is meant to be difficult."
Good luck!

Just remember that you have only a few moments to capture your reader, so make that first sentence an attention-grabber in some way or another.

Thanks everyone, for all the advice. I didn’t respond until today because I’ve had computer problems, but I appreciate it!
I ditched the quote. I even had a mini-breakthrough of sorts. I decided to start my essay with a personal anecdote instead. As formulaic as this approach seems (and is), what I’ve got now is more solid and I think I’ll be able to speak with my own voice this way.
The advice about revisions, getting second opinions, and being concise is most well taken. Thanks!