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Arguably, the most unique part of your residency application is your personal statement. To many programs, it is the only way to get an idea of “who you are” before meeting you on interview day. It is a window into your character, motivations, and personality– aspects of you that are not necessarily highlighted in your test scores, publications, and extracurricular activities. It is also one of the only aspects of your application that is fully under your control; it is up to you to put it together in a way that is compelling and convincing.
Most medical students struggle with the personal statement because the expectations for it are so vague and broad. When do you write it? How do you get started? What do you put in it? How do you know if it is good?
In reality, the answers to these questions will vary depending on who you talk to; most people, however, will agree that the personal statement should be a mix of your unique interests, aspirations, and motivations in addition to “why” you are interested in the particular field you are applying into
In this piece, I will present to you tips, tricks, and approaches to starting, writing, and editing a personal statement. I will also briefly cover autobiographical sketches and other secondary essays that you may be asked to write.
When do you write your personal statement?
The key is to start as early as you can.
- As a third year (or earlier), consider keeping a journal of the “moments” that inspired you in medical school—moments that were sparks in your decision to pursue your specialty. Was it a patient? An attending? A specific call shift or specific night? Write down your thoughts and impressions when they are fresh; this will help you craft stories and a narrative about why you are who you are.
- Take some time to reflect and think about your journey through medical school. Why did you want to be a physician in the first place? What moments allowed you to choose the speciality you selected? What do you imagine your career looking like? Starting early and reflecting often both allow you to write and rewrite your statement without being worried about how long you have before applications are due; you can also use this additional time to send your statement to friends, family, mentors, and letter writers for comments, feedback, and criticisms.
Starting early will allow you to send drafts of your personal statement to your letter writers; this can be incredibly helpful in allowing your letter writer to include “personal” parts of your story (drawing from themes in your essay) in their letters of recommendation. If and when this happens, your application can appear more consistent and cohesive.
How long should it be? How do you brainstorm your statement?
Most programs, websites, and resources recommend keeping your personal statement to about a page, sing-spaced.
- Get started by reading through sample personal statements. What do you feel stood out about these essays? What made each one unique? What can you take away from them?
- Then, start working on an outline of the stories, points, and arguments you want to make in your essay. Tell a story about who you are and why you are the best candidate for your specialty.
How do you get started?
The best way to start is to… well, start. Just start writing and see where it takes you. This can be very difficult for applicants who are intimidated by the personal statement and the weight it holds.
- Remember, you can write and rewrite this essay as many times as you need. Just start somewhere!
- Still stuck? Start with a quick list of words you think would describe you well. Let’s say: determined, dependable, and trustworthy. Now, what makes you determined? What drives you? What stories highlight your ability to be dependable and trustworthy? Choosing the qualities you want to showcase before you pick out the stories you want to tell may be helpful in putting together an effective personal statement.
How do you stand out?
Not all personal statements need to be “catchy”; I will even go as far as to say that no personal statement is 100% unique. Your essay does not need to be about a “big moment” that changed your life or a story that has never been told before; it just has to be about you and what makes you… you.
- Interviewers and application review committees are not looking for exceptional writing talent and prefer “straightforward” essays over those that are poetic, convoluted, and difficult to follow
- Remember, admissions committees only have minutes (if even that!) to glance through your application. A long, flowy essay– although beautiful– may just miss the mark in both catching the reader’s attention and keeping them reading for the entirety of your essay. Be thoughtful about who is on the receiving end of your work and how much time/effort they will reasonably devote to reviewing your statement.
What is a good approach to writing and rewriting a personal statement?
The best approach is to have as many people review your essay as possible. There is one caveat to this: take advice with a positive attitude and with a grain of salt. Not everyone’s comments will be relevant. Not everyone’s comments will be applicable. Not everyone’s comments can be incorporated into one cohesive essay. That being said, send it out and do so early!
- Ask friends who know you well and your family to read through your drafts. Is it boring? Does it sound like you? Do your arguments sound aggressive or over-exaggerated? Are you selling yourself short? Are you missing core elements of “your story” that should be included in your essay? Sometimes, having multiple sets of eyes on an essay can bring out the best versions of it.
- Consider sending your work to your school’s writing center or writing department; most programs have some form of writing “coaches” who can read through your work and point out grammatical errors, logical fallacies, or gaps in your arguments.
- Do not be afraid to restart your essay at any point in the writing process; that is, do not get too attached to any particular version of it. It is okay to restart and approach the essay from a different viewpoint or angle. I rewrote my essay almost a dozen times, scrapping it entirely intermittently.
- Do what you need to do to put your best foot forward. Your essay may not necessarily hurt your application, but it can truly bring color and character to the persona you are building on paper.
Some topics may be seen as cliche. Should you include them?
Stay away from them and from distractors.
- Do not list your experiences from your resume or CV.
- Do not say you went into medicine to “help people.”
- Do not focus too much on the details of a specific experience (when, where, how) rather than why that experience was meaningful to you. This part goes back to reading sample essays and learning from them. What stood out to you as cliches? What made you bored versus excited to read more?
What is an autobiographical statement, and how does it differ from a personal statement? Some specialties (such as ophthalmology) now require an autobiographical sketch rather than a personal statement; other specialties are beginning to do the same, moving away from the traditional “Why [specialty]?” and more towards the “Why you?” According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the purpose of the sketch is to allow for an “opportunity to share your story (i.e., your personal “elevator pitch” on who you are and why you believe you are a qualified applicant)” and to provide room for “highlighting background, personal characteristics, unique or differentiating qualities, and/or experiences that distinguish you as a person and as an applicant.” The autobiographical sketch is more amorphous of an essay compared to the traditional personal statement.
- If your specialty requires one, all of the advice above applies. However, the focus of the autobiographical sketch should be you rather than the specialty to which you are applying. Do not focus as much on the “why [specialty]” aspect; instead, center the essay on who you are and what you bring to the table– a more “qualities” based essay.
- Read examples and pick out the pros and cons of good and bad essays. The more you read, the better your eye will be for what to include (or exclude) from yours.
What if your specialty requires other types of essays?
Some specialties require additional essays on top of the personal statement; others have “secondary” essays associated with specific programs (much like those from the medical school application process). These essays can be more variable in their length, expectations, and intentions.
- Keep with the outline discussed in this guide. Who are you? What are your qualities? What qualifications, experiences, and stories do you have to support these qualities? How can you tell these stories in a way that applies to and answers the question?
For example: ” Describe an important mentor and relate how that person has been helpful to you.” So… what are your qualities? Who (i.e., an “important mentor”) has fostered those qualities and helped them grow? What is a story you can tell about this mentor that highlights both those qualities and how they helped you grow them? Start writing. Jot down ideas. Write, rewrite, and ask for feedback.
The personal statement is a difficult part of the application; being intentional and thoughtful, in addition to starting early, are all key to setting yourself up for success with it. It’s important to note that different specialties have different expectations for this portion of the application; some specialties (ophthalmology, for example) ask for autobiographical essays rather than personal statements. Always start with speaking to advisors, attendings, residents, and upperclassmen about specifics regarding your desired specialty. Think broadly. Reflect often. And write as much (and as often) as you can.
TEXT BOX/INFOGRAPHIC ABOUT STUDY:
Moulton, Marie, et al. “Making the Personal Statement “Truly Personal”: Recommendations From a Qualitative Case Study of Internal Medicine Program and Associate Program Directors.” Journal of Graduate Medical Education 14.2 (2022): 210-217.
- 2022 study based on semi-structured interviews with thirteen PDs (program directors) and APDs (assistant program directors)
How are personal statements used by PDs and APDs?
- In general, they are used to: screen out “red flag” applicants, provide “reasons to interview” (unique qualities of the applicant) an applicant, screen for “fit” with a particular program, and help prepare the interviewers for interview day.
- Post-interview, they are used to help rank “mid-tier” applicants and distinguish between two “similar” applicants.
What should personal statements include?
- It should be well-written (captivating, with a “hook”)
- Authenticity and show some degree of “introspection” by the applicant.
- Communication of “fit” to programs; in other words, “a clear elucidation of [applicants’] goals” and visions that may line up with those of the programs to which they are applying
What should personal statements not include?
- Cliches (i.e., “I’ve always wanted to be an XYZ…”)
- Typos or poor grammar/syntax
- Lack of thought regarding the length or content of the essay (“too long” or “too short”)
- “Evidence of carelessness” (i.e., sending the wrong statement to the wrong program)
- “Display poor characteristics” by including off-color sexist or racist remarks