THE VALUE OF PERSONAL STATEMENTS

In order to help students understand the importance of personal statements, I have interviewed a variety of faculty that value them. I was given salient advice about how they are used when interviewing applicants to their residency.

John Testerman, MD, PhD, Former Chairman of the Family  Medicine Department of Loma Linda University Medical School

Dr. Testerman likes to read the individual’s personal statement the night before the interview.

He states,  “I like to see if there is something memorable about the person that I can ‘latch on to’ or is there something outstanding about them that will helps me remember them.  It can become a springboard for discussion.”  He will be looking for evidence that they have carried out their claims; for example, caring for the underserved or about themselves doing mission work.  If the student is an international medical graduate, he wants to see if they have a good command of the English language.  If a student has had some academic problems he looks for how they express it in their statement.  Did they blame others or did they make a learning opportunity out of the experience?   His best advice for the students going into Family Medicine: the student should demonstrate in writing that they have the ability to make a personal connection.  “Have you accomplished your personal values and what are your strengths and have you sold them to him.”

Dr. Testerman wants to know if the student has a dream that may connect them with his program; for example, the student expresses a desire to develop themself as a faculty member or has a desire to join our preventive medicine program, or fulfilling their goal for international health.

Dr. Soo Kim, Director of Student Education for  Pediatrics at Loma Linda University School of Medicine.

Dr. Kim has a great deal of passion for helping students with personal statements.  If she could make a living doing only this she would like to do it full time.

She looks at how detailed and particular the writer is with their personal statement. It lets her know if they are a careful person about other aspects of life.  She wants to know if there is a discrepancy in what they express in their writing and what they tell her in the interview. One of the biggest mistakes that students make is being too generic and not being personal enough.

She tells the student, “ You have to open yourself up and let people know who you really are.”  She has even had students cry with her because they didn’t know how deep she was going in her interview and then it becomes a counseling session.  “The student has a limited time with the interviewer and this is the time to show case their qualities.”  Dr. Kim related a story where the candidate was not going to get an interview with her program director until the personal statement was read and the personal statement prompted him to see the student. It could mean the difference as to whether you get into a program or not.  “So write with sincerity and depth.”

Dr. Wessam Labib, Director of Student Education for  Family Medicine at Loma Linda University School of Medicine.

Dr. Labib candidly stated,  “ I want the personal statement to be unique to the individual and suggest the student avoid standardized or generic ones. Paint your personal picture with experiences, values, and characteristics.  Get me excited about who you are as an individual.  If you are not interesting enough it may mean you will not get an interview from me.  I will be looking at your scores and what the Dean has to say about you but the personal statement will solidify the portrait. I want it to tell me how you feel about Family Medicine.  I spend a great deal of time helping the student write them well and in return students have returned with stories of praise about their personal statements and how it helped them get their first choice.  The interviewers rarely state that they were impressed with your Step 2 scores, but they are more likely to be impressed by the words in your personal statement. I like stories but they have to be limited, unique and needs to be used in a way that shows me how you became more dedicated or developed character.

Dr. Labib likes the personal statement to be divided into three sections: the first part should tell the reader who you are as a person, the second paragraph should tell him of your accomplishments and your activities in the community, and the third paragraph should tell the residency program what you want out of their program and what you bring to help it becomes a good fit.  “ You are selling yourself but you are also buying. Remember you are not desperate, but you have qualities that should meet their qualities.   As a Program Director, I need to know if you are the right fit for our residency.  If you have room on the one page, (try to keep to one page) see if you can summarize.  Which means that paragraph one and two equal Family Medicine,”

Dr. Danny Wongworawat , Director of the Orthopedic Residency program at Loma Linda University Medical Center.

“As Program director I screen with the board scores and the Dean’s letter then I read the personal statement to pick out personal characteristics and find what makes the person interesting.  What experiences in life made them who they are. Experiences that set them a part from other students, one student in particular struggled overseas as a refugee with his family and had many hard ships. I weigh the Dean’s letter more heavily than the personal statement because it is objective-more black and white.  The personal statement is free form and very subjective.  I rarely use the PS in a negative sense.  The biggest mistake that I see is making the PS too much like a cliché. I think some students go online, copying statements, and this makes it more generic. For example; I got injured and was taken care of by a wonderful Orthopedist.  I want to see their leadership skills expressed or an experience that was unique. I remember a student told of his riding his bike across America.

“Because I read and edit many PS some of the best that I remember grab me with an interesting opening and clinches it with the closing.  This is a clever and interesting way to catch someone’s attention.  Use the active voice, not the passive. It is a given that grammar and spelling should be correct.”

“We all inflate our statements, but don’t do it falsely. When a student graduates from their residency I re-read their personal statement.  One student stated that he had good hand skills because he had been a carpenter but when he was in the operating room he did not have fine hand skills.  Another student was lofty in his goal of working with the underserved and ended up working in Redlands (not so underserved).”

Dan Engeberg, MD. Former Program Director for the  Rural Family Medicine Residency Program in Hanford, California.

“Our residency has four positions per year and we are averaging 600 to 680 applications to review.  There are two areas that I look at to help me decide the preferred status candidate.  One is the USMLE scores and the fail rates and the other the personal statements.  We do put 60-70% of importance to the personal statement.  A lot of the times a candidate will send out a standardized personal statement, they went on line and took their PS off the Internet and personalized it.  ‘It taste like vanilla’ all about the same. “

“Most of the applicants have gone on our website and have read about our program.  In our first paragraph about our program, we state we are a not-for profit, faith-based organization and we believe in Judeo-Christian principles.  We are trying to identify residents that have passion. I want to see in their personal statement a passion for Family Medicine as a future career and also they need to express their desire to serve the underserved. We are trying to develop a resident that would be very comfortable going into a remote location were there is not a complement of specialists.”

“I will read the personal statement non-stop then close my eyes and retrieve from the PS anything that would stand out and do they connect with our mission statement and philosophy.  I will go back to their PS and highlight or circle it.  I grade it from 1-5.  Then I go to their USMLE and medical school scores.  I then read their recommendation letters. They are always good.”

“I want a PS that is excusive to Family Medicine and they have the principle of primary care firmly identified.   A lot of IMG’s (International Medical Graduates) don’t have them often in mind.  I also look at community involvement. I put 10-20% on USMLE and medical school scores but much more on a life of service- did you go out of your way to volunteer in the community, did they go on mission trips and handle people that were disadvantaged and in poverty.  The student will have to sell me by their personal statement before I will interview them.  I will not look at grades until I know that they have the character first found in their personal statement.  We have to have a self-directed individual in our program that can function on their own in a multitude of situations and they must have the fortitude and character to perform in that type of environment.”

“One of the best personal statements that I read was last year.   A candidate just stated who she was, what she believed in, what her core values were and how they directed her.    She then just simply explained how she was going to apply them to her future in medicine.  It was short and powerful.  She walked in validated herself and that was exactly who she was.  I knew I wanted her.  A personal statement is not how well you took care of a patient or how that person affected your life but Who You Are.”  Dr. Engeberg wants the resident to be accountable to their patient, colleagues, and staff.  Finally, he is looking for “servant-lead” resident.

Scott Moser, MD, FAAFP,  Professor and Vice Chair for Education, Department of Family and Community  Medicine, The University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, Wichita, KS

Dr. Moser has experience on residency faculty and has spent the past fifteen years working with medical students, coaching many of them on their personal statements. He notes that a really great personal statement or a really poor one can trump other elements of the application. An outstanding personal statement has led him to take risks with an applicant that he would not have considered otherwise. He does remember instances where a poor personal statement led to not considering otherwise marginal candidates.

There is a common problem of not saying enough about what they bring to the residency. Another common mistake is pulling out their old personal statement from medical school application and not refining it adequately for their new application. Dr. Moser would like students to read and apply the “Strolling Through the Match” instructions from the AAFP, including, “The quality of your writing in your personal statement is at least as important as the content.” (AAFP 2015) Because the personal statement should reflect their best “me,” errors of grammar and spelling suggest a lack of attention to detail and, in his experience, are red flags.

He encourages students to review and reflect on the PS from their medical school application:” What is different about you now?” ”What is the same?” “Why family medicine as opposed to other specialties?”  “This is a good way for them to get in touch with their deepest values and aspirations.” Once they finish a draft, he encourages them to have someone who knows them well review it and give an answer, “Does it sound like me? If not, why?  And address their feedback. The personal statement should not be a rehash of the CV.” Dr. Moser does appreciate a personal statement that synthesizes examples from the CV and lends meaning to it and thus, helps him understand who the candidate is as a person.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Barbara Orr ’70 is a loyal supporter of Loma Linda University School of Medicine and truly believes in the mission of this institution. Since October 1972, she has worked at Loma Linda University, initially as assistant director of the emergency department and then as a founding member of the family medicine department. She was the medical director of the faculty clinic for 10 years and then the predoctoral director of family medicine for nearly 12 years.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Roger Hadley, M.D. ’74
Montri Wongworawat, M.D. ’96