Your personal statement is a persuasive, memorable, one page masterpiece that will make the residency director excited to meet you. The personal statement is the most important snapshot of you as a candidate, demonstrating that you are far more than just your application data and test scores.
Take this time to showcase your attributes through precise words and vivid imagery. The personal statement is intended to evoke interest in who you are and what you will bring to a residency program. This is the opportunity for you to elaborate on your academic record and highlight aspects of your personal life that are not apparent elsewhere, while emphasizing your greatest strengths. You aim to inspire the reader with your enthusiasm, dedication, and one-of-a-kind experience.
It’s a challenge, it matters, and you can do it.
Preparation and Pre-Writing
First of all, start early! It can be so tempting to procrastinate starting both the preparation for and the actual writing of your personal statement. But it is critically important to give time to the whole creative process, to use all of the resources at your disposal, and to have plenty of time to reflect and revise.
As early as your freshman year, I encourage you to start an electronic file and give it a name like “PS stuff”. This is a place to record all your experiences and all the projects you have been involved in since the beginning of medical school, such as helping in free clinics during the summer, participating in community activities, or launching a research project. It’s important to have a record of these in your file.
Just as importantly, you can also use this file to record your creative inspiration. Add to it anytime ideas land on your head like a butterfly. PS stuff may come floating to your consciousness in the middle of the night or inspiration could come when mulling over a difficult case, in the shower, buying groceries or on your way to the operating room or clinic. Capture these! Jot down all ideas, big and small, in a notebook or in your smart phone in between tweets and snapshots.
Don’t judge these early notes. Creating and crafting are different activities. When creating, let ideas bubble up uncensored. If you have started early, you will have plenty of time to craft and edit later on.
You have already developed many important habits in working with patients that you can use toward preparing your personal statement. Just as you draw on multiple resources to arrive at a medical diagnosis, here too you can consult others, such as your friends, family, professors, and mentors to gather input that you can use in your personal statement.
For example, you may pose questions to them such as: “How do you see me?” “What stands out about my personality?” “What do you see as my most admirable qualities?” “What are some of my quirks or areas of improvement?” “Can you recall a particular incident or story that you believe encapsulates certain aspects of me as a doctor or as an individual?” Ask them to provide specific examples with as much detail as possible. Ask them to tell animating stories about you.
You’ll also want to spend time reflecting on the important influences that sculpted your life, such as travel, family, military, research, religion, passions and community service. What did you love to do when you were a child? What was your most embarrassing moment? What were some of your greatest challenges? What did you learn from those experiences?
When to begin the “real” writing of the personal statement
I recommend you begin writing your first draft 6-12 months before it is due. This gives you enough time to be thoughtful and reflective.
Take the file that you started in your freshman year and read through everything you’ve stored there, as well as all of your creative notes, to get a full composite of your most compelling self. Then, in the same way as you do with patients in drawing up a draft working diagnosis, begin to refine the information you’ve compiled, letting go of what’s less relevant and expanding on what’s most interesting and pertinent.
Then it’s time to begin the actual draft. How to begin? Just start writing! Often the introduction or the first sentence is the hardest to write. But the good news is you don’t have to start there. You can instead begin with snapshots, incidents, or comments that encapsulate and detail different aspects of you. Later on you can worry about assembling and introducing them with more coherence. Just as you report on a patient, you begin with details and work toward a diagnosis, summary, and presentation.
Even at this early stage, get others to read your draft. Don’t worry about whether they find incomplete sentences or comma errors or even “stupid” ideas – you are asking them to notice what’s most compelling and worth pursuing further. When you have an early draft, give it time to stew, germinate, and grow. Then come back to it later. Again, remember those insights you had after you left the examining room?
That Critical First Sentence
When you are ready to formulate your first sentence, make sure it is an attention grabber. It will set the tone for the whole piece. Because this is the hardest part of the personal statement, you may need to spend the most time on this first section.
Let me give you an example that is close to my heart. In the spring of 2000, my daughter was applying to a Family Medicine residency and she asked me to read her personal statement. After a slow, thoughtful read, I had to tell her honestly that her personal statement was a bit stodgy. I encouraged her to spend more time feeling into all the various aspects of her personality that make her so unique. Ultimately, after more contemplation, she began her statement with the line: “I am an excited molecule.” She then proceeded to describe the reasons why her stepfather called her that and how revealing it is about who she is.
Your opening lines can be a story about an experience you had that describes your fortitude, or some admirable trait that lets the reader know your real character. Or you might want to begin with a description of several aspects of your character, such as persistence, loyalty, or your ability to be a team player.
Following are a few such examples:
- A student interested in Ophthalmology started his personal statement by describing his fishing ordeal off the coast of northern Alaska and the lessons he learned while earning his way through college.
- A transformative experience while mowing hay in Canada kicked off another student’s personal statement.
- “They call me Mojo”, were the first words in another piece. He then described how he got that name because of his sports ability and outstanding skills in organizing and directing team activities.
- A young woman who told me she had nothing exciting to write about started with the line: “I came from a Leave it to Beaver home.” All of us “old” faculty who grew up with television in the 1950’s could immediately identify with her home life.
- Another’s personal statement began literally on the day he was born, incorporating the unique aspects of his birth. “October 13, 1975 when I emerged into the world, the OB nurses called me the Moose.” This student wrote one of the most articulate personal statements I’ve come across and I will share it with you in chapter two.
However you start your statement, you’ll want to immediately engage the committee and keep their attention until the very end, leaving them wanting more.
The Body of Your Statement
When you consider that selection committees have to read through hundreds of personal statements, it becomes critical to keep yours pithy and compelling. Remember that length does not equal quality. In fact, the whole piece should be no longer than one page.
Try to avoid what I call “Same Old Same Old”. Think about what you would say if you had a three-minute interview. Do you want to say the same things that the applicants before and after you said?
Students often feel that the reader wants to know why you chose your particular field. For example, “I was in Africa on a mission trip and saw a cataract removed, so I decided to go into Ophthalmology.” or “I love continuity and talking to patients with complex problems so I chose Primary Care.”
However, there is already an implicit understanding that you are attracted to a particular field since you’re pursuing it and that you have the qualities needed for it. It’s not wrong to explain why you’re drawn to your specialty or why it’s a good match, but if you do so, just make sure it’s original and concise.
Another common theme that students often tell is the story of a patient who convinces them to be a certain type of doctor or go into a specific field. This too is overused and mundane.
Instead, seize your personal statement as an opportunity to market the special assets and experiences that molded you into the dynamic individual that you are. Don’t forget to mention your leadership experience in your chosen specialty or specific facts, such as when you stepped up at a crucial time to develop a website for your group. Emphasize whatever lets the reader know of your special passions and skills.
It may take some soul searching to fully understand and then convey all that comprises your essence. Try to connect with the brilliance of your own spirit. What do you bring to the residency program that makes you most attractive? Some possibilities include the discipline that it takes to win an award in music, computer skills, a foreign language, cultural diversity, teaching skills from being a tutor or teacher, or research experience.
A few years ago I had five different students who had written what I would consider “Same Old Same Old” personal statements. After reading their first drafts, I met with each of them again and asked them to spend 3-4 hours exploring and reflecting on the various facets of their life. I wanted them to dig deeper into the recesses of their hearts and minds. I told them, “Give me more of who you really are! What more can you say about your background, interest, family, hobbies, assets, and vision for the future?”
Much to my delight, every one of the five students accomplished the goal of revealing unknown aspects of their person. One student stated, “ my dad commented that he didn’t know I was that passionate about my life.” Another student expressed, “my wife was unaware of the various details I revealed so openly in my personal statement. You can make significant improvement by taking the time to reflect deeply, and your personal statement will be so much more enjoyable to read.
Your reader will know if your writing is genuine and heartfelt. Each paragraph should be concise, specific and concrete. Decide what content will best showcase your qualities. See if you can, not only dazzle with your accomplishments – awards, honors, and research – but also with your authenticity.
Your reader will know if your writing is genuine and heartfelt.Each paragraph should be concise, specific and concrete. Decide what content will best showcase your qualities. See if you can, not only dazzle with your accomplishments – awards, honors, and research – but also with your authenticity In the body of your statement it is important to explain if you had any interruption in your education: a failure of a clerkship, a personal emergency, or a family hardship. Convince the reader that the pain and pathos of your struggles made you a stronger candidate. Make this a real positive, growth experience by describing your areas of resilience and maturity. Look at this part of your personal statement as a opportunity to further express your ability to meet the challenges of a residency. The interviewer will know if you still feel like an albino in the sun if your writing is weak.
There is a good example in chapter two of a student who had to drop out of medical school for a while because of testicular cancer.
Revise, Revise, and Revise
As a young surgeon, who has performed so many cholecystectomies, you will have gotten better and better. Why? Because with your mentor’s guidance, you have the chance for reflection and to evaluate what you have done. In addition your motor memory becomes second nature to you. After about 35 (found on research) of these operations, you feel reasonably comfortable. Similarly, in writing your personal statement, you might have to go through the same number of revisions to get down to the aspects of yourself that you’ll want to present.
One time I was helping a student who had very few writing skills, and a relatively untapped imagination. After nine or ten revisions and a multitude of suggestions, he finally wrote a dynamic, well-constructed piece.
After match day,he called to tell me that he got the residency of his choice and laughingly reported that several of his interviewers liked his personal statement. The whole “ordeal,” as challenging as it was at the time, was absolutely worth it to him in the end.
The closing of your personal statement is as important as the opening because the reader will be left with an impact that lingers with them. This is your “exit line.” What do you want them to remember?
If you can tie the closing with your opening, it is a powerful way of reemphasizing your salient points. Here, you’ll want to remember to add a caveat about their institution’s program being the type that will help make you the kind of physician you want to be. Go to their website and review the particular features of their program. You are not only selling yourself but you are, in a sense, buying into their residency program. Demonstrate that the match fits.
One medical student from Montana, for example, started his personal statement with a story about being caught in a snowstorm and then finding his way to a coffee house where a trucker quizzed him about his interests. During their conversation, the truck driver had lamented the loss of his dear family doctor. After describing his qualities and vision for the future in the body of his statement, the student concluded with: “ I want to be that family doctor.” His overall personal statement was simple and genuine in concept but profound in delivery.
After you have done your writing, save it, let it sit and simmer for a while, and come back to it several times. When you come back, ask these questions: What am I trying to say? Did I say it succinctly? Did I define and describe myself so I standout among the many other applicants?
This section is designed to get you started on the journey of self-exploration. In summary:
- Initiate the process early
- Write down ideas and experiences whenever inspiration strikes
- Experiment with a variety of themes
- If you become stuck or mired in uncertainty, get guidance from your advisor, the director of student education, family or friends – any and all that may have insight or innovative ideas.
- Start by just writing with whatever flows. You can go back and spend more time on the opening and closing later.
- Make sure the initial sentence pops and the ending leaves an impact.
- Allow time to leave the writing and come back later with fresh eyes.
- Don’t wait to take this voyage of discovery and adventure. Start putting the words on the paper today.