While I can be the queen of procrastination, I feel it is my duty to shake some of you out of denial and into reality: ERAS is coming soon. Very soon. In a few short months you will be applying to residency and the application can be extremely daunting, especially the personal statement. I’m not sure why essays of this nature are so intimidating. Maybe it’s because not all medical students are well versed in language arts, we hate writing, or maybe just the thought of putting ‘who you are’ onto paper brings to the surface formerly suppressed feelings from your dark past (whoa—this just got intense!).
I’m mostly kidding, but to be honest, sometimes when we sit down to write our personal statement we immediately think things like “I’m not that interesting,” or “I haven’t done anything cool in life, I’ve spent most of my time in school thus far.” And that is completely normal. The majority of us haven’t had these pivotal moments in life that shake the ground beneath us and form a new foundation for who we are, and that’s OK! Your personal statement isn’t intended to be a best-selling memoir; it is intended to add another dimension to the otherwise black and white ERAS application full of scores and grades. It is an opportunity to show Program Directors your personality, what motivates you and what you're looking for in a residency program.
While you've probably heard all of this before, you probably have more questions, specific questions, about how to tackle this personal statement (I know I did).
Here are the 7 most important questions answered about your personal statement:
1. How big of deal is my personal statement to program directors?
The 2014 NRMP program director survey revealed that 78% of program directors cite the personal statement as an important factor in deciding which candidates to interview. The average importance was rated 3.6/5. So basically, 78% of program directors think this is important. Now from experience in talking to different program directors and mentors, I have learned that the most important thing is that your personal statement is well organized, well written, with proper grammar, and no red flags…oh… and that it’s ONLY ONE PAGE.
A personal statement typically isn’t the “maker” but it can be a deal “breaker” if it doesn’t have these attributes. That said, if you have a memorable, well written personal statement, program directors WILL mention it, and it will make you stand out as an applicant. If they are on the fence on whether or not to interview you, a personal statement could potentially be the deciding factor. So I guess it is pretty important. Are you surprised?
2. What should I include in my personal statement?
While everyone’s personal statement will be different, all of them should include the following components:
- A catchy introduction to grab the reader
- An overview of your desirable qualities. Word of advice: SHOW, don’t tell. Instead of saying you are compassionate, describe a story from your life that demonstrates your compassion.
- Highlights from your life experience (jobs, extracurricular activities, hobbies) that would help you to be an ideal candidate for <<<whatever>>> residency you are applying to. Pro tip: DON’T REGURGITATE YOUR CV. This is your opportunity to tell people things that aren’t on your CV (do you play chess in the park every Saturday or have you traveled to some amazing places?... Tell us about it!).
- Why you are interested in your specialty. This doesn’t have to be a profound story, but it should be the truth!
- What you are looking for in a residency program. Is a strong procedural curriculum important to you? Is the culture of the program more important?Suggestion: Try to include things you know your programs of choice embody.
- Address any red flags on your application. Did you do poorly on Step 1? Did you take a leave of absence for a long time? Best to just come out and talk about it without being defensive. Show how you have grown from the experience, rather than apologizing for it!
- A cohesive closing statement. Sometimes the first and the last sentence of the statement are the hardest to come up with, but it's worth your time to make it tidy, even if it isn’t profound.
3. What shouldn’t I include?
Avoid any topic that is controversial. Stay away from extreme religious or political statements. It doesn’t mean you can’t say you are an active member of church, but don’t use this as an opportunity to discuss whether or not you are pro-choice. You never know who is going to be reading this, and anything too polarizing can be off-putting for some readers.
Additionally, as stated before, don’t just list your accomplishments straight from your CV. Anything that you include should be in a bigger context (otherwise how is it any different than your CV?).
Lastly, leave out any traces of bitterness, defensiveness or anger about anything that has happened in your life. Everything MUST have a positive spin.
4. How can I make my statement unique?
As evidenced by The Voice and American Idol, it is everyone’s impulse to divulge their “sob story” to help them stand out and garner sympathy with the audience. While it is important to include stories that helped shape you as a person, it is very transparent and cliché to talk about that person you know who died, and how ever since you vowed to ‘save people.’
The best way to make your statement unique is to allow your personality to shine through. Use your words, your humor, and your depth to tell your story. Find a way to show yourself to your reader, and if you do this, your paper will be unique. Start brainstorming ideas as they come to you.
5. Should I have more than one to upload?
In short: absolutely. Especially if you are applying to more than one specialty, it's essential that you have several versions of your personal statement. That doesn’t mean you have to write a whole new one; you just have to tailor it to fit that specialty. If you're applying for a preliminary year, tailor your personal statement to explain how important you feel a solid foundation in medicine is for Dermatology (or whatever) and what you're looking for in a preliminary year.
Furthermore, I found that for the programs I REALLY wanted to interview with, I would upload a tailored personal statement for that program saying something like “I am seeking a Family Medicine Residency position with ABC University program because of their dedication to XYZ.” Just name-dropping their institution demonstrates your attention to detail and interest in THEIR institution. Even if you are an amazing applicant, if a program doesn’t feel you are interested in their specific program, they won’t interview you. It's best to make sure you give those out of state programs some extra attention so they know you are willing to relocate for them!
Lastly, you should know that you can upload as many versions of your personal statement as you like onto ERAS, but be especially careful when uploading and make sure you apply the correct personal statement to each program! Triple check your work! Pro Tip: Use your file names to help you stay organized. Pick a format and stick with it. Ex. PS-JohnsHopkins, USCF-PS, etc.
6. When should I start writing it?
Do I really have to answer this? The sooner the better, people! Get cracking now. You can even begin to think of ideas during your third year as you develop your interests in specific specialties. As ideas come to you, jot them into your phone so you don’t forget!
7. Can/should I get any help with my statement?
Yes. Yes. A thousand times YES! After getting your draft finished, show it to whomever will look at it BUT please remember to take everyone’s advice with a grain of salt and to strongly consider the source. If you have an advisor at your school, ask for their input. Do you have an English Lit friend? Ask them for advice on polishing your essay.
Be careful asking other people applying for help. Sometimes people get weird and competitive and try to give you advice about making their statement more like theirs because they want to feel justified in their own efforts.
Now, it should be mentioned that there are services out there that will “write your personal statement” for you. Aside from the obvious reasons why not to do this, you have to be really careful. Those services don’t know you, don’t know your voice, and often times have very generic ways of putting these statements together. Using a service to help polish your statement, though, is A-OK. Overall, it’s best to stick with getting help from people you know and trust!
So without further ado, get writing!
Red Flags of Residency Personal Statements
By Chandler Park, MD
About eight years ago, I volunteered for the residency selection committee for the first time. As a committee member, I received a batch of applications to look over before we sent out interview invitations. My job was to completely look over my batch of 20+ applications and read the personal statements. During my career, I have read hundreds of personal statements.
Being on the program’s side of the residency match process, I learned that many medical students make the same common mistakes. It is very important NOT to make these critical mistakes for your personal statement.
If you are on the fence, you may not get an interview offer. On the other hand, if you do get an interview offer, your first impression could be tainted by any red flags in your personal statement.
Every interviewer will read your personal statement to get a feel for you as a person, so make sure you don’t make these three mistakes.
Programs want residents who are hardworking team players that can fit into the program’s culture. Therefore, it is very important that you don’t convey overconfidence (nor arrogance) in the personal statement.
Every person that has been accepted to medical school is talented, intelligent, and a great test taker. Now is not the time to show this in your personal statement. We can read through your ERAS application for your accomplishments. Do not type your class rank, USMLE scores, or IQ scores in your personal statements. (I have seen this; it happens all the time, and it never works.) Instead, be very humble in your personal statement. Telling a story of an impactful patient that lead to your journey to go into your chosen field is a safe road.
Lastly, ask the astute relatives in your family to read through your personal statements. Ask if the personal statement’s tone is overconfidence, arrogance, or braggadocio. If it is, change it.
Lack of Purpose
Every program that you apply to can categorically reject your letter based on anything in your application. When I was a medical student, I thought high USMLE scores and top medical school class ranks meant one can get an interview at any place in one’s geographical range. NOT TRUE. There are other factors that I will talk about on future blogs that can help.
For now, the key is purpose. You have to demonstrate why you are going into your medical specialty. I was shocked at the number of personal statements that did not articulate why the applicant wanted to go into their medical specialty. One of my favorite residents did not have the highest USMLE score. However, when we interviewed him he had the drive, passion, interpersonal skills, and humility that was also evident in his personal statement. During his training, he was one of our best residents because he had purpose. Plus he was a team player that never complained. He was one of our best residents. He got along with others and went above and beyond the call of duty for his patients and his fellow residents. That is what we are looking for in an applicant.
Where is the drive, passion, or academic curiosity that lead to your choice for your medical specialty? Talk about your medical specialty experience as a third-year medical student and what captured your mind and heart. Your main idea in the personal statement is to talk about “Why I want to go into this medical specialty.”
Also talk about why you want to attend a certain program. Do your research. This is a good place to start. Learn about the programs that you are applying to in your medical specialty before you apply. Are you applying to an academic program or a community program? If you are applying to a community program and discuss your research prowess, you will likely not get an interview because it is not a good “fit” for that program. If you could be happy in either community or research oriented programs, you could consider writing separate personal statements: one for “academic programs” and the other for “community programs.” Send to each specific program based on the program’s fit.
Apologetic Personal Statements
Your personal statements should convey a positive light. Very few applicants have a perfect ERAS application. Everyone has a weakness on their application. There are some things you can’t control, such as the prestige of your undergraduate school and medical school. Other things are much more pertinent, such as missing a year, being dismissed from a 3rd year rotation, or taking time off. These can be addressed in the MSPE letter or a separate email to each program.
The key is to have a positive first impression. Your personal statement is your first impression for each residency program that you are applying to join. Do not use your statements to discuss a negative situation. Rather discuss why you want go into your medical specialty. We are looking for drive and motivation in your personal statement. If you have to discuss a negative situation, however, make sure you address how it impacted you and made you a better person.