The residency 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 answers to the 12 most important questions about medical residency personal statements:
1. How big of deal is my personal statement to program directors?
The 2018 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 3.7/5.
So, basically, 78% of program directors think the residency personal statement 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?
- 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 whichever 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 in my personal statement?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 personal 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 personal statement to upload?In short: absolutely have multiple personal statements to upload. 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 specialty you are applying to) 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 my personal statement?
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! Absolutely ask for feedback on your personal statement. 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 your 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!
8. Where can I find examples of personal statements to inspire me?
All good writers learn from reading others’ work. This includes personal statements! Very often your career offices from your undergraduate studies will have examples of personal statements that can serve as inspiration for your own masterpiece. You can also ask older classmates and recent graduates if they would feel comfortable sharing their own with you as examples.
Remember, too, that inspiration can come from non-traditional sources. Try reading poetry or a novel before sitting down to write your statement. You might be surprised by how it helps to get your creative juices flowing!
9. Is it better to cover all of my experiences, or focus on a few in particular?
It’s better to focus on several key experiences rather than provide a broad overview of your life up to the present time. Your resume will fill in any gaps for your reader. The point of the personal statement is to spend a few paragraphs reflecting on one or two themes that define who you are as a person. Stay focused, and go deep!
10. How much should I share about my career goals?
Remember that the majority of training programs that you will be applying to are academic medical centers. For those programs in particular, make sure to emphasize why an academic environment is a good fit for you. This does not have to be research! Perhaps you like the idea of becoming a clinician-educator and want to be at XYZ program for the opportunity to teach medical students.
Likewise, if applying to a program at a community hospital, make sure to reflect on what aspects of your career goals are well-suited for that environment. Maybe private practice is on your radar, or you want to practice in a hospital that is more close-knit than a large academic center.
Whatever the case, try to make your stated career goals align with the orientation of the program you’re applying to. In reality, you may have no idea what direction you want your career to go in. But for a personal statement, try to commit to one general theme if possible.
11. What about my personal statements for preliminary or transitional year programs?
For applicants who are also applying to preliminary or transitional year programs, it can seem daunting to tailor your personal statement to a position that isn’t part of your ultimate specialty. But don’t worry—preliminary and transitional year programs still want to know who you are as a person and why you’re interested in anesthesiology, dermatology, or whatever advanced specialty you’re aiming for. You don’t need to change your personal statement as much as you may think!
The goal of a personal statement for these one-year programs is not to convince the reader that you suddenly love internal medicine despite going into radiology. The reader knows this is a temporary stopping place for you. Instead, emphasize the traits that make you YOU and will enhance their hospital!
12. What if I’m interested in a non-traditional path after residency?
Some of you may be thinking of alternative career paths after residency such as consulting or pharmaceutical work. It’s probably best to leave those specific goals out of your personal statement and allow readers to assume that you want to continue in clinical medicine after graduating residency. You might want to instead phrase it as something you want to be incorporated into your clinical career (but not something you would leave medicine for, even if that is the plan in your mind!)
Remember, you are under no obligation to share your every thought and desire in a personal statement! These statements are being read by reviewers who dedicated their life to education and clinical medicine, so keep that in mind.
So without further ado, get writing!