In a perfect world, your personal statement will flow from mind to keyboard. You will close your eyes, find inspiration, and perhaps without even thinking, your fingers will dance across your laptop, and pound out the most glorious personal statement that a program director has ever read.
For the other 99.9% of medical students, the process is a little clunkier. We stare at blank pages for hours. We do self-assessments, soul searches, and sometimes stumble upon existential crises…”Wait, why do I want to go into orthopedics?”
If your residency personal statement is not exactly the story you’ve been waiting for all these years to get into ERAS, we have some help to get you started. Personal statements very often fall into one of the archetypes that you’ll find below. You certainly don’t need to fit into one of these preconceived boxes. They are merely a place to start, a fire lit underneath you to get the creative juices flowing, and have some direction as you ruminate on your experiences in life and medical school.
3 archetypes to enhance in your residency personal statement
1. The patient vignette
“She was a 62-year old woman, and appeared much older than stated age. As she lay there in bed suffering, I knew that we had to think about her differential in a different way…”
Why it works:
Opening with a patient vignette is a tried-and-true method of getting your personal statement started. You can quickly grip the reader’s interest by setting the scene with some descriptive language, and have them wondering, “In your one chance to tell me a story, you have chosen this one. It must be interesting, and it must have had a profound effect on you. I must read on to find out why.”
A powerful experience with a patient presents the opportunity to demonstrate what a great clinician and humanistic medical student you are. Perhaps you used the time afforded to you (but not to residents and attendings, who are swamped with lists of 10-50 patients) to take a deep head-first dive into the chart, and find a piece of information others overlooked. Maybe you put in some extra time after hours to speak with the patient’s family, uncovering a piece of history that cracked the case. Maybe you were involved in her 10-hour multi-disciplinary surgery that you had staying at the hospital late on Friday night, but you didn’t care because you were so enthralled with the experience.
Make sure you don’t write your entire personal statement about the patient. Use it as a jumping off point to exemplify your clinical skills, work ethic, humanism, etc. Also avoid picking a case that might be too heart-wrenching, leaving your reader with an overall negative feeling after reading it.
2. Challenge(s) you faced and overcame
“On my first day of school in America, I only knew about 20 words of English. I saw that students raised their hands, the teacher pointed at them, and then they left the room to go to the bathroom. I raised my hand, got called in and proceeded towards the door, without saying anything. As the entire class laughed and pointed, I realized this was going to be an uphill battle. But being a first-generation immigrant, and developing the self-sufficiency that came with that, helped me to conquer every challenge that stood in my way thereafter.”
Why it works:
Residency is going to be a challenge, and the program director wants to be certain that you are up to said challenge. One of the worst things that can happen to them is that your first real struggles with work and life strike during residency, and you have to leave the program. If you can prove that you have faced challenges in the past, some that were even more difficult than residency, your persistence and strength have already been vetted for. Residency will just be another challenge that you learn from, and grow stronger from in the process.
Make sure that you frame your previous challenges in a way that doesn’t ask for pity. There should be no “poor me, look at the awful hand that the world has dealt me.” As above, ensure that you are on the correct side of the fine line between positively sublimating challenges and attracting calamity and hardship. No one wants a resident who seems to create their own troubles.
3. Your favorite activity and/or interests outside medical school
“My path to medical school was certainly not the most traditional, but it’s one I am most proud of. Having ascended the ranks for 12 years, and ultimately becoming head pastry chef for a busy Manhattan Michelin star restaurant, I have built my previous career on foundations of long hours, ambition, and teamwork. I intend to continue exercising those traits throughout my career in medicine.”
Why it works:
Our non-medical interests are usually the easiest things for us to talk about, and often the activities that we feel most passionate about. We’ve often been formally involved in them throughout life, and by age 20 or older, have a deep knowledge of those things that we love. They are often interesting to both fellow participants as well as the uninitiated, and demonstrate that you are an actual, well-rounded person with interests other than medicine. No matter what you have spent your life doing, with a little creativity and the art of language, you can let the world know how your experiences in any field are transferable to medicine, and will make you a great resident and doctor.
While it’s great to pour your heart out about your non-medical interest(s), you will have to draw some parallels to medicine, or at the very least, touch upon your medical school experience. It’s important to show that while you love that part of your life, you are ready and willing to commit the entirety of your being to medicine right now.
Remember, these are just some ideas and places to start to fight against the anxiety of that blank screen and a deadline. Your personal statement does not have to be about any of these, and that’s what makes them beautiful. As long as you use your single page to tell your story and let interviewers know why you are unique and worthy of a spot at their residency program, you have done your job. The rest is up to them.
Here are some additional resources to help you prepare your residency personal statement: