Few things excite me as much as reading a personal statement. While they aren’t at the very top of the list that program directors assess when deciding who to interview, they are your only chance to put together a narrative about yourself. This is the only part of the application where you won’t be confined to boxes and bullet points—you can tell your story, something that sets you apart from the entire field of applicants.
Personal statements come in so many different styles, but usually fall into a particular archetype. A very common and effective one is to open with a patient vignette. An interesting case is sure to pique the interest of your reader, and keep them engaged as they read. Preventing boredom in your readers is something to strive for, as your application is one of perhaps hundreds that they are reading.
I was reading a personal statement from one of my residency advising students just like this, and I was most eager to find out what disease was causing this strange constellation of symptoms in the index patient. I also wondered what particular effect this patient and case was going to have on the student, and see what made it so meaningful. After all, the student had over three years of medical school experiences, and a few decades of life experience, but this was the story that he wanted to tell...it must be profound!
I got about three-quarters through this internal medicine personal statement, and happily read as the medical student sang the praises of the “specialty,” hitting all the checkboxes of listening to the patient, knowing when to ask for help from consultants, working as a team, etc. I even got the satisfaction of a diagnosis (the ever-so-rare autoimmune disease, Evans syndrome). What I didn’t get was any information about the student himself.
This was supposed to be a personal statement, and while I felt some level of connection to the suffering patient, I learned almost nothing about the student! While it sounds obvious, as you write your personal statement, you must remember….
The residency personal statement is your only chance to tell your readers what is special, amazing, and unique about you.
The student used the last few sentences of the essay to talk about his own personal work ethic, competitive athletic career, medical mission work around the world, and ongoing decade-long research project that resulted in a publication in a high impact factor journal. These were all things I would have much rather heard about in depth, activities that shouldn’t be left to the bullet points of the CV section of ERAS.
While we don’t want our personal statements to be a rehash of our CVs, the personal statement is the perfect place to elaborate on CV activities. It can be used to explain why these activities are so important to us and how they have helped us grow as humans and as medical students, factors that are in between the lines and don’t often shine through on the CV itself.
This particular case study dovetails with another essential personal statement activity:
This means that you shouldn’t give it to a friend or family member who is going to placate you with a useless “Yeah, looks great!” Find a mentor, advisor, chief resident or attending, someone who is accustomed to reading residency personal statements, and get feedback from them. You can be certain that going through this step will only make your personal statement better. If you take their advice and don’t like how things are panning out, you can always revert back to an older draft. But in just about every case, another set of eyes to give you big picture feedback on what you’ve written will improve your piece. Do this early in the process, when you have gotten a simple draft together, so that you don’t present someone with an idea that you are married to, only to find out that it doesn’t come through clearly.
We love nothing more than helping students improve their personal statements. You all have such amazing stories to tell, and we are here to help tease that story out from the confines of your brain! Any questions? Post them to the comments below. For more in-depth help, reach out to one of our residency advisors.