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!
Every application process includes the preparation of a personal or autobiographical statement. Typically, application forms for residency positions include a request for a personal statement. Personal statements should also be included in cover letter form when applying for a job or another type of position.
When applying to a residency program, the personal statement is your opportunity to tell the reader — a residency program director, faculty, or current resident — who you are and what is unique about you as a potential residency candidate. Most importantly, you should emphasize the reasons for your interest in that specialty and in that particular program.
Feel free to highlight items in your CV if they help remind your reader of the experiences you’ve had that prepared you for the position. This is your opportunity to expand upon activities that are just listed in the CV but deserve to be described so your reader can appreciate the breadth and depth of your involvement in them. It should not be another comprehensive list of your activities, but rather should refer to activities that are listed in detail on the CV.
You may choose to relate significant personal experiences, but do so only if they are relevant to your candidacy for the position.
Lastly, the personal statement is the appropriate place to specify your professional goals. It offers the opportunity to put down on paper some clear, realistic, and carefully considered goals that will leave your reader with a strong impression of your maturity, self-awareness, and character.
The importance of good writing cannot be overemphasized. The quality of your writing in your personal statement is at least as important as the content. Unfortunately, not only are good writing skills allowed to deteriorate during medical school, but in some sense, they also are deliberately undermined in the interest of learning to write concise histories and physicals. For the moment, forget everything you know about writing histories and physicals. While preparing your personal statement:
- Avoid abbreviations.
- Avoid repetitive sentence structure.
- Avoid using jargon. If there is a shorter, simpler, less pretentious way of putting it, do so.
- Don't assume your reader knows the acronyms you use. As a courtesy, spell everything out.
- Use a dictionary and spell check. Misspelled words look bad.
- Use a thesaurus. Variety in the written language can add interest -- but don't get carried away.
- Write in complete sentences.
Get help if you think you need it. For a crash course in good writing try The Elements of Style, Strunk and White, MacMillan Press, Fourth Edition. If you have friends or relatives with writing or editing skills, enlist their help. Student organizations at your school may host personal statement clinics, or your school may offer review services. Many student, medical, and specialty societies, local and national, may offer personal statement reviews or workshops.
Most importantly, your personal statement should be original composition. Get help where you need it, but make sure your personal statement is your original work. Remember, in the early part of the residency selection process, your writing style is the only factor your reviewers can use to learn about you personally.