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Medical Student Perspectives: Crafting a Great Personal Statement

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Personal Statement (PS): the words alone can strike fear in the hearts of medical students applying to residency. Throughout our many combined years of advising students, we have observed that writing a PS is often the most dreaded aspect of the application process. As program directors, we have read thousands of personal statements and we have seen it all: the good, the bad and the ugly. We would like to share some tips to help make the process as painless as possible and some do's and don'ts to make the product the best it can be.

First, let's review the purpose of the PS. It is true that the PS is a very important part of your residency application. The importance is not because it is critical in determining your position on a rank list, but because it is a window into who you are. A good PS is much more than a narrative rendition of your CV (curriculum vitae or resume) that simply enumerates your accomplishments in sentences and paragraphs. Ideally, it should reflect your qualities and values, as well as your interest and passion for the art, humanity and science of medicine. It should be personal. A great PS will make the program director eager to meet you and potentially work with you. It will provide the interviewer with valuable discussion points for your conversation. It should give a sense of who you are, rather than simply list what you have done. A poorly written PS can cast doubt on your dedication and focus for a demanding profession like medicine. The program director may wonder if your communication skills are up to the challenge of caring for complex patients, conveying complicated information and educating patients, families and colleagues. The PS that falls between these two extremes may be neutral in its overall effect, but represents a missed opportunity to add luster to your candidacy. The tips contained in this article are based on our combined experience as student advisors and program directors who have each read thousands of personal statements over the course of our careers.

Tips for Getting Started

  • Think of the PS as an exercise in self-reflection and an opportunity to convey something unique about yourself. Do not approach it as merely a task or check box to be completed in the application process. Why do you want to go into medicine? What kinds of programs are you looking for? What characteristics do you seek in those programs? What are your values? Who has helped to shape them? Have you had to overcome adversity? How did this experience shape who you are?

  • Think about what you would like a residency program director to know as they consider inviting you for an interview and ranking you for their program. What is unique, distinctive and/or impressive about you?

  • Make a list of the things that you would like a program director to know about you. Does this information exist elsewhere in your application? If so, can it be amplified or developed further? If you get stuck or have trouble with your list, sit with a friend and brainstorm a list of your attributes that are important to share with residency directors.

  • Decide how you can best convey this information. How can you pique the program director’s interest? Try to use interesting experiences to illustrate your points.

  • Find a hook. A good hook is something that makes people want to read your PS.

Format

  • The length of your PS should not exceed one page. Program directors have limited time to form an impression of you from your PS, so keep it concise.

  • Formatting your PS into paragraphs with individual themes makes it much more readable than a single large block of text. Be sure to use good transitions between ideas represented in paragraphs.

  • Sentences should be crisp and understandable—avoid long, run-on sentences.

Content

  • The PS should reflect your passion and interest in internal medicine. It should not be used to explain your pet peeves about your school or education.

  • Be prepared to be asked about the content of your PS. If you do not wish to be asked about an aspect of your background or record, do not include it in your PS.

  • Use examples. In medicine we all love a good story so try to illustrate your points with concrete examples from your experiences and observations whenever possible. This will help make you and your PS memorable.

  • Avoid highly controversial topics. You never know who will be reading your PS, how they might interpret your position and how it might later affect your work as a resident in their program.

  • If you have a non-medical background, this could have important implications in your medical career. For example, someone who previously had experience as a software engineer will certainly have experience with basic problem-solving techniques. This would be a helpful perspective to include in a PS.

  • Remember to stress your positive traits. There is nothing dishonest about telling someone about your good points!

  • A valid and important role for a PS is to reflect what the student author is searching for in a residency program. Keep in mind however that a program director could come to the conclusion that their program might not be a good fit for you. This may not be a bad thing. If your goal is to train in a community hospital, it is probably appropriate for a university hospital residency director to feel that their program might not be right for you. If you apply to a program that may not seem an ideal fit for your goals, you should be prepared to tell them why you chose to apply there. You cannot say, "This is my last choice, safety net program."

Tone/Style

  • Be confident. Do not be arrogant.

  • Even though this is called a PS, do not get so personal that you embarrass yourself. Imagine your PS being read aloud to the entire admissions committee. This will not happen, but it is a good test to determine if the content is too personal.

  • Be creative, but not to the point where your creativity distracts from the message of the PS and its main focus: you.

  • Keep your PS constructive. This document is not the place to complain or share pet peeves, but rather to show what you will bring to the program. It is more desirable to present how your input may have led to an improvement in your medical school curriculum rather than complain about what was lacking in the first place.

  • Humor is a wonderful tool to help the reader enjoy your PS; however silly humor may reflect negatively on your ability to be serious about your patients or your education.

Process

  • Circulate your first draft to a trusted friend or two, as well as a couple of faculty members, for review well in advance of application deadlines. Do not wait until the last minute to ask a faculty member or friend for a critique.

  • Do not copy someone else's PS. Over the last few years, program directors have noted more PS homology as a result of applicants purchasing personal statements from websites. Be yourself and write it yourself.

  • Be meticulous about spelling and grammar. Program directors will wonder if a sloppy PS reflects a sloppy approach to work. Some program directors have majored in English, so be sure to consult a dictionary and check your grammar.

Crafting your PS should be fun! It gives you a great opportunity to share something about yourself that goes beyond your transcript and list of accomplishments. A great PS makes program directors and interviewers want to meet you and ultimately work with you. While no PS can substitute for an excellent academic record throughout medical school, it may help you and your application stand out from the pack and win you an invitation to interview or gain a few points on a program’s rank list. We are confident the advice presented in this article will help you on your way to crafting a truly great PS. Good luck!

Kelly A. McGarry, MD, Assistant Professor
Dominick Tammaro, MD, FACP, Associate Professor
Michele G. Cyr, MD, FACP, Associate Professor and Director
Division of General Internal Medicine
Rhode Island Hospital
Brown Medical School
http://www.brownmedicine.org/gim

Back to September 2006 Issue of IMpact

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