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Medical Student Perspectives: Writing the Residency Application Personal Statement

The residency personal statement process may feel a bit like déjà vu from those days of finger-crossing about getting into medical school. While we all wrote personal statements compelling enough to get into medical school, these four years offer very few opportunities to produce reflective written work. As such, the personal statement may be a larger challenge than expected during the residency application process.

For internal medicine, the personal statement needs to explain why you are choosing a particular career path and what makes you unique. It goes without saying that it should be well written; it also needs to be succinct and direct. This is not the time to brush off your creative writing skills: we have all been warned that personal statements that use a SOAP note structure to be cute, or a yellow brick road theme to be creative are not well received by residency directors.

Keep in mind that the first paragraph and the last paragraph are what get read most often and by the most people. These two paragraphs get skimmed by the administrator to set you up with a good interviewer match, and then by your interviewer five minutes before the interview starts. Open the first paragraph with an interesting story about yourself. Readers are trying to get a sense of who you are and whether you would be a good fit for the culture and tone of the program. The temptation is high to talk about an experience with a patient. Resist the urge. Residency directors know about patients. They don’t know about you. Make yourself the subject of each sentence as often as possible.

In approaching the meat of the essay, use it as an opportunity to breathe life into your ERAS application. Use this part of the essay to explain why your activities during medical school will render you a strong, dynamic physician. Talk about your accomplishments and accolades, but remember that humility goes a long way in this profession. You may also want to talk about earlier experiences in high school or college that led to your decision to go into medicine that may not be apparent in your ERAS application.

The last paragraph is very important. It should act as a summary, but also talk about what you envision for your future. A good question to help you formulate this part of the essay is “Where do I see myself in 10 years?” You may have very specific ideas. You may not. That’s okay. The process of thinking about the future says a lot about your priorities and your goals, which ultimately are of interest to residency directors. Do not feel like this is set in stone either—if you say you want to be a cardiologist in your essay and then decide in a few years that you want to do GI instead, this essay is not going to hold you back.

Your letter should be no more than one page long. End of story.

Some other things to keep in mind:

  • Think twice about revealing a personal illness. This may bring about questions regarding your ability to perform.
  • If there is a blemish in your record, you may want to discuss whether or not to touch on it in your essay with a career advisor at your school. If you have a good explanation for the fact that you failed Step 1 (e.g., a serious death in the family), this essay is a good opportunity to explain. But if you didn’t get Honors in your first clerkship and you explain this with, “I had a hard time adjusting to third year,” residency directors are not going to feel very reassured with such an explanation.
  • Do not talk about the field of medicine. Your reader has been in the field a lot longer than you. Trying to sound authoritative on the subject will backfire on you.

Some tips on the writing process:

  • Start early. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is getting the first words on the page. Even though the whole application is not due for a few months, try to spend some time now getting your ideas on paper.
  • Read well written prose with attention to what makes the writing good. A professor I had in college said that to improve your writing, read good writing. So head out to your local newsstand, pick up a New Yorker or an Atlantic Monthly. As tempting as it might be to read a novel, reading non-fiction will probably be more fruitful. Pay attention to the structure and how the concepts are communicated.
  • Read your old personal statements. The potential for cringing is high, but remember that your essay was good enough to get you into medical school in the first place. Regardless of how much you have changed in the last four years, it is good to reflect on your reasons for entering the medical profession. Now that you have had years away from this piece of writing, note what sentences and paragraphs jump out at you both as strong and weak, and keep those in mind as you start the writing process.
  • Talk it through out loud. While you may not have been writing op-ed pieces during medical school, you have learned how to communicate information effectively for presentations and rounds. By talking through your ideas aloud, you may be able to make major progress in getting through that first draft.
  • Accept input from others. A non-medical reader may have good insight on the writing, the organization of the essay, and the content. But remember to trust your gut in terms of modifying anything. Another reader will also pick up typos and serve in a proofreading capacity—always a plus.

I would like to thank Vineet Arora, MD, MA, FACP, Associate Director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at the University of Chicago, and James Woodruff, MD, FACP, Director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at the University of Chicago, for their advice and assistance with this article.

Celine Goetz
Central Region Representative, Council of Student Members
University of Chicago, Pritzker School of Medicine, 2011
E-mail: cgoetz@uchicago.edu

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Back to May 2010 Issue of IMpact

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