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Ask the Program Director: Personal Statements

How important is the personal statement when making your decision about a candidate for an interview? I have confidence I can write a perfectly acceptable personal statement, but probably not one that can really "wow" the reader. I'd much rather rely on my CV and interview skills to get ranked, but if a superb personal statement is needed I'd like to know now.

Program Director 1 Response
Personal statements can hurt, but they rarely help. A well-written, organized personal statement with one theme, topic sentences, good grammar and punctuation will not hurt you. A "grab 'em by the throat and make them pay attention" personal statement may impress a few people, but puts off most. Ignore the book that gives instructions on the five paragraph statement. It’s tedious, and we've all read the book too. You have three goals with a personal statement: 1) show them that you are reliable, 2) show you are a clear thinker, and 3) that you will be low maintenance.

Program Director 2 Response
A poorly written personal statement with a lot of grammatical errors and typos can be a problem, and will put off reviewers of your file. A good personal statement should tell the reader something other than what can be seen in your CV. Every part of your application will say something about you, so you should put your best foot forward at all times.

Program Director 3 Response
If your application is strong in terms of your USMLEs, transcript, and letters, then the personal statement is not that important. I would recommend limiting it to one page. To me, poor grammar and spelling reflects lack of attention to detail, and is a deal breaker. If there are blemishes in your application they should be addressed in your personal statement (i.e. repeated year, failed course or USMLE). I will often review the PS prior to the interview to look for unique items to discuss during the interview.

Program Director 4 Response
I thoroughly enjoy reading the personal statements as a way to understand the uniqueness of the individual applicant. I advise students to make it "personal" - i.e., your friends and family can pick yours out of many and a "statement" that tells the reader something about how you differ from the 100 other folks interested in the spot. I personally look for evidence of maturity, real thought about the profession, or some memorable and/or likeable story about the student.

Program Director 5 Response
I am sure that program directors’ opinions about the importance of personal statements (PS) vary greatly. I have rarely read a personal statement that has “wowed” me. Most personal statements follow one of several common themes, and I don’t think this is wrong. Most of us pursue careers in medicine because of our interest in helping others, our intellectual curiosity, and because of formative events in our lives. There is nothing wrong with expressing these in your statement. It is difficult to be exciting and original, and I don’t think it is necessary. However, I do feel that if the PS has grammatical, spelling or syntax errors, it reflects a poor effort and lack of attention to detail. My advice to my students is to write an honest statement, but then check, recheck, and re-recheck it. Then have several others (including non-medical people) read it to make sure it is written well. Then recheck it before submission.

Program Director 6 Response
The personal statement will not be the single factor that compels a program director to offer an interview. However, it can be the single factor on which a program director can reject an application. I recommend that students take a conservative approach to the format and the content. Some program directors will reject an application if there are spelling or grammatical mistakes in the personal statement. If students are careless on their application, they will certainly be careless on their documentation in the clinical arena. The personal statement should not restate accomplishments listed elsewhere in the application. It should give insight into what motivates the applicant. A good personal statement will compel the program director to want to meet the applicant and it will be starting point for a conversation.

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Ask the Program Director is a new feature that focuses on providing medical students practical advice to help them navigate the process of obtaining a residency position in internal medicine. Issues covered include: CV development, writing a personal statement, the Match process, residency program interviews, and more.

Back to October 2011 Issue of IMpact

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