Personal statements (PS) form an integral part of your residency application. It has a citing factor of 78% by program directors according to NRMP data. If you are anything like me, you probably have half a dozen versions of it typed out, with every new draft looking more and more different from the others.
So, how to write a perfect personal statement? Firstly, there is no ‘perfect’ PS. Treat personal statements like a piece of literature. Not everyone is going to like it. And that is okay. Personal statements are essential in helping you find like-minded people. PS acts as a filter to help programs find their perfect match.
- Do not copy information from your CV onto your PS.
“I volunteered to treat underprivileged children and it was an enlightening experience.”
“I worked in the COVID block and it was a _______ experience.”
Personally, I hate statements like these. They tell me absolutely nothing about the person. Instead of copying your CV, try to correlate your professional experience with your personal growth. Describe how a certain event made you a better doctor. For example, explain how practicing meditation has made you empathetic towards unruly patients.
- The tone should be engaging, not informative.
Have a conversation with the reader. Don’t write a research article, write a short story. Talk to the program director; tell them how your journey began, how it’s going, and where you hope it leads to. Be frank and put yourself out there.
- Be informal but not colloquial.
PSs are generally informal, but use acceptable words and sentences. This goes without saying, but, if a word cannot be found in a dictionary, do not use it. Do not use ‘LOL’ or ‘FYI’. They can come across as immature or uneducated.
- Tell your story beyond medicine.
Medicine is time-consuming, but it is not life-consuming. It is only a part of your life. So, talk about your hobbies, your experiences, your favorite food, etc. You can write about anything. PSs are like dating profiles: show yourself as a person. That said, don’t exclude medicine completely, it is still a part of who you are.
- Don’t be cliche. Stand out.
9 out of ten PSs fall under this criteria:
- About how medicine was their destiny.
- About how watching their loved ones in a hospital inspired them to be a doctor.
After reading 50 PSs every year, it starts to get boring. So, break away from that mold. Stand out. Be memorable.
- Your PS should be related to your residency field – be specific.
Candidate 1: A wonderful but generalized PS.
Candidate 2: An okay PS but passionate about Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
Who do you think is more likely to get an interview from the Department of Plastic Surgery?
Yes, Candidate 2 is more likely to get an interview.
Tailor your PS to the residency of your choice. Be specific.
- It should be relatable.
Write about a funny experience from the anatomy dissection lab. Or about a patient with an interesting complaint. Or write about a late-night pizza. Experiences like these are relatable to every PD and physician out there. It may just lead to an interview.
- Don’t lie.
If a PS is the foundation; the interview, CV, and scores are the house. So, don’t lie. Even walls have ears. It is very easy for anyone to send an email to ERAS or USMLE saying that you lied. Even a hint of notoriety can cost you that residency spot.
- A PS must be neutral.
“I am perfect and I never made a mistake.”
“My whole life was a struggle and I was born unlucky.”
Sounds plausible? No. Life has its ups and downs. So, don’t focus only on the bad or only on the good. A PS must be a mix of both. Don’t write an overwhelmingly positive or an overwhelmingly negative PS.
- Don’t make excuses but address your shortcomings – turn negatives into positives.
Everyone makes mistakes. You may have poor scores or might have failed a class in medical school. That happens. Acknowledge those mistakes, acknowledge the struggle. Explain how you overcame that difficult period. But, do not make excuses or deny responsibility. That said, do not be overly apologetic for your mistakes, you are not on trial. Find a balance.
- Begin strong and finish strong.
There should be no ‘weak paragraph’ in your PS. Put in extra effort to make the first and last paragraphs exceptionally strong. The first and the last paragraphs are most read. So, write them in such a way that they should make the reader want to read the whole PS.
- Ask for help.
Regardless of your English proficiency, ask for help. Ask your friend who studied literature or a colleague who is a native speaker or your mentor. Ask them for their feedback. And make changes accordingly. They may spot errors that you missed.
- Do not make spelling or grammatical errors.
There are many websites like Grammarly, Reverso, and Becorrect that help check your sentences and grammar. Use them. If your English is poor, then use Google Translate to improve your vocabulary and understanding of the language. That said, I personally do not recommend hiring a professional personal statement writer. Your interviewer will know that you haven’t written your PS and that will harm your application. You know yourself best, so tell your own story.
- Stray away from anything political or controversial.
Your identity does not solely depend on your gender or race. So, it is okay to mention them but do so sparsely. Absolutely do not mention any ongoing socio-political issues such as war, religion, abortion, or euthanasia. They are extremely controversial. Do not mention your frustrations with USMLE or ECFMG, they can easily come across as criticisms.
- Do not criticize other physicians or professors.
Yes, you may be a brilliant clinician. Yes, your attending might have misdiagnosed a case that you correctly diagnosed. It does not matter. Do not mention it on your PS. You will come across as boastful at best and arrogant at worst. And that attending may be the program director’s good friend, so don’t ruin your chances of matching by criticizing others.
- Review your PS.
Review it at least ten times. You may write your PS the night before and that’s okay. But do not forget to review it. Cross-check your sentences and spellings. The flow matters. Two consecutive paragraphs should not be unrelated to each other.
- Don’t read other PSs.
This may sound weird, but don’t read other PSs until you have a proper draft or two of your own. You’ll end up unconsciously copying their style of writing or their experiences. This advice goes both ways, don’t let other people read your PS if you’re not comfortable with it. Again, the goal is to stand out.
Personal Statements present a unique opportunity to express yourself beyond just marks and experience. So, utilize this chance to the best of your ability. Be brave, put yourself out there, and get that interview.