Preparing a personal statement for residency applications is a tricky matter for many medical students. Students often have a hard time writing about themselves, so it can be an awkward exercise. But with many schools moving to pass/fail grading systems, and with the transition of USMLE Step 1 and COMLEX Level 1 moving to pass/fail as well, students are increasingly leaning on other aspects of the ERAS residency application — including the personal statement — as a way to stand out to residency program directors.
As a regional clinical dean, I have reviewed many personal statements over the years, and I want to share with current students some key tips for crafting a strong personal statement while avoiding common pitfalls.
- Above all else, BE AUTHENTIC. Don’t feel pressure to spin a dramatic anecdote or churn out a generic story about patient care. If there has been a powerful, formational event in your life, before or during medical school, or if a patient has truly impacted your career decisions, please share that — but you shouldn’t try to craft a narrative that doesn’t speak to an authentic lived experience.
- Develop a logical structure. Your personal statement should have a clear flow that is easy to follow. Ideally, the personal statement covers three general themes. I refer to this trio as “Where have I been?”, “Where am I now?”, and lastly, “Where am I going?” In general, you should be able to speak to the experiences that brought you to medical school, the lessons learned, the impactful moments you experienced during medical school, and what you envision for your career as a physician. A well-crafted personal statement pulls a thread through each of these general themes.
- Focus on your strengths. Use your personal statement to showcase your strengths and highlight what sets you apart from other applicants. You can discuss your research experience, clinical skills, leadership experience, or any other relevant achievements. Alternatively, your advisor or mentor might recommend that you address specific challenges. There are very specific reasons why you might wish to call out negative aspects of your application (for example, a leave of absence from school, or an end of course exam failure or licensing exam failure)— but doing so without guidance from your advisor could cause reviewers to pass over your application for consideration for interviews. Including perceived negatives always requires case-by-case guidance with your advisor.
- Connect your experiences to your chosen specialty. Explain how your experiences have prepared you for a career in your chosen specialty. Discuss specific experiences or projects that have sparked your interest in the field and explain how you envision your future in the specific context of that specialty.
- Be specific and detailed. Use concrete examples to illustrate your points. Provide sufficient detail to help the reader understand your experiences and achievements. Avoid vague statements or generalizations that could apply to any applicant. My favorite example of a generic, overused comment is when applicants to Pediatrics refer to being impressed by “how resilient children are.” General statements like this don’t provide any specific insight into you as an applicant. Instead you might use a specific example, for instance, “while getting to know to the family of one of our premature infants during my neonatal ICU rotation, I learned how difficult it can be to navigate the challenges of a having a child hospitalized with complex health care needs, while balance jobs, and the lives of their other children…” , and then discuss how finding ways to improve care for the whole family is part of your desire as you become a pediatrician.
- Don’t feel pressure to be grandiose. Most applicants haven’t installed solar panels in rural America, obtained an NIH grant, or started a nonprofit while in medical school. Again, what is most important above all else is that the experiences you describe are authentic. Be prepared to speak to anything you write in your personal statement during the residency interview. Interviewers can usually tease out any filler you might have included in your application.
- Proofread and edit carefully. Ask a trusted friend, mentor, or advisor from your medical school to review your statement and provide proofreading and feedback. Pay attention to grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and make sure that your statement is grammatically correct and free of typos.
Here are some common pitfalls to avoid when crafting a personal statement for residency applications:
- Being too generic: As mentioned above, try to avoid writing a personal statement that could apply to any specialty or any applicant. Make sure to focus on your unique experiences and how they have prepared you for a career in your chosen specialty.
- Being too self-promotional: While it’s important to highlight your strengths and achievements, work to maintain a spirit of ongoing personal and professional development. Focus on showcasing your qualities and experiences that will make you a great fit for your chosen specialty.
- Failing to explain your interest in the specialty: Your personal statement should explain why you are interested in your chosen specialty and how your experiences have prepared you for a career in that field. Failing to do so can make it difficult for residency program directors to understand your motivations and assess your fit for their program.
- Neglecting to proofread: It bears repeating: Typos and grammatical errors can make a negative impression on the reviewer and detract from the strength of your personal statement. Make sure to proofread your statement carefully and ask someone else to review it as well.
- Writing too much: While there isn’t a true word limit, most residency program directors like to see a personal statement of no more than 1 to 1 ½ pages. Exceeding this general rule can signal a lack of a focused message. Cut down on any extraneous text, and use your words wisely to convey your message effectively.
Remember that your personal statement is an opportunity to showcase your strengths and demonstrate your passion for your chosen specialty. With more and more numerical scores going away, personal statements are increasingly important in helping you distinguish yourself to program directors. By following these best practices, and by putting in the time and effort to craft a well-written statement, you can increase your chances of standing out to residency program directors and securing a spot in your chosen specialty and program.
Interested in more resources?
American College of Physicians (ACP)- https://www.acponline.org/membership/medical-students/acp-impact/archive/may-2010/medical-student-perspectives-writing-the-residency-application-personal-statement
American Medical Association (AMA)- https://www.ama-assn.org/medical-students/preparing-residency/residency-match-4-tips-writing-standout-personal-statement
For Osteopathic applicants (from the AOA)- https://thedo.osteopathic.org/columns/applying-to-residency-tips-for-personal-statements-and-letters-of-recommendation/
For International Medical Graduates- https://www.imgprep.com/residency-personal-statement-writing-tips
American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)- https://www.aafp.org/students-residents/medical-students/become-a-resident/applying-to-residency/personal-statement.html
University of Washington Student Advising https://familymedicine.uw.edu/education/advising/apply/impressing-personal-statement/
Tips for Emergency Medicine- University of Wisconsin- https://emed.wisc.edu/education/medical-students/personal-statements
Tips for Surgical Applicants- American College of Surgeons (ACS)- https://www.facs.org/for-medical-professionals/education/online-guide-to-choosing-a-surgical-residency/guide-to-choosing-a-surgical-residency-for-medical-students/choosing-a-residency/