Medical school and residency is a time of limited resources, and none are quite so limited as time itself. We strive for efficiency in every aspect of our lives. Our google search histories are filled with queries like “what is the most effective way to learn new material quickly”, “how to meal prep on a budget”, “how long is too long to hold your pee”.
This also means that whenever we face tasks that only accept time as payment, we sigh a sigh so deep it could drain the seas. And one such time-sucking task that everyone faces near the end of medical school is the residency personal statement.
The stakes are so high with the residency match that the stress alone can drive a medical student insane. Add to that the fact that they haven’t sharpened their writing skills in the past four years and writing a coherent personal essay feels like an impossible task. I recall opening a Word document and titling it “residency personal statement” in April of 2020. The final version of that personal statement—which was version 15—was saved in October of 2020, days before the deadline to submit applications that year. I don’t know the total number of hours I spent brainstorming, outlining, writing, rewriting, editing, reviewing with mentors, then rewriting again, but I know it was painful. Or, as my father would describe the process, “It’s like setting your toes on fire and waiting to die.”
Thus whenever I encounter a tool with the potential to save significant time, my spidey sense starts to tingle. One such tool receiving lots of attention lately is OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which is a conversational chatbot. It is able to answer questions, follow commands, and generate original content (if instructed to do so). It can write poetry in the style and voice of your favorite poets, give you summaries of books, create outlines for projects, write sales pages, email campaigns, tweets, and more. And, perhaps, even write your personal essays.
I’ve read opinions arguing for and against its use for things like personal statements. Some maintain that it wouldn’t be useful for a personal essay because they are so, well, personal. But I’ve seen some amazing examples of the types of content it produces, so, naturally, I had to put it to the test.
Testing the Waters
I decided to start broadly and get a sense for how it structured the essay.
The response was a relatively flavorless essay, full of general statements about “having a positive impact” and “contributing to patient care”—as I fully expected. But, the bones were good. There was a logical organization to it. Next, I stepped it up a little. I wanted to see how it might incorporate some background information without too much direction.
The resultant essay was a bit better, but still pretty “meh”. The chatbot filled in a few gaps and appropriately organized my background information, but basically repeated in paragraph form what I provided in my list.
I decided to try giving my fake applicant a little more depth to see how the chatbot would utilize the information. I also asked for some imagery in the writing.
I’m sucking up to it because I know it’s only a matter of time before it rises up and makes me its minion.
I repeated this exercise a few times over, trying to add more context each time, but soon realized that the quality of the essay was being limited by my ability to concoct experiences for this theoretical applicant. So I switched gears.
Quality In = Quality Out
I decided I would use my own experiences to see how it would write my personal statement, and then I could compare it with the one I actually submitted.
I asked it for an outline it would suggest, then filled it out with my real information.
I also asked it to use some imagery in the essay and to give it an interesting hook and conclusion.
Honestly, not a bad essay. It’s not great, but it took me about 15 minutes total to fill out the outline and it’s a decent starting point. There’s some imagery, the elements from the outline are all there. There are some repetitive bits and I think some rewriting is needed to make it flow a little better. Basically, there's still quite a gap in quality between this essay and my final essay.
I continued experimenting. When it came to making granular adjustments, I found it was more difficult to figure out how to get the AI to bend to my will than it would’ve been to just rewrite it myself. But if I had clear “big” ideas or themes I wanted to try, I could instantly get a sense of the potential for that particular angle. I felt a little like Tony Stark.
In my last prompt, I gave the chatbot explicit direction about the themes that I wanted to highlight.
And its response…
This essay feels much more compelling. It’s actually…good.
In all, this process took me less than 30 minutes. But I began with an endpoint already established. I was working backwards from the finished essay I had worked out two years ago. Which means that a lot of the “heavy lifting” was already done.
I've concluded that the biggest time saving feature of using artificial intelligence is the ability to get the first draft out of the way. It also helps the writer organize their thoughts and provides decent outlines. But the reason an excellent personal statement takes so long to produce is because the “angle” only reveals itself a piece at a time with each successive rewrite. With this tool, the writer is able to trial many different themes to test the feel of the essay.
This means that it remains the responsibility of the writer to figure out the bulk of the content. Which requires brainstorming, collecting experiences, and trying to formulate a compelling narrative. Then the AI can help you organize it into an essay. Even then, the essay will likely require some final tweaks to make it really sing. But we all know that the first draft is the most painful to write. And ChatGPT can give you that in a matter of seconds.
Some people say that using AI to write your personal statement is dishonest. Which I understand.
But, a person of means might pay for essay writing/editing services. People who know skilled writers get significant help writing their essays. The truth is that The Match is extremely high stakes, and your future depends on it working out in your favor. So, I say produce the best essay you possibly can. Whether that means you write it painstakingly by hand, pay for help, or get an assist from ChatGPT.
In his classic guide to writing non-fiction, On Writing Well, William Zinsser had this to say about technology and writing:
I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next 30 years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still require plain old hard thinking.