Personal statements are hard
The personal statement. Bleh. Even just saying it puts a sour taste in my mouth. It is hands down the most painful piece of your application pie.
No joke, when I heard that Duke’s radiology program included the fellowship year as part of the residency training program, the first thought that popped into my head was, “I could potentially never have to write another personal statement ever again.”
My medical school personal statement was……bad. At the end of my MS3 year I decided I had to get it right for residency. I actually did a lot of reading about how to write a good personal essay. I worked really hard on it and ended up getting decent feedback on my essay during interviews. I don’t claim to be a great writer nor do I think my essay is perfect. But I managed to produce a passable essay and if I can do it, anybody can do it. I’ll share the specifics of how I wrote it in part 2 of this post. I wanted to first talk about all the stuff I did before I actually started writing the essay that made the process slightly less painful than lighting your toes on fire and waiting to die. Only slightly less painful.
Does the personal statement matter?
A personal statement is meant to bring a human element to your application that contrasts with the monochromatic nature of board scores, number of publications, volunteer hours, and other objective measures residencies use to stratify applicants. The classic teaching is that a good personal statement won’t make a weak application strong, but a poor personal statement can make a strong application weak. It’s true. A solid essay won’t compensate for low board scores, but I do think it can help.
I helped interview for my TY program this last application cycle. My favorite thing to do was to read people’s personal statements. It’s fascinating to see what people choose to write about.
You can tell pretty quickly who was just checking a box and who put a lot of work and thought into their essay. I’m definitely a believer that a really good essay can make you stand out. The personal statement is your chance to persuade the selection committee that you are just what they are looking for. Getting a shot at the interview is all you need. The interview is where you really get to showcase your potential.
Now, if you are a strong candidate, you may absolutely write a boring statement that checks all the boxes and is grammatically sound. No one will fault you for it. I read tons of boring personal statements. You just run the risk of blending into a sea of mediocrity (in terms of the personal statement).
The purpose of the personal statement
This is supposed to be your direct line to the program director or selection chair. This is your chance, in 3500 characters or less, to show them that you are the best thing since Dragon dictation.
The goal is to show who you are, share your strengths, show why you are interested in and well suited for X specialty, and tell them why you like their program. Just do it in an entertaining and engaging way. Easy peasy right?
The trick is to write something that only you could write. You need to find your own personal angle that tells your story in a way that is uniquely you and is enjoyable to read.
Start the process early
This is the most helpful advice I can give. Open up a word document as an MS1 and title it “Residency Personal Statement”. You can’t start this too early.
As you go through medical school you can treat this as a journal where you write a short reflection on experiences you have. These can serve as essay fodder down the road. Write about realizations you have about different specialties. Document difficult experiences. Document your successes.
Write about the moments that reaffirm your choice of specialty. Talk about the humanity you discover in medicine. Write about meaningful patient interactions. If something has an impact on you, write it here.
This is pure gold when it comes time to start writing.
Leave plenty of time to write the essay
I started writing my essay towards the end of my MS3 year. The first version of my essay was saved in April of 2020 and I was matching in March of 2021. The final version of my essay was saved in early October 2020. The deadline to submit applications was mid October that year.
Leaving ample time allows you to write when you have good ideas. That way you don’t have to force it. Be prepared to rewrite it several times. Scrap what feels awkward and keep the good stuff. I had 15 versions of my personal statement before I started personalizing it for specific programs.
Give yourself plenty of time. A time crunch will yield a crappy essay. Being able to step away from your essay for a couple weeks will give you good perspective and help you actually get your message across.
“Work from abundance”
This is a borrowed concept from internet writing guru, David Perell. He teaches that writing is much less painful when you aren’t starting from scratch. If you can effectively gather ideas, examples, stories, interesting anecdotes, or quotes then you never actually have a blank page to start from.
These are my tips to “gather abundance” for your residency personal statement. This takes a little time up front but will save you a standard English buttload of frustration when you begin your first draft.
Make a list of the qualities a program might look for
Don’t just sit and try to list out all your strengths, that’s way too hard. Put yourself in the shoes of a Program Director and think of all the characteristics of an ideal resident and write those down. Talk to your faculty advisor or the program director from your home program. What strengths do their most successful residents possess? You want to have these too. I’ll tell you what to do with this list in a moment.
Gather specific information about programs
Go to the website for your top 4-5 programs and read welcome letters, “about us” pages, mission statements, etc. This helps you identify specific traits the program values. They use these to guide their resident selection. For example, on Duke Radiology’s website I can glean the following info:
“Autonomous independent resident call continues to be a core component of our curriculum, of which we are fiercely proud. Our diagnostic radiology residents produce a high level of image interpretations while taking autonomous overnight call – an experience that instills a sense of confidence among our residents that is not easily replicated in other training environments….We honor a sense of team spirit and emphasize a culture of support and trust.”…..“Our residents demonstrate grit, a passion for radiology, and are incredibly well-rounded.”
We gather that Duke Radiology places high value on independent call. I interpret this to mean that they appreciate dependable, trustworthy, and self-motivated individuals then. They try to instill confidence in their residents. So I add confidence to their list. They also prioritize a supportive culture and sense of unity. Perfect. They look for amicable, collegial, team players who have each others’ backs. From the final statement I see they also try to recruit residents who are hard working, passionate, and have a variety of talents and interests. This helps me start to find the angle of my essay.
Talk with your specialty advisor about what makes an excellent personal statement
These people have read hundreds, maybe even thousands of statements. They should be able to give you specific advice of what to write about.
Ask them what their pet peeves are while reading personal statements. It’s equally important to know what to avoid. Specific specialties have their own Do’s and Don’ts so I will defer to the experts here. An example in radiology is that the cliché of writing about your love of solving puzzles has been done to death and communicates a rather simplistic view of the specialty.
Do some true introspection into your own motivation for pursuing medicine and your specialty
Be honest with yourself. Identify the real motivation behind what brought you to medicine. What discoveries have you made about yourself during medical school? Why is X specialty the perfect fit for you?
If it’s a chill schedule, lots of money, prestige, or glory then admit it to yourself. You can spin it however you need to later. Saying radiology was an easy choice because I hated everything else with a white hot passion becomes, “Rotating in radiology was like finding a home I never knew I had…”. If you can write something you actually believe, then it will come across as much more engaging and compelling.
Review your own life history from birth to today
This is hard. You really have to take a good look at yourself and it can be uncomfortable. Try to identify the formative periods in your life. What events made you who you are? How did you get to where you are today?
Is there anything about your story that is non-traditional? Did you take the scenic route in life?
Don’t write about anything you wouldn’t want to discuss with a stranger in an interview however. Sharing traumatic events isn’t necessary. But if there are hardships from your upbringing that you believe influenced the course of your life you can weave these into your story.
Identify the hobbies, jobs, interests, successes, failures, and major events
Try to chronologically recount your life. This is your story and only you can tell it. You have all the material you need. You just need to get it down on paper in front of you so you can work with it.
A lot of people think they aren’t that special or have had a pretty standard life. As you start writing things down you will recognize some unique experiences you have had and will hone in on your particular “niche”. Look for ways to connect your pre-medicine life to your choice in specialty to create a satisfying arc throughout the essay. When you get to the end of your essay the reader should reach the conclusion that your choice of specialty was the clear and obvious fit.
I will walk you through my process for this in part 2 of this post.
Talk with people who know you really well
Talk with parents, siblings, significant others, friends, professors, advisors, or anyone who has known you for a while. Show them the list of attributes you came up with and ask if they think you have any of these strengths.
See if they can think of specific stories from your life that serve as evidence that you are “hardworking, genuine, kind, trustworthy, etc”.
One of the keys to writing a compelling essay is being able to show someone you are a great person rather than just telling them you are.
My goal for the next post is to go through my thought process for how I found my niche and developed the arc of my essay using the tips I outlined above. I’ll share my essay so you can see what I ended up with.