Let’s dive right in. If you haven’t seen my previous post, you might want to check that out first. Otherwise, what comes next may not make a lot of sense.
Not the river I mention, but some parts of it look similar to this!
At the end of my “abundance gathering” I had a list of attributes that seemed like a program director’s dream come true and a robust collection of experiences from my pre and post-medicine life to draw from.
Attributes I wanted to showcase: hard-worker, teachable, dependable, self-motivated, detail-oriented, excellent communicator, patient focused, confident, leader, well-rounded.
My reasons for pursuing radiology: high degree of interdisciplinary collaboration, broad scope of knowledge required, practical application of basic sciences, large impact on patients and patient care, cutting edge of medicine, and lots of opportunity for research.
Unique facts, hobbies, jobs, events from my background that make me who I am: first generation college graduate, construction jobs, working on family ranch, raising birds, tutor, fly fisherman, photographer father.
These were all the pieces to my essay puzzle and now I just needed to sort out how they fit together. As I contemplated my lists, I began seeing how I could connect the various attributes, experiences, and interests to radiology and my “angle” started to emerge.
Creating an arc and finding your “angle”
There are an infinite number of ways to do this. I decided to use my essay to gently guide my audience to see how I transformed into the perfect radiology resident. I was careful to make subtle connections between my early life events and radiology. I wanted there to be a satisfying arc throughout the essay where everything I mentioned tied back into my choice of specialty so it appeared that everything from my life was preparing me for radiology.
Obviously this isn’t the only way to do things. I’m not a great story teller so a semi-chronological approach made sense to me. You should feel free to be creative and tell your story however it makes sense to you. Reach out if you like! Maybe we can help you.
I happened to see a connection between fly fishing, photography, and radiology. I decided to start there. As you will see, I tried to write using a lot of imagery. I think you should too. Think of it as if you are trying to paint a picture with words. You want your reader to be drawn in and experience what you are talking about. This was what I came up with as my introductory paragraph where I connect some of my greatest passions to radiology and start my story.
My father was a photographer. He viewed the world with an artistic and critical eye. During my childhood, he invited me into his darkroom where I stood beside his developing trays as he worked. As my eyes adjusted to the amber glow of the safelight, I watched as he nurtured negatives into prints, attending to the minute gradations of shadow and highlight, controlling contrast and the subtle details that coalesce to create a superior image. I was fascinated, to me it was magic. His visual lens followed us out of the darkroom and into the autumn light that sparkled across the rapids of the Tucannon River near our rural hometown. He taught me to read the water. Under his tutelage, bland stretches of river melted away to reveal brisk current seams and gentle eddies of flow where submerged boulders would hold our quarry. A childhood spent with a photographer and fly fisherman sets its own lens. Years later, during radiology rounds in the ICU, I was taken back to these formative lessons in pattern recognition and attention to detail as Dr. Sarver helped me see my patient’s displaced right hemidiaphragm so clearly that it was as if the image shifted before my eyes. His words seemed to echo my father’s: “You just have to know what to look for.”
“Show me, don’t tell me”
This is the practice of letting your stories and experiences speak for themselves. You don’t have to explicitly state facts like “I am a hard worker” but instead you share an experience that taught you to work hard and provides evidence that you are in fact a hard working person.
Storytelling allows you to communicate a message that evokes emotion and understanding on a much deeper level. I didn’t want to just say “I’m a small town kid who learned to work hard and ended up succeeding in the sciences so I decided to pursue medicine.” Even though this is the core message I’m communicating. If I utilize story telling I can help you connect with me and my experiences. You understand where I am coming from and why I’m choosing this path. This is the human element of your application. When the reader finishes your essay they should feel like they know you and can empathize with your experience.
You have limited space in which to accomplish this so, no, it won’t read like a novel. You don’t have endless pages for character development. But you can still paint a clear picture of who you are. It just takes time and multiple revisions.
My second paragraph is where I explain my background and path towards medicine. I chose specific stories to start weaving in evidence of the attributes I wanted to demonstrate.
My path to medicine began in my rural hometown of 3000 people. I spent my summers mucking racehorse stalls on my grandfather’s ranch, swinging a hammer for my uncle’s construction business, and tending to game birds I raised as a hobby. I learned from a young age the satisfaction to be found at the end of a hard day’s labor and grew confident that I could accomplish anything I was willing to work for. My father told me that I would never regret gaining an education and supported my desire to attend college. As a first-generation college student, I felt tremendous pride and dedicated myself to my studies. I became a tutor for every chemistry and physics course required by pre-med majors. In doing so, I discovered a profound passion for the practical applications of biomedical science and an aptitude for helping others learn. I saw medicine as a worthy challenge and the perfect outlet for my curiosity and desire to impact people’s lives.
Use an active voice rather than a passive voice
Writing in an active voice communicates confidence. Writing in passive voice is not incorrect, it just tends to make you sound timid and awkward. Active voice conveys a strong clear message. It bears a more direct tone and gets to the point. Passive voice might seem like it’s fancier, but it is wordy and weak like a limp handshake. Eg, via grammarly.com; Monkeys adore bananas. vs Bananas are adored by Monkeys
Here are further examples of this subtle difference in language I sourced from Ann Handley’s book Everybody Writes
Passive: The video was edited by a guy named Hibachi.
Active: A guy named Hibachi edited the video.
Passive: Duduk theme music is rarely featured on podcasts.
Active: Podcasts rarely feature duduk theme music.
See if you can pick up on the uses of active voice in my third paragraph. There are some places I could have done it better, but you will learn from my mistakes. Here is where I tried to connect my origin story to my love of radiology and show how I fit perfectly into the specialty.
Over time, small details discovered along my path in medical school have made radiology the clear choice. Watching the radiologists draw upon their understanding of physical science and pathophysiology to identify and diagnose disease was like finding a home I did not know I had. I observed during tumor board that a keen eye for detail can inform life-saving treatment plans. In discussing my patients with the radiologist during morning rounds I felt the same sense of collaboration I enjoyed while working with fellow students as a peer tutor. During radiology rotations, I watched residents and attendings scrutinize studies through the lens of the patient’s history to gradually complete a picture that brought clarity and direction to the clinicians. I discovered the utility of imaging in research as I participated in projects across specialties from investigating cerebrospinal fluid dynamics in ALS patients to evaluating outcomes of distal femoral replacements.
Start with a strong opening statement and end with a powerful closing statement
A strong opener draws your reader in, piques their interest, and will keep their attention. A powerful ending is satisfying yet makes the reader wish there were more to read.
There are a couple of ways to go about this. For a strong opening statement, some choose to jump straight into a specific experience. Others cleverly set the stage for their introduction. Some do both.
I remember one essay from this past application cycle where the student started her essay describing the scene of a medical emergency on the side of a mountain from her days as a climbing guide. From her description of the scene I was immediately immersed in the story. I felt the frigid temperatures and I experienced the gravity of the situation as if I was standing right next to her on the cliff. She used this experience to introduce her love of anesthesiology. It was fantastic. She had me hooked from the very first sentence and she flowed so naturally into the rest of her essay.
Other ideas include starting with a quote, asking a rhetorical question, starting in the middle of a conversation with an important mentor or patient. Play around with it and have fun. Just make sure it grabs the reader’s attention.
For the closing statement you can try to hearken back to something from your introductory paragraph that completes the arc of your essay. You can tie up any of the threads you have weaved with your storytelling into a satisfying conclusion that serves as a “drop the mic” moment. Perhaps you have a quote that perfectly frames the message you are trying to communicate. Whatever it is should be relevant and natural. It shouldn’t feel like an abrupt termination of a paper limited by 3500 characters so it fits onto one page.
I tried to complete the arc of my essay by giving a nod back to my introductory paragraph via phrases like “picture perfect fit” and finding another way to use the quote from my Dad and Dr. Sarver. Here is what I came up with:
My passion for radiology and research grew in tandem as I realized that the more I learn, the more my capacity to impact my patients increases. I aspire to contribute to scientific discovery throughout my career and I know that I would be well prepared by Duke Radiology. The impressive volume, diversity of cases, and autonomous call will prepare me for any practice setting. The research opportunities and mentorship will give me the tools to succeed as a resident and beyond. The ability to train in such a livable and family friendly city makes this program ideal for me, my wife, and our two daughters. My riverside training in attention to detail primed me for radiology and the prospect of lifelong learning piqued my interest. The potential to use my interests and passions to impact patient care while building strong collaborative relationships with other providers is what makes radiology a picture-perfect fit. Finding your place in medicine can be easy, “You just have to know what to look for.”
Other things to consider
I’ll finish up with a few other general tips to keep in mind as you begin drafting your essay.
Don’t try to be funny. It’s a big risk and could end up confusing the reader if your humor doesn’t translate in writing.
During the days of COVID we were encouraged to personalize and tailor each essay to each of the residency programs that we applied to. If you feel like doing this, then I recommend just perusing the residency website to find some specific information to reference and create somewhat of a general statement you can tailor to each program. Just be VERY careful that you assign the correct essays to each program in ERAS.
Keep the length to one page. They allow you more than this in ERAS but about 3500 characters should get you one page. I know of some programs where they don’t even print anything beyond one page to give interviewers. Do your best to stick to one page
A big question about the personal statement is whether to address “red flags” or deficiencies in your application within the essay. I would double check with your advisors on this as it may depend on what the “red flag” is. As far as I know, if you mention a “red flag” then you should include what you learned from the experience and how you have improved afterwards. Show that you’ve grown because of the experience.
Look at lots of examples
I included my essay because it can be difficult to find real life examples out there. I didn’t edit or alter my essay so what you saw was my actual final product. Learn from both the good and the bad in the examples you find.
I found some other helpful advice when I was writing my essay on medical advising company blogs. Their prices can be a bit steep if you ask me, but I think having someone who is familiar with these essays to help you edit is very advantageous.
I solicited help from lots of people around me. I also hired a private consultant to help me navigate residency applications because I felt overwhelmed with the process. She had a lot of experience with reading and editing personal statements. She was worth every penny when it came time to edit my essay. You need someone to give you real feedback about what works and what doesn’t.
Writing a personal statement is hard. But hopefully now you feel more prepared to start. Good luck!
Here are some links to helpful websites with free personal statement resources:
Residency Personal Statement: The Ultimate Guide (Example Included) — Shemmassian Academic Consulting (shemmassianconsulting.com)