A part of every application process is the preparation of a personal statement. Nearly every residency program will require you to submit a personal statement. A personal statement serves to complement and supplement your CV, including a description of your qualifications and strengths in narrative form. The idea is to capture the “real you” and combine this with your values, goals, and aspirations, producing an end result that will make your application stand out from the rest.
Feel free to highlight items that are found on your CV, if they remind your reader of experiences you have had that make you well prepared for the position. Convey both the seriousness of your intent and your individuality, which may include the following:
- Skills you possess that are valued by that specialty in particular
- Coursework that shaped your specialty decision and how
- Experiences outside of school that were significant to you personally and professionally (balance relevant personal and medical examples)
- Interests and experiences outside of medicine that demonstrate your values and individuality
- Characteristics that you are looking for in a residency program
- Personal and professional goals (i.e. location, focuses, academics vs. private practice, etc.) that exemplify your uniqueness
- A story or interesting anecdote to capture the reader’s attention
Far from a meaningless exercise, the ability to write clear, realistic, and carefully considered goals will leave your reader with a strong impression of your maturity, self-awareness, and character.
The importance of good writing skills cannot be over-emphasized. The quality of your writing in a personal statement is at least as important as the content. Unfortunately, not only are good writing skills allowed to deteriorate during medical school, in some sense they are deliberately undermined in the interest of learning to write concise histories and physicals. For the time being, forget everything you know about writing histories and physicals. While preparing your personal statement try to:
- Write in full sentences. Write clearly, using simple rather than complicated sentences.
- Use short, well-developed paragraphs (one typewritten page, double-spaced between paragraphs, is best).
- Avoid abbreviations. Do not assume your reader knows all the acronyms that you do. As a courtesy, spell it out.
- Avoid overuse of “I” statements, such as I think, I believe, I feel. Since it is autobiographical, it is implied that they are your thoughts. For example, changing “I think I would like to be involved…” to “My plans are to…” eliminates the “I” statement and is decisive.
- Conversely, do not be afraid to use “I” when it is called for. For instance, “I” should be used to avoid awkward passive verbs.
- Avoid using jargon. If there is a shorter, simpler, less pretentious way of putting it, do so.
- Use a dictionary and spell-checker. Misspelled words look bad.
- Use a thesaurus. Variety in the written language can interest, but don’t get carried away.
- Get help if you think you need it. For a crash course in good writing skills try The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. If you have a friend or relative with good writing or editing skills, try to enlist their help. You may also obtain editing help from Chuck Kennedy and Steve Jones in the Office of Student Affairs.
The effort you put into polishing your statement or sketch is well spent. Revise and rewrite it as often as necessary. Have someone critique your drafts. Follow directions on the application regarding length, spacing, typing, etc. Prepare your statement on a computer and have a text only format ready for pasting into electronic applications. If a hard copy is desired, print it on high quality bond paper.
It may be helpful to have a supportive faculty member go over your personal statement with you. The authors of your recommendation letters might also appreciate a copy for additional background information about you that might not otherwise emerge on daily morning rounds. You do not need to write separate personal statements for every program, as long as the one you write contains the information the application requires. Refer to faculty advisors for tips on what a residency program in your desired specialty would like to see.
Some programs may ask for an autobiographical sketch. This is similar to a personal statement, but it requires more information about the personal events in your life, in addition to your goals and personality characteristics. You may find it difficult not to overuse “I” in an autobiography. Nevertheless, give yourself enough time to reflect—writing a personal statement and/or autobiography is very challenging. Remember, in the early part of the residency selection process, it is the closest thing your reviewers have to knowing you personally.