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Personal Statement or BUST!

Thomasrobey72x722Thomas Robey -- It’s that time of year again. The leaves are turning a deep shade of green, the mosquitoes are in full force, you’re on the lookout for a swimming hole, and the ERAS and AMCAS websites are opening for electronic applications. It must be summer.

That’s right, it’s been about a month since prospective medical students could submit applications, and the residency application site opens July 1. Applications are the boiled-down concentrated version of you. They’re an abstract, so to speak, of all the things you’ve done leading up to this point. When it comes down to it, applying to medical school and residency is like applying for a job. Most jobs require applicants to complete an application, submit a CV, and write a cover letter. Most employers do not, however, require new hires to pay them a salary or leave it up to a lottery to determine placement.

Maybe that’s why medical school and residency programs request personal statements.

In any case, the personal statement is often approached with trepidation or avoided until the last minute. This is a mistake. If you’re just now thinking about your medical school statement, get cracking! Medicine class of 2009? Hopefully you’ve already started drafting your residency pitch, too. Personal statements are the best way to individualize your application. It’s where you can be your very best. It’s the only thing in the whole bundle you have total control over. When the reviewer reads your essay, she should know the answer to the following question: “What is it about what you want to do that make you want to do it, and what is it about you that makes you the best person for the job?”

So, maybe you haven’t started writing your statement yet. Or you’ve thought about it, but it’s not coming together. What are some of the things you can do? There are a number of helpful tips and tools out there for fretting applicants. I won’t tell you to look no further than this entry, but if you need a jump-start or a fresh take on the mechanics of a personal statement, here are some basic suggestions centered on three main aspects of a personal essay: content, style and presentation.


1. Provide the information requested on the application. Programs are less likely to accept people who don’t read directions.

2. Convey both the seriousness of your intent and your individuality. If you are applying to residency, consider:

* How your skills match those valued by your specialty.

* Coursework that shaped your specialty decision.

* Interests and experiences outside of medicine that demonstrate your values and individuality.

* How the reasons for selecting the specialty align with your personal and professional goals.

* Vignettes that you want to be asked about in your interviews.


1. Write to be understood, not to impress. Don’t pen words you wouldn’t use in everyday conversation.

2. Aim for a readable document that lets the content shine.

* Use simple, uncomplicated sentences of varied length in short, well-developed paragraphs that avoid the use of “I.”

* Examine each sentence for its purpose. What does it do to further your content?


1. Make sure the essay is the correct length (ie, read the directions).

2. Support your opinions with experiences.

3. Revise and rewrite as often as necessary. Most people work 4-5 drafts that are reviewed by professors, classmates and family.

4. Follow standard rules of grammar and punctuation. Don’t rely on spellchecker!

I’ve been told by many people, “This is not the time to get creative.” I agree. Except that my AMCAS essay (back in the day) consisted of original poetry and a brief discussion of it. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get an interview at that one school. My approach was honest, and my interviews were followed by offers from several prestigious schools. In the end, just make a decision about who you are and how you want to speak for yourself.

If you need more concrete help in getting your ideas on paper (I did), consider workshopping your statement using this guide. Remember, people won’t find out how great you are until you tell them.

June 18, 2008 in Thomas Robey | Permalink


i work with 64 accredited residency program directors and coordinators at a large academic medical school, and often get little bits of feedback about personal statements during the season.

thomas, i think most of what you said is very solid and true. the part about reading the directions and following them is critical; would you hire a resident who can't follow directions? don't succumb to mission drift, either--keep looking at the assignment as you write. i also agree that you shouldn't stay too abstract--examples help (only one per point, and keep it proportional in length).

a couple of things to avoid--be real about what you say about yourself. if you never read anything but occasional cheesy mysteries, don't list an interest in reading. someone who really does love to read is bound to be on the committee, and then you're in for a rocky interview.

ask yourself "what does this mean?" as you read over what you've written. for example, if you describe yourself as compassionate, how would you defend that statement? have 17 stray cats at home and they're all neutered and well cared for? do you mean you're more compassionate than the average med student? do your evaluations always mention that you're magic at soothing upset children? i'm not discouraging any particular self-description, i'm just saying you should have a good idea of your strengths and weaknesses. if this is hard (and i've previewed a bunch of personal statements, it seems very hard for some people), ask smart objective friends for help, then make your own decisions.

don't show drafts to too many people, it will make your head explode! and show them to people you think are smart, sensible, and "get" medicine, not necessarily people who think you're great.

have fun and don't lose the excitement, it will show ;-)

totally avoiding the use of I can lead to stilted passive voice and detract from what you're trying to get across. too many I's does make it sound like you're unteachable, though. strike a good balance.

spell check is definitely not enough. i suggest strunk and white's "the elements of style", which will keep you safe from even the most annoyingly standard english maniac faculty member.

i really liked how thomas dealt with the this is not the time to be creative issue. notice that he writes for medscape, which is not an average resident thing to do. i think the time to be creative is if it is a huge component of your personality--they might as well get some truth in your advertising. this will only work if you are really good at your creative endeavor. be brutal with yourself; if you're only so-so, don't do it. the other reason to be creative is if you have a patchy academic history in med school, possibly because you were putting your energies elsewhere. an example would be if you were applying to a radiology program, didn't really have great board scores, ok but not stellar grades, bc your passion is working on computer stuff that will help clarify fuzzy images. including that could really help get you out of the slush pile, and would be a reason to break some rules and submit a narrated video w/dicom images from which you've removed contrast agent artifacts via some code you wrote yourself. that kind of thing can really work. just realize creativity is kind of the high risk option, and lame or tepid creativity is definitely bad.

and do start early--this is more important than most things (and i'm not saying this to paralyse you, it's just reality).

Posted by: anne vinsel | Jun 25, 2008 8:14:01 AM

Thanks Anne, for those excellent recommendations. I think there are many students out there who will find your comment useful.

Posted by: thomas | Jun 26, 2008 9:13:07 AM

Thomas and Anne
Excellent - thank you!

Posted by: irene | Jun 30, 2008 5:27:43 PM

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