Javaria Tehzeeb, M.D., Resident
Applying for a residency position in the United States is an experience that tests the medical graduates on multiple academic and personal levels. For this, Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS) software, where you gather and structure your professional profile to send to programs, has multiple components requiring detailed attention. Among these, Personal Statement (PS) is a component of extreme importance. Many applicants find it daunting to write their PS effectively, but it doesn’t have to be scary if you approach it correctly and clearly understand its purpose. I like to explain it with the example of the many concepts that we encounter in medicine. Dissecting the label or name of a concept leads to a better understanding in most cases and, in turn, the best practical translation. Applying this logic, the best “Personal Statement” would be the one that is:
- “Personal” to you, connecting you as a person to the realm of the medical profession.
- “Statement” of the facts that you want to convey about yourself to the program leadership, in the sequence that would lead to the most logical picturization of your personality in their minds.
Simply put, it is a formal presentation of your story in a nutshell that you share with the programs before meeting them in person.
When to start working on the personal statement?
If you take my advice, start early. I had my PS written and undergone multiple edits after a senior’s review by July. It’s never too early to start, and this is a component of your CV that you don’t want to look like a half-hearted attempt. Getting the PS done earlier is a huge tick mark on your to-do list and reduces the likelihood of mistakes due to last-minute panic.
How long should the personal statement be?
1 page. Period. There is much confusion about this, but there need not be. Anything important that you say after that one page is likely to be missed or ignored by at least some, if not all, of the program directors. So, why take the risk? Plus, if you write effectively, one page is more than enough. The paragraphs should consist of 5-8 lines and properly spaced, as well.
P.S. This has to be the one page in the ERAS software, i.e., you might have to knock the last few lines off from your Word file.
What should a great personal statement contain?
A good personal statement should be arranged in the form of 4-5 logical paragraphs. Having a convenient structure for the readers is always advisable, and the one that is most likely to be effective is by addressing questions about yourself in separate paragraphs. What questions, you ask? While it is indeed personal to the applicant to best reflect themselves, the reasonably essential questions to be addressed are:
- What attracted or led you towards the medical profession?
- Is there any special reason for your choice of a particular specialty?
- What is it that motivated you to apply to the USA for training?
- What are the qualities and the value that you bring to the table?
Another question you might want to answer in the end would be what makes you inclined towards a particular location or a program. Now, you might want to amalgamate questions with similar answers or add on some other paragraphs based on your unique story, and if you can make it work, that’s great. This is just the basic structure that I followed, and it worked amazingly for me.
The main question: How to get your personal statement noticed?
Remember, the program directors are going through thousands of these statements, and you want to give them something to remember you by long after they have put down this page. How to do this? Well, the thing that my interview experience has taught me is that stories stick. What are your stories? You are here, having endured through your complex USMLE® journey and applying for the Match while many have lost heart and left this path. And you are extremely mistaken if you think that you don’t have a story or that your stories are not worth telling. You just have to learn how to tell it better. A major component of this journey is to appreciate your journey first because when you believe in your own story, only then can you make someone else believe in it.
“Why medicine?” is the question that you open the PS with mostly. This is the section where you want to capture the attention of the reader enough that they pay attention to the next few paragraphs. So, find your story of coming to this field, and write it in whatever simple words that honestly reflect it. You can always polish it later.
How should a personal statement sound?
A PS should be formal, clear, confident without being boastful, precise, and free from grammatical errors. Treat google synonyms and software like Grammarly as your guiding stars. Be clear in your sentences and use formal language only. Read multiple personal statements from experienced seniors and learn how to tell your story in a way that garners the maximum impact. Having a literary person go through the PS helps the most in terms of the linguistics of it.
Review, Edit, and Re-review
This a crucial step. It is the one that most applicants might neglect. A major rule of starting the US residency journey is to leave your timidity for asking for help by the door before you embark on it. Luckily, there are amazing people out there, in the form of your teachers, writer friends, seniors, and multiple forums on and off social media, who are more than willing to help if you develop the skill for effectively and respectfully seeking help. So, find a mentor. Be considerate of their busy schedules and the time and effort they make for you, have multiple reviewers for your PS, and keep editing until you and your mentor are satisfied with it. And always remember to appreciate and thank your mentors.
- Don't write the paragraphs and details randomly. Follow the structure and sequence of questions to avoid sounding disorganized.
- Don't mix up the timeline. Remember, you first decided to become a doctor, then chose the USA or your specialty and not vice versa.
- Don't use compromise clarity for complex vocabulary.
- Avoid being boastful or too humble. This is thin ice to tread. Extensive reading and analyzing other people's personal statements can help you master this art.)
- Don't make any grammatical or spelling errors—stress reviewing your punctuation and tenses.
- Don't leave the paragraphs merging due to improper spacing.
- Avoid generalizations. Make your PS unique to you. Again, stories help make this happen.
Know your story, make it real, practice effectively showcasing your strengths, start on the PS early, seek and follow the advice you get from mentors, don’t be shy of multiple edits, and keep reviewing the grammar and punctuation until you certify and submit your application. And do know your PS and where each story came from well because it is a must to come up in your residency interviews. That is all. Best of luck to all of you for the whole process!
Consensus opinion provided by Jesse Cole, MD; Nick Lorenzo, MD; and Bill Gossman, MD
“Accurst ambition, how dearly I have bought you.” - Dryden
If you have been strategically planning your career choice during medical school, your Electronic Residency Application Services (ERAS) should be nothing to fear. You have prepared your credentials to meet the requirements of program directors. You have good grades, solid USMLE or COMLEX scores, an impressive list of honors and awards, and extracurricular activities that support leadership and communication skills. You have the makings of a strong application, the “trick” is to put it all together.
The final challenge of the Electronic Residency Application Services (ERAS) is the “Personal Statement”. There is room for about an 800-word essay giving you the opportunity to demonstrate to each resident program the opportunity to understand why you should be selected for an interview. Most students combine an autobiographical statement with their desire to train in a certain specialty, what you are looking for in training, and how your specialty choice aligns with your professional long-term goals.
An effort should be made to incorporate some of your most important accomplishments, interesting employment, activities that demonstrate humanitarian, leadership, and communication skills, and unique qualities that make you a positive addition to their training program. You should discuss the reasons you have for pursuing a particular specialty area and what you have done to prepare yourself.
Summarizing your life’s story in 800 words will be a major challenge. It takes time and energy to develop a well-written, and grammatically perfect personal statement. When you finish your rough draft, you should have as many people as possible proofread it, including near the end, at least one physician in your prospective specialty. When you are satisfied, it is a good idea to find someone very proficient in English to give it a final review.
Nothing shatters an application more quickly than a spelling or grammar error that will be picked up by your interviewers. You may consider spelling and grammar to be trivial; however, as a physician, a misplaced decimal point on a prescription can cause death. Treat your personal statement as the most important document you have ever written. Start several weeks before the due date and focus of careful preparation. The final draft should be perfect.
The essay you write for your residency program application represents the only portion of your application where you have autonomy. Residency directors look to this statement as a means to discover the “real you”.
Like a great novel, your personal statement should start with an attention-grabbing statement that captures the reader's interest. Program directors (or their secretaries) have to read hundreds of these and you want them to pluck yours out of the pack and show it around!
As you consider your personal statement, you should consider focusing your essay on the issues that concern specific specialties. Primary care, preventive medicine, and emergency medicine place a greater emphasis on community service. Some specialties are more focused on research and publications.
The following is a list of the most important “Do’s” and Don’ts”.
- Set yourself apart from the crowd, get their attention in the first paragraph
- Provide specific narratives or examples
- Avoid making broad trite statements
- Keep your sentences concise
- Consider discussing a particularly important sentinel anecdotal patient encounter
- Write a passionate well-crafted statement
- Focus on relationships with patients and mentors
- Discuss research projects if they impacted your learning experience
- Delineate what you want from a program
- Start early, let it evolve, and review it several times
- Get help from others
- Unite your essay around a central topic, linking it to your planned specialty
- Mention what you learned in your clinical rotations that influenced your decision
- Address any significant volunteering or work if it helped you in your career choice
- Use interesting experiences that compliment your residency selection
- Address obstacles that you have overcome
- Use perfect grammar, spelling, and punctuation
- Be true to yourself
- Submit a dry general personal statement
- Be overly creative or odd
- Focus on your preclinical years
- Be arrogant
- Repeat paid work, awards, publications, and hobbies unless they are tied to your chosen profession
- Contradict something that will probably be in your letters of recommendationMake it an expanded version of your curriculum vitae
- Address any topic that you are uncomfortable discussing in an interview
- Use clichés or extraneous words
- Overdo it
This is your opportunity to demonstrate passion for your chosen specialty. Creating a great residency personal statement begins with starting early, writing multiple drafts, getting professional help, and eventually achieving your goal of well-written attention grabbing statement.