How Important is the ERAS Personal Statement?

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“How important is my personal statement, really?”

 

I hear this question all the time. And with the September 29th release date for ERAS residency applications just around the corner, I’m sure that a lot of you are asking yourselves the exact same thing. Does the personal statement matter? Does it really need to be that good? Does anybody even read these things?

 

The answers to these questions are, in order, “yes,” “yes,” and “yes.” And although I could tell you to take my word for it, there’s no need for that: we actually have data on the importance of ERAS personal statements to residency programs and program directors. 

 

Every two years, the National Residency Matching Program sends out a survey to the program directors of all of the residency programs which participate in the match. These surveys gather data on all of the different factors that program directors use in deciding which applicants they want to interview and rank. Typically, the results of these surveys are released in even years (2016, 2018, 2020, et cetera), but the unusual circumstances surrounding COVID-19 prompted the NRMP to gather and release data in 2021 as well. 

 

As all medical students know, survey data aren’t perfect. (For one thing, survey studies don’t get a lot of responses, and the NRMP surveys are no different: this past year, response rates were between 13.5 and 32.7%.) However, the data that were collected suggested that, when it comes to evaluating residency applications, the ERAS personal statement is important to the vast majority of residency program directors.

 

Across all specialties, 83.8% of residency program directors said that they took the personal statement into consideration when choosing whom to interview. On average, moreover, they ranked its importance as a 3.9 out of 5. 

 

When compared to previous NRMP surveys, the 2021 data show that the personal statement is only increasing (albeit slowly) in importance over time:

 

Percentage of Programs Citing PS in Deciding Whom to Interview Mean Importance of PS in Deciding Whom to Interview

(out of 5.0)

2010 68.0% 3.4
2012 77.0% 3.3
2014 78.0% 3.6
2016 78.0% 3.8
2018 78.0% 3.7
2020 78.0% 3.9
2021 83.8% 3.9

 

The 2021 NRMP survey also broke the data down by specialty:

 

Percentage of Programs Citing PS in Deciding Whom to Interview Mean Importance of PS in Deciding Whom to Interview

(out of 5.0)

Anesthesiology 83.3% 3.9
Child Neurology 92.3% 3.8
Dermatology 100.0% 4.5
Emergency Medicine 64.9% 3.6
Family Medicine 89.9% 4.1
Internal Medicine 73.0% 3.6
Internal Medicine/Pediatrics 95.0% 3.8
Neurological Surgery 68.4% 4.1
Neurology 86.2% 3.9
Obstetrics and Gynecology 84.3% 4.0
Orthopaedic Surgery 91.7% 3.5
Otolaryngology 89.3% 3.9
Pathology 93.9% 3.9
Pediatrics 80.4% 3.6
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 79.3% 3.9
Plastic Surgery 73.3% 3.7
Psychiatry 90.2% 4.3
Radiation Oncology 76.9% 3.8
Radiology 91.2% 3.6
Surgery 84.2% 3.8
Transitional Year 87.1% 4.1

 

In every case, the vast majority of program directors used the personal statement in deciding whom to interview. Even in Emergency Medicine, which showed the least amount of interest, the personal statement was still an important factor for nearly two-thirds of the residency program directors surveyed.

 

According to the survey, however, the importance of the ERAS personal statement went even further than just interview invitations. The survey also collected data on how program directors used the essay to construct their rank lists:

 

Percentage of Programs Citing PS in Deciding Whom to Rank Mean Importance of PS in Deciding Whom to Rank

(out of 5.0)

Anesthesiology 69.0% 3.8
Child Neurology 84.6% 4.0
Dermatology 64.7% 4.1
Emergency Medicine 63.5% 3.4
Family Medicine 66.7% 3.8
Internal Medicine 61.9% 3.7
Internal Medicine/Pediatrics 70.0% 3.6
Neurological Surgery 47.4% 4.0
Neurology 72.4% 3.6
Obstetrics and Gynecology 56.2% 3.7
Orthopaedic Surgery 55.6% 3.9
Otolaryngology 60.7% 3.7
Pathology 72.7% 3.8
Pediatrics 67.4% 3.6
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 82.8% 3.5
Plastic Surgery 40.0% 4.2
Psychiatry 75.4% 4.0
Radiation Oncology 69.2% 3.3
Radiology 67.6% 3.7
Surgery 57.9% 3.7
Transitional Year 67.7% 4.1

 

On the whole, the ERAS personal statement was more important for interview invitations in 2021 than it was for rank lists. With the exception of two surgical subspecialties, however, more than half of the program directors surveyed within each specialty still cited it as an important factor in their rank lists. 

 

Although some students might be surprised to learn that program directors consider personal statements when ranking applicants, at least one independent study of this subject has shown similar results (albeit in a smaller setting). In 2018, a team at an Orthopaedic Surgery residency program in the Northeast studied their residency admissions. They found that the personal statement was one of just two application components which correlated with their final rank list. (The other was the interview.) Between studies like these and the biennial NRMP surveys, then, it seems safe to say that you should take your personal statement seriously–clearly, program directors do!

 

In fact, the importance of written communications to program directors isn’t limited to personal statements: another study found that post-interview thank you communications can affect your spot on a rank list! Although this also seems surprising, maybe it shouldn’t be. While students tend to focus on USMLE exam scores and clinical clerkship grades in evaluating their residency application prospects, more subjective components like the personal statement, the MSPE (or “Dean’s letter”), letters of recommendation, and even thank-you emails give program directors a more holistic view of the applicant as a person. “Good statements tell you things about the applicant that you can’t glean from their [curriculum vitae] or letters of recommendation,” one program director wrote. “What makes this someone we’d want to talk to further and potentially work with for 1-2 years?”

 

Lastly, and as I always tell my students, the personal statement is the one part of your residency application where you still have all the control. Your USMLE scores are in, your pre-clinical and your clerkship grades are long since set in stone, and your letter writers and deans have made up their minds about you. But your personal statement is still yours. You can work and re-work it, over and over and over again, as many times as your heart desires. It’s the one part of your application you can truly make perfect. And now that we know how important it is–for interview invitations as well as for program rank lists–why not make it as perfect as you possibly can?  

 

(If you want to know more about how your specialty of interest evaluates the ERAS personal statement against other factors in your application, you can find the full 2021 NRMP survey here.)

 

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About the Author

Chris Bassil

Recieving his BA in English from Duke University in 2012, Christopher Bassil was matriculated in the Duke Medical Scientist Training Program in 2015. Achieving honors…

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