The Personal Statement: Everything You Need to Know
There are a variety of mixed opinions about the importance of the personal statement in the residency application process. Some people think that a personal statement, if it is captivating enough, can be your gateway to obtaining an interview. Others, however, think that a personal statement is simply a formality and that most programs do not take the time to look at it closely; thus, in the latter scenario, the main goal is to not have your personal statement stand out in a negative way. Regardless of what you have heard and may continue to hear throughout the application process, you need to interpret the advice in the context of your particular scenario: decide for yourself how important the personal statement may be in the setting of your background and experiences as well as how important it may be for the field that you are applying into.
In general, you should start working on your personal statement early so that you can have multiple rounds of revisions: it is completely normal (and a good sign) if you end up having multiple completely different versions. The hardest part is sitting down and starting- just do it! The earlier you start, the more time you have to continue re-working and re-thinking your story. Sometimes it’s even good to put it away for a few weeks at a time so that when you look at it again you can have a fresh perspective.
Once you feel comfortable with a first draft, consider who you would like to share it with to receive constructive feedback. Ideally, it would be somebody whose opinions you value and who has demonstrated some success of their own accord – either friends who have gone through the application cycle and matched at one of their top 3 ranked programs, or faculty you have developed a relationship with. Often, medical schools also have advisory deans or some advising office, who may provide valuable insight into what residency program directors are looking for. An alternative advising source may even be the career center at your university. Even though career centers advise undergraduates, professional degree students (MD, JD, MS, etc), and even graduate students, their writing advice is broadly applicable to any field and their close attention to detail can be invaluable. Additionally, if you have friends that have applied in previous years, particularly in the same speciality in which you are currently applying, it can be helpful to see if they feel comfortable letting you read their statement – this can give you insight into the many shapes and form the PS may take and can provide helpful tidbits of information they’ve gleaned from the application process itself. You can also ask your advising office / deans for examples of personal statements specific to your specialty.
Keep in mind that you do not need to incorporate everyone’s feedback into your personal statement. However, it is helpful to have multiple people’s advice and perspective, thus we encourage you to reach out to more than one person. We took a survey of our EMP tutors and ~60% said they worked with 6+ people, ~30% worked with 3-5 people, and 10% worked with <3 people to edit, read, and provide suggestions.
Lastly, once you have your personal statement finalized, please make sure you know what it is about. More than 85% of our tutors surveyed had an interview question about something specifically relating to their personal statement that was not anywhere else on their application. Be ready to talk about whatever stories you included—use the personal statement as an opportunity to help you shine and be remembered in a positive way!
We surveyed our tutors to see what specific advice they received about the personal statement. Their feedback is grouped into the following points:
Don’t make your personal statement too long:
- The structure of the personal statement should be about 4 paragraphs.
- You do not want it to be more than one page single-spaced (standard font like arial or times new roman, size 12).
- If your personal statement is too long, it is even more likely for programs to not read it completely.
Don’t make your personal statement weird or controversial:
- “It’s okay to make your personal statement ‘vanilla’. You don’t want it to be a red flag/too creative that it strikes readers the wrong way.”
- “It’s far more likely that your personal statement will be entirely forgettable than that stand out, and that’s OK. Better to have a relatively bland, but acceptable PS and otherwise stellar application than to have a stellar application tainted by a PS that went too far in trying to be too interesting or original, or having something you write strike a reader the wrong way.”
- “Never write about something that could possibly make you cry if brought up.”
- “Unless you feel very strongly about certain political beliefs or controversial topics (i.e. abortion) and would not want to be at a program where anyone felt otherwise, it’s probably better to avoid writing about anything polarizing in your statement.”
- “Your personal statement should be neither personal nor a statement”… basically, you aren’t necessarily going to stand out with your personal statement, you just want it to support the rest of your application, and it doesn’t need to be groundbreaking.”
Highlight what uniquely draws you to that particular specialty:
- “Remember that everyone reading your statement has gone into the field you have chosen and they know why it is awesome – so avoid singing general praises of a field – it needs to be PERSONAL!”
- “Tie everything into why you chose that particular specialty.”
Make it easy to read by telling a short and concise story about yourself:
- “That was way too long and formulaic. Cut to the chase but also paint a story rather than tell one.
- “Tell a unique story that gives insight to who you are as a person.”
- “Think about the purpose of your personal statement in the context of all the other components of your application: this is mainly useful as more of a personality gauge – ie who are you and what makes you tick?”
- “After reading your personal statement, the reader should come away with the feeling that they really want to meet you – not that you just summarized your ERAS in paragraph form. This is your opportunity to convey what is intangible on ERAS and in your letters – so use it as such!”
- “Even though your life is not coherent, you should present a coherent narrative – and make it brief! Not more than 500 words.”
- “Build a story around an interesting fact or experience.”
- “Show, don’t tell” – Try to use anecdotes as much as possible