Every application process includes the preparation of a personal or autobiographical statement. Typically, application forms for residency positions include a request for a personal statement. Personal statements should also be included in cover letter form when applying for a job or another type of position.
When applying to a residency program, the personal statement is your opportunity to tell the reader — a residency program director, faculty, or current resident — who you are and what is unique about you as a potential residency candidate. Most importantly, you should emphasize the reasons for your interest in that specialty and in that particular program.
Feel free to highlight items in your CV if they help remind your reader of the experiences you’ve had that prepared you for the position. This is your opportunity to expand upon activities that are just listed in the CV but deserve to be described so your reader can appreciate the breadth and depth of your involvement in them. It should not be another comprehensive list of your activities, but rather should refer to activities that are listed in detail on the CV.
You may choose to relate significant personal experiences, but do so only if they are relevant to your candidacy for the position.
Lastly, the personal statement is the appropriate place to specify your professional goals. It offers the opportunity to put down on paper some clear, realistic, and carefully considered goals that will leave your reader with a strong impression of your maturity, self-awareness, and character.
The importance of good writing cannot be overemphasized. The quality of your writing in your personal statement is at least as important as the content. Unfortunately, not only are good writing skills allowed to deteriorate during medical school, but in some sense, they also are deliberately undermined in the interest of learning to write concise histories and physicals. For the moment, forget everything you know about writing histories and physicals. While preparing your personal statement:
- Avoid abbreviations.
- Avoid repetitive sentence structure.
- Avoid using jargon. If there is a shorter, simpler, less pretentious way of putting it, do so.
- Don't assume your reader knows the acronyms you use. As a courtesy, spell everything out.
- Use a dictionary and spell check. Misspelled words look bad.
- Use a thesaurus. Variety in the written language can add interest -- but don't get carried away.
- Write in complete sentences.
Get help if you think you need it. For a crash course in good writing try The Elements of Style, Strunk and White, MacMillan Press, Fourth Edition. If you have friends or relatives with writing or editing skills, enlist their help. Student organizations at your school may host personal statement clinics, or your school may offer review services. Many student, medical, and specialty societies, local and national, may offer personal statement reviews or workshops.
Most importantly, your personal statement should be original composition. Get help where you need it, but make sure your personal statement is your original work. Remember, in the early part of the residency selection process, your writing style is the only factor your reviewers can use to learn about you personally.
The personal statement is an important component of your application. While it’s impossible to know the exact “weight” that a specific examiner will give to this is aspect of your application best estimates range from 5-25%. This is less than the relative contribution of your grades or Boards scores but a sizable chunk none-the-less.
Like many writing samples there is no “perfect” way to go about writing your personal statement. It is a unique opportunity to let “you” shine through. This is in fact, as the name implies the most “personal” aspect of your application. It gives the reviewer an opportunity to begin to understand you as a person and the aspects of medicine that appeal to you. Only the interview (if you get one) provides a greater opportunity to highlight your personal qualifications.
The following is a list of tips and advice to consider that will help you put your best foot forward with this aspect of your application:
- Be positive. This is perhaps the most important piece of advice. Reviewers don’t want to hear you rant on about how this specialty or that specialty is not as important or meaningful as family medicine. Share the positive aspects of whatever the topic is that you are addressing
- Decide what you want to highlight before you start writing. Ask yourself how this will compliment or reinforce the other aspects of your application. Don’t go on a stream of consciousness bender
- This is not your opportunity to confess all the misgivings, second thoughts and deliberations you have had over the years about going into medicine or choosing a specialty. If you really think the process of how you made the decision is critical, check with your advisor to make sure you are correct.
- Be authentic and write from your heart. If you covet continuity with your patients it’s fine to share this in your statement. Don’t worry too much about sounding cliché, unless of course you are. Back up your statements with brief examples or anecdotes to illustrate your point to help avoid slipping into truly cliché prose.
- Don’t try to do too much. You need not convey every last thought about why it is you think family medicine is the best specialty in the world. A few, well-crafted and smartly supported concepts often makes for a powerful statement.
- Patient stories are fine if they illustrate a specific point. We want your story, not someone else’s. Obviously be careful about potentially identifying statements or if appropriate (needed) as for permission.
- You must have reviewers to give you feedback. Start with a close friend or family member who knows you and can review your statement to make sure your “voice” is reflected in the statement. Have someone read it purely from a proofreading standpoint. Typos cannot be tolerated. Share your final draft with your Residency Advisor for feedback.
- Our department has 10 copies of Strunk and White, Elements of Style , a text that can be very helpful if it has been a while since you have attempted this type of writing. If you are interested, come get one from Wanda Hudson.
- Talk with your advisor before striking out to use your personal statement to explain some form of irregularity or “problem” in your application. The personal statement may or may not be the place to do so. You can also check with your College Dean for advice.
- Use the space that is given to you. Not necessarily every last character line but a personal statement that uses only half the allotted space is a red flag.
- Starting thinking about your statement early. Consider creating a folder (either virtual or real) that you can periodically put some ideas that you are considering incorporating into your statement. These can be concepts, short phrases, actual sentences, paragraphs, patient stories or any other bits of information that will help you to craft your final product. Try and avoid the panic of a rushed personal statement. Like spaghetti sauce, a personal statement that is allowed to “simmer” over days to weeks inevitably results in a more effective message.