The trials and tribulations incurred during medical school culminate during one’s 4th year when they need to go on their biggest interview of their life: their residency interview. But as with most interviews, one needs an excellent resume (CV) and cover letter to walk in the door.
Hence a student’s “Personal Statement” is what completes the package that is presented to residency directors who choose your fate.
An advantage to this is that it provides an opportunity to personalize your application, which unfortunately can look very itemized during the application process.
In communication we are successful when we use the “Three E’s.” These stand for Engage, Educate and Enlist. You engage a person by garnering their attention, then once you have their attention you educate them, and once they are educated you can enlist them (such as rank me for your residency).
So what makes a good personal statement?
The length of your personal statement should be approximately one page. This gives you 5-8 paragraphs to tell your story without boring one to death. You don’t want to be too short and sweet but rather to the point and hammer your message home without getting into trouble saying too much later.
Open with a grab, but don’t choke them…
The average person puts down an article, book, essay within the first sentence if it doesn’t catch them. So avoid opening your personal statement with “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor…” Putting your future residency director to sleep seven words in prevents him from remembering your application and choosing you for his program.
So instead you should focus on a personal story that led to your resolve to dedicate your life to others. Examples of this include:
My decision to pursue medicine began when I came to the United States with my family to start a new life……
The art of medicine compels one to study the canvas before haphazardly wielding a paintbrush. I learned this when……
But don’t be too flowery. Get to the point early on in your first paragraph on how life experiences affected your decision to pursue medicine and the specific specialty for which you’re applying.
Which brings us to….
Know your specialty
If you are planning to pursue a career in Family Medicine, don’t discuss how you want to become a “Jack of all Trades.” This isn’t what family medicine is about. Just as the specialty of surgery isn’t all about “cutting.” Let them know in your statement that you get it by saying something like…..
Understanding the wide range of pathologies that may affect a patient of any age is paramount to becoming an excellent family physician.
Being an advocate for my female patients and enabling them to bring life into this world attracted me to the field of obstetrics and gynecology.
Show you’re a team player
The residency director, who’s interviewing you, needs to know you play well with others. The team with which you will work includes senior residents, attendings, nurses, ancillary staff and administrators to name a few. So incorporate in your letter how you are cognizant of how a patient’s success is dependent on a hospital’s “team approach.”
Avoid insulting other specialties or specialists…which may occur inadvertently when describing why you chose your specialty. For example, in one personal statement I edited, the student wrote, “I didn’t want to be a doctor who just cuts, so I chose primary care instead.”
A better approach would be, “I found being a front-line provider, making the initial decisions in a patient’s care, to be exciting.”
Do your research
Most students begin their personal statement at the end of their third year, when actually it’s during your third year when you can gain much insight into how to write it. So questions you may want to ask your preceptor are:
How do you define family medicine (or the specific specialty)?
How did you come to decide to pursue medicine?
What do you look for in a personal statement?
If you could give me any advice on what to include in my personal statement what would that be?
Additionally, ask your clinical education department for resources or examples of good personal statements. Prior graduates who secured their top five choices may have offered their personal statements to the medical school for others to use as a guide.
Have a format
Even though personal statements vary in length, creativity, subject matter and prose, there is a general format most appear to follow.
Part 1 – your eye-catching opener that gives the program director a glimpse into your passion, personality, and plan (entering the field of ……).
Part 2 – a patient case or moment in your past that led you to forming this educated decision to pursue a specific specialty. Don’t go into too many specifics regarding the patient due to HIPPA, and make sure your decision to pursue a particular field was not done on a whim or at the last minute before fourth year.
Part 3 – explain why you would be a good candidate for their residency program. What makes you a good student, doctor, leader, team player, educator (you will be teaching medical students) and person. Don’t itemize every accomplishment on your CV, but highlight some of your finest accomplishments and strengths.
Part 4 – after you’ve engaged and educated the reader, you are ready to enlist them. The final portion of your personal statement reinforces why you are an excellent candidate for their program and how your goals are aligned with theirs in terms of providing good patient care, educating others, and giving back to your community. This is also where you can suggest what you are looking for in a residency program, such as one that offers research opportunities.
Remember to end the personal statement with a note of gratitude, such as, “Thank you for considering my application to your residency program.” A piece of humble pie goes along way.
Have it edited
When you have completed your personal statement, make sure you have someone else read it and find any grammatical and spelling errors. Although most residency directors do not expect you to be a professional linguist, errors in one’s statement may suggest that you are haphazard, inattentive, have a lack of care for details, or lazy.
So in summary, being given the opportunity to market yourself is a gift. So don’t put it off until the last minute and pray one draft does the trick. Write this as it’s the most important 500 – 800 words of your life….
Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network, KDWN, and iHeart Radio.