One of the greatest challenges—and for many the single greatest challenge—in applying for medical residency is deciding what to write in the personal statement. How do I stand out? What can I write to catch the program director’s attention? These are questions that plague every one of the 40,000 applicants for medical residency in the United States every year, and they are ones that both U.S. medical graduates and international medical graduates (IMGs) have to answer.
The Greatest Obstacle to Writing a Personal Statement
I have been editing, proofreading and critiquing personal statements for medical residency for nearly a decade. It started as a favor I would do for friends and acquaintances, and has grown to overseeing, as editor in chief, the 1,000+ personal statements that DLA Editors & Proofers reviews annually. From what I have seen, the greatest obstacle preventing candidates from knowing what to write in their personal statements is not actually understanding what a personal statement is.
What Exactly Is a “Personal Statement”?
To understand what a personal statement is—and therefore to avoid the common pitfalls in writing one—it is necessary to consider first what the words “personal” and “statement” mean. Let us start with the word “statement,” since it is the noun and therefore the foundation of the term.
According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com), a “statement” is “a report or narrative (as of facts, events, or opinions),” an “account” or “recital.” A “narrative,” or “narration,” is “the act or process of telling the particulars of an act, occurrence, or course of events.” For candidates applying for medical residency, both the “act” and “occurrence” is the process of applying for medical residency, and the “course of events” is the path that has led to the candidate’s now applying for medical residency.
When we add the definition of “personal” to this description, we get an even clearer picture. “Personal” means “of or relating to a particular person.” It is “not public or general.” The “particular person,” of course, is the candidate preparing for medical residency. Applying this meaning to that of “statement,” we can see that the “path” that is to be described by the “personal statement” should be the one of the applicant, and no one else.
The Challenge of Being “Personal” in a “Personal Statement”
Of the two components of the “personal statement,” by far the one that most applicants struggle with is the “personal” aspect. Our clients are smart, driven individuals who excel at gathering, analyzing and prioritizing information in order to find possible solutions to a problem. The process is one in which they have been well trained, as the foundation for taking an effective patient history to arrive at the most likely differential diagnosis. The greatest difficulty they have when needing to write their personal statements is not in their ability to approach a problem logically, but in being able even to know how to approach the problem of what to write, which for many defies logic. This is particularly true for applicants raised outside the United States in cultures in which they were taught never to focus on themselves or to divulge any personal details, no matter how trivial.
Why Candidates Use Quotes in Their Personal Statements
No matter whether the candidates are U.S. medical graduates or IMGs—and therefore for various reasons—they tend just the same to want to use quotes in their personal statements, with the quotes they want to use tending to fall into one of three categories. The first and most common is a quote from someone famous. Examples of this are quoting Mohammed, Nelson Mandela or Thomas Jefferson. The second is a quote from what a professor, attending or public speaker said in front of a class or group. The third is a quote from a close friend, family member or otherwise particularly influential individual that has had a profound effect on the candidate. In most cases, the quotes is used in the introduction, and in most of these the candidate uses it in the first sentence. The reason for this is quite simple: the candidate is stuck on how to start, he or she does not have enough confidence in his or her own words, he or she believes such a device will attract the attention of an otherwise disinterested program director, or all of the above.
Why Using a Quote in a Personal Statement Is Almost Always a Mistake
What many candidates do not realize is that quoting someone else—particularly in the introduction and especially in the first sentence—is almost always a mistake. There are several reasons for this. Most commonly—as in the first two types of quotes described above—the quote has had no direct influence in shaping the candidate’s personal or professional path. For a quote from Mohamed, Mandela or any other person to be effective, it must be crucial to the point in the narrative at which it occurs. If it occurs in the first sentence, for example, it must be that the quote, above all the other candidate’s influences, has been foundational in his or her path. This is rarely likely, except in the case in which the candidate first heard the quote at a very young age and replayed it over and over again in his or her mind every—or almost every—day since. Such quotes are more likely to have come from a parent or close family member or family friend than from a famous person.
When the quote occurs somewhere in the introduction after the first sentence, or elsewhere in the personal statement, it must similarly have had a profound effect on the candidate’s individual path, or it must be otherwise crucial to the narrative. In the first case it would be from someone particularly influential in the candidate’s life. This could be from a close family member or from some other individual close to the candidate. It could be from a professor or attending if it represents a key moment in the candidate’s development.
While I have personally trained each editor who works on personal statements for DLA Editors & Proofers to be able to use quotes effectively in a personal statement, in the majority of cases we find the quotes simply do not work, and that in spite of all of our efforts the quotes still come across as a gimmick.
What I mean by “gimmick” is something that someone writes as a crutch in place of what should actually be written. In most cases the candidate does not realize that what he or she has written will come across as a gimmick, or he or she—at least before using our services—is at a loss with regard to what else to write. When evaluating whether a quote is being used effectively, we come back to the key pillar of the personal statement, which is that it must be “personal.” Too often the quotes come across as either filler material or as a result of the candidate’s, for whatever reason, not taking the effort simply to tell his or her own story.
What Candidates Should Write in Their Personal Statements Instead of a Quote
One problem we see is that there is a lot of misleading advice—and, even worse, examples—on how to write a personal statement that encourage the candidate to start with a famous quote. For almost every candidate, this is, by contrast, the worst place to start. What is easy, though, is to ask one simple question to help decide whether starting with a quote is a good idea. The question is: “Where did I get the idea for using this quote?” If the answer is not that “it has had a profound effect on me since I heard it” or, in other words, that “there is no other way for me to tell my story without it,” then chances are it will not be successful to use it in the personal statement.
What a candidate should write instead is simply his or her own path in his or her own words. Instead of trying to find a quote to use for the first sentence, the candidate should reflect on what exactly was the beginning of his or her path, and start with describing that. One way to start could be: “As far back as I can remember, I have had a strong desire to help others” or “I will never forget the first time my uncle took me to visit the slums.” Opening with a clear, direct statement like this from the candidate’s own point of view will always be the most effective way to gain the attention of the program director, and to encourage him to read past the first sentence.
Applying to medical school is a daunting task. The medical school admissions process stands alone among the graduate school options (business, law, PhD, etc.) as the most complicated, demanding, and expensive. Discounting the time required to fulfill the pre-med course requirements, the medical school admissions process generally takes 14-17 months including sitting the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), obtaining recommendations, completing the AMCAS application, writing secondary application essays, interviewing, and executing a post-interview strategy. With the many tasks required to gain entrance to medical school come numerous opportunities to misstep. There are certain errors that are more likely to sink an application and your chances of becoming a doctor the Seven Deadly Sins.
I. MCAT: Uneven Score
Though you may believe standardized testing is a moneymaking monopoly that does not appropriately assess your ability to be a doctor, it is a necessary evil. And as much as they hate to admit it, admissions committees pay attention to the score. Interestingly, an applicant who scores PS 14 WS Q VR 6 BS 10 (30Q) is worse off than one who scores PS 10 WS Q VR 10 BS 10 (30Q). Admissions committees are looking for consistency and, for the most part, view each part of the score equally. Some admissions committees place more weight on the numbered scores (Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, Biological Sciences) than on the lettered score (Writing Sample). However, this is not a universal belief and you should focus as much time on the writing part of the test as on the other three parts. In addition, do not take a left side of the brain approach and disregard the MCATs Verbal Reasoning section. Data show an applicants Verbal Reasoning score correlates with their performance on the USMLE exams, a point admissions committees take very seriously.
II. Recommendations: Famous Recommenders
Think of recommendations as a way for the admissions committees to find out what you are really like and to show your well-roundedness. Recommendations are notorious for making or breaking an application. One luke-warm or (cringe) outright negative recommendation can sink your chances of becoming a doctor. Focus on obtaining recommendations from individuals who know you well as opposed to big-name professors you have never met. A glowing recommendation from your advanced biology teaching assistant whose office hours you visited weekly will be much stronger than a two-line recommendation from your dads famous researcher friend who you met once at the mall. The power of a recommendation stems more from the letters content than from the authors credentials. Coaches, community service leaders, and principal investigators may make excellent recommenders. One trick in obtaining recommendations is to ask a teaching assistant or post-bac in the lab who knows you well to write the letter, and then have the professor or principal investigator co-sign the same letter. Here are a few more tips on how to obtain excellent recommendations:
- Be sure you know the recommendation rules of each medical school. Some schools require two science recommendations. Others (such as Harvard) now require a recommendation from every research supervisor listed on your AMCAS work/activities section. Some schools do not count math as a science. The Texas schools can be particularly picky about such things. Check with each school either by searching the website or calling the admissions office.
- Speak with your undergraduate institutions pre-med advisor to determine if your school sends a pre-med committee letter of recommendation. If so, institution-specific rules and deadlines often exist. Be sure to know the details for your school and hit the deadlines. It looks very bad to medical school admissions committees if your school usually sends a pre-med committee letter but does not send one for you.
- When asking for recommendations, be sure to set up a face-to-face meeting with the potential recommender and explicitly ask for a strong recommendation.
- Bring each recommender an updated résumé, transcript copy, personal statement (if complete), and detailed instructions on how to submit the recommendation.
- Always waive your right to see the recommendation.
III. Personal Statement: Creativity Gone Bad
The personal statement causes great stress for many medical school applicants. Personal statement authors often use creativity in attempt to compose essays that stand out amongst the stacks of other personal statements. Using creativity appropriately, such as starting the essay with an interesting anecdote seamlessly tied to the overall statement theme, can certainly help the admissions officer remember your essay. But a fine line exists between originality that works and that doesnt. Here are some examples of creativity that often does not work:
- Starting the personal statement with a quote. Quotes feel innovative and interesting. Yet, after reading hundreds of personal statements, I can attest that starting with a quote rarely works. Instead of creative, quotes usually appear trite and even a bit cheesy. Skip the quote and use an anecdote instead.
- Writing the statement as a poem or rap. I have simply never seen a poem-like essay work. They often come off as juvenile.
- Over-utilizing foreign language skills. Though you may be fluent in one or more languages, the medical personal statement is not he best place to show off these skills. Write the essay in English. It is acceptable to use a foreign word or phrase to make a point, but limit these references.
IV. AMCAS Activities: Space Fill
Medical school admissions committees place more weight on AMCAS work/activities that show leadership and dedication over a period of time. They look down on repeats and fluff activities. Dont fill the space just to fill the space. It is better to include five long-term activities where you held a leadership role than fifteen activities you performed for a semester. Take a look at the following abbreviated activity descriptions:
- Captain and four-year member of university varsity swim team
- Volunteered for African relief agency during all four years of college being promoted from office assistant to Eastern African relief team leader
- Worked with Dr. Dogood in Incite Research Lab for last two years of college and work culminated in peer-reviewed journal publication
- Started with the Big Buddy program as a freshman and have continued throughout college, most recently being elected as secretary for the organization
- Volunteered in the emergency department of local hospital for eight hours a day, twice a week for the past four summer.
- Sang in university a capella group freshman year
- Member of college pre-med society for past two years
- Volunteered at blood drive for one weekend last semester
- Tutored disadvantaged students the fall semester of sophomore year
- Shadowed pulmonologist in her office twice this year
- Shadowed orthopedic surgeon in hospital once this year
- Attended AAMC pre-med seminar last year
- Worked in Dr. Cerebros neuroscience lab sophomore year
- From work in Dr. Cerebros lab, presented poster at university research day
- Deans list for 4 of 8 semesters
- Wrote article on pre-med society for universitys weekly newspaper
- Served Thanksgiving dinner at local soup kitchen for past three years
- Won intramural squash championship last year
- Ran university Haitian relief drive after earthquake
- Member of universitys Connecticut club for past four years
Even though example two contains triple the experiences, I think you will agree the author of example one will look much more impressive to medical school admissions committees.
V. Secondaries: Oops! Wrong School
Lets face it, secondary essays are a hassle. Who knew you had to write so much to get into medical school? If you apply to 25 schools, you could easily have over 50 secondary essays to write. Most applicants wisely create ten to fifteen secondary essays that answer the most common questions and then cut and paste the appropriate answer into the specific application at hand. This results in using similar answers for different schools, which is completely acceptable. However, pasting the Harvard answer (with the Harvard name) into the Yale application will not win you any friends in New Haven. When utilizing similar essays for different schools secondary essay answers, make sure you check the details of each essay and ensure they pertain to the correct school. It is more than just embarrassing to detail how much you look forward to working in Dr. Chos behavioral science lab at the University of Nebraska when Dr. Cho actually works at UCSF. Proof every essay to avoid tanking your application with such a silly and easily avoidable mistake.
VI. Interviews: Check The Suit
Knowledge of this deadly sin arose from personal experience. While on the interview trail doing multiple interviews far from home, I put my suit in checked luggage. Inclement weather led to re-routing of the flight, and while I flew east, the bag headed south. I didnt show up to the interview in jeans but came darn close. When on the interview trail, always carry your suit onto the plane. Luggage can get lost even on direct flights. Have everything you need in a carry-on bag including suit, shirt, tie, shoes, socks/stockings, jewelry, toiletries/cosmetics, and directions to the interview.
VII. Waitlist: Contact a No Contact
Medical schools are often bombarded by applicant questions from March until June, the busy season for admissions decisions and waitlists (excluding schools that perform rolling admissions). In order to decrease the burden on medical school admissions staff during this hectic time, some schools request you do not contact them during certain months. No contact policies generally include phone calls, e-mails, and letters. They also sometimes incorporate recommenders or pre-med advisors making a call on your behalf. If you would like to be moved from the acceptance or waitlist to the rejected list, feel free to give the school a call.
The medical school admissions process is difficult, but 17,000 applicants per year overcome this challenge to matriculate at US medical schools. You can to. Staying on top of the admissions process and avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins can dramatically improve your chances of admissions success. If youd like to learn more about how to get into medical school, please check out The Medical School Admissions Guide: A Harvard MDs Week-by-Week Admissions Handbook available online through www.MDadmit.com, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.
Dr. Miller is a practicing emergency physician and CEO of MDadmit, a medical school admissions consulting service. She began admissions consulting as a Pre-Medical Tutor and then Co-Chair of the Eliot House Pre-Medical Committee while attending Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Miller currently lives in Washington, DC where she serves as a clinical instructor at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. Dr. Miller enjoys teaching and traveling internationally, providing medical coverage for the Washington Wizards and Capitals games, and serving as a medical director for Racing the Planet adventure races.