Michael Dworkin, MD
How to write an outstanding residency personal statement
Members of the application review committee will read hundreds of personal statements. How do you write a personal statement that makes you shine? Read on!
Is the personal statement important?
Yes. The 2018 NRMP program director survey showed that your personal statement is roughly the 5th most important thing program directors when considering whom to interview. In addition, your interviewers will often read your personal statement before you go into the room for your interview, and so you'll likely discuss some of the topics you chose to write about during your interviews. This brings up the first piece of advice.
How long should my personal statement be?
No more than a single spaced page with one inch margins and 12 point times new romans font.
When should I start writing my personal statement?
Start it in May of the year you hope you apply.
What should you write about?
The goal of a good personal statement is to provide interviews with context about experiences that have shaped your values and helped you to better understand not only what kind of doctor you want to be, but what you want your career to look like.
Good topics to focus on are how a mentor embodied this value, how a patient made you understand the meaning of this value, how you came to appreciate this value through adversity, or how something about your education/background/upbringing helped you strengthen or form the core of this value.
A simple formula is represented by the following example.
Paragraph 1. "How I realized I want to be a surgeon"
Start with a catchy/interesting hook line. E.g., "A hike in Utah was the reason I first considered becoming a surgeon.". It's not clear how a hike could lead one to consider a career in surgery, so it draws the reader in.
Dive into this experience in a couple sentences. Describe the context of when it was and why you were there. Describe in 1-2 sentences how this made you realize that you want to be a surgeon.
End with a thesis statement that summarizes each of the values you touch on in whole personal statement.
Paragraph 2. "Why I value attention to detail"
Describe a value embodied by surgeons, e.g., attention to detail, and an experience in which you saw this value exemplified. Focus on 1-2 of the aforementioned good topics. Dive into this experience in a couple sentences. Describe the context of when it was and why you were there. Describe in 1-2 sentences how you came to understand, through this example, why this value is meaningful to you.
Paragraph 3. "Why I value teamwork"
Describe a value embodied by surgeons, e.g., teamwork, and an experience in which you saw this value exemplified. Focus on 1-2 of the aforementioned good topics. Describe the context of when it was and why you were there. Describe in 1-2 sentences how you came to understand, through this example, why this value is meaningful to you.
Paragraph 4. "Why I value thinking on my feet"
Describe a value embodied by surgeons, e.g., thinking on your feet, and an experience in which you saw this value exemplified. Focus on 1-2 of the aforementioned good topics. Dive into this experience in a couple sentences. Describe the context of when it was and why you were there. Describe in 1-2 sentences how you came to understand, through this example, why this value is meaningful to you.
Paragraph 5. "What I want out of surgery residency"
Describe in one sentence what you hope to gain out of your surgical training. Describe in one sentence the qualities you hope your program will have. Finish with one sentence that says you're looking forward to a career as a surgeon where you can embody each of the values you touched on in your prior paragraphs.
Everyone says show and don't tell; what does this mean?
Perhaps the most common piece of advice regarding constructing a good personal statement is the adage that one should show rather than tell. In this adage, to show means to paint a picture of an event, whereas to tell means to simply narrate or summarize high-level details. Here is an example.
Tell sentence. I learned to value the satisfaction of tangible improvement gained through diligent practice as surgical subintern on the oncology service.
Show sentence. Before bed each night on my surgical oncology rotation, I would time myself tying 250 single handed knots, and enjoyed breaking my own fastest times each night as the rotation went on.
Telling is easier than showing. It is helpful to create a skeleton of a what you want a paragraph to tell, and then convert the tell sentences forming the bulk of the paragraph, into show sentences.
What should you not write about?
1. Your CV. Your personal statement is not meant to be a rehashing of your CV/ERAS application. Both will be read. It's ok to touch on a couple things from your CV, including research experiences, so long as they touch on the aforementioned good topics.
2. Negative things. Don't say you realized you wanted to be a radiologist on medicine after realizing how much you don't like rounding on patients.
3. Specific institutions. Leave naming names and specific institutions to your CV. It's ok to mention a couple names of people, say, 1-2 max, so long as you refer to them later in the personal statement. Listing a particular institution in a personal statement will make readers from other institutions question whether you actually are interested in their program.
4. Anything controversial. Don't write about anything that would not make for engaging conversation during an interview, or worse, anything that would make you or others uncomfortable.
Proofread your personal statement many times
Grammatical and typographic errors are the kiss of death in a personal statement.
Do I need to write more than one personal statement?
Depends. If you're applying to two different types of programs, for example, preliminary medicine programs, transitional year programs, and either radiology, opthalmology, dermatology, radiation oncology, or physical medicine and rehabilitation, you'll likely have to write more than one personal statement. The good news is that, very likely, you'll be able to suitably adapt your primary personal statement to fit your secondary personal statement by simply changing a couple sentences in the final paragraph.
Don't waste your time writing a personal statement specific to one program or mention a program by name in a personal statement.
Who should read your personal statement and give you feedback?
Anyone who knows you well and who you know writes well, including your siblings and parents, teachers, mentors, and role models. If you're interested in getting professional feedback on your personal statement, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.