Sitting down for the first time to write your personal statement can be a daunting experience. I remember staring at the blank page for ages before I finally started writing, and even then my final personal statement was completely different from what I initially wrote.
Although the personal statement is unlikely to make or break your application, it can certainly make it more memorable. View the personal statement as an opportunity to show the admissions committee who you really are! Specifically, you want to showcase your unique strengths and attributes as well as a vision for your future career.
Although getting started can be stressful, I recommend beginning early (such as January or February of your application year) and being open to letting your statement evolve over time.
Here are some tips as you begin writing:
1. Organize your statement effectively
Being organized is critical and enables the reader to quickly glean the key points from your statement. I would recommend organizing the personal statement thematically rather than chronologically. You can order these paragraphs how you wish, but this is the order that I followed:
I) Introductory anecdote: See Tip #2 below.
II) Why this residency field: This should be a minor focus of your statement, and definitely don’t elaborate on why you went to medical school.
III) Skills you bring to the table: Describe how your experiences have supported your development as a future clinician, advocate, researcher, etc.
IV) What you are looking for in a residency program: Be explicit about which features are most important to you, whether they are diverse patient populations, supportive faculty, tight-knit residency class, or strong research opportunities.
V) Vision for your future career: This is one of the most important sections, where you lay out your passions and vision for your career beyond residency. You can include specific specialty fields of interest (or not), practice setting, patient population, role of research and/or teaching, and more.
VI) Concluding sentences: Try to tie your essay together in the last paragraph, and consider referring back to your essay’s introductory anecdote.
If you are having trouble starting your personal statement, it may be easier to start writing paragraphs II-V and figuring out your introductory story and theme later.
2. Show Don’t Tell
In the personal statement, it is much more powerful to convey your points with stories and experiences, which ideally relate to an overarching theme. Many applicants begin their statement with a recent anecdote, which can range from an influential patient case, a lesson learned from a mentor, a time you overcame adversity, a personal/family experience with illness, or a unique experience that has informed you in some important way. Possible underlying themes include commitment to underserved populations or dedication to research/innovation, with inclusion of experiences that highlight this theme throughout your statement, in addition to the opening paragraph.
3. Revise Early and Often
Send your essay to multiple advisors for feedback, and try exchanging personal statements with peers if you feel comfortable. In addition to editing for content and organization, make sure you edit for style as well. Avoid long, run-on sentences; overly elaborate language; and repetitive sentences that start with “I” or “my.” Ensure that you and at least one reader are checking carefully for typos as you want to avoid sloppiness in this part of your application. Keep in mind that your final statement should be 12-point font, Times New Roman, and about one page long (800 words max). Check for program specific requirements: most programs will accept the same personal statement, but some have specific questions for you to answer. You may need to write a different personal statement for that program, or you can just write an addendum to the statement you prepared previously.
4. Key Things to Avoid
- Don’t over-stress about your statement: It is not worth your time to read and rewrite your statement 20 times. This can also lead to the statement coming across as forced and awkward instead of a naturally flowing story.
- Don’t rehash your CV: The committee will have your entire application and re-reading a laundry list of your activities will be boring. Try to just pick out max 3-4 of the most important experiences to highlight in your statement; ideally these will fit in with your overall theme.
- Don’t be too generic: Make your statement stand out in some small way in order to highlight your unique qualities as an applicant.
- Don’t be too original: At the same time, you should not get too creative such that it detracts from the overall direction of your statement. You should focus on conveying why you are an excellent candidate and your vision for the future.
- Don’t exaggerate: This applies to your application in general too. Be honest and don’t overstate what you’ve done.
The personal statement is truly an opportunity to have fun and inject some personality into your application. Try to find a thread that unites your statement in some way, whether it relates to a specific career interest or unique personal experience, and use this theme to “show not tell” your story. Remember that the personal statement is only one component of the complete package, so don’t get unnecessarily stressed about it. By following the above advice, your personal statement can truly make you stand out in a positive way and maybe even launch some interesting discussions with your interviewers on interview day.
Victoria Robson is a pediatrics resident at Boston Children's Hospital and graduate of Harvard Medical School. She tutors for the USMLE Step 1, Step 2 CK, and shelf exams with USMLE Pro Tutors.