Red Flags of Residency Personal Statements
By Chandler Park, MD
About eight years ago, I volunteered for the residency selection committee for the first time. As a committee member, I received a batch of applications to look over before we sent out interview invitations. My job was to completely look over my batch of 20+ applications and read the personal statements. During my career, I have read hundreds of personal statements.
Being on the program’s side of the residency match process, I learned that many medical students make the same common mistakes. It is very important NOT to make these critical mistakes for your personal statement.
If you are on the fence, you may not get an interview offer. On the other hand, if you do get an interview offer, your first impression could be tainted by any red flags in your personal statement.
Every interviewer will read your personal statement to get a feel for you as a person, so make sure you don’t make these three mistakes.
Programs want residents who are hardworking team players that can fit into the program’s culture. Therefore, it is very important that you don’t convey overconfidence (nor arrogance) in the personal statement.
Every person that has been accepted to medical school is talented, intelligent, and a great test taker. Now is not the time to show this in your personal statement. We can read through your ERAS application for your accomplishments. Do not type your class rank, USMLE scores, or IQ scores in your personal statements. (I have seen this; it happens all the time, and it never works.) Instead, be very humble in your personal statement. Telling a story of an impactful patient that lead to your journey to go into your chosen field is a safe road.
Lastly, ask the astute relatives in your family to read through your personal statements. Ask if the personal statement’s tone is overconfidence, arrogance, or braggadocio. If it is, change it.
Lack of Purpose
Every program that you apply to can categorically reject your letter based on anything in your application. When I was a medical student, I thought high USMLE scores and top medical school class ranks meant one can get an interview at any place in one’s geographical range. NOT TRUE. There are other factors that I will talk about on future blogs that can help.
For now, the key is purpose. You have to demonstrate why you are going into your medical specialty. I was shocked at the number of personal statements that did not articulate why the applicant wanted to go into their medical specialty. One of my favorite residents did not have the highest USMLE score. However, when we interviewed him he had the drive, passion, interpersonal skills, and humility that was also evident in his personal statement. During his training, he was one of our best residents because he had purpose. Plus he was a team player that never complained. He was one of our best residents. He got along with others and went above and beyond the call of duty for his patients and his fellow residents. That is what we are looking for in an applicant.
Where is the drive, passion, or academic curiosity that lead to your choice for your medical specialty? Talk about your medical specialty experience as a third-year medical student and what captured your mind and heart. Your main idea in the personal statement is to talk about “Why I want to go into this medical specialty.”
Also talk about why you want to attend a certain program. Do your research. This is a good place to start. Learn about the programs that you are applying to in your medical specialty before you apply. Are you applying to an academic program or a community program? If you are applying to a community program and discuss your research prowess, you will likely not get an interview because it is not a good “fit” for that program. If you could be happy in either community or research oriented programs, you could consider writing separate personal statements: one for “academic programs” and the other for “community programs.” Send to each specific program based on the program’s fit.
Apologetic Personal Statements
Your personal statements should convey a positive light. Very few applicants have a perfect ERAS application. Everyone has a weakness on their application. There are some things you can’t control, such as the prestige of your undergraduate school and medical school. Other things are much more pertinent, such as missing a year, being dismissed from a 3rd year rotation, or taking time off. These can be addressed in the MSPE letter or a separate email to each program.
The key is to have a positive first impression. Your personal statement is your first impression for each residency program that you are applying to join. Do not use your statements to discuss a negative situation. Rather discuss why you want go into your medical specialty. We are looking for drive and motivation in your personal statement. If you have to discuss a negative situation, however, make sure you address how it impacted you and made you a better person.
The residency application process is all business. Those who read your essay are not looking for novel styling, mysterious openings, or poetic phrasing; instead, they are looking for a clear statement of why you want to pursue a career in that particular specialty.
Like the AMCAS personal statement, residency personal statements are open ended in that there's no specific prompt. However, your residency matching application essay will need to be even more focused than the one that you submitted to medical school. Keep in mind that you are ultimately applying for a job, and your residency essay should reflect a strong level of professionalism.
One of the biggest mistakes that we see in residency essays is organizing them like med school application essays. Some applicants even try to use their med school essay as the basis for their residency essay. On the surface, this makes sense. Obviously, your medical school application essay was successful, so you want to repeat that success in the residency matching process.
However, we definitely recommend starting your residency essay from scratch. The selectors really only want to know about your life after you began medical school, so you'll need to draw upon those experiences to create an effective essay. Also, there is a strong trend within residency matching for shorter and shorter essays. No specialty is looking for an essay of longer than one page and one paragraph, but limiting the essay to fewer than 700 words is a good guideline.
Additionally, we've learned that creative essays don't perform particularly well in the matching process. Residency selectors are looking for very specific things within the essay, and they want to know how you'll fit in to their program. It's called 'matching' for a reason, and you'll need to show the selectors that you have a place with them as a resident.
Here are the main content areas that we suggest covering in your residency essay:
Why have you chosen this specialty?
In the first part of your residency statement, you should discuss what in particular has interested you about the specialty you've chosen, and how you've built experience in that field. If you're planning on devoting your life to internal medicine, radiology, or any other focused branch of medicine, you must have a clear reason for doing so. Thus, make sure that the reader comes away from this section understanding what has led you to this profession.
Why do you think you will excel in this specialty?
Not every med school student will have equal interest in, let alone talent for, every specialty. What about you makes this specialty the right match for your personality and goals? Help the selectors see that you have what it takes to thrive in the specialty. A meticulous person can feel right at home doing gross and checks in pathology. Excellent manual dexterity can ensure success as a surgeon. Persistence in solving complex puzzles can serve you well as an internist. In this part of the essay, make connections between general talents and your chosen specialty.
What are you seeking in a residency?
Next, write about how you intend to further that experience during your residency and what specifically you're seeking in a residency. Don't talk about specific locations, though, as you'll likely send this essay to a large number of facilities. You've got a solid base of experience already, but during your residency you're going to become an expert. What will you contribute? You may want to write about things like teamwork, continuous learning, and passion for patient care.
How do you see your career in this field progressing?
Finally, look past your residency to give the reader an idea of what you plan to do with your accrued knowledge once you have completed your residency. Show the residency selectors how you will use the knowledge and skills that you gained in the residency for the benefit of patients. Do you envision yourself pursuing research? Working in a university? Being a provider in underserved regions? Tell them your vision for your career as a physician.
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