RESIDENCY ROUNDUP: Personal Statement Advice
My husband and I have a pretty darn calm-as-a-placid-and-moonlit-lake relationship, and that’s the way we like it. However, there have been a few times things get bumpy, and it’s always when he’s applying for the next stage of training. It’s not because of the associated stressors of added expenses, travel, and the unknown of what comes next; it’s because of the personal statements. He majored in history, where he learned the dry, dreadful passive voice and a love of people and phrases long dead. I, on the other hand, am an editor. It’s a tough dynamic.
In addition to my editing training, I’ve read a lot of residency application essays. For a few years during medical school, I worked as a catchall credentialing specialist, newsletter writer, document editor, and assistant (to the) program coordinator for the ophthalmology department. I saw all the flaws and heard all the pet peeves of the program uppity-ups who decided the lucky candidates selected to interview. And since that time of year is coming up again, and because my sweetheart is sick of hearing my statement tips, I’m going to share them with you.
- Remember the point. The point of a personal statement is to take the jumble of step scores and rec letters and class rankings and turn them into a fascinating young student doctor that the interviewers really want to meet. A phenomenal personal statement can help compensate for borderline step scores, even in competitive specialties. You want to come across as professional, compassionate, interesting (and interested), and hard working. It’s a lot to balance. I’ll help you.
- Start with brainstorming. Have you done a good brainstorming session since middle school? You should. Start thinking of the experiences, personality quirks, and anecdotes that make you you. Call your mom, your grandma, your favorite roommate, anyone who knows you well, and ask what they see in you and remember about you. Write down things that fascinate you: do you bird watch? Can you do thirty tricks with a yo-yo? Spend most of the eleventh grade mastering sleight of hand? Anything. My husband’s fellowship brainstorming sheet, for instance, mentioned his favorite Julius Caesar quote (see? History major.), why he chose medicine over engineering, and some life lessons he’d learned from his dad. (For those who are curious, he went with Julius Caesar, and it was great—after about three drafts. His best med school application essays focused on a severe bout of stomach flu and riding a bus in Brazil. You can be cautiously creative here.) Choose which one you want to focus on.
- Write that intro. You’ll notice this is the longest section of my post. There’s a reason for this: everyone will read your introduction. Half will form an opinion of you based on the intro and move on to your test scores. The intro has to be good. Once you’ve decided on your hook, meaning the topic you’re going to use to introduce yourself, dive in. Hooks to avoid: “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was twelve.” “I knew I was going into ortho when I broke my arm in third grade.” “The Hippocratic Oath begins, ‘First, do no harm.’” “I’d only been on service for three days when the attending let me [do something that literally no medical student ever has been allowed to do; stop lying.]” Hooks to use with extreme caution: “My family member has X disease, which inspired me to go into Y field.” “I had cancer when I was twelve.” With massive amounts of respect to those whose family members have had awful X diseases, and those who suffered through childhood cancer, many of these are clichés. I’m not saying you can’t bring them up at all, or that they’re 100% a bad idea, but be careful. At least a dozen of the personal statements they get will start with one of the hooks to avoid, and a few more will discuss their family’s health history. If you’re one of them they will mix you up with the other eleven the entire interview season. Here’s a better hook: “To be honest, the first time I was in an operating room I passed out.” “I saw a peach-necked warbler last week as I biked home from class.” “My little patient asked me for a balloon sheep last week. A discerning client may notice that it wasn’t substantially different from my balloon dachshund, but it made my patient smile and, for a minute, I felt like I had a chance at this doctor thing.” Another strong idea? Take something they might see as a deficit in your application (e.g., you majored in History), and use it as your hook to convince them of why it makes you a spectacular candidate. You want it to be unique, interesting, and a pleasant break from all the people who want to tell you about the time they broke their arm in the third grade. If your hook has nothing to do about medicine, which is absolutely fine, use the rest of the intro to connect it to your training.
- The guts. If I remember right, you’re limited to a page, which will end up being five to six paragraphs. Use this space to make sure they understand why you chose their field (as opposed to why you didn’t choose any other field), why you’ll be good at their field (remembering that you don’t know if you have good hands for surgery yet, and you really haven’t had much experience yet), and what assets you’ll bring to their program (teamwork. Discipline. Dependability. Programs loooove teamwork and discipline and dependability). These are the “eh, ok,” paragraphs, and while I don’t want you to use this as an excuse to slack off, most people will just scan them. You’ll want to address any red flags you have: did you get a DUI during medical school? Did you have to repeat a rotation, redo a step, or take a gap year? Gently tell them why, and tell them what steps you’ve taken so you won’t need these extra measures again. You also may consider asking one of your letter writers to directly address the red flags, and why they don’t see them as a reason not to match you. Depending on how conservative your field is, you might also want to discuss visible tattoos (hands, neck, face) so they’re not caught off guard when they meet you. I’d ask the advice of your local program coordinator, who best knows the temperature of the field.
- Connect your paragraphs. This is one big statement, not five small statements. Make sure each paragraph flows into the next. If you’re visual, print out your essay, cut out each paragraph, and physically rearrange them until you find an order that makes you happy. Then add your connecting sentences. You want your essay to lead the reader through to its end, not make them think, “wait a second…where did that come from?”
- Wrapping things up. Mr. Hansen, my teacher for third and fourth grade, has the best advice: connect the beginning of your essay to the end. If you started off mentioning bird watching, you’d better bring the birds back at the end, and make sure it makes sense. For example, let’s say you started out with, “To be honest, the first time I was in an operating room, I passed out” as your hook, you could start your final paragraph with, “The only time I’ve passed out since that day in the OR was when I had one too many helpings of Grandma Kay’s turkey last Thanksgiving, a mistake I’m afraid is an annual tradition.” You want them to finish your essay, sigh with contentment at its logical, conclusive conclusion, and put it in the “people we like” pile.
- Revise the snot out of it. Friends, the first draft will stink. The second probably will too. Find a friend who majored in English and let him or her go to town on it. Ask them to be blunt. Ask them if they would want to meet you, if they didn’t know you already. This is not the time to crack a thesaurus: if you’re not the type to usually thrown around “disingenuous” or “alacrity,” scratch those words out. Have several people check your grammar.
- A few more tips.
- If you’re a legacy, meaning your mom or dad or grandma or grandpa is a physician in the same field you’re applying in, be careful bringing it up. At best, it may help you at the program your family member trained in. At worst, it will come across as grubbing for special treatment. (True story: at the program I worked at, we had a slideshow display constantly running featuring all the residents who had trained there since the days of black and white film and goofy mustaches. One interview candidate insisted on dragging the entire candidate group there to “watch for daddy!” It was a ten-minute loop, and ten minutes have never felt so long.)
- Remember to always be professional. Humor is wonderful, but never cross the line into being crass (yes, even if you’re applying in ortho). Likewise, you want them to see you as a potential colleague. When I advise you to be interesting, it is not code for “write about that frat party you attended,” unless said frat party ended with you, the lone sober hero, resuscitating the dean of your university. It’s also not the place to bring up your Pokémon Go skillz.
- Talk about your kids if you want, but don’t expect them to earn you any brownie points or special treatments. Mentioning them will help you get interviews at some programs, and blacklist you at others. (But think: if you’re a family man or woman, do you really want to go to programs that don’t want you to have kids?)
- If you have a program you really want to attend, don’t mention them in your personal statement unless they are the only program you are applying to (DON’T ONLY APPLY TO ONE PROGRAM). Send them an update (“Just letting you know that my Step 2 scores are now available. I lived in [your city] for several years as a child and have many fond memories there – I’d love the chance to interview for an opportunity to return there for training/I saw the paper Dr. Z from your program recently published and I loved his treatment of A, B, and C. I’d love the chance to interview and have the chance to work with him on future projects!” Etc.) You can send these email updates to literally every program you apply to. Just find a reason you desperately want to go to their program and go for it. Send it to the program coordinator, who will forward it on for you. Just remember: these letters will probably be printed out and jammed in your file, so make sure you truly are familiar with the papers you say you read and have an anecdote or two from your childhood in their hometown ready and waiting.
- If you’ve written your essay and revised it twice and it’s still not working, can it and start over. I know this sounds awful. I know you’re up to your elbows in audition rotations, you haven’t slept in three nights, and you can’t possibly rewrite it. Do it anyway. This is your first impression, and if you can find a hook that you’re excited about, the essay will come easily. And if you’re excited about it, someone else will be too.
If you finished this thinking, “that’s…a lot to do,” you’re absolutely right, and you should start brainstorming. This isn’t something you want to push off to the last minute. One of the best moments of my husband’s fellowship interview trail was walking into a room, the attending standing to enthusiastically shake his hand, and saying, “I’ve been waiting to meet you, my fellow admirer of Caesar.” Write authentically and enthusiastically, and you’ll find kindred spirits who can’t wait to get to know you. And don’t get crabby at your wife for making you read this or tearing your essay to shreds: she does it because she loves you. You’ve got this, fourth years. Good luck!