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4 Residency Personal Statement Pitfalls to Avoid

  • by Dr. Brian Radvansky
  • May 18, 2022
After years of residency consulting, helping students take their personal statements to the next level has become my forte and my joy. Every medical student has a lifetime of interesting stories to share, and the personal statement is the perfect place to do so. And, like any important facet of your ERAS application, the personal statement can often be improved substantially with a little focus and TLC.
I’ve identified 4 pitfalls that I see students frequently fall into, and today I will share them with you.
Pitfall #1: Operating under the mentality the personal statement “can’t make you, but it can break you.”
Avoidance: Craft a fantastic, unforgettable personal statement that can, indeed, make you.
Certainly, a poor personal statement can send your application into a nosedive. If it’s off-color, error-laden, plagiarized, or altogether thoughtless, your readers and program director will simply move on. There are too many great candidates for each possible residency spot.
The effort that you put into your application can be seen as a surrogate for the effort that you will put into residency. If you do the minimum amount of work to merely skirt by, and show a lack of attention to detail, this will be reflected in your application, and do your entire application a disservice.
However, if you put your all into every part of the application, including the personal statement, this will be noticed.
The notion that a personal statement should be ultra-vanilla, unexciting, and treated as a formality, is a farce. When students think like this, they often generate an essay that is…passable. It doesn’t tell a relatable story of the candidate, and it doesn’t get the program excited to meet the candidate.
The often ho-hum attitude that other students take toward the personal statement represents an opportunity to pour your heart into your personal statement, and craft one that absolutely shines. Create a magnificent work that gets your interviewers pumped up at the chance to meet an interesting individual with a story to tell.
Pitfall 2: Telling the same old story as everyone else applying to your specialty
Avoidance: While it’s all right to touch upon some parts of the specialty that everyone might enjoy and relate to, find a way to be unique.
Think, for a moment, about how many personal statements a program director (or other interviewer) will read in a given application season. Then think about how many they will read year after year. They have heard it all before.
If you are applying to internal medicine, don’t make the totality of your personal statement about “treating the whole patient.”
If surgery is your cup of tea, don’t write a personal statement about “working with your hands.” Hey anesthesia, if I have to read another essay about how much you “love physiology and pharmacology and instant gratification,” my head will explode.
It’s all right to make mention of these things in your personal statement. Just don’t make them the centerpoint of your whole piece. Mention your fascination or desire, and move on. Remember to find a way to make this about what makes you different and special and unique, not a characterless boilerplate form.
Pitfall 3: Wasting space
Avoidance: Make every word count.
One of the most common mistakes I see in personal statements is delving too deeply into material that is either inconsequential, is just a list of positive attributes, or is exactly the same as the platitudes touted by every other applicant (see pitfall 2). You’ve only got a page to tell a story all about yourself, and what makes you special, so don’t get bogged down in too many talking points about your field.
Take a look at this closing paragraph:
As a student, I have exercised diligence, year after year, and polish my skills. I do my best to build fantastic  rapport with patients and fellow staff members. Combined with my habits of organization and detail that I’ve built throughout life, I feel confident that I would be able work efficiently and well alongside my co-residents. Additionally, my background would bring with it a passion for advocacy and education that is integral for the [insert specialty] population.
Sure, these are all good things, but they don’t tell us anything about you. Anyone could say how great they are in paragraph form; this paragraph could get shoved at the end of anyone’s personal statement. Make sure that every piece of your statement is used advantageously to address your unique contributions to your patients, and everyone you encounter. This segues into our last pitfall.
Pitfall 4: Telling instead of showing.
Avoidance: Use concrete experiences to demonstrate the qualities you wish to convey.
A grand way to waste space is by listing the things that make you great.
“I’m a great match for your residency program because I’m hard-working, take direction well, and will do whatever it takes to succeed now and throughout my career. My work ethic has gotten me this far, and my desire to always improve will take me the rest of the way.”
ANYONE can use language like this to mention how great they are; patting oneself on the back is not hard to achieve with a few simple words. So how do you put credence to these ideas and positive characteristics that you feel compelled to share? Utilize concrete examples of times that you exemplified these facets of your personality.
What makes you hardworking? The time you picked up 2 extra 24-hour shifts in a month because you realized that the real trauma surgery learning begins after the sun goes down.
What makes you dedicated? The fact that you tallied about a thousand hours of dedicated practice to perform the concerto at symphony hall with the local orchestra.
When were you selfless? When you bailed on the post-exam party to pick up the nursing home volunteer shift that no one else would jump on. The time you skipped studying for your own exam so that you could hold a tutoring session for struggling students the year below you.
If you can point to an actual time and event that you demonstrated a positive characteristic, it speaks volumes more to your character than saying “I am great.” Think long and hard about it. Brainstorming is painful but necessary. Delve deep into your past and recount the things that you did that you are proud of, and that demonstrate the strength of your character.
These pitfalls only scratch the surface. Contact us if you want to learn more about writing the perfect personal statement, and nailing the residency of your dreams.
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