Revealed! Five Big Myths About the Elusive Residency Personal Statement

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Sitting down to write a personal statement (PS) can be Hellish. We put a great deal of pressure on ourselves to convey the product of our years of compounding greatness into a single page. We are compelled to show the world our triumphs over adversity, our unending accomplishments, and our unprecedented uniqueness, all in a few hundred words. How to accomplish such a Herculean task?

    Before taking pen to paper (or finger to key), it is crucial to realize this:

    While a great personal statement isn’t enough to secure an interview, a poorly written PS can cost you one.

    The purpose of your medical residency personal statement is not to prove to a program why they should grant you an interview or rank you high. It’s truer purpose is to turn a set of test scores, class rank, grades, and activities into the human that is you. It is to claim your individuality in a sea of other high achievers. It gives you a chance to define who you are.

    Keep this in mind as we take you through the top five myths about the personal statement:

    Myth 1: The personal statement is the most important part of your residency application.

    When it comes to seeing what parts of your application program directors actually care about, we need look no further than the Program Director Survey (available here from the NRMP). Contained in this document are the factors of your application that are most important to program directors. When it comes to the personal statement, only 78% of PD’s take personal statement into consideration when selecting what applicants get interviewed! While it is certainly the majority, it is certainly interesting that over 22% of them don’t take it into consideration. When it comes to ranking candidates, an abysmal 57% of PD’s took it into consideration. Objective data that your personal statement is not the cover page of your ERAS. Use it to help define yourself, but don’t hang your hat on it as the centerpiece of your application.

    Myth 2: An edgy PS written in metaphor will distinguish me from others.

    Every now and then, a student will come to us with an artsy, unexpected “I am medicine and medicine is me” sort of essay. This is the essay where the applicant tries desperately to prove that they have a well-developed right brain and peerless writing skills. Unfortunately, whatever they are trying to convey about themselves gets lost between the lines. In the painfully traditional, slow-moving world of medicine, an ultra-progressive PS comes across as gauche. Go with the perennial favorite: an essay which directly and succinctly tells the reader what makes you special.

    Myth 3: I can proofread my own personal statement and ensure it is free of mistakes.

    In the high-level task of understanding the meaning of our own writing, our minds pay less attention to tiny details like spelling errors. These insignificant mistakes fly under the radar because they don’t obscure the big picture of transmitting our message. They do, however, make you look bad. If you go it alone and don’t recruit some outside help with your personal statement, you are doing yourself a disservice. Giving your essay to another person to read, especially one with experience reading personal statements (e.g., dean, academic affairs office) ensures that a stranger understands completely what you are trying to say. You will also want a few parties to edit and proofread your work. Swallow your pride, and get a few sets of eyes to give your work a once-over. Typos are unexcusable [sic].

    Myth 4: My personal statement should focus on solely on why I want to go into specialty X.

    While you definitely want to show dedication to your chosen field throughout the application, the most important thing your personal statement does is set you apart from others who are very similar to you. Chances are, there will be very many applicants that appear similar to you both on paper and in real life. Someone who shares your age, sex, ethnicity, accomplishments, and taste in dress suits. Rather than blending into the mix and being forgotten, use your personal statement to make yourself memorable and special. Be the [individual thing that makes you remarkable] guy or girl. Possibilities to insert in the blank? Skydiving, hardcore lab worker, semi-professional musician, storm chaser, geocacher, world traveler, father of four, backcountry skier, etc.

    Myth 5: After you secure a residency interview, your personal statement’s work is done. 

    Not in the least! If you have executed the plan correctly, your personal statement will give you and a stranger (i.e., interviewer) something interesting to talk about. There is no interview more boring, and no applicant more forgettable, than the one who asks canned, unimaginative questions that have probably been answered in the morning slideshow presentation or by the previous interviewer. Don’t waste time grilling the program director what the call schedule and cafeteria are like. If you individualized yourself in your PS, then you can utilize this exclusive personal time to  let the program know more about who you are, and to see if you are someone who would fit in there. Some interviewers might not have time to learn anything about you other than quickly skimming your PS, so make sure that it is simple to follow, and demonstrates what makes you YOU.

    Educational objective: Writing your personal statement is a valuable opportunity that can help set you apart from the other 100 applicants that are just like you – make it concrete, interesting and able to show the world what makes you different and exceptional.