Getting a little personal

If it’s early August, one thing is sure:  I’m in the throes of reading and editing personal statements for our MS4 students. I always consider this an interesting rite of passage; I learn who is a good writer and who is not.  I learn about people’s “stories” of who they see themselves being and becoming.  I learn who has a neurotic attention to detail and who needs to proofread extra times.  I learn who are the dreamers, the visionaries, the ones who I believe are most likely to change the world through their careers in medicine.  It’s often quite humbling.

Every year I find myself giving largely similar advice about personal statements.  Stock advice from me consists of the following:

  • Tell a story in your personal statement that isn’t told anywhere else in your application.  This is your chance to talk about those life-changing experiences that led you into medicine or to discuss how your background on a farm informs your work ethic (honestly, I have a weak spot for surgery residents who were farm kids!) or that patient encounter when you realized that you had found your calling.  I can read your application.  Your personal statement is a chance for me to get to know you as a unique person.
  • With that said, don’t be too unique, particularly if you are applying in surgery.  Translation:  I recommend against writing your PS in the form of a haiku.
  • Have anyone whom you trust read and review, both for content and for grammar.  You don’t have to use everyone’s advice, but the more eyes across the page the better end-product you’ll generate.  When you get to your final draft try to remember which of your friends were English majors (or even better, had parents who were English teachers) and turn them loose with a red pen.
  • It’s okay to read personal statements written by others to glean ideas of what you want to write about.  It is not okay to plagiarize personal statements written by others.  It is also not okay for your personal statement to be fictional if you are using it to tell a story about yourself.
  • 95% of personal statements will be okay- nothing less, nothing more.  That’s honestly the target group for most of us.  You don’t want to be the, “Wow, THAT was a disaster!” outlier (see above advice against writing a haiku).  If you are fortunate in terms of writing skills and storytelling, you may be the, “This is someone I have to meet and who I really want for a resident” outlier.  With the hundreds of personal statements that I read each year between my mentoring role and my review of our residency applicants, I typically come across 2-3 in a year that knock my socks off in a good way.  I typically come across 2-3 that horrify me as well.
  • Proofread not just your personal statement but your ENTIRE application multiple times before you hit “submit.”  If there is one time in your life to attain zero errors, this is it.  When I find grammatical errors or poorly written components in an application or a personal statement, I take it as a message of sloppiness.  I don’t want a sloppy intern.
  • Write from your heart.  Again, not in haiku form, but write something that is meaningful to you about the specialty you have selected and the path you envision for yourself.  Those are the personal statements that I as a reader value the most.  Share your passion.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t let it stress you out too much.  Easy for me to say, I know, but it’s just one piece of a bigger application puzzle for you- and, again, most of the time, you’ll be okay (which in this case is a perfect goal).