Ted O’Connell, MD
The residency personal statement creates a lot of anxiety for applicants because of the perception that it can make or break your application. The truth is that it is very unlikely to make your application but can potentially break your application. The personal statement should briefly summarize who you are as a person and physician in training, highlight one or two important experiences in your personal or professional life, and discuss why you have chosen the specialty to which you are applying and some of your career goals. That’s it. Think of it as an introduction that will open the door to further discussions during your interview day.
The points below will provide additional information about the important items that should be included in your personal statement. They will also outline things not to do in your personal statement because of the risk that they can inhibit your ability to get an interview or can adversely affect where you end up on residency rank lists.
Do keep it brief and focused
Your residency personal statement should be a brief introduction about who you are as an individual and as a physician in training. Think of this as your thirty second elevator speech. It really should just outline the most important aspects of your life. It does not have to include your entire personality or your whole life story. Keep your personal statement to one page maximum. Seriously, this is an important point. If you can’t get it down to one page, you are either saying too much, being too wordy, not editing carefully enough, or not being sufficiently succinct. Get it down to one page maximum. There’s a reason I’m saying this twice.
Don’t regurgitate your CV
As discussed above, your personal statement is a brief introduction about you as a person, trainee, and future physician. You do not need to discuss your awards, publications, presentations, scholarships, and other accomplishments. These accolades will be present in at least two other places in your ERAS application, so do not need to be discussed in your personal statement. They tell what you’ve accomplished and where your focus has been, but they tell very little about you as a person. Use your personal statement to tell the story of you, not your accomplishments.
Do provide the information needed to secure an interview
Your personal statement should contain enough information that a selection committee has enough of a sense of who you are and what you would bring to a residency program to offer you an interview. It is okay to be fairly somewhat straightforward, and most personal statements can loosely follow this formula:
1. Start with an interesting or memorable introduction to grab the reader’s’ attention. Keep in mind that this should be catchy but does not need to be mind-blowing and should not be controversial.
2. Provide an overview of some of your desirable qualities. Instead of just stating these qualities, let the reader understand them by describing a story in your personal or professional life in which you demonstrated these qualities.
3. Talk about 1-2 important life experiences and how they influenced your career decisions. These highlights can also provide support for why you will be a great residency candidate. Remember though, don’t regurgitate your CV.
4. Discuss why you have chosen the specialty to which you are applying and briefly discuss some of your career goals. That being said, you may not want to get too specific regarding career goals, especially when applying to certain specialties. For example, saying you want to go into academics or private practice can be perceived in different ways depending upon the focus or setting of a particular residency. For this reason, you may want to keep your career goals a bit broad and then be prepared to discuss them in more detail during your interviews (see my blog article on Common Residency Interview Questions for more details).
You do not necessarily need to follow this exact order when writing your personal statement. You can weave many of these elements in throughout as you see appropriate.
Don’t try to write the great American personal statement
As you can see from the discussion above, it is perfectly okay to try to hit a double rather than a home run with your personal statement. There is no need to be groundbreaking with how you approach your personal statement. This is not a creative writing contest. It is a brief statement about who you are as an applicant as a person. Your personal statement does not need to be wildly different than everyone else’s, except regarding your personality, goals, and unique qualities. I read close to a thousand personal statements every year. Of those, two or three stand out as truly unique and memorable. If you think you can be one of those, absolutely go for it while being aware that being very creative or memorable in a personal statement can be a double-edged sword.
Do have other people read your personal statement
You really should have a few trusted advisors read and review your personal statement. Good people to read your personal statement include those who know you well and who will give you honest feedback, someone in the specialty to which you are applying and who preferably has experience reading residency applications, and someone who writes well and is grammatically sound. If you have friends who preceded you in school and who successfully matched into your specialty of choice, they can also be a great source of insight and feedback about not just your personal statement but your entire application.
Don’t have any typographical or grammatical errors
Please make sure you use the spellcheck feature included in your word processing software. Typos can be a red flag for selection committees as they will be seen as careless and sloppy and will give the impression that you lack attention to detail. You should also carefully read and re-read your personal statement for any grammatical errors. Then have a trusted friend or colleague proofread it for the same reason. Read your personal statement out loud to see how it sounds, to judge the cadence, and get a sense of how the residency selection committee will hear it. After you have done all of this, check it again for typos.
Do remember what you included in your personal statement
When you go for your residency interviews, you may be asked about almost anything in your application and personal statement. So, before you hit the interview trail, review your entire application to make sure you’ll be prepared to discuss the details. Reviewing your personal statement is an important part of this process so that you will be prepared to tell a coherent and consistent story about yourself and your application.