Writing Personal Statements for Residency Programs

"All graduating medical students want to help people, enjoy and excel in science, and are driven, disciplined, and hardworking; otherwise you would not have made it through medical school! So how do you set yourself apart from all of the other would-be internists, radiologists, pathologists, and ob/gyns out there?"

Drafting a personal statement for a residency application can be akin to a trip to the dentist or a bikini wax. In other words, it can be painful. Nonetheless, it is a necessary and important part of the residency application, and one that should not be rushed through or put off to the last minute - even if you think you are a strong writer.

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One thing that makes personal statement writing so difficult is the "generic" factor. All graduating medical students want to help people, enjoy and excel in science, and are driven, disciplined, and hardworking; otherwise you would not have made it through medical school! So how do you set yourself apart from all of the other would-be internists, radiologists, pathologists, and ob/gyns out there?

Details! Details! Details!

What separates a great personal statement from a ho-hum personal statement isn't flowery language or a really catchy opening sentence. It is specific, clear details about your experiences and character that give the reader a sense of who you are, what you've accomplished, and what you're capable of accomplishing.

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Even if you attended the same caliber medical school, participated in the same activities, and earned the same grades as some of your peers, each of you will have unique areas in which you excelled and unique circumstances that helped to shape who you are. Specifics sell! Before you begin writing, spend some time brainstorming about what makes you distinctive. Think about qualities or strengths that others frequently complement you on. Are you good under pressure? Are you an excellent teacher who others turn to for advice or instruction? Do you have a way with children? Are you great with your hands? Do you have strong diagnostic skills?

The qualities you think of do not all need to be related to your medical training. Perhaps you juggled medical school with other responsibilities, such as taking care of a sick parent, volunteering for an organization, or raising a child. Anything that distinguishes you from your medical school peers is something to consider writing about in your personal statement.

In addition to being specific with regard to what makes you unique, you also need to be specific when you are describing your experiences. While you want to keep your descriptions brief, you need to include one or two tangible details that will stick in the reader's mind and help him/her get a better sense of what you've done. For example, if you held a leadership role, how many people did you lead? What was improved as a result of your leadership? If you volunteered for a particular organization, did you work two hours a month or fifteen hours a week?

Also, make sure you never assume that the person reading your personal statement is familiar with certain organizations, awards, or activities you talk about. For example, if you say: "I won the John J. Arthur Award during medical school," no one except perhaps John J. Arthur himself will know what that means. Instead you want to say: "In medical school, I received the John J. Arthur Award for outstanding leadership." Always make sure that you give enough background on the things you mention so that there is no confusion on the part of the reader.

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