Your friends and family were ecstatic when you learned you’d been accepted to medical school. Perhaps they said something like, “Now you can finally relax!” While it was nice to hear words of encouragement, you also know that your journey to practicing physician won’t be complete until you finish your residency training.
It’s wise to be thinking about residency early on—the time to submit applications arrives surprisingly fast. And on top of excelling in school, you also need to obtain strong United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) scores, gather letters of recommendation, and even write a residency personal statement. That essay is more important than you might think, too.
A recent survey indicates that your residency personal statement is among the top five criteria program directors cite as important when reviewing candidates. Knowing that can be a bit intimidating, especially if you don’t consider yourself an excellent writer. But once you take a look at some physician pointers, you’ll soon see that you’re fully capable of writing a great essay.
7 physician-approved tips for writing a great residency personal statement
Dr. Samuel Sandowski, vice president of medical education at South Nassau Communities Hospital, explains that the application review process itself makes the personal statement a critical component. While he acknowledges that many residency programs initially filter candidates by USMLE scores, everyone is essentially on a level playing field at that point.
“It’s really important to have a good personal statement, because if you fall within those filters, then the programs are going to take a look at it,” he says. “That’s the next step.”
With that in mind, you’ll want to heed advice from Dr. Sandowski and a few other physician experts to craft the best essay you can.
1. Express your individuality
Your personal statement actually gives program directors a picture of who you are as an individual. This essay is really a chance to show what makes you different from other candidates. You need to go beyond simply listing your achievements, advises Dr. Patricia Wilkerson-Uddyback, vice president of graduate medical education and community affairs at Detroit Medical Center. Restating the same accomplishments listed on your curriculum vitae (CV) doesn’t help review committees learn anything new about you.
Along the same lines, make sure that any of the experiences or extracurriculars you do write about in your residency personal statement are true interests. Dr. Natasha Sriraman, a St. George’s University (SGU) graduate and pediatrician, says review committees can tell whether you’re being genuine.
“Don't do things because you think it's going to look good,” she advises. “Do things that you're passionate about.”
"Don't do things because you think it's going to look good. Do things that you're passionate about."
If you’re worried that your life is too boring to make for a compelling essay, remember that it’s not necessary to have gone through something tragic. For instance, Dr. Sandowski recalls reading some personal statements that stood out for discussing how the candidates used humor in their day-to-day lives.
2. Demonstrate your interest in the specialty
It’s in your best interest to write about why you’re pursuing a particular specialty in your personal statement. Just keep in mind that a surface-level answer isn’t going to help program directors understand your motivation. For example, Dr. Sriraman says too many candidates applying to pediatrics programs cite their love of working with children.
“We all like kids,” she says. “That’s not a reason to go into this field of medicine.”
That said, you don’t have to limit yourself in how you explain your interest. Dr. Sriraman says you can use an anecdote from an experience you had in one specialty to illustrate your passion for another field as long as you’re able to make a logical connection.
3. Address any issues head-on
It can be uncomfortable to feel like you have any sort of blemish on your CV. But rather than shy away from a bad semester or a mysterious gap in your education, use this opportunity to discuss what was going on in your life at that time.
“It’s not to highlight the red flags and make them neon red,” Dr. Sandowski clarifies. “It’s to say, ‘I’m aware this exists and here’s what happened.’”
"It’s not to highlight the red flags and make them neon red. It’s to say, ‘I’m aware this exists and here’s what happened.’"
Putting academic issues or delays into context can make a big difference. It shows that you’re taking responsibility. Furthermore, omitting issues in your personal statement doesn’t mean you can avoid addressing them.
“While it is important to address this gap within your personal statement, I also advise medical students to practice what they are going to verbally say when asked about the gap during the interview,” Dr. Sriraman reminds.
4. Incorporate real-life examples
Most program directors subscribe to the “Show, don’t tell” philosophy. Using personal examples can really help bring some life to your essay. Dr. Sriraman, and numerous other experts, suggests periodically jotting down cases in some type of log or journal. Clearly explaining an impactful patient experience and how it affected you can help make for a really strong personal statement.
“Not only have you reflected on it, but you’ve been able to put it into words and communicate it, which I think is really powerful,” Dr. Sriraman shares.
5. Be thoughtful about the structure
The Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS) user guide is pretty vague about formatting. As long as you have an introduction, a middle section, and a conclusion, how you choose to arrange your personal statement is really up to you. It’s more important that you’re able to keep your readers interested.
“I don’t think there has to be a standard structure,” Dr. Sandowski says, “but I do think it has to be engaging.” He also adds that an attention-grabbing opening often helps to strengthen a personal statement.
Knowing that you have so much freedom in writing this essay can be a bit intimidating. Dr. Wilkerson-Uddyback suggests you try an approach you’ve probably used in high school and college.
“Start by writing an outline to help organize your thoughts,” she offers. “Your statement should be well-organized and show a logical progression of ideas and experiences.”
"Your statement should be well-organized and show a logical progression of ideas and experiences."
6. Take time to edit and proofread
By now, you’re probably well-aware that most experts advise medical students to limit themselves to one page for their residency personal statement. It’s a pretty small space. That said, drafting this essay should be an iterative process.
“Write your story like only you will read it,” Dr. Wilkerson-Uddyback suggests. “Then go back and begin the editing process.”
It’s also wise to bring in some outside opinions as you start to edit. And while having a trusted mentor or classmate be a sounding board can be beneficial, Dr. Sandowski encourages you to also seek feedback from three individuals who don’t know you as well as your inner circle. This helps them provide an objective opinion based solely on your writing.
Lastly, make sure you ask any strong writers or editors you know to proofread your personal statement. It might seem like overkill, but small details matter. Mistakes may cause a program director to question you in a number of ways.
“That suggests to me a few things about the applicant: that they’re trying to cut corners, that they don’t pay attention to detail, and that they may not have good follow-through,” Dr. Sandowski offers.
7. Give yourself enough time
Given how many elements you need to complete for residency applications, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor by starting your personal statement well in advance. Drs. Sandowski and Sriraman both think medical students should plan to spend at least two months working on this essay. Even if you’re a speedy writer, it’s smart to be proactive.
"Between taking exams, finishing your applications, and regular life, you want to give yourself two to three months."
“Between taking exams, finishing your applications, and regular life, you want to give yourself two to three months,” Dr. Sriraman suggests.
You also need to account for the various stages of writing and editing. Allotting a full two months ensures you have enough time for the entire process.
“That allows you three weeks to write, three weeks for reviews, and two weeks to make edits based on the feedback,” Dr. Sandowski elaborates.
Start writing your residency success story
You don’t have to be a seasoned novelist to pen a great residency personal statement. With some careful planning, thoughtful phrasing, and a thorough review process, you can write an essay that will make program directors take notice. A good personal statement could be the final element that helps you secure an interview, too.
A face-to-face meeting is the final stage that allows program directors to determine if you’d be a good fit for that residency position. This is why it’s essential that you practice for residency interviews—not to memorize talking points, but to make sure you’re comfortable speaking about your background and qualifications.
Start readying yourself for these conversations by visiting our article, “Experts Share Residency Interview Preparation Tips for Medical Students.”
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