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5 Rules I Follow To Write a Personal Statement

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Writing a personal statement in medicine, regardless of what stage of medical training you are at, can often provoke unease in many medical trainees. The personal statement, however, is an important and integral part of the medical school, residency, and fellowship application process. Over the years, I’ve written my fair share of personal statements and have come to find the process more cathartic than taxing. Here are five rules I’ve adopted to make the personal statement drafting process less distressing:

Tell a Story

The stories that we chose to tell are reflections of who we are as people. Your personal statement should be focused on telling one cohesive story — you may not be the main character of this story, but it should tell us why you chose medicine. Intriguing stories do not always have to use certain tropes, like explaining a tragic loss or a dramatic introduction to a medical emergency. In my own personal statement for internal medicine residency, I focused on describing the medical sequelae that helped me crack the rare case of Ehrlichiosis in a patient with altered mental status. Describing the deductive reasoning skills used to narrow the diagnosis helped me indirectly highlight the very skills that would one day be a critical part of my future career.

Draw Your Audience In

Though you don’t need to use drama, you do need to hook your audience’s interest. How you start your personal statement is a key step in establishing the tone of the story you want to tell. Using descriptive language and strong topic sentences can help set the stage. Active language helps draw the reader’s attention (I held the scalpel), whereas passive language can lead to ennui and more importantly, takes up precious space (the scalpel was held by me). A method that I have found helpful — though not foolproof — is to begin with a succinct but powerful quote. In one personal statement, I began with the words “Nosce te ipsum,” a Greek maxim that translates to “know thyself.” This quote helped me establish the theme of my statement, how I discovered my desire to become a physician. However, take extra care to avoid quotations that may come across hackneyed or clichéd. A good quote will also help inspire you to stay within the tone you want to convey.

Showcase What Makes You the Perfect Candidate

A personal statement should not be your resume in paragraph form. Rather, it is your chance to  tell a program who you are as the person beyond your accomplishments. Use specific examples to highlight unique qualities while embedding personal stories into the mix to showcase your personality. Most importantly, remember your audience! Personal statements for medical school, residency, and fellowship are meant to accomplish different things and thus should be drafted with your audience in mind. For instance, the theme of a personal statement for endocrine fellowship should focus less on why you wanted to become a doctor and more on why endocrinology is the right field for you.

Draft It, Then Finalize It

When it comes to drafting, there are two types of people: 1) less is more and 2) more is more. I mean this about the number of edits: I have chosen the path of minimal drafts and have seen friends really struggle to find their voice after a multi-person review of their writing. For personal statements, I limit myself to three drafts only. This does not necessarily mean that you should stop at the third version of your draft. Think of your three drafts as a three-parted symphony. Adding or subtracting a note here and there should not change the overall mood or feel of your work but major changes, especially last minute ones, can often derail a budding masterpiece. Although reviewers can help improve your writing, some may encroach their particular style of writing into yours. A personal statement is yours, and in my opinion, should be an opportunity for you to celebrate your own writing style without having to adopt someone else’s.  

Start Early

The idea for my most recent personal statement came to me during a bout of insomnia intern year of residency, almost two years before I would need it. Reflecting on what message you’d like to send to programs about yourself and how to translate that into writing can be time consuming. Brainstorming topics early will help prevent last minute anxiety, and eases other tasks. Remember, a completed version of a personal statement and updated resume are key components of asking for coveted letters of recommendation. Your letter writer will be appreciative of having a good (and completed!) personal statement that helps highlight your personal qualities in addition to your career aspirations.

Like most skills, the skill of personal statement drafting will mature with time. A good reflection of this maturity is cohesiveness of thought from paragraph to paragraph (“flow”) and culmination of one’s ideas into an impactful conclusion highlighting future goals. — The above suggestions, I hope, will come in handy for those who are just starting out in their medical careers as well as those who like myself are pursuing the next level of their medical training.

What tips do you have for writing a personal statement? Share in the comments.

A native New Yorker, Dr. Babar is passionate about classic literature, studying novel advancements in medical therapy, and helping younger generations foster a shared curiosity for all things science. Dr. Babar is a 2021–2022 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Image by akindo / Getty

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