Writing a Personal Statement to Match

Personal Statement Success

One of the great challenges of the residency application process is writing a personal statement.  It sounds simple enough on the surface: a 1-page essay that sets you apart from the other applicants and makes the program director eager to meet you.  But it seems that nothing induces writer’s block faster than asking a medical student to write about him- or herself.

When you start looking for advice, the personal statement DOs and DON’Ts pile up quickly:

  • DO wow your audience with an engaging opening.
  • DON’T merely recount information from your CV.
  • DO write about unique or memorable experiences that help your application stand out from the crowd.
  • DON’T stand out from the crowd too far. You don’t want to be remembered as a weirdo.
  • DO write about why you’ve chosen this specialty.
  • DON’T admit that you chose surgery because you loved Grey’s Anatomy.
  • DO discuss your long-term plans and professional goals.
  • DON’T admit that you’re dreaming of a cushy lifestyle and a big, fat paycheck.
  • DO sell yourself; highlight your strengths, qualifications and accomplishments.
  • DON’T embellish, exaggerate, or misrepresent.  And for goodness’ sake, DON’T plagiarize.

Below is the residency application personal statement that I wrote in 1999.  I realized early on that I didn’t have any great stories to tell. There was no profound experience with an unforgettable patient, no life-changing medical mission trip to an orphanage in Honduras, no personal battle with childhood illness that drove me passionately to a particular specialty.

But what I did have was a strong sense of the kind of medicine I wanted to practice. So for the elusive Memorable Opening, I simply invoked the image of the (virtually extinct) traditional general practitioner, then systematically painted myself as a modern day GP, positioning my various personal interests as evidence of what I called a “generalist approach to life.”

 My Personal Statement

Coming to medical school with very little real experience in the medical field and no close contact with physicians in family or social settings, I had only vague notions about what kind of practice options were really available to me.  I held a romanticized, idealistic, Norman Rockwell-esque view of physiciansthe small town general practitioner who knows his patients' families and hobbies as well as their ailments, who is loved and respected by his community, and who has a long term (if not lifelong) relationship with his or her patients.  In retrospect, it was a very naive and ill-prepared way to embark upon a career. 

With time, experience, and much research, I have discovered that the practice of medicine is highly varied, and that there exists an infinite number of options open to the modern physician.  As I became aware of this diversity, I was still most drawn to primary care, where I could provide comprehensive care for a variety of complex patients.

I have begun to envision for myself a very specific career.  I would like to be in a community-based practice in a suburban or semi-rural area, working chiefly in a clinic rather than in inpatient care.  And though I have no strong desire to be on the faculty at a research-oriented academic center, I would very much like the opportunity to be a clinical preceptor for medical students or residents in my office practice.  While I have not entirely eliminated the possibility of subspecialization, I see myself as a generalist, and I feel this would be the most rewarding career for me.

The philosophy of Internal Medicine meshes well with my own attitudes about the kind of care a physician should aspire to provide to his or her patients.  Getting to know the patient as a person, rather than merely as an 'interesting case' or a collection of unusual diagnoses, is very satisfying.  It is exciting to know that though I may see a dozen patients with 'routine' illnesses such as diabetes or hypertension, each patient must be approached as a unique individual, and that the treatment of each patient's problems will require an individualized therapeutic approach. 

I have an inquisitive mind and enjoy learning, especially when mentally and emotionally engaged.  Working-up complex patients is challenging, and I have found that challenge to be highly rewarding.  As an aspiring generalist, I am interested in every aspect of my patients' well being.  My responsibility is for the entire patient, without being confined to any particular organ system or disease process.  Likewise, my patients expect me to be equally well versed in all of their various ailments.  I find myself driven to read widely about my patients' problems, about the scientific basis for the work-ups, and about the physical exam skills needed to help make the diagnoses. 

My diverse interests and extracurricular activities reflect my "generalist" approach to life.  For the past two years I have been involved in coaching and refereeing for a children's basketball league, and I am planning to return to these roles this fall.  I have been an avid backpacker and camper in the past, and while the time constraints of medical school have made these difficult hobbies to pursue in recent years, I have hope to continue camping and travelling in the future as time permits. 

I tend to devote much time to activities which provide an artistic, expressive, or creative outlet.  I have played trombone in my church's orchestra for the past two years and continue to do so.  I play a guitar, and occasionally try my hand at musical arranging and composing.  An active writer, I was named a finalist in the 1999 Creative Medical Writing Contest sponsored by the Journal of General Internal Medicine, and my short story was published in the August 1999 edition. In addition, I am a regular contributor for a recently started online magazine.  In medical school, I have actively sought ways to use these interests and talents.  As a second year student I wrote and directed my classmates in 2 hours worth of skits for the First Year Retreat, parodying the medical school interview process and the pitfalls of an incoming medical student's life.  I found this high level of involvement in particular to be a very fulfilling and personally rewarding endeavor.

There you have it.  Yes, I cringe a bit here and there as I read through it, but I have resisted the urge to polish it at this point.  What you see is what you get.

It’s Never Too Early to Start

When it comes to personal statements, my advice is to start early.  Don’t put it off another day.  Get something down on paper, and then revise, revise, revise.  Solicit the help of anyone and everyone—friends, classmates, mentors, an academic advisor, your college roommate, your mom—to read and critique your essay.  The more eyes on it, the better.

Read Mike McInnis MD's advice on Mastering the Match.

About Mike McInnis

Dr. McInnis is a chief educator for Doctors In Training’s USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK Review Courses. You can also follow Dr McInnis on Twitter (@DrMcInnisDIT).
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