One of the greatest challenges—and for many the single greatest challenge—in applying for medical residency is deciding what to write in the personal statement. How do I stand out? What can I write to catch the program director’s attention? These are questions that plague every one of the 40,000 applicants for medical residency in the United States every year, and they are ones that both U.S. medical graduates and international medical graduates (IMGs) have to answer.
The Greatest Obstacle to Writing a Personal Statement
I have been editing, proofreading and critiquing personal statements for medical residency for nearly a decade. It started as a favor I would do for friends and acquaintances, and has grown to overseeing, as editor in chief, the 1,000+ personal statements that DLA Editors & Proofers reviews annually. From what I have seen, the greatest obstacle preventing candidates from knowing what to write in their personal statements is not actually understanding what a personal statement is.
What Exactly Is a “Personal Statement”?
To understand what a personal statement is—and therefore to avoid the common pitfalls in writing one—it is necessary to consider first what the words “personal” and “statement” mean. Let us start with the word “statement,” since it is the noun and therefore the foundation of the term.
According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com), a “statement” is “a report or narrative (as of facts, events, or opinions),” an “account” or “recital.” A “narrative,” or “narration,” is “the act or process of telling the particulars of an act, occurrence, or course of events.” For candidates applying for medical residency, both the “act” and “occurrence” is the process of applying for medical residency, and the “course of events” is the path that has led to the candidate’s now applying for medical residency.
When we add the definition of “personal” to this description, we get an even clearer picture. “Personal” means “of or relating to a particular person.” It is “not public or general.” The “particular person,” of course, is the candidate preparing for medical residency. Applying this meaning to that of “statement,” we can see that the “path” that is to be described by the “personal statement” should be the one of the applicant, and no one else.
The Challenge of Being “Personal” in a “Personal Statement”
Of the two components of the “personal statement,” by far the one that most applicants struggle with is the “personal” aspect. Our clients are smart, driven individuals who excel at gathering, analyzing and prioritizing information in order to find possible solutions to a problem. The process is one in which they have been well trained, as the foundation for taking an effective patient history to arrive at the most likely differential diagnosis. The greatest difficulty they have when needing to write their personal statements is not in their ability to approach a problem logically, but in being able even to know how to approach the problem of what to write, which for many defies logic. This is particularly true for applicants raised outside the United States in cultures in which they were taught never to focus on themselves or to divulge any personal details, no matter how trivial.
Why Candidates Use Quotes in Their Personal Statements
No matter whether the candidates are U.S. medical graduates or IMGs—and therefore for various reasons—they tend just the same to want to use quotes in their personal statements, with the quotes they want to use tending to fall into one of three categories. The first and most common is a quote from someone famous. Examples of this are quoting Mohammed, Nelson Mandela or Thomas Jefferson. The second is a quote from what a professor, attending or public speaker said in front of a class or group. The third is a quote from a close friend, family member or otherwise particularly influential individual that has had a profound effect on the candidate. In most cases, the quotes is used in the introduction, and in most of these the candidate uses it in the first sentence. The reason for this is quite simple: the candidate is stuck on how to start, he or she does not have enough confidence in his or her own words, he or she believes such a device will attract the attention of an otherwise disinterested program director, or all of the above.
Why Using a Quote in a Personal Statement Is Almost Always a Mistake
What many candidates do not realize is that quoting someone else—particularly in the introduction and especially in the first sentence—is almost always a mistake. There are several reasons for this. Most commonly—as in the first two types of quotes described above—the quote has had no direct influence in shaping the candidate’s personal or professional path. For a quote from Mohamed, Mandela or any other person to be effective, it must be crucial to the point in the narrative at which it occurs. If it occurs in the first sentence, for example, it must be that the quote, above all the other candidate’s influences, has been foundational in his or her path. This is rarely likely, except in the case in which the candidate first heard the quote at a very young age and replayed it over and over again in his or her mind every—or almost every—day since. Such quotes are more likely to have come from a parent or close family member or family friend than from a famous person.
When the quote occurs somewhere in the introduction after the first sentence, or elsewhere in the personal statement, it must similarly have had a profound effect on the candidate’s individual path, or it must be otherwise crucial to the narrative. In the first case it would be from someone particularly influential in the candidate’s life. This could be from a close family member or from some other individual close to the candidate. It could be from a professor or attending if it represents a key moment in the candidate’s development.
While I have personally trained each editor who works on personal statements for DLA Editors & Proofers to be able to use quotes effectively in a personal statement, in the majority of cases we find the quotes simply do not work, and that in spite of all of our efforts the quotes still come across as a gimmick.
What I mean by “gimmick” is something that someone writes as a crutch in place of what should actually be written. In most cases the candidate does not realize that what he or she has written will come across as a gimmick, or he or she—at least before using our services—is at a loss with regard to what else to write. When evaluating whether a quote is being used effectively, we come back to the key pillar of the personal statement, which is that it must be “personal.” Too often the quotes come across as either filler material or as a result of the candidate’s, for whatever reason, not taking the effort simply to tell his or her own story.
What Candidates Should Write in Their Personal Statements Instead of a Quote
One problem we see is that there is a lot of misleading advice—and, even worse, examples—on how to write a personal statement that encourage the candidate to start with a famous quote. For almost every candidate, this is, by contrast, the worst place to start. What is easy, though, is to ask one simple question to help decide whether starting with a quote is a good idea. The question is: “Where did I get the idea for using this quote?” If the answer is not that “it has had a profound effect on me since I heard it” or, in other words, that “there is no other way for me to tell my story without it,” then chances are it will not be successful to use it in the personal statement.
What a candidate should write instead is simply his or her own path in his or her own words. Instead of trying to find a quote to use for the first sentence, the candidate should reflect on what exactly was the beginning of his or her path, and start with describing that. One way to start could be: “As far back as I can remember, I have had a strong desire to help others” or “I will never forget the first time my uncle took me to visit the slums.” Opening with a clear, direct statement like this from the candidate’s own point of view will always be the most effective way to gain the attention of the program director, and to encourage him to read past the first sentence.
“The Personal Statement, however, is an open field of possibilities in self expression, and that sense of ambiguity lends itself to great liberty and/or great anxiety.” Image courtesy of pal2iyawit at FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Retrieved October 11, 2013.
Writing any application for a school can be difficult, and writing the Personal Statement can become the most challenging part of it. By the time you are preparing to submit an application, most of its elements are already fixed: your GPA, your MCAT or GRE scores, the activities you did (or didn’t do). The Personal Statement, however, is an open field of possibilities in self expression, and that sense of ambiguity lends itself to great liberty and/or great anxiety.
Admittedly, the title is somewhat misleading. A “Christian” personal statement shouldn’t technically be very different from any other personal statement. It still has to accomplish the same goals, which are fairly well defined in the context of applying for a graduate or professional school. As an example, an excellent source on the Medical School Personal Statement would advise you to focus on answering these questions:
- What have you done that supports your interest in becoming a doctor?
- Why do you want to be a doctor?
- How have your experiences influenced you?
Sounds simple? It’s not. Few people can easily articulate the reasons why they want to go into medicine (and this even includes those who have been working in medicine). As reflected on before, the most powerful reasons tend to be emotionally charged and heavily driven by personal experiences, desires, and ambitions. Sometimes these reasons spring from tangible and discrete moments that are relatively simple to describe: a father becomes ill, a friend becomes helpless, a tragedy unfolds in which the universal compulsion to heal and to comfort becomes central and even life-changing. But sometimes those reasons are harder to describe: a series of loosely connected jobs that led to an internal conviction, an affection for both the material and immaterial, a search for a career grounded in the authenticity of human experiences.
The more personal these experiences are, the more uncomfortable and self-conscious we become in describing them. We wonder if others will see things from our perspective, and as we struggle to describe them in nouns and adjectives and run-on sentences, we find it easy to become paralyzed by the fear that the reader/admission officer/judge will fail to understand . . . and in doing so, reject us as both applicants and as people. It is deeply unsettling because the process will require an act of introspection and then an act of public revelation.
So, like all other expressions of self-revelation, we are tempted to edit heavily. We want to be accepted for who we are but we also want to achieve a goal. We have an ideal that motivates us, but in order to achieve it we must submit it to the scrutiny of another . . . and in that process, we risk having it change.
What do I mean by this? I mean that I volunteered at a soup kitchen because I wanted to help people, but in writing the essay I wanted to make sure that the reader understood just how deeply I felt that emotion, so I overplayed the descriptions of how scraggly the hobo’s beard looked or how heart-melting that child’s eyes were. I mean that I did research because it sounded interesting and I enjoyed tinkering around in the lab, but I wanted my work to be respected so I added a gazillion extra adjectives about how triumphant or beatified I felt when gazing through the clear liquid in a test tube. I mean that I felt helpless when I sat by my friend’s bed as she lay dying or in watching my sister get bullied in speech therapy, but I wanted to do rightly by them in becoming a doctor so I wrote whatever bastardized piece of junk I felt needed to be written in order to get the job done. I mean I wanted to talk about Jesus and what he meant to me, but I couldn’t because it might get us both thrown out of school before we even started there.
Scary, Scary Night, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54127 [retrieved October 11, 2013]. Original source http://www.flickr.comphotos8545333@N072564825110.
I realized that the real work of writing a Personal Statement was to stop myself from selling myself. I was not a product out on the marketplace to be distinguished only by my differences in merit and form, but a unique person whose path had already been determined by a loving and sovereign Lord. I was not applying to different schools out of a statistical strategy for maximizing the probability of admission, but because each institution’s strengths and weaknesses could cause me to grow and be shaped differently for the work of the Lord. It helped me understand myself better, realizing in some circumstances that some of my applications were actually not the best thing for me. And I found that though thinking in this way was far more difficult than simply optimizing a resume, it restored a sense of purpose and intentionality to an otherwise superficial and anxiety-provoking time. It made descriptions of myself more vulnerable but more honest, which inadvertently made things more confident and more peaceful.
It made them Christ-centered, and therefore Christian. In the words of the Psalmist:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
Writing a Christian Personal Statement: Part 2, Part 3.
David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decidedly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disney’s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.
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