Personal statement – How to write the perfect eras personal statement

The personal statement is always a challenge for candidates, particularly IMGs.  We have a strong opinion on personal statements.  We’ve written dozens of them.  We’ve edited many more.  We’ve asked Program Directors about personal statements.  Our advice here in is the same thing other consultants would charge you hundreds or thousands of dollars for.  Most importantly, we’re going to use our ACTUAL essays to give you an EXACT example of what we are talking about.

American medical school graduates have the luxury of writing personal statements for college AND medical school.  They instinctively know how to write personal statements that are able to sell their interests and skills.  This Chapter will help level the playing field using OUR OWN personal statements as outlines.

Here are take home points on the personal statement.

  1. A good personal statement will open the doors for a great interview
  2. A good personal statement will probably not get you an interview if your grades or USMLE scores are too low
  3. A bad personal statement may actually prevent you from getting an interview EVEN if your grades or USMLE scores are good enough
  4. Keep it under 1 page. If it’s longer than that, you run the risk that an interviewer will not even read it.

The upside of a good personal statement is that it opens the door for you to connect with your interviewer.  The most important sentence of the entire personal statement is the FIRST one.  Remember, faculty members and interviewers are SKIMMERS.  If you do not catch their attention with your first line, then you will lose the interviewer.

The perfect first sentence sets the tone for the rest of your essay.  It should give the reader a general sense of what you are going to talk about for the rest of your essay.  It should be powerful and attention grabbing.

Sentence 1:

Example 1: “Skin is special.”
This was the first sentence in one of our essays.  We got many compliments on how this personal statement started.  This short sentence sums up the point of the essay, which is to explain why this candidate is pursuing a career in Dermatology.  It is clear and declarative.

Example 2: “He was young, but his medical chart was already spilling out of one folder and building up in another”
This is another great example of a solid first sentence.  Notice here, we use illustrative language here to grab a reader’s attention.  Instead of stating, “I had a patient with an extensive medical history” we use language that makes that concept come alive and command your interest to learn more.

Paragraph 1:
The Goal:  The goal of the first paragraph is twofold.  The first goal is to be interesting.  Again, you have to be able to make your reader pay attention.  The language must be concise. The second goal is to set the stage.  What we mean by this is that you need to give the reader a sense of what you’re going to talk about in the following paragraphs.  Let’s go through some examples.

Paragraph 1 – Example 1
“Skin is special.  As an engineer, I see skin as an incredible source of information.  With advances in new technologies, more diagnoses will be made through skin without the need for needle sticks and blood pressure cuffs.  I want to be a part of that revolution—currently, I am excited to be leading a project at XX Hospital using mobile phones to detect signs of skin cancer with image analysis.  The applications range from identifying pathology to assessing treatment response. I firmly believe that the diagnostic innovations developed for cutaneous diseases will have implications across medicine.”

This opening paragraph is strong.  It sets the stage by orienting the reader to the candidate’s interest: dermatology and technology.  It provides a view into the mind of candidate, his hopes and dreams.  The candidate is also able to give a clear example of his interest and commitment to this area–this candidate also knows that this work is supported by his letters of recommendation.  Finally, the last sentence in this paragraph provides a clear vision for the future.

“I firmly believe that the diagnostic innovations developed for cutaneous diseases will have implications across medicine.”

Paragraph 1 – Example 2
“He was young, but his medical chart was already spilling out of one folder and building up in another. As I stood in the hallways of the cornea and refractive clinic, I learned of a story that shaped my decision to become an ophthalmologist. He was the unfortunate victim of a fireworks accident. Two cornea transplants later and still rejecting the donor cornea, he knew he was running out of options. However, he refused to give up on himself and his doctors—he complied down to the letter, was willing to endure the discomfort of additional tests, and was happy to have me, the medical student, examine his eyes. Through this early experience and a multitude of other encounters, I too developed the resolve and passion to fight for vision health, our most important perception of the world.”

These two paragraphs are written very differently but the goal, again, is pretty much the same.  This example uses storytelling to (1) capture attention and (2) set the stage.  This candidate is able to introduce the reason why he wants to pursue Ophthalmology with a powerful concluding sentence in this paragraph.

The Transition: Finish the paragraph with a strong, declarative sentence about why you picked the speciality you are applying for.

Paragraph 2: Clinical Interest
This is a fairly standard paragraph everyone needs to have in their personal statement.  You have to provide an explanation of why you are interested with the day to day clinical practice of the field you are applying to.  You need to demonstrate some clear  insight on what it’s like to be an internist, pediatrician, psychiatric, etc.  Let’s go through how we wrote it.

Example 1
“The first patient I met on my core medicine rotation made me recognize that skin can act as a bellwether.  She was a Mandarin-speaking woman with a mysterious red rash on her knees and wrists; we initially consulted Rheumatology.  As the Dermatology team moved quickly from the diagnosis of Sweet’s syndrome to treatment, I discovered this fluidity in clinical practice matched my own personality.  From this experience, I realized that the skin holds clues asking to be uncovered with the right tools.”

In this example, the candidate uses a case to explain how he first became interested in Dermatology.  Remember, you can use the exact same technique for the speciality you are applying to.   Keep it short.  No one wants to read an entire paragraph about a complex pneumonia case or an ethical dilemma.  Use the case to illustrate aspects of practice you enjoy.  In this example, the candidate emphasizes the unique aspect of clinical dermatology in regards to the emphasis on visual diagnosis.

Example 2:
“Upon seeing the impact of visual restoration on a patient’s life, I decided to further immerse myself in the world of ophthalmology. The field provides the unique experience of seeing patients ranging from the infant born with strabismus, the adult presenting with a macula-threatening retinal detachment, and the elderly afflicted by macular degeneration. I quickly realized how examination of the eye could reveal the long history of ocular and systemic disease, and provide the context for building meaningful relationships with patients.

I also found ophthalmology to be the most intellectually stimulating field for me—a perfect balance of complex pathophysiology coupled with surgical intricacies. To effectively manage patients, ophthalmologists must  couple historical clues with subtle exam findings, focusing on every detail. With time, I grasped the fundamentals of examining for clinically significant macular edema, peripheral tears and breaks, and the macular changes suggestive of an early epiretinal membrane. Through learning from the clinical acumen of my preceptors, I was able to practice these challenging skills while providing meaningful care for patients.”

Again, this is a nice example of why ophthalmology fits this candidate when it comes to practice.  He notes the ability to work with the young, adult and elderly populations.  He remarks on the use of surgical technique as well as history taking to make key diagnoses.

The Goal: Provide a clear reason why you enjoy the CLINICAL practice of your field.  You can use an interesting case to introduce why you decided this was the right field for you.  This paragraph should NOT be long.  In fact, this paragraph is quite generic.  Many people will say the same things, but that is OK.  You simply need to demonstrate that you adequately understand the day to day practice of the field.  You have to make a compelling argument why the day to day interests you.

Paragraph 3: Research Interests
This is the paragraph that will be most unique in your essay.  We think it is the most challenging to write but also the one paragraph that you can mold into a strong story, even if you do not have much research. This is a challenging part for many people for different reasons.

  1. People with no research have to focus on telling a future plan
  2. People with a little bit of research in random fields have to connect all the dots
  3. People that have done a lot of research in one area have to make a compelling case how this research applies to the field they are applying to
  4. People that have done a lot of research in the area they are applying to must break down their research into something understandable

We are going to focus on Cases 1 and 2.  These are the most likely cases for IMG applicants.  See Chapter 10 for even more details.

The Goal: Demonstrate that you are going to contribute to your field in a broader context.  This means that research is a broad term.  It can mean many different things.  It can mean basic science. It can mean clinical research.  It can mean community based research.  It can mean public policy.  Research means a lot of different things.

Even if you are focusing on community based programs with very limited research, this paragraph is STILL important.  No matter where a training program is located and what their focus is, they want to accept candidates that have a greater goal in life.  This is not to say you have to follow through on any of this.  You just need to be able to make a compelling case that you want to do more than simply practice.

Example 1: No research background
“Research has always been a key interest.  The advantages of our medical school was in its clinical exposure.  An important reason for my interest in the United States is a greater opportunity for research.” 

Analysis: These first few sentences gives you a plausible explanation about not having research experience.  This creates a nice transition to discuss what your future research goals are.

“Currently, my main interest in research involves cancer screening.  Too often, we care for the late stage tragedies of completely preventable cancers.  Specifically, I am interested in community based strategies to improve cancer screening for breast, lung and colon cancer in underserved groups.  Training in a U.S. based program would give me the opportunity and resources to pursue these interests to improve cancer screening and publish scholarly work.”

Analysis: You have to keep it tight because there is very limited evidence outside of your personal statement that you have an interest in research.  You WILL be asked to expand on this in the interview.  You DO NOT want to have too much there that you can’t defend and speak about.  This paragraph is an example of how to give a specific research interest but keep the details sufficiently vague.  Proposing a specific project may undermine your credibility, especially if it is not properly conceived with the right supervision.

You can replace cancer screening with pretty much anything.  You can talk about HIV screening.  You can talk about connecting diet and nutrition with mental health.  It really does not matter.  But, it needs to be sufficiently specific.  It SHOULD relate to a clinical scenario you brought up earlier.  This gives your proposal CREDIBILITY.

Example 2: A little research in random fields
“I love innovation.  I live for the moment when a solution becomes clear after seeing a clinical problem firsthand. During medical school, the issues facing my patients fueled my pursuits.  Unsurprisingly, I was driven in many different directions.  The Manual Muscle Test was not sensitive enough for pediatric patients with hand deformities.  I used pegboards and an adjustable force sensor to improve the strength measurements of small muscle groups.  Another first year medical student and I went to a lunch talk about health literacy solely for the free pizza.  We left the talk realizing that great healthcare is tied to great education.  The software we developed to organize medical information online by a readability index eventually became the core technology of a mobile software application to help women have healthier pregnancies.  From my second year outpatient clinics, I saw that a large proportion of patients had difficulty adhering to their medications.  A week later while at a CVS drugstore, I was browsing talking Hallmark cards and our new device was born.  This $5 device attaches to the top of existing pill bottles and provides reminders, audio instructions specific to any medication and overdose warnings.”

Analysis: This is an example of how to connect research in multiple fields to one theme.  This candidate uses ‘innovation’ as the theme.  You can use different theme.  Themes include: helping the underserved, cancer epidemiology, large data analysis, protein kinase signaling, etc.

Try to find a common, broad connection between all of your research and use that to connect everything.  This can then tie easily to the field you are applying to.  Innovation can be then directed towards any field.  In this case, innovation in medication non-adherence, patient education and muscle testing can be applied to research projects in Dermatology.

The following example is for someone who has done a lot of research in one field but is applying in another.

Example 3:
“Innovation goes beyond simply developing new drugs and devices—regulation, cost and eventual patient impact are critical considerations.  After studying healthcare finance and discussing the intractable costs in American healthcare over pints of London ale with international graduate students—many of whom already experienced physicians—I came back to Harvard committed to investigating the medical innovation process from inception to approval.  Our analysis of the European and American approval processes for medical devices ran contrary to industry’s position.  The FDA is not slower in approving technologies and the increase burden of proof has likely saved American lives by preventing the dissemination of unproven, unsafe medical devices. It was gratifying to see such work reach Congress and directly inform policy-making.  By studying the regulatory and cost considerations of innovation, I hope to influence future policies that support the diffusion of needed, cost-effective technologies for patients.  In regards to Dermatology, there continued rising cost and lack of availability of critical topical drugs.  Given my background in this area, I hope to contribute to developing health policies that directly influence patient access to these key medications.”

This candidate has a deep research background on medical device development.  This is very far removed from Dermatology.  However, making a connection is key.  The last sentence is able to tie together a problem in Dermatology with his work.  This presents the candidate in a positive light and ties it back to why he would be an asset for his future field.

Often times, we see candidates that practiced Neurology or Surgery back in their home country to then apply in Internal Medicine.  This is OK.  If you’ve done work in those prior fields, tie it back to your proposed field.  For instance in Surgery, you can discuss your interest in improving medical postoperative management of surgery patients.

The next case below is for the lucky ones.  These are for candidates that had the opportunity to do extended amounts of research within their field.

Example 4:
“Perhaps as important as medical service in improving vision care, is ophthalmic research. As part of the research year at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, I conducted clinical research through the Research to Prevent Blindness Medical Student Fellowship. Under the guidance of my preceptors, I learned a great deal about research methodologies as I explored the different pathologic features of dry age-related macular degeneration between ophthalmic imaging devices. Drawing from my previous background in engineering, I was also able to develop automated computer methods for the analysis of macular holes, choroidal size and architecture, and corneal mapping. Being able to translate clinical needs to answerable research questions and bringing innovations back into practice are immensely rewarding for me.”

Analysis: This candidate does a fantastic job of illustrating his research expertise in this area.  Notice, this is not a incredibly detailed account of his research.  He is only giving punchlines.  This is good because it allows ANY kind of faculty researcher to read about this and come away with a QUICK understanding of what kind of work he has done.  He uses terms like “automated computer methods” to lay out in understandable speech.

Remember, faculty members GLAZE over when hearing about detailed research methodologies.  Get to the point.

  1. Explain the POINT of the research.  In our example, it is to image changes for macular degeneration.
  2. Explain what YOU did.  In our example, the candidate developed “automated computer methods” for diagnostic purposes.
  3. Make a clear concluding point.  In our example, the candidate explains his interest in translational research.

Paragraph 4: Volunteerism and Service
We realize that often times coming from non-research intensive places, volunteerism must take a bigger role.  A mistake we see is that individuals actually spend TOO much time on this section.  It may be very important to you but being a good volunteer does not necessarily mean a successful resident.  Residency is a job.  Research is how physicians become well-known.  Frankly, volunteering is a high school, college and medical school endeavor.  There is VERY LIMITED time, if any, to volunteer as a resident.

The goal with a paragraph on volunteering is to demonstrate an ability to lead and follow through on an endeavor.

Example 1
“Because I enjoyed the field of ophthalmology, I created a volunteering program where medical students worked with ophthalmology staff and residents to see patients in a community free medical clinic. I truly enjoyed being able to provide care to underserved patients and give back to the community.  To further my interest in medical service, I spent two weeks in Peru with the Peru Health Outreach Project. In preparation for our medical mission trip, I helped organize the collection of 3500 pairs of eyeglasses, elicit donations of ophthalmic supplies from companies, and direct the flow of a vision screening clinic. Working with limited resources and a diverse patient population, we managed to set up a 70 patient/day clinic and saw a wide variety of interesting pathology. These experiences illustrated the importance of vision health in all populations. In the future, I plan on continuing to volunteer to promote vision health in the U.S. and abroad.”

Analysis:  This is a clear, direct message in this paragraph about volunteering.  First, notice how this candidate uses SPECIFIC numbers.  Do not just say you volunteered or led an organization.  Talk about how many patients you recruited.  Estimate how much money you raised.  Mention the OUTCOMES of your volunteerism as well.  This adds CREDIBILITY.  It adds a real sense that you accomplished something.  Finally, tie it back to your field and how you plan to morph that into continued service.

Take-home:

  1. Keep it short and sweet
  2. Use NUMBERS to add depth to your volunteering
  3. Tie it back to your field

Paragraph 5:  Conclusion and Future Outlook
This paragraph is what ties everything together.  In a well written essay, this should write itself.  The point of this paragraph is about neatly wrapping everything up.  It is also a good place to answer any concerning issues in your application such as a failed Step 1 or Step 2 attempt.

Example 1:
“Fundamentally, I want to spend my career solving clinical problems.  With this in mind, I envision myself thriving in a training program that exposes me to a wide range of pathologies, encourages collaboration between disciplines and supports self-directed investigation.  It is the diversity of my experiences in clinical medicine, engineering and healthcare policy that has equipped with a passion to identify meaningful clinical needs and the skills to both develop and validate practical solutions.  I cannot imagine a more obvious and fascinating substrate than the human skin where much of our health is so clearly displayed.”

Analysis:  This brings together all the aspects of the previous paragraphs.  It sums up with a final point about this candidate’s vision for the future.

Example 2:
“I believe my passion for patient care, dedication toward clinical and surgical aptitude, and enthusiasm for research will enable me to thrive in the field of ophthalmology. Ultimately, I see myself practicing as an academic ophthalmologist. Having been trained to think as a clinician scientist, I want to remain updated in the field and contribute to current research. Likewise, an academic center gives me the chance to teach the next generation of practitioners. While in residency, I will strive to incorporate the teachings from senior physicians and the full range of didactic sources to diagnose and treat a variety of ocular pathologies. I strongly believe my diligence and intellectual curiosity coupled with my compassionate care of patients will enable me to succeed in the future stages of training.”

Analysis:  You’ll notice how very similar this last paragraph is compared to our first example.  The major difference is that this candidate includes a specific goal of becoming an academic ophthalmologist.  We DO NOT recommend you put this down.  Honestly, many of the programs you will be interviewing at are NOT academic programs.  An explicit declaration of interest in academic medicine may make an attending physician at a community hospital question your ‘fit’.

Here’s a scenario many of you have asked for help on. Sometimes you may have a ‘red flag’ in your application.  We have dealt with this with other candidates successfully.  Here are our tips.

  1. Failed Step 1
  2. Failed Step 2 CK
  3. Failed Step 2 CS
  4. Failed Step 3
  5. Prior NRMP match violation
  6. Poor clinical grades
  7. Graduated many years ago from medical school

Example 3:
“Both personal and professional reasons contributed to my first unsuccessful attempt in my Step 1 test (you can substitute any one of your ‘red flags’ here).  Personally, I had several family obligations including a death in the family at the time of my test date.  Furthermore, I believe my preparation required more structure than I initially planned.  I take full responsibility.  Afterwards, I reworked my preparation strategy.  My second attempt was successful and I am fully confident I am prepared for the rigors of a residency in the United States.”

Analysis:

  1. Take full responsibility
  2. Still, provide plausible explanations
  3. Provide assurance it will not happen again

I think it’s important to get in front of this.  Be honest and straightforward.  Emphasize how you recognized your mistake and that you made specific steps to correct that mistake.  You have to reassure your faculty interviewer.  They will have already seen the red flag on your application.  They already have questions about it.  They WILL ask you about it in your interview.  The personal statement allows you to frame it and GET IN FRONT of it.

Thanks for getting to the end of this post. I hope it was helpful! The personal statement is important but the interview is even more important on determining where you match. A great interview can make up for a weak personal statement. Check out our interview series if you want to maximize your chances of matching at the best program as possible.