Red Flags of Residency Personal Statements
By Chandler Park, MD
About eight years ago, I volunteered for the residency selection committee for the first time. As a committee member, I received a batch of applications to look over before we sent out interview invitations. My job was to completely look over my batch of 20+ applications and read the personal statements. During my career, I have read hundreds of personal statements.
Being on the program’s side of the residency match process, I learned that many medical students make the same common mistakes. It is very important NOT to make these critical mistakes for your personal statement.
If you are on the fence, you may not get an interview offer. On the other hand, if you do get an interview offer, your first impression could be tainted by any red flags in your personal statement.
Every interviewer will read your personal statement to get a feel for you as a person, so make sure you don’t make these three mistakes.
Programs want residents who are hardworking team players that can fit into the program’s culture. Therefore, it is very important that you don’t convey overconfidence (nor arrogance) in the personal statement.
Every person that has been accepted to medical school is talented, intelligent, and a great test taker. Now is not the time to show this in your personal statement. We can read through your ERAS application for your accomplishments. Do not type your class rank, USMLE scores, or IQ scores in your personal statements. (I have seen this; it happens all the time, and it never works.) Instead, be very humble in your personal statement. Telling a story of an impactful patient that lead to your journey to go into your chosen field is a safe road.
Lastly, ask the astute relatives in your family to read through your personal statements. Ask if the personal statement’s tone is overconfidence, arrogance, or braggadocio. If it is, change it.
Lack of Purpose
Every program that you apply to can categorically reject your letter based on anything in your application. When I was a medical student, I thought high USMLE scores and top medical school class ranks meant one can get an interview at any place in one’s geographical range. NOT TRUE. There are other factors that I will talk about on future blogs that can help.
For now, the key is purpose. You have to demonstrate why you are going into your medical specialty. I was shocked at the number of personal statements that did not articulate why the applicant wanted to go into their medical specialty. One of my favorite residents did not have the highest USMLE score. However, when we interviewed him he had the drive, passion, interpersonal skills, and humility that was also evident in his personal statement. During his training, he was one of our best residents because he had purpose. Plus he was a team player that never complained. He was one of our best residents. He got along with others and went above and beyond the call of duty for his patients and his fellow residents. That is what we are looking for in an applicant.
Where is the drive, passion, or academic curiosity that lead to your choice for your medical specialty? Talk about your medical specialty experience as a third-year medical student and what captured your mind and heart. Your main idea in the personal statement is to talk about “Why I want to go into this medical specialty.”
Also talk about why you want to attend a certain program. Do your research. This is a good place to start. Learn about the programs that you are applying to in your medical specialty before you apply. Are you applying to an academic program or a community program? If you are applying to a community program and discuss your research prowess, you will likely not get an interview because it is not a good “fit” for that program. If you could be happy in either community or research oriented programs, you could consider writing separate personal statements: one for “academic programs” and the other for “community programs.” Send to each specific program based on the program’s fit.
Apologetic Personal Statements
Your personal statements should convey a positive light. Very few applicants have a perfect ERAS application. Everyone has a weakness on their application. There are some things you can’t control, such as the prestige of your undergraduate school and medical school. Other things are much more pertinent, such as missing a year, being dismissed from a 3rd year rotation, or taking time off. These can be addressed in the MSPE letter or a separate email to each program.
The key is to have a positive first impression. Your personal statement is your first impression for each residency program that you are applying to join. Do not use your statements to discuss a negative situation. Rather discuss why you want go into your medical specialty. We are looking for drive and motivation in your personal statement. If you have to discuss a negative situation, however, make sure you address how it impacted you and made you a better person.
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