Having reviewed thousands of personal statements over the years, admissions committee chairman John T. Pham, DO, has come up with his own rule of thumb.
“When I look at a personal statement, if it doesn’t catch my attention in the first paragraph, then I’m not interested in reading further,” says Dr. Pham, who is the vice chair of the department of family medicine at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific-Northwest in Lebanon, Oregon.
The personal statement provides an important glimpse of a candidate’s noncognitive traits such as self-awareness, empathy, passion and fortitude. A vivid well-written essay conveying a medical school or residency program applicant’s motivations and aspirations can be a deciding factor in inviting that candidate in for an interview.
“The personal statement is really the only way you can make a memorable mark on admission committee members before you meet them,” says Benjamin K. Frederick, MD, a third-year radiology resident in Columbia, Missouri, who runs an essay-editing service called Edityour.net.
Dr. Pham advises students to have their personal statements critiqued before submitting them to medical schools or residency programs. Applicants should seek feedback on their draft essays from their classmates, physician mentors, college guidance counselors, and friends or family members with strong editorial skills, he says.
Some students take this process a step further by seeking professional help with their statements. Dr. Pham is not opposed to students’ enlisting help from private admissions consultants and essay editors as long as the personal statement reflects the applicant’s own words, insights and experiences.
But Adam Hoverman, DO, who has reviewed many personal statements to assess med school and residency applicants, is concerned that heavily edited, overly polished essays do not accurately portray a candidate’s communication skills.
“Being able to organize your thoughts and write effectively is vital for transmitting knowledge as a physician,” says Dr. Hoverman, an assistant professor of family medicine and global health at the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine in Yakima, Washington. “An essay that reflects someone else’s skill set is misleading.”
But those who provide essay-editing services argue that they help future physicians become better, more reflective communicators. If it weren’t for their help, they maintain, many talented, compassionate individuals would not gain entrance to medical school or competitive residencies.
Medical school candidates often produce personal statements that are superficial and clichéd, says Linda Abraham, the founder of Accepted.com, an admissions consulting and essay-editing firm.
“The applicants will write in very generic terms about how they want to help people, and you don’t see where this comes from,” she says. “They don’t give their background story, and they don’t provide examples.”
When I look at a personal statement, if it doesn’t catch my attention in the first paragraph, then I’m not interested in reading further.
Dr. Frederick notes that many students try to cram too much information into their personal statements, which end up reading like CVs or résumés.
“The personal statement should be a narrative about an experience that led to personal growth in the pursuit of a medical career,” he says.
Vagueness and a lack of illustrative stories are the death knell of many personal statements, says medical school admissions consultant Cynthia Lewis, PhD.
“What I tell my applicants is that only one half of one sentence in a paragraph should be ‘This is what I did.’ The rest needs to be a reflection on why you did something,” says Dr. Lewis, founder of Lewis Associates. “What did you get out of it? How did it change you? How do you think differently about the world as a result of this experience?”
Telling a story
When Dr. Pham reads a personal statement, he wants to be wowed by the applicant’s story. Maybe the candidate decided to pursue medicine because of experiences in the Peace Corps, hardships overcome, a community service project, a family member’s battle with a disease or any other life-changing situation.
“Does the personal statement engage me from the get-go?” Dr. Pham asks himself. “Does it have a good story line and tell me a lot about the person and whether he or she is really dedicated to medicine?”
Being able to organize your thoughts and write effectively is vital for transmitting knowledge as a physician.
Applicants to osteopathic medical school are limited to 4,500 characters (including spaces), roughly 700 words, for their personal statement, so it must be concise and to the point. Dr. Lewis recommends that candidates divide their personal statements into three components. The first part, she says, should be a one-paragraph “uniqueness statement”—something significant the applicant has accomplished, a passionate interest or hobby, or a challenging or deeply moving experience.
She recalls one client who had several stories to choose from. When he was studying abroad in Spain, his wallet was stolen while he was traveling in England and he had to navigate Europe without his passport or any other ID. He also learned how to play flamenco guitar that year.
“You need to pick one key experience or interest and talk about it,” Dr. Lewis says. “This will say a lot about you, what you care about and how you think.”
The second part of the personal statement should describe the applicant’s journey to medicine, she says. The candidate should explain in a couple of paragraphs what initiated his or her interest in becoming a physician, what has sustained that ambition over time, and why he or she feels ready to apply to medical school.
Taking considerable time to self-reflect and write a compelling personal statement is a valuable exercise.
The final part of the essay should explore the candidate’s interest in osteopathic medicine. “Don’t just say, ‘I shadowed an osteopathic physician,’ ” urges Dr. Lewis. “Explain what you learned from the experience and how you might incorporate osteopathic philosophy into your future practice.
“If you are applying to osteopathic medical schools, the people evaluating your application need to see that you have an understanding of the osteopathic approach to care.”
However, warns Dr. Pham, applicants should not try to address all of the osteopathic tenets in the essay, which would seem forced and insincere.
“Applicants should not tell us what they think we want to hear,” he insists. “We know that many students apply to both DO and MD schools. But if a student is strictly applying to osteopathic schools, it’s important to tell us why.”
Unlike personal statements for osteopathic medical school, which are submitted with the application through AACOMAS, those for residency can be customized to the specialty and program, as ERAS permits. But that doesn’t make them any easier to write, says Kim M. Peck, the director of academic and career guidance at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine (MSUCOM) in East Lansing.
Residency candidates need to tell the story of how they came to be interested in a particular specialty and what their long-term career goals are, according to Peck. “I advise students to be specific,” she says. “Don’t just say, for instance, that you are good with your hands and would make a great surgeon. Give an example of how you came to realize that, including details. Did an attending compliment you when you assisted with suturing? Was it an interaction with a hospitalized patient that helped you make up your mind?”
MSUCOM’s website includes a list of 14 questions students should ask themselves before they begin writing their first draft, such as “Which course work and clinical experiences have you enjoyed the most and why?” and “What is unique about you and your experiences?”
The process of writing an effective personal statement may take months, not just days or weeks, Peck says.
“Medical students are so busy doing rotations, taking shelf exams, and jumping through all of the hoops that are part of the residency process that they often don’t have time to think about themselves and where they’re going,” she observes. “Taking considerable time to self-reflect and write a compelling personal statement is a valuable exercise that helps ensure that students are making sound, thoughtful career decisions.”
Medical communication: An overlooked skill?
Googling “medical personal statement editing” yields more than 590,000 links to services and informational websites.
“Evidently, these services have arisen because of demand: Students feel they have not been adequately prepared as premeds to write persuasive personal essays,” says Dr. Hoverman, who stresses that educators should be teaching aspiring physicians communication skills alongside biology and chemistry.
“The ability to frame your thoughts in a manner that is productive for a peer, a patient or the community is substantially relevant in all aspects of health care,” he says.
Premeds interested in educating themselves can take electives such as creative writing classes and advanced speech classes. Medical students may consider pursuing writing opportunities on their own, such as starting a blog or writing research papers or articles for medical publications.
Picking up communication skills will help aspiring physicians do much more than write better personal statements, Dr. Hoverman notes.
“Organizing clinical teams, developing treatment plans, engaging in health advocacy—all of these things require physicians to be excellent communicators,” he says. “Consequently, a personal statement should genuinely reflect an applicant’s communication skills.”
Emergency Medicine Personal Statement #1
The ring I wear on my right hand is a heart, held by two hands, and topped with a crown. Almost weekly, someone asks me about it. I proudly explain it is a "claddaugh," an Irish symbol, which stands for love, loyalty, and friendship. I treasure this ring for many reasons. First, it is a gift from my parents, who laid a solid foundation for the person I have become, and continue to be a great source of strength and ideal role models. They have taught me more than anyone else has about love, loyalty, and friendship. The claddaugh serves as a physical reminder of these ideals, which I seek to embrace and model each day. The ring is also a reminder of my Irish heritage, which is an important part of the many ways I define and identify myself. My favorite family event is March 17, when we all don our matching "[last name] Clan" shirts, board and old fire engine, and slowly cruise the streets of St. Louis' Irish neighborhood as a part of the annual St. Patrick's Day parade and celebration. On that day in particular, we always take time to honor my great-grandparents and other ancestors who left their homeland to pursue the American Dream. They worked hard, which allowed their progeny to see a life rich with blessings. With the determination of my ancestors, and inspired by the ideals symbolized in the claddaugh, I have focused my energies to become a physician, more specifically, an Emergency Medicine physician.
Emergency medicine was not a field I initially expected to enter. I enjoyed all of my rotations as a third year medical student, admittedly some more than others, and found decision time upsetting rather than exciting. As I reflected on the year, I realized that the part of each rotation I enjoyed the most was the initial work up, actually going down to see our patient in the ED. My enthusiasm for EM was grew when I spent four weeks in our ED and another four in the pediatric ED. The variety of patient pathology and personality is stimulating. EM offers a unique combination of intellectual reasoning and hands-on work. I also appreciate the opportunity and ability to deal with any problem that presents. EM physicians are passionate about their field - a love for and loyalty to their field unlike any other specialty. The doctors also enjoy a friendship among themselves and with other specialties that is also unique to the field. EM physicians are on the front line, and get to practice the heart of medicine - diagnosis and treatment. The stakes are high and the scope of the problems broad, thus EM requires high standards and the best trained physicians.
More so than physicians in any other field, those who practice Emergency Medicine are given an opportunity to serve the community's under-served. Though the underlying issue, inadequate access to mainstream healthcare, is frustrating, it is an honor to welcome and provide care to those who would otherwise receive no care at all. Those feelings are underscored by the time I have spent at St. Louis University School of Medicine's student-run health clinic, the Health Resource Center. The clinic is located in an impoverished area of St. Louis City, open Saturday mornings, and all services are free to all patients. The clinic is an all-volunteer effort, and completely run by students. After serving as a student volunteer seeing patients as in my first year, I was privileged to be one of the clinic coordinators in my second year of medical school. I was involved in the day-to-day administration of the clinic, including ensuring each session ran smoothly and managing patient issues, in addition to working with the clinic's affiliated social service organization on larger issues, such as developing 5 year goals for the clinic. I enjoyed my role as administrator and was very sad when I had to turn the work over to the next group of students. However, I have been able to return to seeing patients, which is the most rewarding aspect of working with the clinic.
I have a vision of what my post-residency life will be like, though I feel God always gets a good laugh when I make too many plans. Thus, my plans are flexible, though clearly, I will hold true to the ideals of the claddaugh: love, loyalty and friendship. My experience with our clinic has been the most powerful experience of my medical career to date, so I expect to serve as a physician volunteer to an under-served population. Additionally I love for academia and look forward to the opportunity to empower hungry young medical minds. I find the teaching/learning environment very natural, stimulating, and feel it provides patients with the most up-to-date resources available. As I enjoyed my brief exposure to the corporate world and my experience with running the clinic, I also foresee a role in administration, with the possibility of pursuing an MBA. Above all, I feel I have been given many blessings and talents and hope to use them to give back in return.
Emergency medicine provides variety, an opportunity to use manual skills, a unique diagnostic opportunity, the chance to work closely with every other service in the hospital, and an excellent teaching environment. These are only a few of the reasons why Emergency Medicine is the career best suited for me. In return, I will offer a passionate dedication to the patients, to learning, and to teaching those who are willing to learn. I also look forward to forming new bonds with my future colleagues. In short, I will apply the ideals of the claddaugh, the love, loyalty, and friendship, which are so important to me in my personal life, to my career as an Emergency Medicine physician.
Emergency Medicine Personal Statement #1