Edited by: Atif Zafar, MD
The Step-by-Step Approach on Writing a Stellar Personal Statement: A Program Director's Advice.
Whether you like it or not, you have to write a personal statement (PS). And whether we like it or not, we have to review your personal statements as part of the selection process. That’s just how this game works. I will confess, that most of us program directors and resident selection committee members secretly adore candidates who write a dazzling, enthralling, and alluring masterpiece. And that is exactly what we will cover today.
A little bit about myself. Around 10 years ago, I was applying to various residency programs. I was struggling with similar questions. And I was having the same confusions that bother you today. So when I became the fellowship program director and a resident selection core committee member, I started to contemplate and analyze how this process works. And if there is a science behind the entire residency selection process. I wanted to do this not only to improve my personal academic leadership abilities, but also to be a better mentor & coach. Let me explain.
I can assure you that there are many factors that play a role in your eventual selection, and your personal statement (PS) is one of them. To be frank, a remarkable PS can often help you get an interview invite even if there were other red flags in your application. Obviously, you will need to focus on your entire application, reference letters (LoRs), PS and polishing your interview skills, this article will focus on PS and PS alone.
Before, we go on a journey to apprise you of this exclusive step-by-step approach on how to write a stellar PS, I’d like to share a true story.
The Story of 'Human Connection Through Parrots'
There was a guy who was struggling to match. He had tried once or twice before but was having a hard time matching in an Internal Medicine residency program. He was smart, handsome, sharp, had above-average scores with good communication skills. He had world-class mentors who were having a hard time understanding why this guy could not match. He was resilient, so he tried the next year again. Same application, same personality, same credentials, a year older from graduation date if anything. He decided to polish up his PS even more. He was a parrot owner and loved birds like crazy. You ask him about bird food, parrot hygiene, how to clean the birds cage, food that charms them, and everything else you can think of about the birds. Guess what he did. He wrote a PS talking about the beautiful, positive aspects of parrots. Their food, parrot speech, their skill training, how to tame them and more. He used his parrot-passion to unconsciously narrate to the readers into appreciating his personal positive attributes. Because of his parrot-story, the readers of his PS considered this guy as caring, light-hearted, smart who can tame ‘things’, passionate about something and someone (being obsessed with something, in doctors language, is a trait equivalent to “specialize” in a specific field), etc. Do me a favor, read this last line one more time.
As a program director, these are the attributes I want my incoming residents to have. May be add problem solver, conflict manager, team player and hard worker in there. Long story short, one of the program directors in the east coast was also passionate about parrots. Obviously not all of us are that lucky. But he got invited based on his PS and his interest. In those days, some community hospitals used to offer pre-match if they really liked someone. Within 48 hours of his interview – remind you a big chunk of his interview with the PD was on their parrot-passion and how sensitive the parrot-owners need to be – he received the pre-match offer. This was one of the two interviews he got that entire year.
I wanted to share this true story to emphasize the fact that it’s the genuineness of the PS that matters. Not everyone will connect with you. But the whole idea is for you and the for the programs to connect with each other based on each other’s admiration, choices and preferences. There is a reason why it’s called a PERSONAL statement. With that, let us begin.
Step-By-Step Approach in Drafting Your Personal Statement:
The following is a step-by-step approach that will help you in drafting your personal statement. It is based on not only my personal experiences, but I’ll be divulging perspectives from other colleagues who are program directors and sit on selection committees.
Step 1: In this step, I'll share with you the basics.
- An ideal PS should be one page long on an A4 sized page with a font size of 11. You can plus minus 6 lines to this.
- Your initial draft will be lengthier. That is fine. But please know that your goal should be to keep the final copy of your PS short and sweet.
- If you have a lot of stories to share, you can have more paragraphs, but I’d suggest keeping 3-5 paragraphs in your ultimate masterpiece.
- If you are using numbers like 4 or 7 (any single digit), make sure you write them as four or seven, unless that number is 10 or greater.
- No abbreviations unless you have clearly introduced the abbreviation in the early part of the PS.
- I am not a native English speaker, and if you are like me, I’d strongly recommend that you get your PS edited by a native English speaker. Even better if you can find someone with experience in editing English articles.
- Be positive, gracious and humble. And make sure your PS reflects that. Let your CV you’re your arrogance, over-confidence and accomplishments. Here even your successes need to be mentioned in a humble way.
With these basics, let us move on.
Step 2: Let’s create ambition-points or grail. Now, this is where most of us fail. You have to come up with 2-3 ambition points. Don’t mess this step up. It is critical that you spend some time here. Even if it requires to create 3 separate PS. Your ambition points can look like any of the following:
- I am looking to match in a program that serves under-served population.
- I would like to be part of a community and hospital that respects LGBT
- I would like to be in a rural setting and practice rural medicine
- I am interested in matching in a big city program or where I have grown up in
- I would like to be close to family
- I am interested in getting trained in an ivy-league program
- I love the pace and culture of the Midwest, and Id like to train in that environment
- I am looking to be part of a program that has an active social life
- Program with family friendly attitude
- I am looking to work like a machine and be part of a busy, hands on program
- I am looking for primary care non-specialized training so a program without fellowship suits my training mode.
- I want to match in cardiology, I am competitive and am eager to be part of a competitive program.
- And other similar ideas or choices.
The goal is to capture your target hospital/program in its truest sense. Now you may be thinking: "Shew, I just need to match in NYC or Chicago or LA". Or maybe you are like, "just get me in anywhere even if its in the middle of nowhere".
But what I am sharing here is for you to be able to connect with the programs. Choose 2-3 points. Above are just few of hundreds of examples. I don't know, maybe yours is not mentioned above. Whatever the case, come up with your ambition-points.
If you are still scratching your head on why I am emphasizing you to spend your precious time on step 2. Let me elaborate.
Ask any marketing specialist in the world about sales and they will agree with what I am about to share.
Let’s take a case example. Imagine you have a product that you want to market (such as a skin serum that helps maintain youthfulness of the skin) to all 50 year old females in North America versus you market it to only those 50 year old females who are professional workers, PLUS who live in urban areas of North America PLUS who have a nightlife. The former is a large cohort while in the latter group you have narrowed down to a very specific niche.
A random person with no business sense may choose to market this skin product to all the 50 year old females in North America with the hope that this serum for maintaining skin youthfulness will be able to attract some of these 50 year old women.
Thinking that if I market my product to millions of 50 year old females (in your case all residency programs in surgery for example), maybe a few of those will buy what I am selling.
Here is the fascinating part. Most if not all marketing experts will confirm, that the more targeted your campaign is, the more connections you will make with your customers and the more sales you will get.
Yes, your target audience in the latter case is only one-tenth of the entire 50 year old females in North America – a very small portion of all the 50 year old females out there (since you only selected professional females in their 50s who live in urban areas and who have a nightlife) – but the sales and success in the latter campaign which is more targeted, more niche specific – will remarkably be more impressive.
Yes, this is how many program directors feel when we see a stellar PS - happy customers. With this business lesson, let us move on to why what I just elaborated on is so critical to understand for you as a medical student or graduate writing your personal statement.
You have to CONNECT with your readers (in your case faculty and program directors). And to connect well, you have to know and understand ‘them’ better. If I am your program director, don’t you think Ill be looking for folks who align well with my program culture. If I am a faculty in a hospital that serves uninsured and other under-served folks of the state, don’t you think candidates who mention their interest towards serving under-served population and at the same time talking about how this experience aligned well with your personal long term goal to be a Chief Medical Officer at a county hospital, for example. I am telling you how this works. This is how we select you. I should be charging a couple of thousand bucks for sharing this secret.
I hope I have explained this aspect enough. By the end of step 2, & before moving on to step 3, I would like you to finalize your ambition-points. Feel free to email me at email@example.com for questions you may have.
Step 3: Narrow down the TWO STRONG aspects of your personality and a WEAKNESS. Having this information will prepare you to market your strong points – that truly are yours and are SPECIFIC to you.
Remember, genuine PS are high-impact. Ridding you and your personal statement of the routine terms and lingo like teamwork, hard working, and all that jazz.
Let me give you a mind-boggling tool to help you handle step 3 like a pro. Thank me later.
This is how you do it. I am sharing a link which contains inference tools derived from the book, “Personality Plus”. A book that almost all leaders have read at least once in their lifetime. The idea is for you to be able to analyze your personality. This link will open a PDF file with multiple pages. Start with page 1, where I ask you to put “1” adjacent to the personality traits that you can identify and associate yourself the most with. Ask your sibling or significant other to do the same analysis for you. We are talking about traits that you know you have, and others have complemented or complained about.
Page 2 will automatically populate based on your input on page 1. Just add all the “1” s. The column with the highest score in some folks, while in others the columns with the highest and the second highest scores depict your personality.
Pages 4, 5 & 6 will help you understand who you are and allow you to use your strong points to market yourself better.
Actually, once you are done with your trait scoring, the last and the second-last pages will be your best tools to identify the two strengths and a weakness. You will be amazed after going through this process.
After all, there is a reason why many successful leaders utilize this tool when building their team, and delegating roles & responsibilities based on these attributes. For drafting the PS you do not need the book. Just go to the tool link, which is free. If interested, you can get the book, 'Personality Plus' here on amazon, https://amzn.to/2ZWlqD1
Here is the link to the tool:
Step 4: Now you have your agenda & strengths identified and written on a piece of paper or your notepad. Step 4 will coach you on how to write your story. This step is not too complex, but requires creativity.
Start with your journey. Now most of you probably start something like this: my grand father or grandmother had a heart attack or stroke or a cancer. You share some touching points on how painful that phase was. And this was your inspiration to become a physician or surgeon or oncologist. Maybe you add a nice quote up there in the intro and conclusion.
There is nothing wrong with this story. Except that 97% of the people write their PS this way.
Talking about writing a high-impact PS? This will be hard to do if you follow what majority does. And still expect to be remembered by your potential PD or faculty.
What I recommend is starting with your PERSONAL journey that utilizes your strong aspects (step 3). Remember that its your first para that needs to be the best of the best. Not the second para, not the conclusion ---- has to be the first paragraph. Be creative. Be inspiring. Be passionate.
Is there a hobby that you have like adventure sports, scuba diving, passion for pets, computer programming, blogging, you play guitar or flute? Parrots?
If you cook or enjoy movies, music or specific sports, I suggest to go deeper into a specific movie or a particular song or a niche food or a specific game that changed you as a human being. Or at the least touched you enough to impact you. Something that would touch my neurons, as a reader and your recruiter, in a genuine & authentic way. Are you with me?
Once you have the idea of that inspiring or touching story that embodies your strengths (from step 3) in there. When you are doing this, you will realize it is not too complex. There is a reason why I had you do the personality assessment. It’s natural for you to be touched by specific things or emotions when you have a particular type of personality or temperament.
You have got to spend time on this first para, writing a story that embodies your strengths. Now, embodying your strengths in here are important but if you want, you can even consolidate your agenda in here, if possible. Again, the idea is to put in everything you have in this first para.
By now, you should have the first paragraph of your PS drafted. Continue to play with it. Your masterpiece will depend on how your first para makes the reader feel like.
Step 5: The second paragraph in my opinion should be to help push your ambition-points (step 2) in a gentle way.
I like it if you have your ambition-points incorporated in the shape of a clinical encounter. This way, after introducing your personality in the first para, you are gradually introducing your professional/clinical side, while continuing to use your strengths (from step 3) to your advantage.
Step 6: It is reasonable to use one paragraph (as long as it is not the first or second paragraph) to elaborate on an area where you are insecure. Or to show your vulnerable side.
You do not need to have this paragraph added to your PS, unless:
a) There is something in your CV which needs clarification, such as an academic failure of some sort?
b) A large gap in CV that would otherwise hurt your case,
c) A personal trauma that defined who you are,
d) Or you anticipate that your LoR potentially has something that needs clarification (physical or mental disability that you are aware that your mentors would have mentioned in the LoR or any other issues of such nature)
For folks who have a competitive application in general, may use this third para to incorporate one of their weaknesses, to show vulnerability in a nice, humble way. Now you don’t want to market if you have extremely poor interpersonal or social skills or you are arrogant or not a team player, etc. The weakness needs to be a personal attribute that otherwise does not impact your professional performance. Again, use step 3 to find such traits. Workaholic, Loner, compromising, hard to please may be some good ones. This is what you are trying to do: In spite of having a solid CV, impressive LoRs, I am a vulnerable human having insight of my weaknesses, and how I am working to make myself better every day.
Step 7: Let us write one paragraph on your specialty of interest.
You do not necessarily need to mention a specific super-specialty (like hepatobiliary surgery, head-neck cancer, or interventional cardiology, etc), but talking about Internal Medicine, Family Medicine or Surgery, with both personal and professional examples/stories is what you have to do.
Again, do not forget to write it in a way where you are explaining your JOURNEY, not the outcome. Meaning, talk about why family medicine is your passion. And then talk about your JOURNEY so far depicting your positive struggles towards achieving this goal.
Step 8: The conclusion should be concise and inspirational.
If you can add something that will motivate the reader into meeting you, makes things even better. For example, if you are a photographer, mentioning that you would love to share your personal favorite snapshots when you meet in person. Or if you have a professional photography website, casually mentioning it does not hurt. Remember, anything that stands you out in a positive humble way, leaves a good impression. Boasting and arrogance is not appreciated at any level, by anyone.
Another good way to wrap your PS is by writing an excerpt or a quote from your favorite book. For example, I would like to conclude my personal statement with one of the most inspirational things I learnt in life, from the book, “Go-Giver” (link to the book, https://a.co/dL0rs9f).
The book summarizes a common trait of people who have been successful both financially and in their careers. That concept is simple yet so inspirational, “The more you give, the more you get.” As a physician, I look forward to being that person who adds value and happiness in other peoples lives whether they be my my co-residents, faculty, patients, family or friends.
Step 9: Re-read it on different days.
Ask your loved one to read it. Welcome comments. Have your mentor give you the final approval. Once you and your mentor like it, find an editor or someone with good language skills to beautify your final version.
Step 10: Once you have formal English editing done, CELEBRATE your masterpiece.
There you go. Let me know if this was helpful in your endeavors of writing a stellar PS. I look forward to hearing about your success stories. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Doctorsmovement.com takes no responsibility of the content and its implications.
Atif Zafar, MD is a physician, entrepreneur, and the author of the book "Why Doctors Need To Be Leaders". He can be reached at email@example.com.
The physician-leadership book is available on Amazon: www.atifzafar.com/book.