How to write your personal statement for ERAS/residency applications

The personal statement is occasionally a chance to “make” your application, but it’s always a risk to “break” it.

Keep in mind: it’s only 1 page (literally—it should fit on no more than one page when printed from the ERAS application, which is somewhere around 750-800 words on the longer end; 600-650 is a better goal; mine was around 500). On one interview, I was told that the program’s main criteria for evaluating personal statements was not noteworthiness but rather inoffensiveness.

Questions to ask yourself in approaching the PS:

  • What are the reasons for choosing the specialty?
  • What are my career plans?
  • What accomplishments do I want to emphasize?
  • What outside interests do I have?
  • What contributions can I make to the specialty and the residency program?

You don’t have to answer all of these questions, but answering one or two will help you get the point of view you need to get a draft going.

The personal statement is a chance to state why you are choosing a specialty (and a location or a specific program) and to try to convince the reader that you are a good fit. While you are trying to say that you are awesome, you cannot simply say you are awesome. Like fiction, you should show, not tell when possible. This is not a CV in paragraph form. You must be more subtle.

Things to do:

  • Give yourself plenty of time to write; start now.
  • Write more than one. Tell your story from multiple angles and see which one comes out on top.
  • Often your first essay is not the best.
  • Consider explaining gaps in your application (leave of absence, course failure, low Step 1)
  • If there are particular programs you are desperate for, you may consider tailoring your statement for them. The individualized approach is obvious and is unlikely to make the desired impact. If you tailor, don’t be a sycophant (it’s too transparent). The most important time to individualize your PS is if you discuss, for example, your desire to be part of a big bustling academic center: make sure to change that if you are applying to a small community program.
  • Be straightforward in your writing
  • Edit and proofread your work carefully. Then do it again. And again. And then one last time for good measure.
  • Be concise. Edit down until every word counts. I personally subscribe to the common reviewer adage: “The more you write, the less I read.”
  • Ask for second opinions and feedback; you don’t always have to listen but it’s important to receive.
  • Your parents and significant others are wonderful readers, but they are generally insufficient. They love you too much. Have your PS vetted by your Specialty and Faculty Mentors.

Things to avoid:

  • Self-Congratulatory Statements
  • Self-Centered Statements
  • “Emotional” Stories (give it a try, but be wary). Telling your reader about your feelings directly often makes the feelings themselves feel contrived.
  • Reality embellishment (anything you write is fair game as interview fodder; if you can’t discuss it at length, then it shouldn’t be there)
  • Using tired analogies (or any analogies, really)
  • Quotations (you couldn’t think of 500 words of your own?)
  • Remember, your reader has a stack of applications. Don’t make your essay hurt to read, overly cutesy, or sappy to the point where it’s no longer convincing.

For most people, your personal statement will not/cannot stand out in a good way (standing out in a bad way, though, is entirely possible). Why you pursued medicine may have been an interesting story (hint: it probably wasn’t), but why you chose your specialty is likely even more banal. If you don’t feel like you have anything special to say, it’s because you don’t. That’s normal. Aim for competence.

There are sample essays available for perusal on medfools. I think even the “good” ones are pretty painful in general, but your mileage may vary. Here are some good tips from UNC. The AAMC Advisor also has some quick advice. If your remember your login, Careers in Medicine also has similar stuff.

4 Comments

  1. These are very good recommendations. In addition to proofreading and seeking advice from friends and family, I would also suggest considering a professional editing service. Although some of them can be costly, they see thousands of personal statements and will be able to objectively tell you if yours is competitive. This article also provides some good advice on residency personal statements: https://www.codeblueessays.com/top-7-tips-writing-residency/

    Reply
    • I don’t agree with the need for professional services for the vast majority of applicants, and I really dislike people promoting their services through comments on my blog. In this case, the linked article isn’t terrible, so I’m not deleting this.

      Reply

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