Personal Statements 101: Med School, Residency and Beyond

This is a guest post by Dr. Brenda Krygowski.

So you want to be a doctor but you’re dreading the personal statement? Look no further, help is found here: a culled list we shared as med students! Long considered the evil of any application, this doesn’t have to be the tiresome burden you think it is. Time to get out a notebook and a pen. By using the checklist below, you’re about to brainstorm a list of your unique history and traits. You can transform this information into the type of personal statement that will have attendings say, “Not only did I actually read yours until the end, but I remember what it said and I wasn’t bored out of my mind!” [the personal statement that caused those responses is included at the end of the checklist as an example for you].

A few tips and tricks though: read your statement out loud and have a handful of other people read it when you’re done to catch any typos, etc.  Although these personal statements usually get shoved in a file after application season is done, they can come back to haunt you (as mine did at the end of this blog post haha): my husband’s residency director read their personal statements at graduation! If you don’t put the effort in and merely write a paragraph or two, you will come across as lazy and people will talk smack about you when they meet after the interview to discuss if you’re a good candidate or not—so get out the elbow grease. And above all: pick a specialty that will let you sub specialize in the future in case you change your mind (as I did) and read the book “Stop Physician Burn Out” by Dike Drummond, MD after Step One, but before year three of medical school.

“Checklist” for the Personal Statement:

  1. Must fit onto one page (1 inch margin, 12 font, 3-4 paragraphs and a conclusion)
  2. What are the attributes, goals, events/experiences that have shaped you into YOUR personality, values and goals that you have/are today?  WHO YOU ARE must be conveyed.
  3. Needs to cover: personal issues, life changing experiences, family, and goals. What’s most important to your life?
  4. Not allowed: unusual, flippant, cute or crass writing/statements; do not state expectations (goals which the institute cannot provide: i.e. rural vs. urban vs. suburban or NEEDING to work with XYZ patients).  Do NOT talk about wanting to serve needy people after training (its cliche and tiresome to read).
  5. Do include professional experiences you seek in your attending years.  What do you intend to do with your career?
  6. Must stand out from crowd (no stress there, right?)
  7.  Talk about things you have done/interests that may spark a conversation or hold in common with interviewers.
  8. Cover stuff that is not found elsewhere in your application materials.
  9. Don’t repeat stuff found in Dean’s letter (if it can be helped).
  10.  Why do you want the specialty?   Why did you decide to go into Medicine? Become a doctor?
  11. How did volunteer activities influence your career choice?
  12.  Write positive things about self without inflating self or “puff-uppery.”
  13.  Recognize unique talents and traits.
  14.  Don’t compare self to others; don’t talk about weaknesses (look at strengths).
  15.  Why you’re best suited for the position of a (insert specialty) Resident.
  16.  In the end: is this what you think residency directors want in a candidate?
  17.  Do they care about things you wrote about?
  18. What attributes are they seeking? (they want you to be happy and productive in what you are doing). What do THEY WANT that you have? Have you expressed that in your essay? What you have done and how you will enhance their program?
  19. What does or doesn’t your personal statement draw attention to? Are you comfortable talking about all that it contains during an interview??

Seminal:  Highly influential in an original way; providing a basis for further development.

My seminal moment occurred during an afternoon in which I was the only medical person within a 15-mile radius.  I was partway through a two-month medical mission at a family clinic in Oaxaca, Mexico. She was a Mexican Indian Great-Grandmother, accompanied by females from the next three generations.  At first, she was the only patient.  She shyly approached and whispered in her Mixteco-accented Spanish: “My womb has fallen out.”  As I unlocked the clinic, the other generations filed in as well.  After performing a history and physical, I consulted the tattered Merck manual.  As I reassured her, she smilingly consented to return in the morning, when the real doctor was there.  Then the other women started to confide their family’s different health concerns to me.  As I spoke with them, the reason I had gone to medical school a year earlier was irrevocably confirmed: to be a family physician and take care of patients “from the cradle to the grave.”  I knew then that the variety in family medicine that had spiced my life until that moment would only continue to fascinate me if I pursued becoming a family physician.

Growing up in a family that valued multiculturalism fed my love of travel and languages.  Two weeks before medical school started, I accompanied my mother on our third mission trip to Cuba.  These and other travels in unpredictable environments increased my endurance and taught me flexibility.  In high school I had the opportunity to become a Rotary exchange student. Although I considered going to Spain to perfect my Spanish, I chose Germany instead.  The challenge of learning a third language was a better path to meeting one of my life’s goals: to become a well-rounded person.  As I worked hard to become fluent in German, I developed strong friendships with Germans that last to this day.  Living with a German family in which my host mother was an ophthalmologist allowed me to see what the life of one physician was like.  I was fascinated when she performed emergency eye exams in the television room.  Being exposed to that started me on the rewarding road to becoming a physician.

During my CC III Family Medicine clerkship, I felt like a contestant in a marvelous game show: behind every door was an exciting chapter in a mystery story that I had to solve or manage until the next installment.  It was my favorite rotation because it combined everything I love about medicine.  The other specialty rotations were enjoyable, but left me longing for the diversity found in family medicine.   Observing my Family Medicine preceptor reinforced my desire to become a family physician.  After thirty years in family medicine, he still had the same delight and enjoyment that I, a student, experienced everyday in going to the family practice.

I married my best friend in medical school a week after taking Step One of the USMLE.  My husband and I appreciate, support and inspire each other during the joys and frustrations of medical school.  He will be applying to Emergency Medicine residency positions while we participate in the couples match.  This fall, I hope to introduce him to my love of scuba diving when he accompanies me to the clinic in Oaxaca, Mexico.  We love to run, bike and camp together.

The delightful challenge of being a generalist in a world of increasing specialization is definitely what I want to do with my life.  In the future, I envision myself as either a preceptor in a private practice or in an academic setting.  I also see my husband and I continuing to volunteer in medical clinics in third world nations as opportunities arise.

B. C. Krygowski, M.D. holds bachelor degrees in German and Biology (she couldn’t make up her mind) and is a graduate of University at Buffalo’s medical school. She blogs at https://bckrygowski.com/.

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