Personal Statement Do’s and Don’ts

22 07 2010

It is summertime for medical students.  While second and third year students are conducting summer research, leading service activities, or starting clerkships, senior students are on their subinternships in search of a story to share in their personal statement.  In an editorial in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine, leaders in medical education actually propose retiring the time honored tradition of the personal statement.  These concerns come amidst a new report demonstrating that upwards of 5% of personal statements are plagiarized.  While the merits of personal statements are debated, current residency applicants are still stuck trying to create the perfect one.  So, for the MS4’s, here are the top Do’s and Don’ts for your personal statements and some ways to get started. 

DO’s

  1. Remember your audience. You are writing for program directors and selection committees. They want interns and residents who are hard working, competent team players who are good with patients. They are also reading hundreds to thousands of personal statements in one application period. (Case in point – one IM residency program director may read upwards of 1,500 personal statements).
  2. Follow three basic principles. Keep it succinct, clear and cohesive. The personal statement (PS) should be no longer than 1 page and should include paragraph indentations. 
  3. Be prepared to talk about anything you write in your statement. Interviewers often use the personal statement to help get a conversation started. The personal statement will, in some sense, be a way for you to introduce yourself to your interviewer and to the program.
  4. Make the statement about yourself. Avoid the habit of describing how great the field of X is or perseverating about a lengthy patient story without mentioning much about yourself. It’s easy to go on and on about one experience, but you have a lot of ground to cover.  We generally recommend a “hook” to open, followed by 2-3 paragraphs describing one or two experiences or activities that helped cultivate your interest or prepared you for the field you are entering. These experiences should be put into chronologic order and might be a college activity, medical school service and/or research project or an experience on a clinical rotation. 
  5. Think long and hard about your first line or ‘hook.’ The first line of your personal statement is most likely to be remembered so spend some time on it. If your first line is about Mrs. H’s CHF, it may not result in the best ‘meet and greet’ conversation.  Embedding a patient story later into your statement is appropriate, but is not an exciting start given that you’re writing to doctors.  For memorable ‘hooks,’ think about what makes you unique and what might be a good conversation starter.  This could be the ‘a-ha’ moment you experienced while volunteering abroad or something interesting about yourself such as your first career, an unusual hobby, an athletic or professional achievement.  Your job is to relate this to your passion for the field.   
  6. Make sure your personal statement matches your application. If you are opening with a discussion about the major impact that a global health experience or service activity has had on you, it should be in your ERAS application.  Select the most substantive experiences to discuss – the one hour per month volunteer activity is probably not going to make the cut. You should not ‘rehash’ your application but go into more detail about how and why certain experiences shaped your interest. 
  7. End with your future goals. The last paragraph of your statement should have some clues or keywords about things you are interested in (academics, medical education, research, and subspecialty).  Often times, this will enable the program to try to personalize your visit by bringing these issues up during the interview or even matching you with interviewers that have similar interests.

DON’Ts

  1. Don’t plagiarize. Program directors and faculty have read a lot of personal statements and are acutely aware of the many on-line sample personal statements out there. Resist the urge to “borrow” from these sites. The NRMP specifically notes that you must give credit for anything that you didn’t personally write. 
  2. Don’t make it to ‘too’ personal. Sounds odd we know…but your personal statement is meant to highlight your positives.  Refrain from discussing intimate details of your life that you are uncomfortable discussing with others. You’ll be asked about material in your personal statement over and over. If it is not something you would have brought up in an interview, you should probably not talk about it in a personal statement. Likewise, be careful with revealing too much about personal illnesses. Remember you are meeting people for a job interview – so you may not want to reveal your deep thoughts or memories. 
  3. Don’t dish about dirty laundry if you don’t have to.  You have faced hardships, have blemishes on your application, or you may not be certain you want to go into field X.  Reserve these topics for discussion with your peers, family or trusted advisors…but not for your statement.  Be prepared to discuss these issues in your interview knowing they may not even come up. There is no need to call attention to these issues before you even get a question about it.  Likewise, stories of how you were stressed (either emotionally or physically) will likely raise doubts about whether you are ready for the rigors of medical training.  You may need to consult with a faculty advisor here since this may vary from situation to situation.
  4. Don’t try to win a literary award. Remember doctors are used to reading abbreviations and not reading prose.  If your sentence exceeds 3 lines, think about rewriting it.  Look for the easiest way you can say what you want to.  Ironically, the statement is often harder to write for those with a background in creative writing. 
  5. Don’t diss others. Specifically, don’t talk about what’s wrong with other specialties, the difficulties your medical center may be facing, or other programs.  It just makes you look bad.
  6. Don’t go over a page. You’re writing for busy doctors, enough said.

 

Stuck? How to get beyond writer’s block with personal statements:

  • Look at the essay you submitted to get into med school. Chances are many of the characteristics you possessed then are still with you.
  • Start somewhere. It doesn’t have to be with the first line. You might have to start writing what ultimately ends up being in the middle of your statement. It’s often hardest to write the “who am I” first paragraph so it’s okay to start with why you chose the specialty to which you are applying.
  • Jot down random thoughts that come into your mind (preferably about your career) then put them into a sequence that makes sense.
  • Write your statement on paper or on the computer. Don’t feel obligated to use technology in the early stages. You may be better able to overcome writer’s block by writing on paper. Ultimately, you will want to transfer your personal statement into a notepad file in 10 point courier. If you cut and paste from a word document into ERAS, you will get strange formatting changes. It’s easier to cut and paste from a notepad file.

The Five Draft Personal Statement

  • Draft 1: Write something down (see “Stuck” if you don’t know where to start).
  • Read it aloud to yourself and fix what doesn’t sound good (like this sentence).
  • Draft 2: Have someone who knows you well and is a good writer read it with the following questions in mind: “Does this personal statement accurately represent me?” and “Is it well written?”
  • Draft 3: Ask your advisor to read it. This should either be the one assigned to you or a faculty member who knows you well. 
  • Don’t look at it for a day or two to let it simmer.
  • Draft 4: Ask an advisor in your field to read it and give you feedback.
  • Draft 5: Final version!

–Vineet Arora MD and Shalini Reddy MD





Celebration On Call: Holidays for Healthcare Workers

5 07 2010

In honor of Grand Rounds (best of health blogosphere) theme over at GlassHospital, I felt motivated to write about celebration especially as we mark the first holiday of the new academic year.  However, when I sat down to think about celebration, I realized it is important to recognize how healthcare workers, including residents, celebrate holidays.  While many of us spent this past week at fireworks, festivals (Taste of Chicago anyone?), barbecues or even bar mitzvahs (where I happened to be), many healthcare workers spent their holiday caring for patients. 

For those residents and students (especially on those July subinternships) who are taking call for the first time on the holiday, it’s a great reminder that a life in medicine at times requires sacrificing personal pleasure.  With this in mind, I flashed up a picture of fireworks at this years orientation for our subinterns, knowing that many of them may not see them this year.  This sacrifice continues even for attendings.  For example, a colleague recently confided that they were slated to work on three different holiday weekends, but chose not to complain since everyone has their turn.  I remember my turn – as a resident, I worked every July 4th weekend either as a new intern or training the new interns.  As a first year hospitalist attending, I worked on the most undesired months: July (enough said), December (holidays), and March (Spring Break). 

Although healthcare workers sometimes miss celebrating with their family or friends, it does not mean that they don’t celebrate on the wards.   Celebrating on call comes with its own set of amusing traditions that keep healthcare workers and their patients in the holiday spirit.

  • Festive feasts  – This is by far the best part of being on call over the holidays.  When I was a resident, Thanksgiving meant holiday dinner sponsored by the program from eveyone’s favorite Indian restaurant.  If that wasn’t enough, one can always go from nursing station to nursing station looking for the most exciting confections leftover from the potluck lunch.  In my experience, the ICU nurses seem to have or know where the best treats are.   
  • Holiday trinkets – Over the past few years, I have started to realize the value of providing small holiday gifts to my teams that are on-call over the holiday.  This past year, when my team started on-call on New Year’s Day, I brought them candy cane pens  (always can get these at a discount after Christmas).  By far, the biggest hit in this category was the Christmas socks I gave my team when I was a first year attending.  The team became the envy of the hospital and the bright spot for our patients due to their excitement over their matching socks. 
  • Holiday decorations – There is nothing more festive than sprucing up the dry sterile hospital hallways with some holiday cheer.  However, its important that these decorations don’t interfere with patient care. This past Halloween, I was on rounds and started backing into the hallway when a patient transporter came through with a stretcher only to find myself screaming as I thought the ceiling was somehow caving in.  Fortunately, it was just a ghoul head hanging from the ceiling that got me.  I was okay and the event provided endless amusement for our team.  On a side note, while most holiday decorations use positive cheerful images, having skeletons and ghosts hanging on Halloween in a hospital ward may backfire.  
  • Pray for an easy night– This by far is the most important tradition, especially so holiday staffers can go home and celebrate the next day.  Unfortunately, holidays can either bring two different outcomes – the best night on call or the worst night ever.  Everyone knows holidays can be slow because patients and their families may choose to delay seeking care until the holiday is over.  However, by this same argument, anyone who forgoes their holiday festivities to come to the hospital is usually very sick.  Some have even studied this showing worse outcomes for patients admitted during holidays (which could be due to patient factors or hospital staffing).  For example, Americans are most likely to die on or after Christmas Day and on New Year’s Day than on any other day of the year.  And as USA Today recently reported, the number of hospital emergency department visits associated with underage drinking on July 4th nearly double.  In addition, certain conditions are especially prone to present over the holidays:

“Merry Christmas Coronary” and the “Happy New Year Heart Attack” – many reasons are postulated for the higher rates of heart attacks during these holidays including binge eating, drinking, stress, and suboptimal staffing at hospitals

 “Holiday Heart” – fast irregular heart rate due to alcohol binge in a person with an otherwise normal heart; also a favorite pimp question on cardiology

 “Gout: the Scourge of the Holiday Season” – overindulgence of certain foods especially over the holidays can trigger a gouty attack

“Holiday Blues” – some may feel down during the holidays due to a variety of reasons such as financial stressors or remembering those that have past away

 So, as we pass the first holiday of the new academic year, let’s remember to celebrate the healthcare workers who missed seeing fireworks because they were seeing patients.

 –Vineet Arora MD








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