Getting into residency: 5 tips for a dynamic personal statement

It’s that time of year when third year medical students are grappling with anxiety as they prepare their residency applications.  Those uncertain feelings of ambivalence can only be assuaged by a successful “match.”  Critical to recruitment committees, but often overlooked by students, are the influential personal statements.

Everybody coming out of medical school has a long list of accomplishments and abilities.  The competition is steep.  A powerful narrative has the potential to illuminate one student in a sky of shining of stars.

Using my own composition from 2006, I have crafted a formula for writing a compelling essay.

1. Start with an impact statement. “Living in Dublin was the most exhilarating of educational experiences.  That summer of 2001, when I quit my job with Pfizer, Inc. and packed my bags for Ireland to attend medical school, I had no idea how much it would also become a five-year course in culture, family, and self-awareness.”

2. Tell a story or some novel fact. “In addition to the camaraderie shared by my quick-witted classmates, my new life included many challenges.  Learning to navigate my way through the streets of a foreign land complemented the equally daunting task of excelling in a foreign academic institution.  The international diversity of my class allowed me to develop a more worldly appreciation of language, customs, and religion.  Trinity College Dublin, constructed under the reign of Queen Elizabeth in 1592, served as a place of inspiration.  I shared the same library as historical figures such as James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, not to mention the Irish tenor, Ronan Tynan.  Living amid the cultural and economic resurgence across Ireland known as the “Celtic Tiger” I became an entrepreneur and launched my own fashion business with the slogan, “Life isn’t about finding yourself.  Life is about creating yourself.”  With fabulous hand-knit scarves, a catchy quote from George Bernard Shaw, and a lot of perseverance, I developed a successful creative outlet and a means to pay my rent!”

3. Make it personal!  The more your audience identifies with you, the more they’ll want to meet you. “Growing up, my parents instilled in me a strong sense of cultural identity as an Irish-American.  As a child I enjoyed Irish dancing and gained a hearty appreciation of great cooking, especially in the form of a full Irish breakfast.  My mother was born in Ireland and grew up there.  She has been a constant reminder of my heritage.  Since moving to Dublin my Irish connection has grown deeper.  I have seized every opportunity to connect with my aunts, uncles and cousins.  My enjoyment of traditional Irish music has grown by watching my cousins perform with their band, North Cregg, across the country.  Travel has also been an important part of my life.  I have toured the home where my mother grew up in County Cork, attended mass at the small chapel where my parents were married, and witnessed a new generation of family grow.”

4. Wait until half-way in to even mention medicine. “As a medical student, I maintained honors while keeping a balance in life.  During my clinical rotations I found myself understanding the “laying on of hands” aspect of medicine for the first time.  Entering medical school I envisioned my role as a Doctor would be to heal others.  To my surprise, psychiatry grabbed my focus when I witnessed how these Doctors could provide patients with the tools to heal themselves.”

5. Assert that you want the job. “Psychiatry is where I want to be.  Where I need to be.  It is the subject that I would rather be reading about when circumstances dictate otherwise.  With earnest, I look forward to bringing my motivation, creativity, energy and commitment to your program.”

Following this formula got me into my ideal residency which influenced where I am today.  Best of luck to all of the physician hopefuls – maybe I’ll be reading one or two of your essays at our program in Boston!

Helen M. Farrell is a psychiatrist who blogs at Frontpage Forensics and can be reacted on Twitter @HelenMFarrellMD.

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