What this physician learned by helping a medical student write a personal statement

“A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Several years ago, an anxious senior medical student was preparing his application for The Match, the clearinghouse through which 37,000 candidates hope to secure one of the 33,000 available residency positions. It is a nerve-wracking time. Each student compiles documents, assembles records, creates lists of activities, summarizes research, catalogs volunteer projects, selects the perfect photo and solicits faculty letters of recommendation. Then, and with no instructions other than to comply with a very generous word limit, they each prepare and upload a personal statement.

My student was baffled. What kind of statement would secure him the best otolaryngology residency? Over the past four years, he had entered plenty of history and physical exams into medical records and co-authored a research manuscript, but he had done no reflective writing.

“When are you available to meet?” he asked me in an email. Attached were three unedited, incomplete drafts. In one, he wrote about how important his high school sports experience had been to his development. In one, he wrote about how good his hands were because of his summer construction work. The third combined elements of the others. “Which one should I use?” he wanted to know. “I don’t want to get too far along if you don’t think it will work.” I skimmed them all; none explained to me why he wanted to be an otolaryngologist. We had some work to do.

As soon as I offered him an appointment, he sent two more. “I’m still not sure what to write about. I will attempt another one over the next couple of days,” he wrote. “This is hard.” He was struggling, but it gave me an idea.

Personal statements absorb a lot of energy at a point in each student’s life when they have little to spare, yet students are aware that a well-written statement can increase the odds that residency programs will offer them an interview. The internet offers wildly conflicting advice about content, length, and style. How can they sum up their journey and goals in 600 words? How do they tell their story without sounding either overly humble or self-aggrandizing? How do they make their statement unique without being weird? Should they include a clinical story or not? How about a favorite quote? Students tend to experience this stress and craft their essays without input from their peers, the very people with whom they had shared some of their most formative experiences.

This stressful writing assignment presented me with an opportunity. I had participated in writers workshops and found that process of writing and critiquing in groups improved my writing, enhanced my insight, and made me better appreciate my life in medicine. I proposed offering a modified workshop that could assist students in launching their statements, hoping that the opportunity would provide them with some of the same benefits I had experienced. Perhaps they, too, would better understand their journeys, notice shared moments of insight and experience the value of reflective writing.

The following year, working with MCW and professional writing colleagues, we offered our first Personal Statement Writers Workshop. First, we led the students through an exercise where they created their own writing prompts based on meaningful clinical and personal experiences. Then, we had them pick their favorite prompt and write non-stop for twenty minutes focusing on “who and what” rather than “why.” Finally, we taught them basic workshop techniques, and they polished their rough essays in small groups of peers. Students finished with a draft statement and new insights. As a group, they were surprised by the quality of their writing, their insights and how the exercise helped them better understand their clinical experiences. We published our data here.

Besides getting their statements launched, some wonderful things happened along the way. Students found that they were not alone; they found that sharing their writing offered a safe place to discuss difficult encounters and darker, unexplored experiences. They solidified or reconsidered their specialty choices; one student switched from a surgical field to internal medicine after writing about why she wanted to pursue each of them. Some experienced joy in the process of writing. Some promised to keep a journal.

Over the subsequent years, we have expanded the writing experience to include the entire third-year class. They continue to report that the experience of writing is very helpful, even those who have neither the background nor the inclination for creative or reflective writing. We focus on asking them to let the words flow, concentrate on the details of the stories and share what they have learned. Facilitating these sessions remains a highlight of my year.

My anxious student and I worked on his essay, and he did, in fact, match in a great otolaryngology residency that apparently was intrigued by both basketball and construction. “I don’t usually like to write,” he told me after the essay was submitted, “but this was helpful. The whole process surprised me. I learned a lot.”

“That’s how it works,” I told him. And that is why I keep writing myself.

Bruce Campbell is an otolaryngologist who blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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