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Tales from an Insider: Personal Statement Failures

Created 03.12.13 by Michelle A. Finkel, MD
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Imagine this: It’s fifteen years from now, late at night. You’ve completed a long clinical day, had a quick dinner, and now you are ready to relax…

Unfortunately, you can’t: You have twenty personal statements to read by tomorrow. You sit down on the couch, eyeing the documents that will keep you from getting eight hours of sleep, and get to reading.

This scenario describes me several years ago when I was a Harvard Medical School faculty member and the Harvard Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency Program’s Assistant Director. Did I resent the essays? No. Was I desperate to have them grab my attention and keep me from snoring? Absolutely.

So, what pitfalls can you avoid so that your statement is more asset than liability, convincing the reader to invite you for an interview? There are several, so let me review them below to help you avert an essay disaster:

All stuff, no fluff.

I have always wanted to be a doctor because I love people and want to help them.

Being an internist has been my life dream because, through the field, I can make the world a better place.

My passion for surgery is greater than can be imagined. I want to heal with my hands.

One of the biggest turn offs for an admissions reader is flowery, empty language. Even novice readers can easily smell beauty pageant writing.

Your essay should be a persuasive document. Your role is to convince medical schools or residencies that you deserve a slot at their institutions. The best way to persuade is with facts, just like a lawyer does when s/he is trying a case in front of a judge. Saying you love people or want to make the world a better place is not convincing, and it doesn’t distinguish you from the scores of other applicants the reader may be assessing. You need to prove your value and your distinctiveness with your academic, clinical, research, community service, leadership, international, and teaching achievements.

If there is a sentence in your personal statement that could have been written by someone else (especially Miss America), it is not worth the space on the page.

The pneumonia that, thankfully, didn’t kill your grandma might still kill your application.

The gentle and prompt treatment Grandma got from the emergency physician made me realize I wanted to be a doctor too.

The cardiologist was so skilled, I committed myself to becoming an internist just like her.

Some candidates devote a significant portion of their medical school or ERAS® essays to describing a universal experience that initially piqued their interest in medicine or a particular specialty. I mean no disrespect to anyone’s ill family member (sadly, we have all had them), but writing about your personal experience with the medical field is overused, and it may bore your admissions reader. Just because your sentiment is genuine, it is unlikely to be compelling reading or a strategic means to distinguish you from the hundreds of other applicants whose personal statements share the same themes. In other words, the medical staff who impressed you so much when they were caring for your loved one does not reflect anything about your qualifications.

There are exceptions to this rule: If you can swiftly move from a brief personal medical story to your research on a related topic you may be able to pull the personal medical anecdote off. For example, if an applicant had a family member with autism and was consequently motivated to do NIH research on the disease, the personal medical story might be a means to introduce her research and associated publications. (This is a rare scenario.)

You’re the Inspiration: Why syrupy 80’s song titles make bad essay themes.

I learned so much from a frail, 60-year old woman who presented to the clinic with abdominal pain…. After the doctor gave her the diagnosis, she held my hand and we sat together while I comforted her, this former stranger who was now my friend.

A slightly different but related tactic is writing about moving patient stories. Most medical school and all residency applicants have patient vignettes to share, which means that a patient story does not distinguish an applicant from the masses of other candidates. The only caveat to this rule is the writer who can pull off a very concise patient story that then segues into her associated accomplishments, supporting a specific strength in her application. Writing about a patient you saw while volunteering at a Mother Teresa Missionary of Charity clinic could be powerful if it highlights your international community service work and transitions into your masters in public health and tropic disease research. (Again, a rare scenario.)

Childhood dreams may charm Aunt Mabel, but she’s not on the admissions committee.

As a three-year old, I dressed in scrubs for Halloween; I have always wanted to be a doctor.

I loved my doctor so much as a child, I knew that some day I, too, wanted to be a pediatrician.

Talking about your long-standing, childhood desire to be a transplant surgeon rarely works. First, the tactic is (perhaps surprisingly) overused. I’ve read countless essays about the doctor Halloween costume. Also – and you’ll start to see a theme here – these stories do not engage your reader nor further your candidacy. So, you’ve wanted to study germs since you were a kid? How does that support your being a great contributor to a medical institution or a future leader in your field? It doesn’t, which is why admissions readers have no interest in hearing about it.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Go back to that image of you – as a faculty member – facing twenty personal statements before you can get some zzzs. Really, the last thing you need is a verbose essay, droning on and on.

Applicants ask me if they should use every character allowable for their medical school and residency personal statements. There’s an easy answer: No.

Quantity is rarely quality, and in medical essay writing that is especially true. When approaching your personal statement, use two techniques to keep your writing tight. First, limit your essay to a page, no matter what. You will be surprised how this tactic will keep your essay from meandering and put your reader in a good mood. Second, imagine AMCAS® or ERAS® is charging you $10 for each word you write. How can you save a few bucks? Cut to keep you writing sharp. If you do a good job, you can still produce substantive, nuanced, and persuasive prose.

You only have one chance to ruin a first impression.

Readers do not like being confused, and you can’t blame them. Some medical school and residency applicants make the mistake of subtly referring to their crowning, distinguishing accomplishment without fleshing it out. Different faculty members will approach the application in different ways, so – to get “full credit” for your accomplishments – you need to assume that your reader is seeing your essay first, independent of your AMCAS® or ERAS® activities.

Ensure your personal statement can stand alone and doesn’t rely on your AMCAS® or ERAS® activities’ section for clarification.

So now, go back to that image of you as a faculty member in fifteen years. You’ve read the twenty essays assigned to you, you’ve weeded out the empty, trite, verbose ones, and you’ve honed in on the ones chocked full of substance. Keep that image in mind as you write your essay, and think carefully how you can work toward writing that wake-up essay among the crowd of soporifics.

Dr. Finkel, formerly an Assistant Residency Director and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, founded Insider Medical Admissions to level the admissions playing field by offering elite advising services for residency, medical school, fellowship, post-baccalaureate, and dental schools applicants. Check out Dr. Finkel’s under-one-minute, stop motion Guru on the Go© videos on her Youtube site and join her on Facebook and Twitter.

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  1. Doubtful says:

    How much did Dr. Finkel have to pay for this advertising opportunity? SDN loses credibility when running articles written by someone with something to sell.

    1. Hi Doubtful,
      While I can understand a healthy skepticism, allow me to set the record straight: I neither paid for nor received payment for this article. While I am proud of the top-notch services I provide for my clients, I also offer a tremendous amount of free advice available to all applicants through online publications, pre-med organizations, the American Medical Student Association, my blog, Twitter, and Facebook. Many clients start out as followers of my free advice, and it is precisely because they find value in it that they hire me. It may surprise you to learn that a recent video I posted was favorably tweeted by the NRMP – an organization that would have as much reason as anyone to share your skepticism.
      I’ll allow my article to stand on its own; I hope you don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.
      Best wishes,
      Michelle Finkel

      1. Doubtful says:

        Right. The free advice you give away is your “loss leader,” just like the time you spent writing this article. Writing for SDN and prominently advertising your company is not a charitable act. It’s an advertising act. You are sampling your product. You don’t need to pretend that you’re not doing so. If you didn’t pay for the opportunity, then you are lucky because you got free advertising for your company.

        The essential question, I guess, is whether “elite” advising services are worth several hundred dollars per hour to a competent applicant. My take, as a successful medical school and residency applicant and someone who has reviewed a few hundred ERAS applications and essays (I know, nothing like the thousands that you have reviewed), is that these services are not worth it for anyone that a medical school or residency would actually want to matriculate.

        Of course, your market is pretty good because you have a large group of people who are terrified of failing and can readily be convinced that expensive advising services will give them an “Insider” edge in admissions. Of course parents are probably an even easier market because of the tremendous sense of pride that comes from raising someone who is demonstrably successful.

        These people are in colleges and medical schools that provide advising to students and, in general, the advice is sound. There also is a wealth of crowd-sourced NON-PROPRIETARY information on SDN along with people who will VOLUNTARILY read and critique admission essays. At this point, there are no secrets to getting in to medical school. If a person is not competent to write an admission essay, complete AMCAS or ERAS without spelling errors, or behave appropriately at an interview, she is probably not ready to matriculate and may struggle.

  2. Matt says:

    Thanks I think I’ll write mine now…. go!

  3. Miss Thang says:

    Becoming a doctor is like joining a private country club these days.

  4. Confused says:

    So you’re telling me that I should be writing less of a personal statement, and more of a cover letter? No offense intended, but that’s essentially the opposite of how every major guide I’ve read tells you to write a personal statement.

  5. Dear Confused,
    I’m not offended at all, but I’m sorry you are perplexed. If you are going to distinguish yourself from the scores of other applicants with whom you are competing, you will need to write a persuasive document that uses strong examples to support the claims you are making about your candidacy. That doesn’t mean, however, that your personal statement should be boring! By using good writing techniques – crafting a catchy intro, using robust language, even choosing a compelling sequence – you can write an outstanding essay while still showcasing your accomplishments.

    Although I’ve been reading medical admissions essays for over a decade, I still remember a particular personal statement that employed the rules I’ve laid out in my article, while still being colorful. The applicant started the statement by describing his hobby refurbishing high-end stereos and then linked the traits he gained from his hobby to medicine. He then followed his intro with paragraphs of robust examples of his pre-professional accomplishments that supported the traits he was asserting. His essay was entertaining – yet substantive – and after reading it, I was convinced about his candidacy.

    If you have more questions about writing a personal statement, feel free to read my blog or see my Youtube videos on essay writing.
    Best of luck,
    Michelle

  6. Hilary says:

    I’m glad I read this! The personal statement I prepared for dental school applications is chock full of verbose, flowery writing and personal anecdotes. Glad I read this before June 3rd rolled around!

  7. Ken E says:

    Dr. Finkel….would you mind sharing what you yourself wrote in your personal statement? I understand that it was a while ago now or can you provide more examples of statements that impressed you? Your article has a lot of “don’t do this” and not enough “do more like this.”

    1. Hi Ken,
      Thanks for asking. In college, I was very involved in sexual assault prevention work, so in my personal statement, I highlighted that volunteerism, including a campus-wide conference I had organized. I tried to make the case that the work I did demonstrated my leadership skills and my commitment to managing my future patients in a holistic manner.
      My advice: Showcase something you are passionate about; you will enjoy writing about it, and it will distinguish you.
      Best,
      Michelle

  8. currentPD says:

    As a program director, I disagree with this list. I have never been sold on granting an applicant an interview invitation based on the personal statement. In fact, in my opinion, its merely a way to screen out the odd characters. So being generic is absolutely fine. If your resume meets our standards, I will grant an invite. A qualified applicant trying too hard on the personal statement will set off an alarm for me. Just my 2 cents. I’m sure other PD’s might feel otherwise.

    1. Hi Current PD,
      Of course everyone is different, but the NRMP Program Director Survey 2012 supports – with statistics – the fact that the personal statement is critical. Seventy-seven percent of program directors surveyed cited it as a factor in selecting applicants to interview – even more than Step 2 score and grades in required clerkships. Again, though, individuals may have different ideas about its import.
      Best,
      Michelle

  9. currentPD says:

    1) Even based on my own low opinion of the personal statement, I too would answer in a survey that it is a “factor” in selecting applicants. But as I mentioned above, its purpose is to screen out the odd characters.

    2) I’d like you to clarify the study that said it was more important than Step 2 scores and grades in required clerkships. Is it more important that a Medicine or Surgery clerkship? I find that dubious. Could it be more important than a Psychiatry or Radiology clerkship grade? Depending on the specialty one was applying to, then certainly. But as a whole, I dispute any data that suggests that a 1-page personal statement written for the purpose of an application trumps weeks and months of patient care evaluations and clerkship exam scores.

    3) Lastly, I challenge medical students to ask program directors at their schools/hospitals if they have ever granted an interview invitation based primarily on the quality of the personal statement. I think you’ll find the answer there.

    1. Hi Current PD,

      The study is the “2012 NRMP (National Residency Matching Program) Program Director Survey,” a survey of the directors of all programs participating in the Main Residency Match. For all specialties combined, the percentage of programs citing personal statement as a factor in selecting applicants to interview was 77%, the third highest of all factors surveyed out of a total of 35 (Figure 1). I don’t know your field, but the NRMP survey does break down the percentage of programs citing factors in selecting applicants to interview into specialties too, which you might find interesting. I certainly respect that one might dispute data, and you could contact the NRMP with questions about methodology. (There is an introduction to the study that might answer some of your questions.)

      I understand and respect that individuals may have different approaches to the personal statement’s import.

      Have a good weekend,
      Michelle

  10. another PD says:

    Personal statements are like interviews for me. They serve to identify people who cannot hide their personality disorders even in a brief controlled interaction. After that, I use them as a blank piece of paper on the back to write notes.

  11. MC says:

    Pretty sure I read this exact same article a year ago. I didn’t realize SDN recycles articles…

    1. Hmm…I wrote this article in January 2013, so this is not recycled. Perhaps another author wrote about personal statements for SDN in the past?
      Best,
      Michelle

  12. […] 3) Please take a look at my headlining article on the Student Doctor Network home page, “Tales from an Insider….” […]

  13. E. says:

    I’d like to thank Michelle for her time and input. Especially sticking around to respond to comments, even the combative ones. I personally think that the article had some good basic advice to get started on the personal statement with.

    Who cares if she is promoting her business by giving out free advice. The article is original content for SDN, and she has an extensive background in the match. Good by me.

  14. Ronald says:

    Some of the responses here are bush league. These respondents do not use their true identities because they may not be who they represent. I don’t see how an application to medical school can differ from applications to dental or law schools, applications to funding agencies like NSF, NIH, or Rhodes Scholarships. These highly sought fellowships are extremely competitive and the personal statements are factual and serve to introduce the applicant to the evaluation committee. I believe that there are far fewer NSF pre-doctoral fellow awards than there are first year medical school students. I have written support letters for many students seeking research fellowships and applying to professional schools and I refuse to write letters for those students who submit fluff piece personal statements and enhanced CVs or resumes. Every individual I have supported has been accepted into professional schools or were awarded fellowships with factual non-bullcrap fluff. If you are on a committee and you choose to not believe published peer-reviewed data without submitting a paper of your own findings, you shouldn’t be on a committee. Many people have good ideas; however, much fewer folks ever put those ideas to paper and move them completion to be critiqued or reviewed. Some of those respondents here probably never took a risk in their lives.

  15. OPAnchor says:

    My Personal Statement covers mostly about my EMT and research experiences and how they had me confirm my desire to work as a medical professional with strong scientific applications. However, my whole story began and ended with my father’s hypertension. Seeing your rule up here about the ‘family illness is boring’ is sort of making me panic here, can you elaborate on that?

    1. Hi OPAnchor,

      I haven’t read your personal statement, so it’s hard for me to make a specific recommendation. I will say that it takes an exceptionally skilled writer to imbue what many admissions officers consider an overused topic with a fresh perspective. (I mean no disrespect to your father when I say that.)

      I frequently advise clients to mine a unique insight or personal experience to achieve a memorable introduction. Perhaps thinking through your EMT experiences you might find more distinctive subject material to serve as fodder for your introduction. (This advice comes with the caveat that long descriptions of a patient interaction, however genuine, are not distinctive either.) If the EMT work does not lend itself to an introduction, I suspect there is other interesting subject matter in your candidacy that you can explore instead.

      I hope this helps.

      Best,
      Michelle

  16. A says:

    Reading this made me feel very comfortable. I’m only a student with one more year until I apply to med schools, but I’ve read hundreds of essays for examples. I found that most of them are just too similar and it really does start to bore me. So I can’t imagine what admissions committee readers have to go through. Fortunately, I fit your “rare scenarios” :) Hopefully, they are rare enough to make me stand out!

    1. OPAnchor says:

      ^Not sure what exactly, but that post made me want to vomit -_-

  17. Sarah says:

    Hello, I’m just about to start writing my personal statement. I was thinking of including a couple of short medical stories from my childhood. One was a case in which I was seriously injured and in the ER. I was going to talk a bit about my interactions with the caring staff. The other medical story was how I grew up watching my sister suffer from Trigeminal Neuralgia. I was going to talk about watching her go through that pain while my family felt helpless (it took years to finally diagnose the illness). Are these topics I should avoid or do you think they are unique/important enough to include? I was going to link them to my desire to become a physician. Note: I have no research experience involved in TN.

    1. Hi Sarah,
      I would offer you the same advice I gave to OPAnchor. I suspect you have other distinctive topics about which you could write that would better help distinguish you.

      I hope this advice helps you.
      Best wishes,
      Michelle

  18. nml says:

    Would using a medically related experience, in which you worked along side health care providers, in order to demonstrate the skills and attributes you have fall into this category of things not to write about as well?

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