One of the greatest challenges—and for many the single greatest challenge—in applying for medical residency is deciding what to write in the personal statement. How do I stand out? What can I write to catch the program director’s attention? These are questions that plague every one of the 40,000 applicants for medical residency in the United States every year, and they are ones that both U.S. medical graduates and international medical graduates (IMGs) have to answer.
The Greatest Obstacle to Writing a Personal Statement
I have been editing, proofreading and critiquing personal statements for medical residency for nearly a decade. It started as a favor I would do for friends and acquaintances, and has grown to overseeing, as editor in chief, the 1,000+ personal statements that DLA Editors & Proofers reviews annually. From what I have seen, the greatest obstacle preventing candidates from knowing what to write in their personal statements is not actually understanding what a personal statement is.
What Exactly Is a “Personal Statement”?
To understand what a personal statement is—and therefore to avoid the common pitfalls in writing one—it is necessary to consider first what the words “personal” and “statement” mean. Let us start with the word “statement,” since it is the noun and therefore the foundation of the term.
According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com), a “statement” is “a report or narrative (as of facts, events, or opinions),” an “account” or “recital.” A “narrative,” or “narration,” is “the act or process of telling the particulars of an act, occurrence, or course of events.” For candidates applying for medical residency, both the “act” and “occurrence” is the process of applying for medical residency, and the “course of events” is the path that has led to the candidate’s now applying for medical residency.
When we add the definition of “personal” to this description, we get an even clearer picture. “Personal” means “of or relating to a particular person.” It is “not public or general.” The “particular person,” of course, is the candidate preparing for medical residency. Applying this meaning to that of “statement,” we can see that the “path” that is to be described by the “personal statement” should be the one of the applicant, and no one else.
The Challenge of Being “Personal” in a “Personal Statement”
Of the two components of the “personal statement,” by far the one that most applicants struggle with is the “personal” aspect. Our clients are smart, driven individuals who excel at gathering, analyzing and prioritizing information in order to find possible solutions to a problem. The process is one in which they have been well trained, as the foundation for taking an effective patient history to arrive at the most likely differential diagnosis. The greatest difficulty they have when needing to write their personal statements is not in their ability to approach a problem logically, but in being able even to know how to approach the problem of what to write, which for many defies logic. This is particularly true for applicants raised outside the United States in cultures in which they were taught never to focus on themselves or to divulge any personal details, no matter how trivial.
Why Candidates Use Quotes in Their Personal Statements
No matter whether the candidates are U.S. medical graduates or IMGs—and therefore for various reasons—they tend just the same to want to use quotes in their personal statements, with the quotes they want to use tending to fall into one of three categories. The first and most common is a quote from someone famous. Examples of this are quoting Mohammed, Nelson Mandela or Thomas Jefferson. The second is a quote from what a professor, attending or public speaker said in front of a class or group. The third is a quote from a close friend, family member or otherwise particularly influential individual that has had a profound effect on the candidate. In most cases, the quotes is used in the introduction, and in most of these the candidate uses it in the first sentence. The reason for this is quite simple: the candidate is stuck on how to start, he or she does not have enough confidence in his or her own words, he or she believes such a device will attract the attention of an otherwise disinterested program director, or all of the above.
Why Using a Quote in a Personal Statement Is Almost Always a Mistake
What many candidates do not realize is that quoting someone else—particularly in the introduction and especially in the first sentence—is almost always a mistake. There are several reasons for this. Most commonly—as in the first two types of quotes described above—the quote has had no direct influence in shaping the candidate’s personal or professional path. For a quote from Mohamed, Mandela or any other person to be effective, it must be crucial to the point in the narrative at which it occurs. If it occurs in the first sentence, for example, it must be that the quote, above all the other candidate’s influences, has been foundational in his or her path. This is rarely likely, except in the case in which the candidate first heard the quote at a very young age and replayed it over and over again in his or her mind every—or almost every—day since. Such quotes are more likely to have come from a parent or close family member or family friend than from a famous person.
When the quote occurs somewhere in the introduction after the first sentence, or elsewhere in the personal statement, it must similarly have had a profound effect on the candidate’s individual path, or it must be otherwise crucial to the narrative. In the first case it would be from someone particularly influential in the candidate’s life. This could be from a close family member or from some other individual close to the candidate. It could be from a professor or attending if it represents a key moment in the candidate’s development.
While I have personally trained each editor who works on personal statements for DLA Editors & Proofers to be able to use quotes effectively in a personal statement, in the majority of cases we find the quotes simply do not work, and that in spite of all of our efforts the quotes still come across as a gimmick.
What I mean by “gimmick” is something that someone writes as a crutch in place of what should actually be written. In most cases the candidate does not realize that what he or she has written will come across as a gimmick, or he or she—at least before using our services—is at a loss with regard to what else to write. When evaluating whether a quote is being used effectively, we come back to the key pillar of the personal statement, which is that it must be “personal.” Too often the quotes come across as either filler material or as a result of the candidate’s, for whatever reason, not taking the effort simply to tell his or her own story.
What Candidates Should Write in Their Personal Statements Instead of a Quote
One problem we see is that there is a lot of misleading advice—and, even worse, examples—on how to write a personal statement that encourage the candidate to start with a famous quote. For almost every candidate, this is, by contrast, the worst place to start. What is easy, though, is to ask one simple question to help decide whether starting with a quote is a good idea. The question is: “Where did I get the idea for using this quote?” If the answer is not that “it has had a profound effect on me since I heard it” or, in other words, that “there is no other way for me to tell my story without it,” then chances are it will not be successful to use it in the personal statement.
What a candidate should write instead is simply his or her own path in his or her own words. Instead of trying to find a quote to use for the first sentence, the candidate should reflect on what exactly was the beginning of his or her path, and start with describing that. One way to start could be: “As far back as I can remember, I have had a strong desire to help others” or “I will never forget the first time my uncle took me to visit the slums.” Opening with a clear, direct statement like this from the candidate’s own point of view will always be the most effective way to gain the attention of the program director, and to encourage him to read past the first sentence.
Although many personal statements will not include any citation of sources, in some cases—particularly if your work is in the sciences and you need to provide a brief literature review—you will need to cite sources at the end of your essay in a “References” section. Chapter 1 discusses the ethical concerns associated with source citation as you write personal essays (see "Student Writing and Ethics" section). To address the more practical problem of citation mechanics, below are ways to address common mechanics challenges:
- In the simplest terms, the two basic citation styles appropriate for personal essays can be referred to as the number system and author-year system. In the number system, a number is provided in the text corresponding to a numbered source cited fully at the essay’s end. In the author-year system, the writer provides the author and year of the source in parentheses after the corresponding text, then cites the source fully at the end of the essay in a references list alphabetized by authors’ last names.
- When you use a references section at the end of an essay, provide full bibliographic information for your sources—e.g., author, article title, book or journal title, relevant page numbers, and website address if relevant. Because the mechanics of citation vary slightly from one journal to the next, most writers model their references page on that of a respected journal in their field.
- For convenience in a personal essay, it is acceptable to cite sources—especially if you use just one or two—in numbered footnote form at the bottom of the page. However, if you have more than a few sources, a separate section entitled “References” at the end of the essay is best.
- Sometimes, rather than a formal footnote or end citation, a contextual narrative citation will be sufficient if you are using a well-known quote or paraphrase (“Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge”) or attributing authorship and context directly (“As stated in a funding proposal authored by our research group, the hypothesis for my thesis research is . . .”).
- If you include figures or tables taken or adapted from a published source, cite the source directly in the figure or table caption, using the same citation style employed throughout the essay.
To see the above tips in action, browse through the sample essays in the later chapters of this manual, where you will find ample evidence of how other writers met their source citation challenges. For further detail about source citation practices, you can also go to Chapter 5 of the manual Style for Students Online.