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Personal Statement Guidelines For Residency Program

The residency application process is all business. Those who read your essay are not looking for novel styling, mysterious openings, or poetic phrasing; instead, they are looking for a clear statement of why you want to pursue a career in that particular specialty.

Like the AMCAS personal statement, residency personal statements are open ended in that there's no specific prompt. However, your residency matching application essay will need to be even more focused than the one that you submitted to medical school. Keep in mind that you are ultimately applying for a job, and your residency essay should reflect a strong level of professionalism.

One of the biggest mistakes that we see in residency essays is organizing them like med school application essays. Some applicants even try to use their med school essay as the basis for their residency essay. On the surface, this makes sense. Obviously, your medical school application essay was successful, so you want to repeat that success in the residency matching process.

However, we definitely recommend starting your residency essay from scratch. The selectors really only want to know about your life after you began medical school, so you'll need to draw upon those experiences to create an effective essay. Also, there is a strong trend within residency matching for shorter and shorter essays. No specialty is looking for an essay of longer than one page and one paragraph, but limiting the essay to fewer than 700 words is a good guideline.  

Additionally, we've learned that creative essays don't perform particularly well in the matching process. Residency selectors are looking for very specific things within the essay, and they want to know how you'll fit in to their program. It's called 'matching' for a reason, and you'll need to show the selectors that you have a place with them as a resident.

Here are the main content areas that we suggest covering in your residency essay:

Why have you chosen this specialty?

In the first part of your residency statement, you should discuss what in particular has interested you about the specialty you've chosen, and how you've built experience in that field. If you're planning on devoting your life to internal medicine, radiology, or any other focused branch of medicine, you must have a clear reason for doing so. Thus, make sure that the reader comes away from this section understanding what has led you to this profession.

Why do you think you will excel in this specialty?

Not every med school student will have equal interest in, let alone talent for, every specialty. What about you makes this specialty the right match for your personality and goals? Help the selectors see that you have what it takes to thrive in the specialty. A meticulous person can feel right at home doing gross and checks in pathology. Excellent manual dexterity can ensure success as a surgeon. Persistence in solving complex puzzles can serve you well as an internist. In this part of the essay, make connections between general talents and your chosen specialty.

What are you seeking in a residency?

Next, write about how you intend to further that experience during your residency and what specifically you're seeking in a residency. Don't talk about specific locations, though, as you'll likely send this essay to a large number of facilities. You've got a solid base of experience already, but during your residency you're going to become an expert. What will you contribute? You may want to write about things like teamwork, continuous learning, and passion for patient care.

How do you see your career in this field progressing?

Finally, look past your residency to give the reader an idea of what you plan to do with your accrued knowledge once you have completed your residency. Show the residency selectors how you will use the knowledge and skills that you gained in the residency for the benefit of patients. Do you envision yourself pursuing research? Working in a university? Being a provider in underserved regions? Tell them your vision for your career as a physician.

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The personal statement is occasionally a chance to “make” your application, but it’s always a risk to “break” it.

Keep in mind: it’s only 1 page (literally—it should fit on no more than one page when printed from the ERAS application, which is somewhere around 750-800 words on the longer end; 600-650 is a better goal; mine was around 500). On one interview, I was told that the program’s main criteria for evaluating personal statements was not noteworthiness but rather inoffensiveness.

Questions to ask yourself in approaching the PS:

  • What are the reasons for choosing the specialty?
  • What are my career plans?
  • What accomplishments do I want to emphasize?
  • What outside interests do I have?
  • What contributions can I make to the specialty and the residency program?

You don’t have to answer all of these questions, but answering one or two will help you get the point of view you need to get a draft going.

The personal statement is a chance to state why you are choosing a specialty (and a location or a specific program) and to try to convince the reader that you are a good fit. While you are trying to say that you are awesome, you cannot simply say you are awesome. Like fiction, you should show, not tell when possible. This is not a CV in paragraph form. You must be more subtle.

Things to do:

  • Give yourself plenty of time to write; start now.
  • Write more than one. Tell your story from multiple angles and see which one comes out on top.
  • Often your first essay is not the best.
  • Consider explaining gaps in your application (leave of absence, course failure, low Step 1)
  • If there are particular programs you are desperate for, you may consider tailoring your statement for them. The individualized approach is obvious and is unlikely to make the desired impact. If you tailor, don’t be a sycophant (it’s too transparent). The most important time to individualize your PS is if you discuss, for example, your desire to be part of a big bustling academic center: make sure to change that if you are applying to a small community program.
  • Be straightforward in your writing
  • Edit and proofread your work carefully. Then do it again. And again. And then one last time for good measure.
  • Be concise. Edit down until every word counts. I personally subscribe to the common reviewer adage: “The more you write, the less I read.”
  • Ask for second opinions and feedback; you don’t always have to listen but it’s important to receive.
  • Your parents and significant others are wonderful readers, but they are generally insufficient. They love you too much. Have your PS vetted by your Specialty and Faculty Mentors.

Things to avoid:

  • Self-Congratulatory Statements
  • Self-Centered Statements
  • “Emotional” Stories (give it a try, but be wary). Telling your reader about your feelings directly often makes the feelings themselves feel contrived.
  • Reality embellishment (anything you write is fair game as interview fodder; if you can’t discuss it at length, then it shouldn’t be there)
  • Using tired analogies (or any analogies, really)
  • Quotations (you couldn’t think of 500 words of your own?)
  • Remember, your reader has a stack of applications. Don’t make your essay hurt to read, overly cutesy, or sappy to the point where it’s no longer convincing.

For most people, your personal statement will not/cannot stand out in a good way (standing out in a bad way, though, is entirely possible). Why you pursued medicine may have been an interesting story (hint: it probably wasn’t), but why you chose your specialty is likely even more banal. If you don’t feel like you have anything special to say, it’s because you don’t. That’s normal. Aim for competence.

There are sample essays available for perusal on medfools. I think even the “good” ones are pretty painful in general, but your mileage may vary. Here are some good tips from UNC. The AAMC Advisor also has some quick advice. If your remember your login, Careers in Medicine also has similar stuff.

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