Residency & Beyond

How to Create Your Best Residency Personal Statement

MedSchoolCoach offers expert tips from Physician Advisor, Blair Nelson, M.D. for helping students create a powerful residency personal statement.

Your residency personal statement tells residency directors why you want to be a physician. It’s a powerful piece of your application that you need to get right if you want to stand out from the crowd and get an interview invitation.

If you’re in the process of applying for residency, check out these expert tips from MedSchoolCoach Physician Advisor, Blair Nelson, M.D. for creating your best personal essay for residency.

First, Accept the Importance of the Residency Personal Statement

When asking a medical student the question, “Why do you want to be a doctor?” most will respond with prolific life-altering responses regarding “saving humanity” and “improving medical care.”

However, I can almost guarantee they are thinking to themselves as they are speaking, “Because I never want to write another essay again in my academic career and medical school is all multiple-choice questions.” None would admit outwardly to this, but I would be willing to make an enormous wager, assuming some device had been invented to read their minds during this question.

More disappointing than this reality is the incorrectness of the façade of no more essays. Granted, there are fewer essays in medical education; especially compared to one of our biggest academic rivals: law students. But let us not forget as we delude ourselves, the personal statement of the medical school application of AMCAS and the personal essay of the residency application of ERAS.

As a Physician Advisor with MedSchoolCoach, I spend my days coaching pre-medical students and current medical students through the process of creating these documents. Thankfully, my company is insightful and experienced beyond compare and brilliantly pairs each of us Physician Advisors with a Writing Advisor. These Writing Advisors are gifted with extensive backgrounds in English and Literature (via PhD’s in these realms) to balance our knowledge of content with their expertise of prose. Through a dozen (or more) revisions with input from both Physician and Writing advisors, the process itself takes most of the pain out of creating the mandatorily narcissistic residency personal statement.

Now let’s break down the process.

How & When to Begin Writing

Starting your residency personal statement can feel overwhelming – where do you even begin this painful process of writing about yourself, that you likely despise so much? The key is to start early and have a plan.

How to begin?

I am biting back my innate snarky personality by not writing “with a blank sheet of paper”. Well, trust me when I say I tried to bite this back. Snarky remarks aside, this is not entirely false. Most great essays of this nature begin by good old fashioned pen-to-paper brainstorming.

When to begin?

Most experts (myself included) would say give yourself at least two months to prepare your personal essays. This will allow for ample time to go through each process I am going to outline below in detail.

Step 1: Brainstorming for Your Residency Personal Statement

It is now a couple months before you need to submit your ERAS application to the residency programs of your choosing, and you have dutifully followed Dr. Nelson’s advice of starting with a blank sheet of paper.

The next step is the writing utensil of choice. Pen you say? Particularly good choice with a plethora of applications! With this pen and paper, start writing down some answers to the following questions:

What is it that made you choose this particular specialty to devote the rest of your career to?

Was there one “a-ha!” moment that defined this? Or was your path to this destiny a journey, much like Frodo in Lord of the Rings? Remember when defining this to remain tactful, but honest.

For example, despite four years of research in the ortho department and an official designation as a gunner by my classmates, I chose not to apply to ortho residencies at the beginning of my fourth year of medical school. I came to realize my attention span was not conducive to spending hours on end in the operating room. Also, I was frustrated by the lack of attention to the medical pathophysiology of patients on the post-operative ward and more attention to the intricate details of each procedure and the tools involved in such.

Therefore I, more like Samwise than Frodo, was sent on a not-so-magical journey to find out what I wanted to do with my career. I will not bore you with the rest of my epic adventure, but when I wrote my personal essay for residency, I did not dwell on why I did not choose ortho, but more on why I chose the specialty I applied to, while still referencing in a positive manner my time researching in the ortho department and how that experience helped me gain valuable skills and knowledge.

What is unique about you that will make a lasting impression on the residency directors slogging through hundreds of these applications and essays?

You are competing with hundreds (sometimes more) of other applicants for a small number of positions, and they may all look fabulous on paper. Now, nobody likes a bragger (except their mothers), but now is not the time to be modest. Think of things that are unlike those around you.

In my residency personal statement, I wrote about my time working as a radio disc jockey in college and how that gave me unique skills in communication, and the ability to multitask and creatively solve problems.

Most of what you will be writing about in your personal essay for residency will pertain to your time during medical school. But it is acceptable to talk about one or two unique things about yourself that existed prior. Were you an elite athlete? Musician? Published poetry? Competitive hot-dog eating contest winner? Nothing is off limits when brainstorming.

What strengths do you have that will make you successful and an asset to this program?

This part can be a little tricky and can make your life a bit harder, if you let it. If you want to look like a rock star, state some things that are specific to each program. This means that you have to upload a different personal essay for each program you apply to. If you want to take the lazy route and have one generic personal essay for residency that you send to all programs, nobody will fault you.

There is no limit on the number of residency personal statements you can upload to ERAS. But, it is a disaster if you accidentally send the wrong essay to the wrong program (or should I say, the wrong essay to the right program??).

Also, for those of you daring to apply to different specialties, that makes this mistake even harder to avoid as you will have a different personal essay for each separate specialty. For example, if a particular program has an emphasis on procedures or trauma, cite something about how you are particularly adept at procedural tasks and enjoy traumatic injury resuscitation.

Do you have a connection to the location of the program?

Did you grow up in this region? Do you have a third cousin twice removed who was Mayor in that city? Is there a rare butterfly that you did research on in Biology that is densely populated in that region?

For example: “Outside of my interests in your training program outlined above, I am attracted to the sunny and warm climate of North Dakota where I would work on my glowing tan.” (I can take a shot at ND because I am a native of the state and therefore making fun of myself…and no, I do not know Josh Duhamel)

Does my specialty of choice use the traditional ERAS application?

The following specialties have their own match system that is earlier and separate from the National Residency Match Program (NRMP):

  • Urology
  • Ophthalmology
  • Neurology
  • Neurosurgery
  • Otolaryngology

I will possibly address this in another blog to come. Until then, please refer to each specialty application regarding the logistics of the application and what they require for residency personal statements.

Do you have any specific long-term plans?

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 20 years? 100 years? Revealing your long-term goals for your career and personal life shows your dedication to your chosen medical education path.

What is NOT included in your Curriculum Vitae (CV) that you feel is important for the residency program directors to know about you?

One of the worst mistakes in drafting a residency personal statement is merely repeating your CV. This is frustrating for those reading your application and incredibly BORING! Be creative and show off your personality.

Now let’s move onto organizing your residency personal statement.

Step 2: Organizing Your Statement

One page on the ERAS application is considered standard for your personal essay, which works out to 3,500 characters (including spaces), which is roughly 600 to 700 words. Anything longer than this is considered excessive. I would worry about this more once you start writing, but it is a good thing to keep in mind from the beginning.

Opening Paragraph

Your opening paragraph should contain some sort of hook for the reader. Most choose to describe a particular case that solidified their passion for that specialty, but you can utilize your own unique paragraph. Just avoid being overly dramatic; you’re not auditioning for a Hallmark Channel movie.

Body of Essay

The body of the essay should contain 3-4 paragraphs of information you want to get across to the program directors. I highly urge you to look at each program to see what exactly they may be looking for in your essay. Some common things people write about are:

  • Inspiration behind specialty choice
  • Experiences in this specialty that were particularly impactful
  • Program strengths that attract the applicant
  • Attraction to the location of the program
  • Long term goals

These look oddly familiar…because they were the brainstorming questions! I can feel the heat from all the light bulbs going on at this moment!

Conclusion Paragraph

The conclusion paragraph is a brief recap of the goals you have set to achieve, and what you will bring to the program and specialty to reach these goals.

Pro Tip: Connect Each Paragraph to Intro Theme

Once each paragraph of information is scripted, try and connect each one to the overlying theme that was established in your intro paragraph. An example of a theme in the case of someone applying for Emergency Medicine residencies could be: “I am committed to caring for patients who are most vulnerable and being a safety net for the healthcare system.”

Pro Tip: Show It, Don’t Say It

Another thing to keep in mind when scripting the body is, rather than literally listing those qualities you feel are important to succeed in this area of medicine, show those qualities through examples of experiences where you displayed them. For example, I could tell you how I am smart all day long and it means nothing. But if I delineate my academic successes, I display this without having to literally list this quality.

One question that inevitably comes up during this process is whether or not to discuss any red flags on your CV. The answer? It depends on the flag. If it is a small flag, it is generally not worth calling attention to it. If it is a giant red flag, then it is best to address it head on. If you do decide to discuss any red flags, take ownership of the issue and discuss the growth from it. For example: an unexpected low grade or poor evaluation was due to unplanned time out of education, but here’s how you overcame it and grew from it.

Looking for Residency Personal Statement Writing Help?

Writing a personal essay for residency for the AMCAS application of medical school feels like you just finished a charity boxing match with Mike Tyson and he attempted to relive his glory days. Writing the ERAS application personal statement is not quite as painful, but equally as important.

Most program directors give the ERAS personal essay a ranking of 4th on the scale of importance as far as information used to choose residency acceptance. 3rd place being letters of recommendation. 2nd place is medical school grades/ranking. 1st place is the USMLE score.

If you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed, MedSchoolCoach has fantastic Writing Advisors and Physician Advisors – like me – in our Residency Match Support program to make this process much less stressful and time-consuming. Check out our reviews for further verification (and I will pretend not to be offended for not taking my word).

Bottom line:

  • Take the time to get the information you want scripted and worded the way it will be most effective.
  • Have others read it and give feedback, but ONLY if they understand the target audience and goal of the essay.
  • Make sure all spelling, grammar, and punctuation is correct.
  • Be unique in describing your strengths to set yourself apart without being overly dramatic.
  • Do not just rehash your CV or you will sedate your readers into a lull of passivity.
  • If you feel you do not have anything interesting or unique, but you worked hard and did well in school, this is fantastic. Just be sure to write a clear and concise document regarding why you chose this specialty, this program, in this location and what you will bring to it to make it better.

Do this and you will live long and prosper.

Blair Nelson MD

Dr. Blair Nelson graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of North Dakota with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology. He then worked as a rural ER doctor in Fargo, North Dakota and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. During his years as an attending physician, he became director of medical education for his department and was named affiliate professor for the University of Minnesota and University of North Dakota medical schools. Dr. Nelson is an enthusiastic educator with many success stories assisting students obtaining entrance to medical school.

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