Without a doubt, the most common pitfall that I see when working with residency/fellowship applicants is writing a personal statement that reads like an essay for med school. Although this is completely understandable (med school was probably the last time that you wrote anything like a ‘personal statement’), submitting a med school style essay with your residency/fellowship applicant package can seem a bit amateurish, hurting your chances in the matching process. Below are some quick and effective tips on creating winning residency/fellowship personal statements.
1. Residency/Fellowship is a job. Med school is, well, school.
Yes, your residency/fellowship program is a training program. However, in applying to residency/fellowship, you are ultimately applying for a job. Therefore, focus on your professional skills across the board. Highlight your ability to do the day-to-day work in your specialty, including both patient aspects and more mundane tasks. Even pathologists and radiologists interact with other members of the healthcare team, so emphasize your ability to make a contribution and work effectively and professionally with other healthcare professionals.
2. Only write about life after you started med school.
Under no circumstances whatsoever should you write anything about your childhood. Yet, year after year, I’m continually surprised at how many residency/fellowship essays begin with some anecdote from childhood, whether it was a childhood interest in the specialty or how a childhood experience shaped the applicant’s decision to pursue a career in medicine. At this point, the anecdotes that you choose should come from experiences with patients. Even if you cannot remember a time when you didn’t want to be an OBGYN (or Cardiologist or Surgeon), remember that you’re not technically supposed to decide on a specialty until you complete your clinicals. Therefore, relate a story about how a particular experience or a particular patient solidified your decision to choose your specialty.
3. Be clear about the type of program that you are seeking.
In the hopes that some program (any program!) will offer an interview, it is not uncommon for residency applicants to attempt to cast a wide net. This approach, however, is probably the surest way to end up with no invitations at all. Making clear statements about the type of program that you are seeking helps selectors envision you as a strong contributor to their program. While it will also be a ‘knock-out factor’ for other programs, you probably wouldn’t be happy there anyway, which will likely slow down your career momentum. In the wrong environment, you probably won’t encounter the opportunities you need. Being in the right kind of environment will help you connect with the right people and the right opportunities to progress in your career goals.
4. Don’t be afraid to write a sentence or two about yourself – but connect it back to medicine.
Although it shouldn’t be more than a couple of sentences, if you have a little space available, write briefly about what you like to do in your spare time. However, be sure to keep it focused on medicine. If you like hiking, write about how physical fitness will support the long hours of residency. If you are moving with your family, discuss how your family is supportive of your decision and excited about the opportunity to experience life in a different city.
5. The most importance difference is tone.
There is a delightful, even wide-eyed innocence to the tone of med school essays. However, I’ll take the focus and dedication of a residency personal statement any day. Don’t get me wrong, I love med school applicants. I do. What I love even more, though, is watching idealism evolve into practical application that makes a real difference in the lives of real patients. Being down in the trenches is more meaningful than being up in the clouds.
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