Residency Applications: Musings on the Personal Essay

Veering off the usual historical vignette this month, I decided to write instead about something that’s a hot topic this time of year: the residency application personal statement.  I do this partly for my own sake; I read at least 200 every year.

Foremost, this should be what it states: personal (but not too personal).  It is not an impersonal statement.  When writing, use as few words as possible to for each thought, feeling, or idea you wish to convey; every word should be scrutinized.  All students and physicians would benefit from an annual perusal of “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.  Take a riff from JFK and ask yourself, “What can I do for this specialty?”

How do you start? Try answering a few of these questions and see if it provides inspiration:

  1. When do you feel ‘flow’, meaning you lose track of time when doing a certain activity? (Bill James feels flow when he’s researching Andrews)
  2. What are your hobbies or extracurricular activities?
  3. Are there people you’ve met who are role models for you, if so why? What do you seek to emulate?
  4. Are there anti-role models for you– e.g. injustices, imbalances, etc. that you are inspired to correct or fix?
  5. Are there scientific questions or disease states you find interesting or compelling that you’d love to solve?
  6. What matters to you? How have your commitments matched what matters?
  7. When do you feel best about yourself, like you are reaching your full potential?
  8. What are your natural capacities?
  9. Were there deciding moments in your life that altered your life’s path or direction?

If you still don’t know where to start, try reading “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott.  It will help you get started– whilst entertaining and providing comfort in the fact that others struggle with writing too, even professional writers.

Here are a few bits of advice:

  1. Avoid passive voice. Medical writing is steeped in this and unnecessary wordiness. “Upon biopsy, the lesion was found to be a melanoma” instead of “The lesion was a biopsy-proven melanoma.” You’ve got about 500 words of real-estate to say everything about yourself– make each one count.
  2. The patient vignette—these usually feel like filler, it’s like the gel inside a McDonald’s apple pie or the Rome car-chase in Spectre. It’s like saying, “There’s not enough of the real thing, so I’m giving you this fluff instead.” Patient vignettes tell us about a patient, but not about the applicant. Don’t waste precious space telling someone else’s story.
  3. As for using other people’s quotes, I’d like to quote Nancy Reagan: “Just say no.” Quotes feel gimmicky and are often used in opening and closing the personal statement. You have thoughts and ideas of your own. Tell those.
  4. Saying something along the lines of “I like specialty X because it involves XYZ commonly known things about the specialty.” This is describing something to the reader who is usually a specialist of X–it is something about which they already know. Most X specialists like XYZ also, so it’s not particularly unique. Most people are drawn to specific medical specialties for similar reasons. An exception to this is if there something specific about you that ties in to *some quirky thing* about the specialty and totally explains why it is such a great fit for you.
  5. In the closing paragraph don’t state the obvious. This means writing anything like: “I seek a training program with a strong academic base, with a diverse patient population and a balance of clinical and didactic training.” Stating that you would like this implies that somebody else would NOT want this, but so far, I’ve never seen anyone write “I’d like a program with weak academics that overworks me clinically and has a homogeneous patient population with terrible professors.”
  6. Steer clear of clichés. When you use them it shows that: you are not using your best practices at thinking outside of the box, pushing the envelope or grabbing low-hanging fruit. Now more than ever, you should cast a wider net to manage the reader’s expectations by giving 110%, raising the bar and selecting actionable items that set a new benchmark for a strategic and granular statement that has legs and can go far, and you’ll take your essay from good to great which will improve the end-user experience!
  7. Don’t brag about your awesomeness. We all reach our highest potential when we recognize our gifts and figure out how to use them not to elevate ourselves– but rather to serve others or improve the world.

And remember, we are all unique and exceptional in different ways.  All of us have a different story of how we ended up where we are, we all have talents to bring and contribute to the world and our chosen specialty.  Think of these things and tell us all about them.

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Faculty at the Department of Dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern. interests: cutaneous lymphomas, medical student education, the relationship between art and medicine.

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