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Crafting a Compelling Personal Statement, and Why How You Start Matters

 

No one wants to write a terrible personal statement.  No one wants to know that his was the one that made the program director roll his eyes, or that hers was the one to cause her residency application to be categorically rejected.  What our clients want—and what all applicants want—are personal statements that instantly captivate the program director, keep the program director intrigued from the first word to the last, and, on reaching the conclusion and without seeing any of the rest of the application, make the program director want immediately to pick up the phone and offer the candidate an interview.

 

The Hook: The Critical Role of an Intoxicating First Sentence

 

There is nothing more critical to the success of your personal statement than what you choose for your first sentence.  It is what establishes the tone, voice, style, and themes of your personal statement.  It establishes your attitude, it establishes your priorities, it establishes your personality the same as the clothes you wear the moment you walk through the door, and it starts with what you decide the first sentence should be before you actually write it.

 

Failure #1: Starting with a Quote

 

There is a lot of bad advice about how to write a personal statement.  Two years ago, this was to start the personal statement with a quote, or at least to include a quote somewhere in the introduction.  I wrote about why quotes should be avoided in a personal statement, and now it is something we do not see much anymore.

 

There is no doubt that it is difficult to decide what exactly is your story and therefore what to write in your personal statement.  For many, it can be a frustrating process that with the pressures of applications soon opening or with cultural or linguistic barriers lead them hoping, wishing or looking for an easy way out.  In writing, we call such easy ways out “crutches,” because they are what people lean on when they cannot find a solution for what they really should be writing.  As I mentioned above, a couple of years ago, this was starting with a quote.  Another that has kept coming up since is starting with a dramatic scene.

 

Failure #2: Starting with an Overly Dramatic Description

 

Next week I will be writing more extensively on the fabulous fiction of using flowery language in a personal statement.  In this post, I will focus on one particular element of this, which is opening the personal statement with an overly dramatic description.  It is one, ironically, that usually uses a quote, though in the form of dialog rather than from a famous person or book, and always uses flowery and overly dramatic language more appropriate for a romance novel than the professional writing needed for a personal statement.  I call it the “Dark and Stormy Night” example, because, in one form or another, that is how it starts:

 

“Veruka!” my mom screamed, as plaintive pellets of rain pelted the window pane and I peeked from under my pillow, praying I could remain hidden in my pastel pink and purple polka-dot pajamas.

 

What are the problems here?  The first is that the candidate uses too many words to get to the point.  The second is that it includes details that are entirely irrelevant to the personal statement.  For example, what does it matter in her application for an internal medicine residency program that Veruka was wearing “pastel pink and purple polka-dot pajamas”?

 

Failure #3: Pretending It Doesn’t Matter Why You Want a Career in Medicine

 

Another trend that has been growing recently is the tendency of candidates for medical residency to pretend it does not matter when writing their personal statements to describe why they want a career in medicine, or where such an interest came from.  There are even medical schools that give this advice to their students.  Why do they do that?  First, let me explain why while this may be good advice to follow, for the majority of candidates it will lead categorically to bad results.  Then I will explain why medical schools nonetheless give this advice.

 

The Role of the Personal Statement

 

What many candidates writing their personal statements overlook is the specific role the personal statement plays in distinguishing their applications from those of all the other candidates.  Their misunderstanding comes from not understanding the application as a whole and the distinct role each of its components plays in distinguishing and promoting the candidate.

 

The particular role of the personal statement is to distinguish the candidate by his or her personality and character.  For example, it is not the point of the personal statement to prove that the candidate has an outstanding academic history.  There are transcripts and test scores that will show that.

 

How to Choose Your Starting Point

 

There is one easy way to know how to start your personal statement, which is to ask the question of what you want and why.  You first start with whatever it is sure that you want.  This could be a career in an academic setting, volunteering frequently on medical missions, or simply that you know the specialty you want to apply for even if you are not yet sure where following that path may lead you.

 

Once you know for sure what you want, the next step is to work backward to understand why you want this and how you arrived at wanting it.  You then reflect on where this reason came from, and that is where you start your personal statement.  For many this will be an experience they had in youth.  For some, this will be an event, like a relative’s death from a heart attack, that will tell them immediately which specialty (e.g., cardiology) they want to pursue.  For the majority, though, it will be one that sets them on the path toward medicine, a course that gets further refined during the clinical rotations in medical school.

 

Why Some Medical Schools Advise Not to Discuss Why You Want a Career in Medicine

 

As I first mentioned in my article, “The Myth of the One-Page Personal Statement,” the first goal in writing a personal statement is to write one that someone will actually read.  Such a personal statement needs to be interesting, cohesive and efficient.  To do so, it needs to tell, in a forthright manner, your particular story.

 

The problem comes from forcing a candidate to tell a story that is not actually his or her story.  Take for example the cardiology candidate I mentioned earlier.  Forcing that candidate to start his or her personal statement by describing first where his or her interest in medicine came from would result in a painful beginning to the personal statement and one that would not at all be interesting to read.

 

On the other hand, take the other example of the candidate who knew early in life that he or she wanted to pursue a career in medicine but who did not know until medical school which specialty he or she wanted to follow.  Forcing that candidate to start at the point of when he or she decided what specialty to follow would result in a personal statement that starts in the middle of the story.  It would lack depth, be uninteresting to read and be incapable of achieving the goals of a personal statement.

 

No Matter Your Story, Have Confidence in It

 

As I wrote in my last article, “Personal Statement Red Flags: Turning Blemishes Into Bright Spots,” there is no personal statement more engaging than the one that tells the candidate’s story in a clear, cohesive, forthright manner.  These are the ones written from an unashamed and humble point of view.  These are the ones written by candidates who know there is no better approach to writing a personal statement than to have confidence in their stories, no matter what their stories are.  As I have described in this and other articles on how to write personal statements, it is for this reason that the path to writing a successful personal statement is as unique as the path the candidate has taken to apply for the particular program, and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Posted in Personal Statements

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