The Editor's cCorner

The Noble Art of Using Magical Words in a Personal Statement


I will never forget the call I received two years ago from an international medical graduate from Hungary asking for me please to give him the “magical words” for his personal statement.  It was August, 2013, and he was preparing his ERAS application for medical residency for the 2014 match.  He did not wish for any advice for improving the content of his personal statement, nor did he wish for his personal statement to be edited.  He wished only for the “magical words” to use in his personal statement that would be sure to get him an interview.


Where Does the Concern for Word Choice in a Personal Statement Come from?


The international medical graduate I described above is not alone.  Over the years, we have received many similar inquiries from candidates coming from all over the world to pursue their dreams of obtaining a medical residency position in the United States. Where does their concern come from?


First, many international medical graduates struggle with the uniquely American concept of a “personal statement.”  They come from cultures where it is discouraged or even taboo to share personal details at the level needed to achieve a successful personal statement.


Many international medical graduates face the additional challenge of speaking English as a second language and therefore lack confidence in expressing themselves in English, particularly in writing.  Finally, with more than 40,000 candidates applying for medical residency every year in the United States, the process is both highly competitive and biased against international medical graduates.  They are looking for any advantage they can find.


Does Word Choice Really Matter in a Personal Statement?


When it comes to writing a successful personal statement, word choice absolutely does matter, but not in the way that most people think.  The key to a successful personal statement is that it is written personally by the candidate and in an appropriate manner.  What many candidates do not realize—particularly those who hire others to write their personal statements for them—is that each word choice paints a picture, and simply looking at the words used to write a personal statement is enough to spot when it has not been personally written by the candidate.


The program directors we know will immediately and categorically reject the application of a candidate who has not personally written his or her own personal statement.


What Are Examples of Bad Word Choice in a Personal Statement?


Word choice matters, and there is a lot of bad advice on the Internet about which words to use in a personal statement.  Among the more common of these recommendations is to refer to the pursuit or practice of medicine as “noble” or an “art.”  However, there is no bigger mistake that can be made in which words to use in a personal statement.  Why is that?  Because no matter what the candidate thinks about the pursuit or practice of medicine, it is nearly impossible for those words to be used in a manner that will come across as genuine, and in the few cases where they could come across as genuine, they will more often paint a picture of the candidate being more arrogant than how he or she would wish to come across.


What Are Examples of Good Word Choice in a Personal Statement?


Though writing a personal statement can seem like a daunting task, it is actually relatively easy to think of the right words to use.  What are they?  They are your words.  However you think and write naturally—specifically when you are not trying to impress anyone—is how you should write your personal statement.


As for non-native English speakers, I know there are many who are concerned about whether they are using the correct words in English and whether those words are spelled correctly.  While it is important to make sure the right ideas are communicated and communicated well, once this is done, the use of one word versus another and making sure every word is spelled correctly is of only minor significance.


Why is this? Simply put, program directors are looking for quality candidates for their programs, not ones who can win spelling competitions.  In fact, many program directors also need help with spelling.  We know this because they ask us to edit their emails and other important documents.


So What Are the Magical Words?


No matter the personal statement, and no matter the program being applied for, there are no magical words to be inserted without consideration of the candidate’s particular goals for the personal statement.  The words that are used should be ones that match these particular goals best.  The best words for one candidate’s personal statement will therefore not be the same ones that best serve another candidate’s personal statement. With our personal statement services, for example, we do not look to employ a specific set of words in every personal statement, but instead evaluate the individual goals of each candidate with his or her personal statement and then advise the candidate which words would best help accomplish them.

Posted in Personal Statements

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