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Choosing What Not to Write in a Personal Statement

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Written by David Lombardino  |  Updated February 29, 2024

The Other Side of the Coin

With as much time as candidates spend thinking about what to write in their personal statements, what often gets overlooked is what NOT to write in a personal statement.

With the over 15 years’ experience I have in critiquing, editing and proofreading personal statements , I have gotten to know the mistakes candidates commonly make in their personal statements and the effect those mistakes have on the program directors and admissions committees reading them.

Once you know what these mistakes are, they will be easy to avoid, and get you that much closer to a good working draft of your personal statement—and a good first impression with your application.

Item 1 to Avoid: Clichés

The first step is to avoid using clichés in a personal statement. A cliché is a word or phrase, or even idea, that has been used so many times before that it is no longer effective, or original.

When we hear someone use a cliché when speaking, it makes us want to groan or wince. The effect is the same for the program director or admissions committee when reading a cliché in a personal statement.


An example is stating in a medical residency personal statement, for the sole purpose of communicating that you know how to work in a team, that you have played on a sports team.

Solution 1

If you want to use something that is normally considered a cliché in your personal statement, one solution is to provide the specific details that make the cliché particularly relevant to you.

In other words, provide the details that show that it is genuinely your particular story. In the example of wanting to communicate your ability to work in a team, you could describe a particular time when you stood out for putting the team’s or a fellow teammate’s needs first, and how your efforts helped the team.

Solution 2

Another solution is to think of the idea you wish to communicate with the cliché, then think of another way to communicate that same idea. Continuing with the teamwork example, rather than stating that you played on a sports team, you can describe an experience from the clinical setting in which you demonstrated a team-first attitude and other positive teamwork characteristics.

Item 2 to Avoid: Opening With a Story Written in the Present Tense

Avoid opening your personal statement by writing in the present tense unless what you are writing is something that is actually taking place in the present tense.

Don’t write in the present tense a story that happened in the past.

If the story happened in the past, then write it in the past tense. If the story didn’t happen in the past, but is one actually happening in the present, then think twice. Most likely there is a better option for the introduction to your personal statement.

How to Hook the Reader

Every candidate wants to open their personal statement with a hook that will get the program director’s or admission committee’s attention. The best and easiest way to do this is to have confidence in your story and tell it exactly how it is.

Your confidence, and telling your story in a genuine and forthright manner, will be all you need to hook your reader into wanting to read your personal statement.

Are you looking to gain acceptance to a life-changing education, training or career opportunity? If so, you’ll want to ensure your personal statement distinguishes you and your application. That’s where DLA Editors & Proofers comes in.

Led by David Lombardino, DLA Editors & Proofers is a team of expert editors and consultants that helps applicants achieve acceptance to competitive education, training and career opportunities. With their expertise across many fields, specialties and programs, DLA Editors & Proofers makes improving your personal statement easy until it’s ready for submission.

So if you are looking to gain acceptance to a life-changing education, training or career opportunity, take your time—use DLA Editors & Proofers to give your personal statement the edge it needs to set you and your application apart. Try DLA Editors & Proofers today, and take the first step toward gaining acceptance to a life-changing education, training or career opportunity.

Item 3 to Avoid: Gimmicks, or Any Other Attempt to Be Catchy

Avoid using any gimmicks or attempts to be catchy in your personal statement. Writing unnecessarily in the present tense is an example.

Another example is writing your personal statement in a question-answer format as if you were being interviewed by a game show host.

Instead, simply tell your story.

If you use a gimmick or otherwise attempt to be catchy in your personal statement, program directors or admissions committees will think there is a problem with your story, and that there is a reason you are not telling it in a clear and forthright manner. They will think you are trying to hide something, or that you know you are not a strong candidate for the program.

There is nothing positive that comes out of using a gimmick or other attempt to be catchy in a personal statement.

Item 4 to Avoid: The Passive Voice

Avoid using the passive voice in your personal statement. The passive voice occurs when a statement or question does not communicate the one who takes an action.

For example, “The patient received a shot in the arm.”

We see this most commonly in personal statements for medical residency. The effect of the passive voice is to distance both the subject and, therefore, the reader from the narrative. It prevents the reader from engaging, or maintaining engagement, with the personal statement.

Your personal statement is your story, and it should therefore state what YOU did.

The subject of each action described in the personal statement needs to be clearly communicated. If you did not take the action, then state who took the action in the context of what other action you were taking.

Example Solution 1—You Took the Action

Instead of “The patient received a shot in the arm,” write, “I gave the patient a shot in the arm.”

Example Solution 2—Someone Else Took the Action in the Context of Another Action You Were Taking

Instead of “The patient received a shot in the arm,” write, “My attending gave the patient a shot in the arm, while I held the patient’s hand and offered consoling words to the patient and her family.”

Posted in  Applicants
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