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 10 years’ experience I have in consulting on, 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.
After you’ve followed the personal statement writing advice discussed in this article, sign up for our Personal Statement Revision & Critique service, which comes with multiple rounds of review of your personal statement, so we can provide you our expert advice tailored specifically to your story and candidacy, and help you achieve your best personal statement for the program, field or specialty you’re applying to.
Item 1 to Avoid: Clichés
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, or at least conclude that the speaker is not really thinking about what he or she is saying. 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 that you have played on a sports team for the sole purpose of communicating in your personal statement that you know how to work in a team.
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 in a medical residency personal statement, you could describe a particular time when you stood out for putting the team’s or a fellow teammate’s needs first.
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. In the teamwork example from the medical residency personal statement, 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. This means: 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 his or her 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.
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 the program director or admissions committee from the narrative. It makes him or her feel frustrated, and therefore lose interest in reading 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.”