This morning I had one of the most enjoyable phone calls I have ever had from a potential client. His question: How do I know your services are not a scam?
The caller went on to explain that he had read many horror stories on the Internet from others who had been swindled by companies purporting to provide personal statement services. Those companies had provided either poor results or simply no results at all.
For something this critical to his future, he wanted to talk to me personally to ensure we are different.
Why Do Scams Exist?
In my 10+ years of assisting both U.S. and international medical graduates with their personal statements for medical residency, and as the editor in chief and owner of DLA Editors & Proofers, I have seen many scams and many clients nervous about hiring us as a result.
Those purveying the scams know the candidates who most often seek help with their personal statements for medical residency come from outside the U.S. These candidates are less familiar with the process of applying for medical residency and as immigrants often feel a greater level of anxiety and even desperation about their applications.
There are people who, sadly, seek to take advantage of them.
My Personal View
From the thousands of international medical graduates we have assisted in their applications for medical residency, I know firsthand how overwhelming having to write the personal statement can be. Many struggle with the uniquely American concept of the “personal statement.” Is it a letter? Is it an essay? What does it mean that it is “personal”? What does it mean that it is a “statement”?
My experience first started with friends of mine in medical school and continued with my wife, who is also an international medical graduate.
What I learned from them, as well as from the many clients we have assisted since, is that the personal and professional challenges international medical graduates have to overcome in applying for residency in the U.S. develop in them a strength of character and humility that is difficult to find elsewhere, and make them better residents and doctors as a result.
Scam #1: The Offer to Write Your Personal Statement for You
The most common scam I have seen is the offer to write candidates’ medical residency personal statements for them.
With the pressure of organizing all that is needed for their ERAS applications, in addition to the time constraints of working and often also family responsibilities, I know how enticing it is to think that someone else can write your personal statement for medical residency for you and relieve you of that burden.
However, from what we have seen, and from the program directors, attendings, fellows and residents we’ve talked to, there is no decision you can take that can have a more negative effect on your application.
Personal statements not written by the candidate are easy to spot and will cause the candidate’s application to be automatically rejected.
Even the most poorly developed but genuinely written personal statements will lead to a much greater chance of success than will the fanciest personal statement written by someone else.
Scam #2: Fake Reviews
Wisely, many applicants for medical residency seek to avoid potential personal statement scams by getting recommendations from others who have already gone through the process. But what if no one you know has gone through the process?
One option is to join online forums where candidates like you share their experiences. One popular one is USMLE Forums, where you can find rankings of the best personal statement writing and editing services.
When reading reviews, whether those posted in forums or those that service providers place on their own websites, it is important to remember that many, though not all, of the reviews online are actually fake.
The good news is that with just a little insight, fake reviews are easy to spot.
First, ask yourself if the review goes into any detail. Is it genuinely written? Or is it just a blanket statement like “I think so and so is the best” or “I think so and so is the worst”? Then look at all the reviews given for the same service provider. Can you recognize any that follow a similar pattern or style?
If so, these reviews were likely written by companies or individuals paid to write reviews, and not by actual clients.
Scam #3: Services Offered by “Doctors”
Nothing is more important than ensuring the one you ask to help you with your personal statement has both the expertise and experience needed to guide you in achieving your most successful personal statement.
This does not mean writing your personal statement for you.
It also does not mean telling you to write something in your personal statement that is not actually your story.
What it does mean is finding personal statement experts with a detailed knowledge of what it takes to write an outstanding personal statement on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the insight and talent to show you how to use your unique attributes and voice to draft your most successful medical residency personal statement.
One popular marketing ploy I have seen is for medical residency personal statement service providers to claim their services are being provided by “doctors.” For example, “Dr. So and So will personally review your personal statement” or “Our staff includes Dr. So and So.”
Savvy residency applicants ask themselves: If Dr. So and So is really qualified to be a doctor, what time do they have to assist people with personal statements?
And could they really provide me exactly what I need to write an outstanding personal statement that will set my application apart?
Scam #4: Bottom-Barrel Pricing
There is an old saying that states, “You get what you pay for.”
While this does not necessarily mean you need to go out and pay top dollar for a service to help you write your personal statement, it does certainly mean that if you pay little, you will get little in return.
Let's say you find a personal statement service offering to edit and critique your medical residency personal statement for only $30. After the company keeps its portion of the revenue for its operating expenses, how much is left for paying the “expert” to edit and critique your personal statement? How much “expertise” are you really getting for that amount?
Top 4 Tips for Avoiding Scams with Your Personal Statement
To help candidates applying for medical residency evaluate companies purporting to offer personal statement services for medical residency and to avoid potential scams, I have compiled the following top 4 tips:
Be wary of personal statement services that go against the ECFMG’s Personal Statement “Do’s” and “Don’ts.” For example, one of the “do’s” is to write your own personal statement. Another is to address potential red flags. A personal statement service that does not understand these “do’s” and “don’ts” is one that does not know the minimum needed for a successful personal statement for medical residency.
Find reputable reviews of the personal statement service. Do this by researching reviews guaranteed to be from actual purchasers of the service. My favorite is TrustPilot. Any company collecting reviews via TrustPilot must provide TrustPilot a complete list of all clients and purchases, regardless of the outcome. TrustPilot contacts the clients directly and posts reviews only from those with confirmed purchases.
Beyond reviews, see how much you can learn about the company to know if they are legitimate. For example, how long have they been in business? Do they have a phone number and mailing address? Does someone answer the phone when you call them? Do they have samples of their work on their website? Do they have photos of the people who work for them? What are their backgrounds? Do they do this full time or only in their spare time? Can the company’s background be independently verified, for example by the Better Business Bureau?
Pay a respectable amount for the personal statement service you are seeking. Ask yourself: With the amount I am paying for this service, is it possible for the expert providing the service to be compensated appropriately for their work? Remember: The fee an expert is paid for providing a service reflects both their level of expertise and the amount of time they will spend providing the service. Experts asking for lower fees either do not have the needed expertise, will not spend the needed time, or both.
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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published August 8, 2015, and last updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness June 15, 2022.