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Myth of the One-Page Personal Statement

It Has to Be One Page?

We hear it all the time from candidates applying for medical residency: my personal statement has to be one page. One of my attendings told me so. A program director told me so. It is the recommendation of the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS®).

Every year my team of editors and I develop, critique, edit and proofread more than a thousand personal statements for medical residency. (We guide our clients with personally tailored advice; we do not actually write their personal statements.)

Program directors tell our clients they love their personal statements. Attendings tell our clients they have never seen candidates articulating their experiences and goals in such an engaging manner. Our clients get matched at a rate of over 97% (including those with significant red flags like gaps in training, poor test scores and no U.S. clinical experience), and almost none of them have a personal statement that is less than one page.

Is It Really Possible to Match With a Personal Statement Longer Than One Page?

Not only is it possible to get matched with a personal statement longer than one page, in our experience it is much more likely, with one caveat. No one wants to read a boring personal statement. No one wants to read a personal statement that is the same as even one personal statement they have read before, let alone hundreds or thousands.

We see all the time candidates who believe writing a personal statement according to a template or according to what they believe program directors will want to hear submit weaker applications for medical residency as a result.

They do not get interviews where they should, and they do not get matched at the programs of their preference.

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Then Why All the Advice About Personal Statements Being No More Than One Page?

ERAS recommends keeping the personal statement to one page or less because that is the feedback they receive from attendings and program directors, and the reason for this is simple.

No one wants to read a boring personal statement, and most candidates submit boring personal statements.

If a program director is going to have to read a boring personal statement, then they will prefer for it to be as short as possible.

What Makes a Personal Statement Boring?

The challenge of writing a personal statement is that there are many more ways to write a boring one than one that is interesting. The most common way is to be vague. Another is to write what could be just as true if anyone else wrote it. Another is not to know how or where to start. Another is not to know how or when to end. Another is to define the specialty for the program director.

When I talk to program directors and attendings about what they are looking for in a personal statement, they consistently tell me it is much less about what they want to see than it is about what they do not want to see.

What they do not want to see is the same thing they have seen thousands of times before.

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How to Make Your Personal Statement Stand out

It is almost impossible to write an outstanding personal statement without enlisting the help of others. The reason for this is that it is almost impossible to know objectively how your own writing will come across to others.

For example: Are you communicating your ideas in a way that makes sense? Have you left out any details? Have you used the right tone?

Where Can You Go for Help?

The first mistake candidates make in writing their personal statements is not asking for help. The second is not asking the right people.

For example, candidates will ask an attending to provide feedback on their personal statements. While attending can tell you whether they like your personal statement, they do not have the experience to tell you specifically what adjustments to make to arrive at your best personal statement.

Another problem—and consistently the more common one—is that attendings may wish to avoid confrontation and avoid telling the truth.

The same is true for program directors.

Other candidates will ask their parents, a fellow candidate or a friend to tell them what they think of their personal statements. They may even ask someone with writing experience.

In either case they will get either a biased opinion (sometimes mothers do not want to hurt their children’s feelings) or an opinion lacking the knowledge and experience of how specifically to turn the current draft of the personal statement into an outstanding personal statement for medical residency.

To ensure the greatest chance of success with their applications, all candidates should enlist the assistance of someone who knows both what makes for an outstanding personal statement and how to give the specific advice needed to turn that particular candidate’s personal statement into one both attendings and program directors will want to read from beginning to end, even if it goes past one page.

Options like our expert personal statement services are the surest way to get there.

Want a FREE assessment of your personal statement?


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published December 4, 2016, and last updated for accuracy and completeness May 19, 2022.

Posted in  Applicants
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