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How to Address Red Flags in a Personal Statement

stern doctor at desk with red warning label

Written by David Lombardino  |  Updated February 23, 2024

Red Flags Come in Many Forms

There are no personality traits more attractive in a candidate than self-awareness, confidence and humility. And nothing makes these traits more attractive than the barriers the candidate had to overcome to obtain them.

Red flags come in many forms. For medical residency, they include low or failing Step scores, graduating from a medical school outside the United States, prior failure to match, lack of U.S. clinical experience, gaps in medical training, professionalism issues and disciplinary action. However, there is no greater red flag than the candidate who pretends in their personal statement their red flags do not exist.

The Case of the Foreign Accent and the Inappropriately Dressed Teenager

When it comes to writing their personal statement for their medical residency application, there is a tendency among candidates, as well as sometimes also those advising them, to believe that not discussing red flags, whose existence is always otherwise obvious, is the way to make themselves more attractive. To take a comprehensive view of this question, let us take a look at the case of the foreign accent and the inappropriately dressed woman.

The Foreign Accent

Let’s start with the world-famous professor who has come to the U.S. to give a lecture in English, his third language. He speaks with such an accent that sometimes those unused to his manner of speaking have difficulty understanding him. Now let us pretend we do not know how famous he is, that he is a professor, or anything else about him.

There are two different ways he can step up to the podium. He can dive into his lecture unapologetically, creating an awkward feeling in those struggling to understand him, or, as some speakers do, he can preface his lecture by making a joke about his accent, which puts everyone at ease, including himself, and makes everyone feel comfortable as he begins.

The Inappropriately Dressed Teenager

Now let’s imagine a teenager arriving late to a 70’s-themeed party and suddenly realizing, as she sees all the bell bottom pants and big hair wigs around her, that she had never received the message that it would be a themed party. When she opens the door, everyone sees her mistake.

The teenager has two options. The first is to feel embarrassed, ashamed and to lose all her confidence. The second is to embrace the mistake and enjoy the party anyway.

With the first option, everyone would sense her embarrassment, and feel awkward and embarrassed around her. With the second option, everyone would feel excited to have her at the party and, after her candidly admitting her error, quickly forget it even existed.

Key Takeaway

In both cases, the audience at the lecture and the others at the party admire the speaker and teenager more for being unafraid to show their shortcomings and display their unaffected, while still humble, confidence.

Are you worried a red flag may keep you from matching into residency? If so, you’ll want to ensure your personal statement shows program directors what makes you a strong candidate. 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 match to residency—including those with red flags. With their expertise across many specialties, programs and unique candidate circumstances, DLA Editors & Proofers makes improving your personal statement easy until it’s ready for submission.

So if you are looking to ensure your personal statement shows program directors what makes you a strong candidate, 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 matching into residency.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Every red flag is a coin with two sides. One is the dull, negative side, where you find awkwardness, embarrassment and shame. The other is the shiny, positive side, where we see the coin at its most attractive. It is where we see the coin’s personality traits of self-awareness, humility and confidence.

Why You Should Address Red Flags in Your Personal Statement

The purpose of the personal statement is for you to present yourself in the most attractive light, and the most attractive personality trait in a candidate for medical residency is the union of humility and self-confidence. Your character is what matters most, not your ability to speak without an accent.

Everyone has positive and negative attributes. The question is whether you are someone your future fellow residents, attendings and program director will enjoy being around.

The kind of person everyone enjoys being around is not the one who tries to pretend they has no problems.

What the ECFMG Has to Say About It

The ECFMG, like us, takes a clear view in favor of discussing red flags in a personal statement. Here is one of the “Do’s” from their Personal Statement “Do’s” and “Don’ts”:

"DO be honest. If there is a 'red flag' on your application (gap in training, disciplinary action, course failures), this is your chance to explain it. Don’t avoid the topic, and make sure your explanation is accurate and forthright."

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The Erroneous Advice of Waiting for the Interview

Partly because of erroneous advice, together with how easy it is to misunderstand the medical residency application process, some candidates mistakenly believe it is better not to address any red flags in a personal statement and wait until the interview to discuss these instead. That is like a girl who has never left her house waiting at home for suitors to come see her.

Time and again, we have seen candidates refusing to address red flags in their personal statements with the belief these will be discussed in their interviews, only later not to receive any invitation to interview.

Why does this happen? Because through the rest of the medical residency application, the red flags are obvious, making even more glaring their admission from the personal statement.

How do you plan to hide your year of graduation, for example? How do you plan to hide your low USMLE scores?

Remember the man with the accent. Remember the teenager inappropriately addressed for the party. Even if you do get an interview, do you really prefer to wait until you are put on the spot to answer the question rather than taking control of your narrative?

The Competitive Edge of Discussing Red Flags

Character is the single-most overlooked opportunity to gain a competitive edge in the medical residency application, and the only place to show it is in the personal statement.

Candidates often underestimate how great the number of others applying for the same medical residency position is. They even more frequently underestimate the number of other clients we have applying from the same medical schools, with similar scores and experience, for the same specialties and even for the same hospitals.

We read their medical residency personal statements side by side, together with their CVs, the same as the programs will.

When comparing two similar applications, which one do you think is going to appear more attractive? Is it the one from the man who makes everyone feel awkward because of his accent? Is it the one from the teenager who tries to hide how she is dressed when she opens the door to a party?

Which is the one you would find more compelling?

Posted in  Applicants
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