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Choosing the Right Tone for Your Personal Statement

The Need for the Right Attitude

You can have all the right content, but if your personal statement does not convey the right attitude, it will all be for naught. No matter what you describe, the tone you select, whether positive or negative, humble or arrogant, will dictate how your personal statement is read—and how you are perceived.

What Is the Right Tone for My Personal Statement?

The most attractive tone to see in a candidate—and therefore in the candidate’s personal statement—is a combination of confidence and humility. This is true no matter your level of experience, test scores, red flags or attitude in real life.

It is also true no matter the program or specialty you are applying for. The challenge, then, is how to come across as confident and humble in your personal statement, particularly when you lack both in your view of your application.

How Do I “Choose” the Right Tone for My Personal Statement?

What few applicants realize is that the same frame of mind they have when writing their personal statements is the one that will come across in the personal statement. It is true of all writing: If you have feelings of doubt when you write, your tone will be doubtful; if you feel enthusiastic, your tone will be enthusiastic.

If you want to come across as humble in your personal statement, therefore, then put yourself in a humble frame of mind—before you start writing. If you want to come across as confident, again, put yourself in a confident frame of mind—and again, before you start writing.

It is more difficult to succeed in changing the tone of something you have written than to succeed in changing your frame of mind before you start writing.

If you have already written your personal statement with the wrong tone, it will be faster and more effective to write your personal statement over from scratch with the right frame of mind than to try to fix the tone of the personal statement you have already written.

Of course, I know this is easier said than done.

Special Case #1: Applicants with High Test Scores

While it is certainly admirable to have achieved high test scores, when it comes to writing a personal statement, high test scores are almost a curse. The reason is that the higher a candidate’s test scores, the more wary programs will be that the candidate has a personality that will integrate well with the personalities of the other residents. It is almost as if the higher your test scores, the less you should mention them.

The question for you is: How do you let others know how great you are while still coming across as humble?

For applicants for medical residency, I see this issue come up in the personal statements of those with scores of 255 or higher on at least Step 1 and Step 2 CK, and inevitably also on Step 3, if the candidate has already taken it. The challenge is that while wishing to express confidence, the tone of the personal statement can inadvertently come across as arrogant.

When that happens, programs may conclude that while smart, you may bring discord to the program instead of harmony and edification.

If your personal statement is suffering from this issue, what is your solution?

First, recognize the need for writing a cohesive, engaging personal statement. It can often happen that candidates write underdeveloped personal statements, or even essays that, actually, are not personal statements.

When those candidates have high test scores, this kind of personal statement can give the impression that the candidates consider the task of writing the personal statement to be beneath them.

For example, I once had a client who had attended one of the nation’s top high schools followed by one of the nation’s top universities followed by one of the nation’s top medical schools. She had outstanding research experience, had presented her research at noteworthy conferences, and, of course, achieved 260+ USMLE scores.

Instead of a personal statement, she wrote 400 words on her love of playing soccer.

The key is to consider that while your scores may be great, there are others with scores that are as good or better. Your task is a challenging one: to fight the stereotype that such high scores indicate an ego that is not enjoyable to be around.

However, this is also easy to address. You need to believe—and show—that you are someone who can take instruction, receive criticism and know when to ask for help.

Special Case #2: Applicants for Internal Medicine

The particular challenge applicants for internal medicine face is that the specialty itself is one generally requiring a both deep and broad knowledge base, and generally speaking, the greater the knowledge base, the more successful the internal medicine physician.

Internal medicine is a field where there remains a lot to be discovered, and where patient presentations can both frequently and easily push the limits of the internist’s knowledge.

It is actually this aspect of the specialty that many candidates find attractive, and is the one therefore where they look to distinguish themselves.

These candidates may make the mistake of looking to do this by lauding their “great fund of knowledge” in their personal statements. The reason this is likely not to achieve the desired approach is simple: no one who actually has a “great fund of knowledge” would say that about themselves.

If your personal statement is one suffering from this issue, what is your solution?

The key is to recognize that while it is important to know what your strengths are, it is also important to recognize that no amount of self-praise will ever be as valuable as someone else’s praise, and that any amount of self-praise may have the opposite of the intended effect.

The most attractive way to communicate how much you have learned is to show that what you have learned is how much more there is to learn.

Special Case #3: Applicants for Emergency Medicine

The particular challenge facing applicants pursuing a career in emergency medicine is that emergency medicine naturally attracts those who want to be the first to tackle an issue. They thrive off of taking whatever problem comes through the door and tackling it head on.

In their eagerness to describe these qualities in their personal statements, these candidates may lose sight of the fact that the greater need in emergency medicine is not necessarily to be first, but to make smart, efficient decisions in high-pressure situations.

If your personal statement is one suffering from this issue, what is your solution?

The key is to recognize that for the best emergency medicine physicians, being first always takes second priority to making the right decision for the patient. They are the ones who know how to remain calm, ask for help and defer judgment to other specialties toward achieving a unified and comprehensive approach to fully assess a situation, even when the pressure to make a decision is at its peak.

Special Case #4: Applicants for Anesthesiology

The challenge facing applicants attracted to a career in anesthesiology is that anesthesiology naturally appeals to those who like to oversee others. It also appeals naturally to those who like to have their patients’ lives in their hands.

Both of these characteristics imply a high level of responsibility.

They also present two particular difficulties when writing the personal statement.

The first is to show not just the candidate’s ability to thrive in their position of overseeing others, but also that they can do so with a high level of maturity and respect for those he or she is overseeing.

If this is not handled well in the personal statement, it could backslide into communicating that the candidate simply wants to be in control of others.

The second difficulty is similar to the first: to show not just the candidate’s ability to thrive in having their patients’ lives in their hands, but also their ability to show compassion for the patient.

If this is not handled well in the personal statement, it could backslide into communicating that the candidate simply wants to take the place of God.

If your personal statement is one suffering from this issue, what is your solution?

The key is to see that the question here is really what the most attractive qualities are to be found in a leader. When considered that way, the solution is simple.

The best leaders are ones who recognize the responsibility of their positions and approach each decision with the recognition that they could be making a mistake.

They are also ones who recognize when and what to delegate, and the crucial role relying on others plays in accomplishing the best results.

Arrogance, to them, is the fastest route to failure.

Special Case #5: Applicants for Pathology

The particular challenge facing applicants for pathology stems from pathology’s role to make the decisions that will dictate the treating physician’s diagnosis of and subsequent treatment plan for the patient.

Candidates attracted to this field are naturally attracted to the prospect of discovery and at being at the center of the decisions made regarding a patient’s treatment.

When it comes to writing the personal statement, if they do not handle it appropriately, the candidates can fall into the trap of communicating a condescending tone toward the treating physicians who come to them for help. Candidates falling into this trap may refer to themselves as the “doctor’s doctor” and may express an overriding desire to be the ones others look up to.

If your personal statement is one suffering from this issue, what is your solution?

The key is to take the focus off how great your particular role is and place it instead on your desire to help others with the overall goal of helping to contribute to achieving the best outcome for the patient.

This, of course, requires the contribution of others. For example, it requires the specialties involved to receive the pathologist’s finding and implement the appropriate treatment plan.

The pathologist, of course, plays a key role, but it is not the only one.

How Do I Know How My Tone Comes Across in My Personal Statement?

It is difficult even for the most seasoned writers always to know how what they have written will come across. For less experienced writers, it is even more difficult, and the challenge is even greater when writing a personal narrative like the writing needed for a personal statement.

It is easy to have doubts about what you have written. Is my personal statement too timid? Do I come across as arrogant?

Even the most accomplished writers know it is impossible to see the perception their writing creates without trusted, objective feedback.

But where can you get such important feedback?

Many candidates writing their personal statements rely on one of the more of the following for feedback on their personal statements: family, friends, attendings and/or residents, career guidance advisors, and professional editors.

While family and friends may be the most available option, family and friends also often lack the objectivity needed to see your personal statement clearly and, even more often, the courage to tell you the problems they see in your personal statement.

Actually, this tends to happen with attendings and residents as well. I know many attendings and residents who like to mention only positive comments and become shy about saying something that may hurt your feelings.

While they think they may be helping you by doing this, it is your personal statement that suffers as a result.

Of course, they also face the added challenges of having limited time to review your personal statement, as well as limited experience and knowledge of how to help you best when a problem is identified.

Career guidance advisors can also be limited in their availability, as well as the particular expertise and knowledge needed to help you best when a problem in your personal statement is identified.

How Do I Know the Professional Editor I Hire Can Give Me the Help I Need?

The best option for those who can afford it is to hire a professional editor, but not just any editor.

Not all editors are created equal. Their experience and expertise may lie in different areas, and they also have varying levels of confidence in their knowledge and ability to both identify and tell you exactly how to address the issues identified in your personal statement.

For example, an experienced medical science or technical editor may be remarkably skilled in editing journal articles or user guides but may not know the advice to give to help you achieve your best personal statement.

When looking for a personal statement editor or editing service, therefore, make sure to find one that has extensive experience particularly in reviewing, advising and achieving outstanding personal statements. Then make sure that in addition the editor or editing service is able to communicate with you in a clear, forthright manner.

To evaluate this, try asking a tough question like: “Are your clients always satisfied with your services?” If you get an honest, forthright answer to this question, it is likely you will get an honest, forthright evaluation of your personal statement.

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published January 30, 2017, and last updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness June 20, 2022.

Posted in  Applicants
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