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How to Start a Personal Statement: Grabbing Their Attention

Hook Them, and Keep Them Hooked

You can use fancy words in the body of your personal statement. You can end your personal statement with a bang. But if how you start your personal statement doesn’t hook your reader? Admission committees may stop reading, and turn to the next application.

This is specially true when test scores, GPAs and relevant experience make it difficult to distinguish applicants. Nothing can give your application the competitive edge like how you start your personal statement.

Great introductions give life to your personal statement. They establish your core values, your core passions, the key themes of your personal statement. Great introductions set the foundation for showcasing your attributes, addressing any red flags, and selling admission committees on what makes you an ideal fit for their programs.

Here, I present how to write a great start to your personal statement.

Where Does This Advice Come From?

Great question! It comes from my 8 years as an editor at UNESCO prior to founding DLA. It comes from interviews I've had with program directors admission committee members. And it comes from 10+ years of helping our clients write great personal statements.

And the results speak for themselves. For medical residency, our clients have enjoyed a 97.4% match rate. For all other programs and schools, the rate is 100%.

See the stories DLA clients have shared about their experience.

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Let’s Start With 3 Key Don’t’s for Starting a Personal Statement

How do you write an introduction to your personal statement? It starts with these three Don’t’s:

  1. Don’t start with a quote;
  2. Don’t start with too much drama; and
  3. For medical residency, don’t automatically believe it doesn’t matter what drove you to a career in medicine.

First, I will discuss these three Don’t’s in detail. Then I will share my three Do’s for starting your personal statement.

Don’t #1: Don’t Start With a Quote

When wondering how to start your introduction, it can be tempting to think to do so with a quote. The quote could be from a famous person, a not-so-famous person or someone close to you like your mother or another family member.

While there are exceptions where it is appropriate to use a quote in a personal statement, generally, you’ll want to avoid using one.

Why is this? Program directors and admission committees want to know you. This is above all what they hope to gain from reading your personal statement. And they want to see this in your words. After all, this is your personal statement.

With few exceptions, using quotes makes your writing less engaging. Using a quote can indicate a lack of time spent in how best to start your personal statement. It can indicate a lack of focus and clarity. And it can indicate doubt in yourself and the value of your application.

Don’t #2: Don’t Start With Too Much Drama

Other than starting with a quote, another tendency is to open the personal statement with an overly dramatic description.

This approach often uses a quote, though in the form of dialog rather than from a famous person or book. And it always uses flowery and overly dramatic language.

I call it the “Dark and Stormy Night” example, because, in one form or another, that is how it starts:

“Veruka!” my mom screamed, as pellets of rain plaintively pelted the windowpane. Quivering, I peeked from under my pillow, praying my pastel pink and purple polka-dot pajamas would protect me.

Applicants will take this approach out of an overly anxious and insecure desire to hook their reader. Or perhaps a desperate one. They are trying to do so by immersing the reader into a story from their past. The problem, though, is they are trying too hard.

More precisely, the problems with this approach are:

  1. It takes too many words to get to the point.
  2. The program director or admissions officer could see it as avoiding getting to the point.
  3. The program director or admissions officer could see it as a gimmick. They could see it as a lack of confidence in writing your personal statement more directly.
  4. While personal details can often enhance the introduction to a personal statement, too many personal details can be a distraction. Worse, they can impede the reader, or make them want to stop reading.

Don’t #3: For Medical Residency, Don’t Automatically Believe It Doesn’t Matter What Drove You to a Career in Medicine

For applicants for medical residency, some believe you should not discuss your reason for pursuing a career in medicine. They believe you should not do this anywhere in your personal statement, let alone in your introduction.

There are program directors, attendings, residents and medical schools that proffer this advice. But not all of them do. And not all of them have seen the highly successful impact this can have, when done well, on a personal statement.

Therefore, before categorically buying into this advice, take a moment to consider:

  1. Where their advice comes from;
  2. When it is good to follow this advice; and
  3. When it is better not to follow it.

Where Their Advice Comes From

As I have described in Don’t’s 1 and 2 above, and as I describe further in my list of Do’s below, the key to a successful opening to your personal statement is decisive, relevant content. The problem comes when candidates do not start this way.

It can be they start with a quote or metaphor. It can also be a vague, cliché or long-winded explanation of “why medicine.”

For program directors and attendings who are reviewing 100+ applications, the result is a personal statement they won’t want to read.

When It Is Good to Follow This Advice

As I discuss in my article, “The Myth of the One-Page Personal Statement,” the first goal in writing a personal statement is to write one that a program director will actually read. Such a personal statement needs to be interesting, cohesive and efficient. And it needs to be so from the opening paragraph.

It is not that “why medicine” is inherently irrelevant, but that applicants often don’t know how to get to the point when discussing it.

No matter whether it is the start, body or end of the personal statement, it is always better to rewrite or remove any content that does not actively engage the reader.

But if you remove it, where does that leave you?

When It Is Better Not to Follow It

As I discuss further in the Do’s below, ultimately, the key to a great start to your personal statement is being decisive, choosing the right starting point and establishing relevant, focused themes.

It could be that the factors that led you to a career in medicine are the key factors that drive you, and are just as relevant today as when you first began. In other words, it could be that these factors are the foundation of who you are and your application for medical residency.

It could be that removing them could leave your personal statement without a place to start.

In this case, it would be better not to follow this advice.

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Now for the 3 Key Do’s for Starting a Personal Statement

How do you write an introduction to your personal statement? It continues with these three Do’s:

  1. Do be decisive;
  2. Do choose the right starting point; and
  3. Do establish relevant, focused themes.

Now for discussing these three do’s in detail.

Do #1: Do Be Decisive

Great introductions are written with focus and drive. They establish a clear starting point and path you wish the admissions officer to follow. This means avoiding indecision in what you will write in your personal statement’s opening paragraph.

One example of indecision, as I suggested above, is using a quote to start a personal statement. Another would be to start with a metaphor.

The key is to pick a decisive statement, in your own words, and develop your introduction from there.

But sometimes it can take a bit of rewriting to get there.

Often, I see candidates with two paragraphs serving as the introduction, rather than just one.

This can be that at the start of the second paragraph is where I see the story start to get interesting. Or it can be that somewhere in the second paragraph I find a great opening sentence.

Sometimes I even find the great opening sentence in a later body paragraph or in the conclusion.

This is important to note for two reasons.

First, writing your personal statement is a process. It is normal for it go through several drafts before you’ve reached the final version.

Therefore, stay open-minded as you write and rewrite the initial versions. Look for opportunities to relocate ideas, shift sentences, move phrases around. See what may spark finding that great opening sentence.

Second, no matter how open-minded you are, it can be difficult to see these opportunities. You've simply spent too much time writing and rewriting your personal statement. This makes it a good idea to get a second pair of eyes to give you a fresh point of view.

Do #2: Do Choose the Right Starting Point

The Hook: The Critical Role of the First Sentence

There is nothing more critical to the success of your personal statement than your first sentence. It is what establishes the tone, voice, style, and foundation for the themes of your personal statement.

It establishes your attitude. It establishes your priorities. It establishes your personality the same as the clothes you wear the moment you walk through the door. And it starts with what you decide the first sentence should be before you actually write it.

Tips for Choosing the Right Starting Point

Tip #1: The Work-Backward Approach: What Do You Want and Why?

This is perhaps the most straightforward approach for determining the best place to start for your personal statement. And it is specially helpful for those without a clear start to their story.

The Work-Backward Approach starts with asking yourself, from where you see it today, what you want and why.

Start first with whatever it is sure that you want. This could be a career focused on a particular patient population. It could be one devoted to a particular setting (academic, community clinic, administration, hospital, private practice, etc.). It could be one in pursuit of a particular research interest.

Think about what you want in the medium to long term, say 5 to 10 years from now. Where would you ideally like to see yourself?

Next, once you have established what you want, work backward to understand how you arrived at wanting this. If you wish to focus on a particular patient population, why that particular population? What makes that population so meaningful to you?

If a particular setting, why that particular setting? If a particular research interest, why that particular interest?

Trace your answer back to where the source of your desire came from.

For many, this will be an experience they had in youth. It may be from the community they grew up in. It may be from the influence of a family member, close friend or teacher in school. It may be from an injustice you witnessed or experienced.

When you have found the source, this is where you start your personal statement.

Tip #2: The Values-Based Approach: What Values Mean the Most to You and Why?

Similar to the Work-Backward Approach, the Values-Based Approach aims to understand who you are and what drives you at your core.

The easiest way to take the Values-Based Approach is to ask yourself what are the top two or three values you learned from each of your parents. These could be values they instilled in you by either their words or their actions. They could be values they told you or embodied.

Another way to achieve this is to ask yourself what are the top three values that matter the most in who you are today. These are values that transcend personal and professional boundaries. They are values that matter the most to you, no matter the setting.

Whether the values you prize the most are ones you have gained from your parents or another source, think about how they have shaped you. Think about how they have influenced each step you have taken on your path to applying for residency.

Where these values come from can make for a great start to your personal statement.

Tip #3: The Eureka Moment Approach: What Singular Event Sparked Your Interest?

Some applicants for medical residency know exactly the event that sparked their interest in the specialty they are applying for. This is true of both U.S. medical graduates and international medical graduates.

It could have been a family member who suffered a heart attack or one who suffered from cancer. It could have been a childhood friend who suffered from an embarrassing deformity or skin condition. It could have been a feeling of helplessness you had, or of empathy or that it sparked a strong desire to help others in a similar position.

I call this your Eureka Moment, and if you have one, this is also a great way to start your personal statement. This is true, even if it means discussing “why medicine.” And it is true even if other applicants have had a similar family influence.

No Matter Your Story, Have Confidence in It

As I wrote in my article, “Personal Statement Red Flags: Turning Blemishes Into Bright Spots,” there is no personal statement more engaging than the one that tells the candidate’s story in a clear, cohesive, forthright manner.

It does not matter if you have had an experience like that of someone else. Sure, many candidates applying for internal medicine, for example, have had a family member suffer from a heart attack, kidney failure or cancer. Many candidates for law school have experienced a family member or close friend experience an injustice.

Just because another candidate has had a similar experience does not make yours any less meaningful to you. And it does not make it cliché to write about it in your personal statement.

Do #3: Do Establish Relevant, Focused Themes

When writing your first sentence, and the experience you describe in your introduction, focus on the details that are the most meaningful to you.

If you have taken the Work-Backward Approach, look at each step you have taken in that approach. What trends do you see? Do you see persistence? Adaptability? Empathy? Self-sacrifice?

If you have taken the Values-Based Approach, what have you identified as your three most important values? Hard work? Caring for others? Stepping in to help wherever needed?

If you have taken the Eureka Moment Approach, what three key aspects of who you are today have come from your eureka experience? A passion for heart disease? A passion for accompanying others during life’s most difficult moments? A passion for defending others against an injustice?

No matter your approach, pick the top three details that matter most to you. That best represent who you are. That best represent what has driven each step you have taken. That best represent what drives you.

These are your key themes for your personal statement, and laying the foundation for them is the focus of the introduction.

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Personal Statement Examples

We tailor each personal statement we work on to the unique strengths and goals of our clients. Here are two examples of our work, shared with our clients' permission:

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published September 26, 2018, and last updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness June 16, 2022.

Posted in  Applicants
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