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How to Craft a Compelling Start to Your Personal Statement

What Every Candidate Wants

No one wants to write a terrible personal statement. No one wants to know that his was the one that made the program director roll his eyes, or that hers was the one to cause her residency application to be categorically rejected.

What our clients want—and what all applicants want—are personal statements that instantly captivate the program director, keep the program director intrigued from the first word to the last, and, on reaching the conclusion and without seeing any of the rest of the application, make the program director want immediately to offer the candidate an interview.

The Hook: The Critical Role of an Intoxicating First Sentence

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

Failure #1: Starting With a Quote

There has been a lot of bad advice disseminated about how to write a personal statement. A trend a few years ago was to start the personal statement with a quote, or at least to include a quote somewhere in the introduction. Then I wrote about why quotes should be avoided in a personal statement, and now it is something we do not see much anymore.

There is no doubt it is difficult to decide what exactly is your story and therefore what to write in your personal statement. For many, it can be a frustrating process that with the pressures of applications soon opening or with cultural or linguistic barriers lead them hoping, wishing or looking for an easy way out.

In writing, we call such easy ways out “crutches,” because they are what people lean on when they cannot find a solution for what they really should be writing. A few years ago, this was starting with a quote. More recently, it has been starting with an overly dramatic scene.

Failure #2: Starting With an Overly Dramatic Scene

Another trend is opening the personal statement with an overly dramatic description. It is one, ironically, that usually uses a quote, though in the form of dialog rather than from a famous person or book, and always uses flowery and overly dramatic language more appropriate for a romance novel than the professional writing needed for a personal statement.

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 plaintive pellets of rain pelted the window pane, and I peeked from under my pillow, praying I could remain hidden in my pastel pink and purple polka-dot pajamas.

What are the problems here? First is that the applicant uses too many words to get to the point.

Second is that it includes details that are entirely irrelevant to the personal statement. What does it matter when applying for an internal medicine residency that Veruka was wearing “pastel pink and purple polka-dot pajamas”?

Failure #3: Pretending It Doesn’t Matter Why You Want a Career in Medicine

Another tendency of applicants for medical residency is to take the perspective that it does not matter when writing their personal statements to describe why they want a career in medicine, or where such an interest came from. There are even medical schools that give this advice to their students. Why do they do that?

First, let me explain why while this may be good advice to follow, it will lead the majority of candidates categorically to bad results. Then I will explain why medical schools nonetheless give this advice.

The Role of the Personal Statement

What many applicants writing their personal statements overlook is the specific role the personal statement plays in distinguishing their applications from those of all the other candidates. Their misunderstanding comes from not understanding the application as a whole and the distinct role each of its components plays in distinguishing and promoting the candidate.

The particular role of the personal statement is to distinguish the candidate by their personality and character. For example, it is not the point of the personal statement to prove the candidate has an outstanding academic history. There are transcripts and test scores that will show that.

How to Choose Your Starting Point

There is one easy way to know how to start your personal statement, which is to ask the question of what you want and why. You first start with whatever it is sure that you want. This could be a career in an academic setting, volunteering frequently on medical missions, or simply that you know the specialty you want to apply for even if you are not yet sure where following that path may lead you.

Once you know for sure what you want, the next step is to work backward to understand why you want this and how you arrived at wanting it. You then reflect on where this reason came from, and that is where you start your personal statement.

For many this will be an experience they had in youth. For some, this will be an event, like a relative’s death from a heart attack, that will tell them immediately which specialty (e.g., cardiology) they want to pursue.

For the majority, though, it will be one that sets them on the path toward medicine, a course that gets further refined during the clinical rotations in medical school.

Why Some Medical Schools Advise Not to Discuss Why You Want a Career in Medicine

As I first mentioned in my article, “The Myth of the One-Page Personal Statement,” the first goal in writing a personal statement is to write one that someone will actually read. Such a personal statement needs to be interesting, cohesive and efficient. To do so, it needs to tell, in a forthright manner, your particular story.

The problem comes from forcing a candidate to tell a story that is not actually his or her story. Take for example the cardiology candidate I mentioned earlier. Forcing that candidate to start his or her personal statement by describing first where his or her interest in medicine came from would result in a painful beginning to the personal statement and one that would not at all be interesting to read.

On the other hand, take the other example of the candidate who knew early in life they wanted to pursue a career in medicine but did not know until medical school which specialty they wanted to follow. Forcing that candidate to start at the point of when they decided what specialty to follow would result in a personal statement that starts in the middle of the story. It would lack depth, be uninteresting to read and be incapable of achieving the goals of a personal statement.

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. These are the ones written from an unashamed and humble point of view. These are the ones written by candidates who know there is no better approach to writing a personal statement than to have confidence in their stories, no matter what their stories are.

As I have described in this and other articles on how to write personal statements, it is for this reason that the path to writing a successful personal statement is as unique as the path the candidate has taken to apply for the particular program, and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

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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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