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How to Start Your Personal Statement: Grabbing Their Attention

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Written by David Lombardino  |  Updated February 29, 2024

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? Program directors and 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 establish your core values, your core passions, the key themes of your personal statement. They set the foundation for showcasing your attributes, addressing any red flags, and selling program directors and 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?

It comes from my 8 years as an editor at UNESCO prior to founding DLA back in 2008. It comes from interviews I've had with program directors and those who serve on admission committees. And it comes from 15+ years of helping applicants like you write outstanding personal statements.

First, 3 Key Don’t’s for Starting a Personal Statement

Writing a great introduction to your personal statement starts with avoiding these three Don’t’s:

  1. Don’t start with a quote;
  2. Don’t use flowery or overly dramatic language; and
  3. For medical residency, don’t automatically believe it doesn’t matter what drove you to a career in medicine.

Don’t #1: Don’t Start With a Quote

When wondering how to start your introduction, it can be tempting to want 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.

Most often, using quotes makes your personal statement less engaging. It can indicate a lack of effort in writing your personal statement, and it can indicate doubt in yourself and the value of your application.

Don’t #2: Don’t Use Flowery or Overly Dramatic Language

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. 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 a gimmick. They could see it as a lack of confidence in writing your personal statement more directly.
  3. While details can often enhance the introduction to a personal statement, too many details can be a distraction. They can impede the reader, and make them want to stop reading.

Are you looking to gain acceptance to a life-changing education, training or career opportunity? If so, you’ll want to ensure your personal statement distinguishes you and your application. 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 achieve acceptance to competitive education, training and career opportunities. With their expertise across many fields, specialties and programs, DLA Editors & Proofers makes improving your personal statement easy until it’s ready for submission.

So if you are looking to gain acceptance to a life-changing education, training or career opportunity, 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 gaining acceptance to a life-changing education, training or career opportunity.

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. There are program directors and attendings that proffer this advice. But not all of them do.

Take a moment to consider that above all, program directors want to read a clear, well-organized, decisive personal statement. But not all applicants do this.

They can get lost in a vague, uninformative explanation of “why medicine” without getting to the points program directors want to see.

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—discussing this could show the key factors that drive you toward the specialty and their program—but that applicants often don’t know how to get to the point when doing so.

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

Central to how you start your personal statement are these three Do’s:

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

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.

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

And sometimes it can take looking through early drafts of your personal statement to find that key decisive statement, perhaps in the second paragraph, or even later in your personal statement.

I recommend looking at writing your personal statement as a process and realize that the best personal statements are ones that go through several drafts before achieving 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.

Do #2: Do Choose the Right Starting Point

There is nothing more critical to the success of your personal statement than your opening sentence. It is what establishes the tone, voice, style, and foundation for the themes of your personal statement. See these tips for how to choose a great opening sentence.

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.

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

Posted in  Applicants
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