The Unforgettable Call
I will never forget the call I received two years ago from an international medical graduate (IMG) from Hungary asking for me please to give him the “magical words” for his personal statement. It was August, and he was preparing his ERAS application for medical residency.
He did not wish for any advice for improving the content of his personal statement, nor did he wish for his personal statement to be edited. He wished only for me to insert “magical words” in his personal statement—ones that would be sure to get the program director's attention.
Where Does the Concern for Word Choice in a Personal Statement Come From?
The IMG I described above is not alone. Over the years (since our first client in 2008), we have received many similar inquiries from candidates coming from all over the world to pursue their dreams of obtaining a medical residency position in the United States.
Where does their concern come from?
Many IMGs struggle with the uniquely American concept of a “personal statement.” They come from cultures where it is discouraged or even taboo to share personal details, creating for them a difficult barrier to achieving a successful personal statement.
Many IMGs who speak English as a second language face the additional challenge of lacking confidence in expressing themselves in English, particularly in writing.
Finally, with more than 40,000 candidates applying for medical residency every year in the United States, the process is both highly competitive and biased against IMGs. They are looking for any advantage they can find.
Does Word Choice Really Matter in a Personal Statement?
When it comes to writing a successful personal statement, word choice absolutely does matter, but not in the way that most people think.
The key to a successful personal statement is that they themselves write their personal statements and that they write their personal statements in their own voice.
What many candidates do not realize—particularly those who hire others to write their personal statements for them—is that each word choice paints a picture, and simply looking at the words used to write a personal statement is enough to spot when the candidate has not written their own personal statement.
The program directors we have talked to will immediately and categorically reject the application of a candidate who has not personally written their own personal statement.
What Are Examples of Bad Word Choice in a Personal Statement?
Word choice matters, and there is a lot of bad advice on the Internet about which words to use in a personal statement.
Among the more common of these recommendations is to refer to the pursuit or practice of medicine as “noble” or an “art.” There is no bigger mistake than this.
Why is that? Because no matter what the candidate thinks about the pursuit or practice of medicine, it is nearly impossible for those words to be used in a manner that will come across as genuine, and in the few cases where they could come across as genuine, they will more often paint a picture of the candidate being more arrogant than how he or she would wish to come across.
What Are Examples of Good Word Choice in a Personal Statement?
Though writing a personal statement can seem like a daunting task, it is actually relatively easy to think of the right words to use.
What are they? They are your words.
However you think and write naturally—specifically when you are not trying to impress anyone—is how you should write your personal statement.
As for non-native English speakers, I know there are many who are concerned about whether they are using the correct words in English and whether those words are spelled correctly.
While it is important to make sure the right ideas are communicated and communicated well, once this is done, the use of one word versus another and making sure every word is spelled correctly is of only minor significance.
Why is this? Simply put, program directors are looking for quality candidates to train to be future doctors, not future English professors.
In fact, many program directors also need help with spelling. We know this because they ask us to edit their emails and other important documents.
So What Are the Magical Words?
No matter the personal statement, and no matter the program being applied for, there are no magical words to be inserted without consideration of the candidate’s particular goals for the personal statement.
The words used should be ones that match these particular goals best.
The best words for one candidate’s personal statement will therefore not be the same ones that best serve another candidate’s personal statement. With our personal statement services, for example, we do not look to employ a specific set of words in every personal statement, but instead evaluate the individual goals of each candidate with his or her personal statement and then advise the candidate which words would best help accomplish them.
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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published December 4, 2016, and last updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness June 22, 2022.