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Resources     >     Advice for Personal Statements     >     Part 3: Address Red Flags

Expert Personal Statement Advice - Address Red Flags

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Written by David Lombardino  |  Updated March 8, 2024

Barriers Are About Character

The best residency personal statements are the ones that reflect humility, vision and strength of character. And while these characteristics can come from a variety of experiences, they most often come from barriers you have faced and overcome on your path to becoming a medical resident.

Becoming a doctor in the U.S. isn't easy, particularly if you have low Step scores, have already graduated or have attended a foreign medical school. But that doesn't mean it's impossible.

Red Flags Are There to Be Faced

In my article, "How to Address Red Flags in a Personal Statement,", I discuss the general principles of addressing red flags and the competitive edge it gives you to discuss them in your medical residency personal statement.

Here, I will discuss three examples of red flags and a couple of options for addressing them.

Examples of red flags you may be facing as an applicant for medical residency include:

  1. Having gotten low test scores on the Steps;
  2. Having a year of graduation more than 2 years ago; and
  3. Having attended a foreign medical school.

No matter the red flag, the approach is to address it directly, in an unbiased, unapologetic manner. This shows your integrity, honesty and how you respond to adversity. It shows confidence in being unashamed of who you are.

Red Flag #1: Low Step Scores

For a variety of reasons, getting a low score, or even having one or more failed attempts, can happen. The question is: What did you self-assess to be the issue, what specific steps did you take to address the issue, and what was the result?

For example, did your father die a few days before Step 1, and for whatever reason you did not postpone the exam date? What was the reason for not postponing?

Or did you have a failed attempt on Step 2 CK as a result of what turned out to be insufficient preparation? What did you identify to be the weakness in your approach to studying? How did you address it? What score did you get the next time around?

If you passed Step 1 and got a low passing score on Step 2 CK, what steps are you taking to more effectively prepare for Step 3?

These are just some of the questions to be asked and answered in preparation for how to discuss low Step scores in your personal statement.

Red Flag #2: Year of Graduation

As there are a variety of reasons that can lead to getting a low Step score, there are a variety of reasons that can lead to a year of graduation two or more years ago.

One question is: What specifically caused the delay to applying for residency? Examples include relocating to the U.S. because of a spouse's job transfer, or family, financial or health issues.

The next question is: What specifically have you been doing to best prepare for residency while waiting for the delay to end?

Closely related to this is if you have experienced previous failures to match. If so, what specifically have you (or others who have helped you) assessed as the reasons for your failure to match, and what specific steps have you taken to address them?

As with the low Step scores red flag, these are just some of the questions to be asked and answered in preparation for how to discuss your year of graduation red flag in your personal statement.

Are you looking to overcome red flags in your application? If so, you’ll want to ensure your personal statement shows program directors what makes you a strong candidate. 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 with one or more red flags match into residency. With their expertise across many specialties and programs, DLA Editors & Proofers makes improving your personal statement easy until it’s ready for submission.

So if you are looking to overcome red flags in your application, take your time—use DLA Editors & Proofers to give your personal statement the edge it needs to show program directors what makes you a strong candidate. Try DLA Editors & Proofers today, and take the first step toward overcoming red flags in your application.

Red Flag #3: Foreign Medical School

When it comes to attending a foreign medical school, there are two categories. Are you from the U.S. and went abroad for medical school, or are you from another country and went to a foreign medical school?

In the case of being from the U.S. and going to medical school abroad, this immediately raises questions. Was your MCAT score too low to get into a U.S. medical school? Were you wanting to start off-cycle? Depending on what motivated you to go abroad will indicate what you should consider including in your medical residency personal statement.

If you are an IMG (international medical graduate), what specifically motivates you to pursue your medical career in the U.S.? What drives you to embrace such a challenge?

Applicants come, or seek to come, to the U.S. for many reasons. What is yours? Regardless of how unique or similar it is to reasons other applicants may have, answering this question–and doing so specifically–is an opportunity to show program directors what would make you a valuable addition to their programs.

As an IMG, What Specialty Should I Apply for?

Historically, IMGs have found more opportunity in internal medicine than any other specialty when it comes to matching to residency. This includes candidates who have significant experience in their home countries in other specialties, including surgery, simply because these other specialties can be so difficult to get into.

But it doesn't mean it's impossible to match to another specialty. We have helped many IMGs match in other specialties, including ob/gyn, surgery and pediatrics, to name just three.

For better or for worse, what usually makes the most difference here is Step scores, and having them much higher than average.

But much higher Step scores is not the only way to get in.

Another way is to follow the trends in the application cycles. In some years, psychiatry is very popular, making it very competitive, while emergency medicine has many positions that go unfilled. Then it will shift in the other direction. Pay attention to previous years' match results to look for opportunities in less-favored specialties.

This brings a third option for getting into a desired specialty, which is to apply to whatever specialty you have the strongest chance to match in. This will get you "into the system,"" which makes you a much stronger applicant. You can then apply to the desired specialty in the next application cycle.

The key to writing a personal statement for a change in specialty is to show how the specialty you are now applying for is now the clear next step following the different training/experience you have had.

So What to Do if You Have Had Red Flags in Your Experience?

Instead of shying away from them, turn them into a positive. Most candidates—and almost all IMGs—have had some kind of red flag experience.

The most successful personal statements show how the candidate has embraced the red flag and grown from it.

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