Writing personal statement is difficult, time consuming and often boring.
When your applications fits the program’s criteria for an interview, the PD looks at the personal statement and letters of recommendations to decide if you are worth the time and money to be offered an interview.
Also, once you get the interview, personal statement form the grounds for interview questions.
So, personal statement or SOP is incredibly important for your success of matching. Especially, if you have red flags in your application.
Recently, I took a class in health care quality and safety (link). This is an emerging new field in medicine focusing on improving the quality of health care in the USA and worldwide. For anyone who is interested in pursuing a masters or a graduate level course before residency, this is a great area to improve your chances of matching.
To be accepted in the course, the university required that we submit a personal statement. It has been more than three years since I wrote a personal statement for myself and I got stuck at the first line. I had three days before the application deadline.
I did what I learnt when writing my residency personal statement. I used the steps below to get it done.
With this article, I will show you how to start writing your personal statement for residency, what to do when you are stuck (writer’s block) and how to review the personal statement at the end to make sure there is no spelling of grammar error.
1. The beginning (The first words):
Set aside two to three 30-minute blocks.
Imagine a busy program director reading your application for the first time.
Make a list of things you want to tell him or her. Don’t filter or judge anything at this stage. Just start listing everything that comes to mind.
Think of your goals and achievements, life events that shaped you, failure and lessons you learnt, things you want to do in life and how residency in that field is going to help you achieve that.
Is there something that you did in your medical school, after moving to US, while raising a family that no one else around you was doing? (Real life examples: worked part time in a suicide hotline center, started a free drug sample clinic in med school, tutored high school or medical students, took long walks in the park).
Is there something your friends tell that you are good at?
List everything. Don’t stop yourself. Nothing is wrong at this stage.
My list looked for my graduate course personal statement looked like this:
- Practicing physician in a high turnover university setting for three years
- Trained at internal medicine residency program of UNC Chapel Hill. Another high workload program
- During residency, no exposure to healthcare quality except daily signal out to the next resident
- Gradually learning concepts of HQS while working as an assistant professor
- Experienced areas of healthcare in the US that did not provide the level of care compared to the money spent
- Physician burnout due to complexity electronic medical record
- Medical errors from flaws in system
- Personal story of medical errors committed because EMR was setup in a way to easily miss things
- Like to be in job where there is new to learn everyday.
- Play tennis in free time. First recreationally, now developing skills to play professional
Try to make at least 10 points. The more, the better. But don’t worry if you cannot come up with 10 points. You will find more things to say as you move on. Once you hit 30 minutes, stop, come back tomorrow and do the same for another 30 minutes.
Once again, don’t think how stupid it sounds or this is something you should not mention in a PS. Let your creativity flow. Just put down anything and everything that comes to your mind about your past life, experiences, achievements, failures, lessons learnt, skills that you have.
2. The middle (Connecting the dots):
Start writing sentences using the points above. These sentences don’t need to have the perfect grammar, spellings or flow of words. They serve only one purpose at this stage- connecting the points you listed.
So for examples, if I try to connect the points I made above for my personal statement.
I would write down something like this : “ Having completed my residency in internal medicine program at University of North Carolina, I was no stranger to the high workload and high stress medical environment. But, what I was not aware of was the extent of quality improvement projects ongoing at this institution. In residency, my experience of healthcare quality and safety was limited to an efficient and thorough checkout to the next resident coming on service.
You keep doing this until you go through most of the points on your list. Some points can be omitted if you realize they have already been covered in other sentences, not as important as you thought they were initially or you don’t want the PD to know about it.
Again, don’t judge the quality of your sentences at this time. Continue to write sentences to the best of your ability using the framework of the points you listed.
Stage 3: Just before the end (Personality formation):
By this stage, you should have about 1000 words or more in your personal statement. If you have less than 700 words, go back to stage 2.
This is a little tricky to explain.
But read over your 1000+ words you have written so far. Do you see an image of yourself being portrayed in the writing? (E.g. 1: hard working, dedicated student who always scored high in medical college but failed in USMLE step 1, learnt some lessons, came back and did very well the next time. Then started tutoring other students to avoid the mistakes she made. Now ready to move on with next step in becoming a primary care doctor that you always wanted to be. E.g. 2: high achieving and research focused doctor who is driven by researching new ways to treat heart disease, likes to be surrounded by people in off time).
It does not have to be one of these two examples. It can be anything that you feel represents you. If the sentences you have written so far don’t form a personality that matches your own, go back to step 1 and think of more points focused on your personality.
Personal statement has to be around 800-900 words to be able to fit legibly in one page. So cut down excess words now if they don’t represent you, have already been covered elsewhere and fluffy without adding meaningful content.
4. The end (Check grammar, spelling and flow of words):
Use MS Word, online grammar checker to check spelling and grammar. Make corrections suggested by these programs. Then have your computer read it out loud to you (ttsreader.com). Does the sentences flow from one line to next? Does it make sense to a first time reader? Make fine corrections based on this. Come back a week later and read your personal statement again. Do you like it? Does it need more tuning? What does your closest friend or family member think about it?
Do this every week till you are satisfied that you got a personal statement that is error free, rich in content that highlights your strengths and represents who you are perfectly.
Step 1. The beginning (The first words): Make a list of you life events, strengths, failures that you overcame, skills that you learnt, jobs that you took, projects that you started, hobbies that you are passionate about in two thirty minute blocks. Be creative. Don’t judge anything.
Step 2. The middle (Connecting the dots): Start writing sentences using the points above. Again, don’t judge the quality of sentences. Try to reach 1000+ words.
Step 3. Just before the end (Personality formation): read you personal statement and try to give it a personality that matches you perfectly. Add more points to step 1 if it lacks a personality. Remove words that don’t represent who you are. Try to cut down to 700 words.
Step 4. The end (Check grammar, spelling and flow of words): Fine tuning to ensure there are no grammatical or spelling errors, sentences flow from one to next without sounding chopping and it is an overall easy and pleasant read for the PD.
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