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A Personal Statement Checklist

May 05, 2019
by Mark David Siegel

Hi everyone,

With fellowship application season approaching, many of you are starting to write personal statements. Even if you plan to apply next year, or the year after that, or even if fellowship’s not for you, you’re still going to write a personal statement someday, so read on.

Before you begin, check out my PD Note on Personal statement “Do’s and Don’ts. The talent pool is deep and you want to rise to the top. A powerful essay will boost you.

Each year, I review more than 30 personal statements and without fail, common errors emerge. You don’t want to spend hours drafting an essay just to be told it needs an overhaul, so hopefully this checklist will help:

  • Check your spelling: Make it perfect. Run a spell check.
  • Check your grammar: Make this perfect too. Nix the bad syntax, misplaced commas, and run-on sentences. Read your essay out loud and hear how it sounds.
  • Be compelling: Make it enticing. If you were a fellowship director, would you choose you?
  • One page max: You may think your tome is riveting, but think again. Fellowship directors read hundreds of essays and you don’t want to make them yawn. Take pity. Be brief.
  • Explain why you chose your field: Cut the hyperbole and be specific. Fellowship directors can see through dubious odes to their specialty, like how you swoon over pee or dream about diarrhea. You can’t out-love the competition’s affection for hormones or sputum. Instead, explain how a field aligns with your interests and skills. And don’t trash other specialties. Cardiology isn’t the only field that deals with life and death, and oncology isn’t the only specialty with novel treatments. Finally, don’t waste space on this topic: you’re obviously interested, because you’re applying. Move on.
  • Show how you will contribute: Fellowship directors don’t really care about your happiness and fulfillment, at least when it comes to choosing fellows, but they’re laser focused on your academic potential. Tell them how you will advance the field.
  • Show your sophistication: Demonstrate that you know where the field is going. For example, describe the significance of your research or consider how the specialty is likely to change during your career.
  • Describe the skills you seek: These can include procedural, research, and teaching skills, like advanced endoscopy, trial design, and medical education training.
  • Outline what you’re looking for in a fellowship: Examples could include basic science opportunities, exposure to specific patient populations, or access to graduate degrees. Make sure the fellowship’s mission aligns with your career plans.
  • Map your trajectory: Academic fellowship directors aim to train funded investigators, master educators, and cutting-edge clinicians. They love to brag about their alumni. As much as you can, without being overly specific, look into your future. Be true to yourself- don’t pursue a research-intensive fellowship if you plan to become a master clinician. You’re looking for a match.
  • Strive for coherence: Your narrative should make sense. It’s easier to convey an interest in investigation when you have extensive research experience, or an interest in teaching when you’re pursuing a Clinician Education Distinction. You’re permitted to change paths- for example, many MD PhDs become clinician educators, but explain the transition.
  • Highlight your accomplishments: What makes you proud? Don’t rehash your CV. Provide context and color, and show your growth.
  • If necessary, address questions and concerns: If you failed a test, took an extended leave, or got derailed temporarily, seize the narrative and address the issues here. If you get stuck, talk to a trusted advisor.
  • Seek input: It’s easy to lose perspective, particularly after hours of writing and editing. When your eyes start glazing over, ask for help.

In the end, your personal statement should highlight your potential. Use the checklist. Make yourself shine.

Enjoy your Sunday, everyone, and when your drafts are ready, send them to me for review.


Submitted by Mark David Siegel on May 05, 2019