Personal Statement Don'ts and Do's

Hi everyone:

Every year, I read hundreds of personal statements, mostly for residency, but my labor of love is to review the statements you write for fellowship applications. Residency personal statements are straightforward: we don’t expect applicants to have sophisticated career plans; we just want to know a student has a spark, can write well, and would fit into our community. In contrast, fellowship directors want mature applicants with a more advanced career trajectory.

For those of you getting ready to write your personal statements (and those who plan to write one someday), here are some don'ts and do's:

The Don'ts

1.Don't dwell too long on why you chose your specialty: Beyond a sentence or two explaining why you chose your field, don't waste space extoling your specialty. All nephrology applicants love the kidney and you obviously love your organ too or you wouldn’t be applying. If you really have a special story—for example, your uncle had cancer and that motivated you to spend two years studying cancer genetics—then tell that story. But if your personal epiphany isn't unique, move on.

2.Don't trash other specialties: You don’t accomplish anything by saying other specialties bore you. Do you really think rheumatology is the only specialty that requires clinical reasoning? What if the cardiology chief’s wife is a gastroenterologist?

3.Don't exceed one page: No matter how fascinating you think you are, no one wants to read a long statement. Program directors have to examine hundreds of statements, often in long, exhausting sessions. Get to the point.

4.Don't pretend you're someone you're not: Be realistic about your trajectory. If you haven't done much research, don't claim you can't wait to return to the lab. And don't try to please everyone- almost no one has a career with one third clinical work, one third teaching, and one third research. Focus.

Take your time, make yourself shine, craft a masterpiece.

5.Don't make spelling and grammar errors: Pay attention to details. Read your statement out loud to find mistakes.

The Do's

1.Do show how you plan to contribute: Fellowship Directors don't care what their program will do for you; they want to know what you will do for their program. And they really don’t want to hear about how you can’t wait to begin a new chapter or start your journey.

2.Do show sophistication: What are the big opportunities and new directions in your field? How will you contribute?

3.Do show where your career is headed: What do you expect to do after fellowship? How will you spend your time? If you can be specific—“I want to do cardiac transplant”—then be specific. If you don’t know, that's fine, but show you’re thinking ahead because fellowship directors need to know if they can give you the skills you need. And remember, not all fellowships offer the same training; if you want to do interventional pulmonology, you’re not going to excite programs that don't offer that.

4.Do be exciting: Use active voice. Don’t say “Directing a MICU would be a rewarding career pathway.” What a snore! Say “I hope to direct a MICU one day." And think big- fellowship directors like applicants with ambition.

5.Do show your draft to others: Show it to friends and family. I want to read all your personal statements, often if necessary, to make sure they're great.

So remember your personal statement is your last opportunity to boost your candidacy. Once you’ve applied, your clinical performance, board scores, research accomplishments, and extracurricular contributions are pretty much set. A fantastic personal statement will elevate you from a crowd of talented applicants. Take your time, make yourself shine, craft a masterpiece.

Enjoy your Sunday, everyone. I'm on my way to the MICU,

Mark

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  • Program Director's Notes

This article was submitted by Mark David Siegel on May 8, 2017.

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Mark David Siegel

Professor of Medicine (Pulmonary)