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Personal statement do’s and don’ts: Avoid clichés, trust your own voice

You want a personal statement that isn’t just like everyone else’s. These 10 tips can transform your essay from cookie-cutter to captivating.

When you submit a personal statement for medical school or residency, you’re going up against applicants who are smart, driven and deeply passionate about medicine—just like you. To craft a personal statement that’s truly unique, it’s best to weave in compelling life experiences that speak to your goals and skills, and avoid oft-used essay tropes.

Here are the key do’s and don’ts of creating an engaging personal statement, according to emergency medicine residency program director William Fraser, DO; emergency medicine resident Janine Curcio, DO; and Elizabeth McClain, PhD, MPH, associate dean for academic affairs at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine (WCUCOM) in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Personal statement pitfalls: 5 things to avoid

Cliché #1

“Your personal statement should only include elements that are still relevant today,” advises Dr. Fraser.

Cliché #2

“When you’re writing your personal statement, think back to a experience where you wanted time to stand still so you could take it all in,” says Dr. McClain. “Those one-of-a-kind stories are the ones you want to include.”

Cliché #3

“I don’t want to see quotes from historical figures or philosophers—I’d rather hear the applicant’s own voice,” says Dr. Fraser. “What drew you to this specialty, or to medical school, and what motivates you and keeps you going when things are tough?”

Cliché #4

“The single biggest mistake you can make is to submit a generic personal statement—you want to highlight what makes you unique,” says Dr. Curcio, whose essay on her experiences in the Navy earned praise from residency program directors during interviews last year.

Cliché #5

“As an emergency medicine physician, I already know why emergency medicine is a great career,” says Dr. Fraser. “I want to know why you think so, and what unique skills you have that would make you a good fit.”

5 steps to creating a personal statement that’s distinctively yours

Tip #1

“Build your personal statement around experiences you’ll be excited to discuss during an interview,” Dr. McClain advises.

Tip #2

“Ask yourself, what life experiences have you had that set you apart from anyone else who’s applying?” Dr. Curcio advises.

Tip #3

“You don’t want to sound arrogant or boastful, but you do want to sound confident,” says Dr. Fraser. If you’re unsure how your essay reads, try asking an honest friend or relative for their take.

Tip #4

“If you’re targeting your residency search by region, it’s definitely not harmful to include in your personal statement, and it’s helpful information for some review committees,” says Dr. Fraser.

Tip #5

Though you should ask several people to review your statement and offer suggestions, the finished product should be 100% your writing. “Nobody is better equipped to write about you than you,” Dr. McClain says.

For more personal statement guidance, see The DO’s recent article on how to write a compelling personal statement.

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