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Lights, camera, action: How to write a compelling personal statement

Envisioning your essay as a movie trailer and avoiding common storytelling pitfalls can help your writing stand out, experts say.


Crafting a personal statement for medical school or residency is a tall order—it’s not easy to highlight your accomplishments and convey your passion for medicine in one page or less. The DO gathered the following best practices for creating a compelling personal statement from William Fraser, DO, and Elizabeth McClain, PhD, MPH, who have evaluated hundreds of statements.

Dr. Fraser is program director for an emergency medicine residency in Columbus, Ohio, and Dr. McClain is associate dean for academic affairs at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine (WCUCOM) in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Here’s their advice.

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Making a good first impression

Elizabeth McClain, PhD, MPH

Because reviewers are likely reading hundreds of personal statements, it’s important to keep yours to one page or less, Dr. McClain notes. “Candidates want to tell their whole story, but your personal statement should be more like a movie trailer,” she says. “Applicants can share their story in more detail during interviews.”

To grab readers’ attention, emergency medicine resident Janine Curcio, DO, put her unique background as a naval aviator in the spotlight.

“I opened with a glimpse into my life in the Navy where I was taking part in a simulated attack sequence dropping a torpedo on a submarine,” explains Dr. Curcio, who served in the Navy for eight years before entering medical school. “Then I discussed why emergency medicine is similar to my Navy experience and why I was a strong residency candidate.”

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Whatever experiences inspired you to pursue medicine, Dr. Curcio says, it’s critical to hone in on what makes you a unique candidate and how your skills will enable you to succeed.

Showing growth

You’ll also want to highlight your growth mindset, Dr. McClain notes. “Be thoughtful about showing how each experience you mention made you better, stronger or different, even if it was something difficult like being in an accident or witnessing a negative patient safety outcome,” she says. “If you can’t turn the experience into a positive, it’s better to leave it out.”

Polishing your statement

Most importantly, Dr. Curcio says, she began working on her personal statement well in advance and asked multiple attending physicians, both within and outside her desired specialty, to read it and offer feedback.

“Figuring out your specialty is a journey—you should be talking to attending physicians and residents and developing relationships with them anyway,” she says. “Asking people to read my personal statement helped me make new connections and gain mentors along the way.”

What not to do

Though it goes without saying, applicants should be careful not to plagiarize, exaggerate or lie in personal statements.

William Fraser, DO

“It’s really easy when you’re writing a narrative to present it a little differently than it actually happened, but you have to be honest,” says Dr. McClain. “For example, if you write about a medical mission trip, don’t overstate how much responsibility you had.”

Applicants should also avoid sensitive topics such as religion and politics.

Bragging can also be a turnoff for reviewers, Dr. Fraser notes: If you tracked down an obscure diagnosis during clinical rotations that residents and physicians missed, be sure to emphasize that you are humble as well as dedicated.

“Medical vignettes with a boastful, ‘Thank God I was there’ tone are almost always a deal breaker for me,” says Dr. Fraser.

Instead, applicants should highlight their commitment to learning from and collaborating with physician colleagues.

One comment

  1. Stephen M. Swetech, DO, FACOFP dist.

    excellent article–when i write a letter of recommendation i try to put a comment to let the reader remember the candidate–i.e. Candidate Quazi put the “Q” in quality!

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