Words of wisdom

Applying to residency: Tips for personal statements and letters of recommendation

Any rotation that is in your area(s) of interest is a potential opportunity for a letter of recommendation.


The time to prepare to match into residency starts early in your third year. Two critical components of preparing to apply to residency include writing your residency personal statement and asking for letters of recommendation.  

Strategies for letters of recommendation

Any rotation that is in your area(s) of interest is a potential opportunity for a letter of recommendation. Try broadening your scope and ask for several letters of recommendations from different specialties because you might apply to more than one specialty or you may change your focus during your third- and fourth-year rotations.

While on a rotation, ask to meet with the attending physician as soon as possible and ask if they are willing to write a letter of recommendation at the end of your rotation. If so, provide your curriculum vitae (CV), a preliminary personal statement, a short biographical sketch with career goals, a copy of your board scores if available, your medical school transcript and a letter request from the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS), along with submission instructions.

The attending physician will usually give a student more opportunities during the rotation when they know a student is interested in that particular field. Near the end of the rotation, ask the attending to meet with you to discuss any feedback or suggestions and find out if they know of other available rotations in the specialty or if they have any contacts who can help. Periodically check the ERAS system for the letter of recommendation and do not be afraid to contact the attending physician to gently remind them of your letter request, if necessary.

How many letters to ask for

It is always best to get as many letters as possible from attending physicians in the field you want to pursue. However, a strong letter from a physician at a large medical institution will be favored even if it is not in your field of interest. You may also ask for letters of recommendation from people you have not worked with on a monthly rotation if you have had some meaningful contact with that person.

Three to four letters per residency application is usually the standard. The MSPE/dean’s letter does not count as a letter of recommendation. The deadline for submission is usually at the end of September, so it would be wise to request letters well before the deadline. If you start early and accumulate several letters of recommendation, you may store letters in the ERAS database and choose which ones are best to send to each residency program.

It is generally a good idea to waive your rights to read your letter of recommendation, otherwise it might arouse suspicion by the author of the letter. It is also a good idea to check individual residency programs as they may have specific requirements for the letters of recommendation. The American Medical Association’s FREIDA database has a listing of school-specific requirements.

Personal statement guidance

During your third year, along with accumulating letters of recommendation, you should also be working on your personal statement. The purpose of the personal statement is to provide the residency program director a window into your strengths and aspirations that are not conveyed through your CV or letters of recommendation. By starting early, you can get input from others and revise often until you are ready to submit it in your fourth year.

In the 2021 NRMP program director survey, the number one factor in deciding whom to interview was the personal statement, with 87.1% of program directors considering it in their decision. The number three factor was letters of recommendation in the specialty, with 67.7% of program directors considering them. The number two factor was interest in the program, with 71% of program directors considering that.  

One approach is to open with a unique personal experience and include specific patient encounters that you will be excited to talk about during the interview. Use confident language without being arrogant. Try to show growth over your time in rotations and give short specific examples. Include why you are interested in a particular specialty and how it connects to your long-term goals. Technically, you should keep the personal statement to one page and check for spelling and grammar errors. Ask your experienced faculty members and mentors to review your statement and provide honest feedback.

As far as pitfalls to avoid, please do not plagiarize, exaggerate or lie. In addition, if you have any deficiencies, such as a failed board exam or course, it will show up in official documents. Therefore, you should give a brief explanation as to the reason for the failure and what you did to correct the situation. Avoid writing about sensitive topics like religion, politics and personal tragedies. Other common mistakes include using flowery language, trying to teach the program director about their specialty, stating why you want to be a doctor and generic comments.

Personalizing your statement

Although you may apply to many (50-100) programs, a good strategy would be to narrow down your top 10 or so programs and include specific program information in your personal statement when applying. You can gather details from the program’s website, mention family you have in the area or name a faculty member whom you would like to do research with. Personalization of your statement for each program is always appreciated by the program director.

Residency personal statement examples

You can find residency personal statement examples on many websites. I personally like the examples and resources available on the BeMo website. Also, most medical schools have example statements for each specialty on file to help you prepare your own personal statement.

Early preparation and diligent revisions of your personal statement will serve you well. In addition, relentless pursuit of and follow-up on your letters of recommendation will best position you to match into your ideal residency.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Residency interviews: Successful residents share their 9 top tips

Recently matched DOs share tips on applying to residency via ERAS

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