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Personal Statement Tips

July 24, 2020

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I recently came across a tweet from an aspiring orthopaedic surgeon soliciting personal statement tips. I thought to myself, let me dig up my personal statement and share some nuggets! It’s nearly a decade ago that I used this personal statement to gain entrance to a top interventional radiology program. And although I wouldn’t have shared it widely back then, at this point there’s no point in my being bashful if it can help someone else. So here it is for your viewing pleasure. I actually found two versions, one edited by a friend, so we can look at them for comparison. 

Please note that this is how I had it formatted: with my name at the top. Your interviewers will be shuffling paper (or scrolling) all application and interview season. So it’s important that you make it crystal clear who you are and what part of the application the evaluator is looking at when they glance at the top of the page. I’ll put my interspersed comments for the rest in italics below. 

Include a header or title for your personal statement:

Personal Statement: Barbara Nickel, MD

Completing my first Ironman was a life changing event, not only because I tested the boundaries of my physical limits. The preceding six months of training provided a mental journey of self-discovery which clarified many of the goals and values that I hold in my career. I came to further understand the importance of form, precision, endurance, and of course, humility.

Grammarly tells me that life-changing should be hyphenated. Right off the bat, you can see that imperfection didn’t keep me from being interviewed at top programs around the country.

I recommend using Grammarly. You can get the Chrome extension for free. There’s even a paid version I’m using for my book editing right now. You can spring for that if you want more suggestions on tone, word swaps, and the like. I consider myself to have decent grammar, and still, the number of errors this extension finds is incredible. You are writing your personal statement 10 years after me, so please use the tools at your disposal. 

Get descriptive to make a statement

Below is another version of the first paragraph my friend edited. She coincidentally went on to attend a top orthopaedic residency, as our Twitter friend hopes to do. Her language is more descriptive, and she does a great job of “showing, not telling,” compared my version above. In the end, I can’t remember which version I submitted, so you can compare the two.

The way you choose to express yourself will depend on your personal writing style. It can be an effective way to showcase your personality and/ or background. For example, if you’re from an engineering background and want to show that you’re well-rounded, you may opt for a more creative style. Also consider your audience and what you think they would prefer to read. Here’s my first paragraph, zhuzhed up a bit: 

Crossing the finish line, I felt fatigue set in, as the culmination of my training resulted in the rewarding feeling of a strong finish. Completing my first Ironman was the hardest thing that I had ever done for reasons far beyond the physical challenge. I had pushed myself to the limit. Yet my training provided a mental journey of confidence and self-discovery, bringing to light many of the values that I seek in my career. I came to understand the importance of agility, precision, and endurance to my professional success.

Grab their attention, then share some back-story

After grabbing the reader’s attention with a personal anecdote– and one demonstrating grit (a bonus!)– I delve into a brief back-story. In it I describe how I discovered my field for the first time. 

As the first doctor in my family, I entered medical school unaware of the role of the radiologist. My passion for radiology was born during my second year pathophysiology lecture. I came to appreciate the role of visuospatial reasoning while learning how to determine the location of a pneumonia on chest radiography. In the clinical years, I gravitated toward procedural fields, relishing each opportunity to get involved, whether assisting a plastic surgeon in a rhinoplasty, or performing cystoscopic removal of a ureteral stent on a urology rotation.  

What I’m telling the reader in this paragraph is that being a proceduralist is part of my identity. I know I belong working alongside them, working with my hands. I use specific examples to demonstrate this.

Also, check out the grammatical gaffes in this paragraph. “Second-year” should be hyphenated, and there should be no comma after “class.” Grammarly to the rescue again! Even with small errors sprinkled throughout my statement, I was invited to interview at great programs. So do your best, and check your work, but don’t lose your mind over the possibility of an error. 

Talk about a moment that solidified your decision to pursue your field

One of my first experiences in interventional radiology was as the sole assistant in a procedure to restore flow through a thrombosed upper extremity dialysis fistula. Though I was not able to fully understand what transpired, I was deeply impressed by the fact that, using an assortment of wires, catheters, and balloons, we prevented the need for a more invasive procedure in the operating room. I became eager to learn to interpret these images and obtain the skills needed to act as an interventionalist.

Here, I’m conveying that I will be an enthusiastic trainee and a vessel to pour knowledge into if the reader accepts me into their program. From an attending’s perspective, this account is particularly charming because declots are so ubiquitous at most practices, that some docs complain about them. Yet when trainees express wonder or enthusiasm for such typical or even mundane cases, it’s a good sign they might be even more excited as they gain knowledge in the field. This bodes well for not only for your potential as a trainee, but for your career longevity beyond the training period.

As an aside, I’ve always felt a little sad when I heard a resident or student express cynicism toward a particular clinical duty. As in,”Ugh, another declot.” or “I hate declots.” Maybe they are trying to fit in by saying such things, but really, it looks better to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You can demonstrate this kind of enthusiasm through your personal statement. (Just don’t overdo it!)

Show you’re legit

My involvement in a wide breadth of procedures as a resident, from accessing the common femoral artery, to placing a port and performing a cerebral angiogram are a testament to my initiative and proven ability to perform. Drawing satisfaction from the process of planning one’s approach, engrossing oneself in the task at hand, and performing a successful intervention have led me to a career in the field. 

Here, I give some examples of procedures I have actually done at that juncture. This demonstrates that I’ve taken the initiative to not just show up but to get hands-on experience. Giving examples of how you have done this can help assure the interviewer you are “for real–” that you have some idea of what working in the field actually entails. 

Hit them with initiative

As I approach the next steps in my career, I am excited to explore the potential benefit of interventional techniques in the developing world.  In July of 2012, I will spend a month practicing in the budding radiology department at Moi Teaching Hospital in Eldoret, Kenya. During my time there, I will perform ultrasound and fluoroscopically guided procedures. Meanwhile, I will help to instruct Kenyan residents in the use of these interventions in their practice. Further, I have been asked by Dr. Joseph Abuya, the Radiologist in Chief, to prepare a talk for the department. Despite the certain challenges that I will encounter in the third world, I feel confident that these skills will serve the people of Kenya, where availability of surgical intervention and resources is so limited. 

Here is another example of my taking initiative: I’ve not only set up an international elective, but have also planned to use my skills from residency to begin teaching others. The international elective adds a bit of “wow” factor. What can you use to grab your reader’s attention, so they’ll be clamoring to interview you and discuss your statement further?

Convey confidence

The field of vascular and interventional radiology is an excellent fit for me, 

Here, I’m speaking with *just the right amount* of confidence.

as its broad scope will continue to challenge and interest me, while affording me the opportunity to diagnose and treat a variety of debilitating conditions. I am well-suited to this kind of patient care, possessing the critical, intangible skills of an interventional radiologist: the ability to rapidly form a comfortable rapport and instill a sense of trustworthiness in patients. Additionally, my medical Spanish skills and experience as an educator will facilitate communication and relationship-building with patients and colleagues alike. 

Reading between the lines: “Pick me! Pick me!

Bring it back to the opening anecdote and tie it in a bow

I find the values, solidified at the limits of endurance racing, to be embodied by the practice of interventional radiology. Through my fellowship training, I hope to hone a skillset that will serve as the basis for a career as successful as my Ironman training. I have admired the finesse demonstrated at the hands of skilled interventionalists that I have worked with, and I aim to develop the proficiency necessary to perform with exceptional ease, efficiency, and safety.

Translation: “I am a bad a$$ m*ther f#ck&r and I think you are too.” Get your reader fired up and in your corner.

Below is an even stronger connection to my Ironman analogy, as edited by my friend: 

I have found the characteristics that I came to value at the limits of endurance racing to be embodied by the practice of interventional radiology. Through my fellowship training, I hope to hone a skill set that will serve as the basis for a career as successful as my Ironman training. I have greatly admired the finesse demonstrated at the hands of skilled interventionalists that I have worked with. Like them, I aim to develop the proficiency necessary to perform with exceptional ease, efficiency, and safety. I feel strongly that, given the opportunity to pursue such a career, the rewards at the “finish line” will last a lifetime.

Having a friend go over & edit your personal statement can be really helpful, as you can see here!

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I really like this as a finishing statement and often use it when I’m asking for something. 

There you have it, personal statement tips from someone who has succeeded in the game, and is rooting for YOU.

Leave your own personal statement tips below, to help your fellow students and residents. Or feel free to leave a question in the comments!

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  1. Amina Farooq says:

    Love this! Working on revising my personal statement this weekend-couldn’t have read this at a better time!

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