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5 Easy Guidelines for Residency Personal Statement Writing (Jan 2024)

Updated: Jan 30


Guidelines checklist graphic

As I say in my comprehensive ERAS personal statement writing guide, there are no true set-in-stone rules that you MUST follow. However, there are more than a few best practices.

 

Here are five pieces of advice I’ve drawn from my many years of assisting medical students write the personal statements that got them into their dream residency programs:

 

 

Oh, and I’ve thrown in a BONUS guideline at the end!

 

1) Do not capitalize random words.


Bearded doctor saying no

It never fails. Year after year, I see so many capitalization mistakes which, if unaddressed, can give the reader an instant negative impression of the applicant. Thankfully they’re very easy to fix.

 

As a general rule, only capitalize the first word in a sentence and proper nouns (a name of a specific person, place, or thing). The following are common errors I encounter:

 

  • Capitalizing your specialty is incorrect. It’s internal medicine or psychiatry, not Internal Medicine or Psychiatry.

  • The words "physician" or "doctor" should not be capitalized unless they’re part of somebody’s name. Example: “Everyone says Doctor Smith is an awesome doctor.”

  • Do not capitalize the word “medicine” unless it’s beginning a sentence.

 

There are a lot more examples, but you get the idea.

 

2) Do not use any punctuation you aren’t sure about.


Disappointed doctor saying no

Maybe you never quite grasped the semicolon. Perhaps the grammatical rules of the dash still don’t make sense to you.


Being confused by these silly things, so meaningless that only your high school English teacher ever cared about them, is nothing to be ashamed of.  You’re about to graduate medical school after all.

 

And guess what: Your high school English teacher isn’t reading your ERAS personal statement.

 

So, don’t go out of your way to include a semicolon. It won’t impress anybody. Chances are that you’ll get it wrong anyway and then your readers will think you’re trying too hard.

 

Bonus tips concerning punctuation:

 

  • Limit yourself to just one (zero is even better) exclamation point in your personal statement. Use more than that and your readers may think you’re overcaffeinated or, worse, possibly overwhelming in person.

  • Use commas because you must, but make sure you at least have someone with some writing experience proofread your work. Even better, hire a professional writing service to help. Commas are typically either overused or underused.

 

3) Use a thesaurus but avoid including words you don’t normally say.


Scrabble letter blocks

Using uncommon words in your ERAS application personal statement is a double-edged sword. You can just as easily confuse your reader as impress them, and, of course, you want to do everything you can to avoid looking like you’re trying TOO HARD to stand out.

 

So use thesaurus.com or something like it to change up your word choices, but find alternative words instead of fancy words.

 

Example 1:

 

“I considered other differential diagnoses.”

 

SAFE TO USE: “I brainstormed other differential diagnoses.” “I evaluated other differential diagnoses.”

 

NOT SAFE TO USE: “I cogitated other differential diagnoses.” “I ruminated on other differential diagnoses.”

 

Example 2:

 

“My attending praised me for a job well done.”

 

SAFE TO USE: “My attending complimented me for a job well done.” “My attending commended me for a job well done.”

 

NOT SAFE TO USE: “My attending aggrandized me for a job well done.” “My attending lauded me for a job well done.”

 

4) Follow my simple cheeseburger outline: introduction, patient story, conclusion.

Yummy cheeseburger

This isn’t rocket science. I go into much further detail about my simple, proven structure in my comprehensive guide to writing a personal statement, but here are the basics:

 

  • (Top Bun) Begin with an introduction that answers the following two questions:

 

1)      Why do you love medicine?

2)      Why are you pursuing your chosen field?

 

  • (The Meat) Share a patient story, preferably from rotations, that shows you in action in a clinical setting. Choose one that displays personal attributes you have that your specialty values.

 

  • (Bottom Bun) In your conclusion, summarize what you love about your chosen field and convey how you’ll be an asset to your program. Telling more than showing is okay here. Finally, tie in a callback to your introduction to bring your personal statement full circle.


To get an in-depth look at the Cheeseburger outline in action, check out Spider-Man's ERAS personal statement example


5) Aim for between 600 and 800 words.


Calculator

You’ve probably already heard varying advice about residency personal statement word count. This just means, as I state above, there are no set-in-stone rules.

 

So don’t overcomplicate things: Aim for 600 to 800 words.

 

There are a few exceptions to that guideline, the most common of which occurs when you’re addressing red flags.

 

BONUS GUIDELINE: Stay positive and work in manageable, bite-sized sessions.


Puppy and kitten high-fiving

Just like with any task, a good mindset makes writing your ERAS personal statement a lot easier.

 

The process can be intimidating and tedious, but when it feels impossible, remind yourself that countless other applicants have been EXACTLY where you are right now. They made it through to the other side. You will too.

 

My favorite way to combat that anxiety, that horrible tightness in that forms in your chest when sitting to write, is to work in short bursts. Set a timer for 30 minutes and commit to working until it goes off.


Only 30 minutes? Yep, you can handle that. Then do that three more times and now you’ve spent two full hours on your personal statement today.

 

Otherwise, for immediate stress relief, peace of mind, and time to spend doing literally anything else, hire a writing service to help. I recommend myself! :)


 

Photo credits:


Cheeseburger - Abby Curtin


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