In a World of Social Distancing, Getting Personal in Your Residency (or Fellowship) Application

26 Aug 2020

By Jaime Lewis

This year is a curious year, a once in a century, one in a lifetime sort of year. And for some of you reading this blog, the year will coincide with other once in a lifetime events. I sit here tonight thinking of the fourth year medical students I advise who will soon be sending out applications for residency. Many have confirmed their field of interest, identified letter writers, and compiled their resumes. And many are also staring at blank (or nearly blank) pages on their computers, as I did just a few moments ago, trying to figure out how to write a personal statement. They are inevitably concerned that their personal statement will have more importance this year than in others. While I’m not sure if this is true, I do know that this statement is the next page in a story that will follow them through the course of their careers, revised and rewritten with transitions along the way.

Many times students believe that they need to be extremely creative, have overcome significant adversity, or have been a national champion in some endeavor in order to write an impactful personal statement. In actuality, none of this is necessary and a strong personal statement is really quite simple once you’ve spent some time gaining insight and perspective on yourself.

When I talk to students about getting started on their personal statements, I ask them to think about a few questions:

  1. Why do you love medicine and surgery? What is it about this field that wakes you up every day at 4 am, eager to go to the hospital for another long day of work?

Oftentimes, I find that students write their entire personal statement about, “why surgery”. They describe patients, cases, and mentors in great detail! But what I really want to know is…

  1. Why you? What has helped you to get through high school, college, and medical school? What is it about you that will support your endeavor to become a great surgeon?

Then, once I know you have identified the skills that will help you to successfully complete residency, I ask:

  1. What do you want out of residency? Where do you believe your residency will lead you? And importantly, do you know what will be required of you over the course of residency and your chosen career?

And finally:

  1. Are there any issues that need to be addressed? Did you need to repeat a course or exam or take a leave of absence?

Once a student can verbalize all of the above, (s)he is ready to write their personal statement! 

In preparing the statement, students should adhere to the following guidelines:

  1. Use active voice – it helps me believe what you’re writing
  2. Limit to one page (or less depending on the specialty) – our attention spans aren’t long enough for anything more
  3. Don’t forget the audience – we have been through residency and know a decent amount about surgery and the surgical lifestyle, but we don’t know much about you
  4. Cover just the high points – make us want to ask more questions during the interview

In addition, students should avoid:

  1. Using a quotation – again, we want to know about you
  2. Describing the expected – all of you work hard!
  3. Requesting an interview – that’s the point of the application (however, it is okay to personalize a statement and explain why you are interested in a particular program or geographic region)
  4. Using a professional service – just don’t
  5. Plagiarism! This is absolutely unethical and can lead to investigation and reporting of your application.

And while this year is undoubtedly unique, like so many years before, this personal statement will be your introduction to residency. I, like many of my colleagues, look forward to meeting you.

Jaime D. Lewis, MD, FACS, is an Associate Professor in the Division of Surgery Oncology and a Career Advisor in Student Affairs at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she also completed her general surgery residency. After residency, she spent a year in Tampa, Florida training in breast surgical oncology at the Moffitt Cancer Center. Dr. Lewis is committed to improving wellness and professional development opportunities for the medical students and residents with whom she is privileged to work. Outside of the hospital, she enjoys road and trail (ultra)running and spending time with her family. You can find her on Twitter at @JaimeDLewisMD.

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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