The MSPE Noteworthy Characteristics section is a deceptively challenging part of your for residency. While the rest of your is comprised of drier data like your academic history and progress, your MSPE Noteworthy Characteristics do the hefty lifting of providing context and a more holistic picture of who you are. However, with a strict limit of 40 words or less for each entry, this section is notoriously difficult for many students. Our guide will help you understand how to formulate and draft strong Noteworthy Characteristics.
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To understand the role of the MSPE Noteworthy Characteristics section in the overall document we should briefly lay out each of the MSPE’s sections:
The Noteworthy Characteristics section differs greatly from these sections. It asks for a list of 3 characteristics that your evaluators feel best represent you and your abilities. These can include things like hobbies, work experiences, non-academic roles, and so on, but they all need to be aimed at presenting an honest picture of you as a capable and desirable candidate for residency.
Crucially, there is a strict limitation on the entries in this section: each Noteworthy Characteristic must be described in a maximum of 2 sentences. It is an incredibly challenging exercise in being concise. Were there no limit, these characteristics would surely be sprawling, heavily qualified descriptions of complex behaviors and traits. It’s residency after all—most medical students are so nervous and excited about moving into specialty training that the urge to be wordy and heavily self-marketing would be all but irresistible were there no limit.
But with constraint comes the demand for creativity, and you and your evaluators will need to be surgically precise—and downright artful—to make these stand out.
In a word: very! While clerkship evaluations are often viewed as the most important part of the MSPE, your Noteworthy Characteristics are almost equally weighed by most residency programs. This is in part because the Noteworthy Characteristics section is what gives context to everything else, especially the aforementioned clerkship evaluations. Performing well in a rotation and having a positive comment about the details of that performance is great, but there’s not a lot of your personality or greater sense of direction or purpose in these. The MSPE Noteworthy Characteristics section is therefore the place to provide residency programs with material to paint a fuller picture of you, not just as an M4 or budding doctor, but as a person who can contribute to the diversity and character of a residency class.
As we’ll get to in just a moment, this is also the only part of your MSPE on which you’ll likely have direct input, so as for how important it is for you as a would-be resident, it’s huge. Being able to curate or edit these entries is incredibly important in helping to both characterize and/or offset any potentially questionable aspects of the rest of your MSPE. Think of the Noteworthy Characteristics like frosting on your MSPE cake. They add additional color, definition, and character, while also minimizing faults or setbacks in the version of you presented by the rest of the document.
Want to dig into the details on ERAS and the MATCH? Check out our video on how the residency application process works:
As we just mentioned, your Noteworthy Characteristics will be the section over which you have the most control. Medical schools differ in this to some extent, but in most cases, you’ll be asked to schedule a meeting with your MSPE evaluators—usually a group of faculty and Deans—sometime in the Spring of your M3 year. When invited to schedule this meeting, you’ll also typically be asked to draft a list of 3-4 Noteworthy Characteristics which you’ll bring to the meeting to discuss and edit with your evaluators. So, in most cases, you’ll be doing the heavy lifting on this section, with editing and final say provided by your MSPE evaluators.
Most schools will have specific guidelines on how they want you to approach these, but there are a number of common foci, which include:
- Achievements in scholarship or research, including publications
- Leadership in student organizations and volunteering
- Meaningful life experiences or events
- Hobbies or activities that showcase your interests or skills
- Explanations of difficulties or obstacles you’ve overcome
The list is ultimately limitless, provided a characteristic is at all relevant to your chosen career path. As such, crafting this section involves narrowing down what’s really important to understanding who you are and what you bring to the medical and academic environments around you. Again, these shouldn’t blatantly say “this person shows great dedication to medicine” but rather imply or denote that by extension. Noting that you had a life-changing experience saving someone from bleeding out after a car accident is much more impactful than simply stating that you have a talent for emergency medicine.
To really get at the art of crafting this section’s contents, let’s discuss some tips and best practices for making sure your Noteworthy Characteristics stand out.
Mr. Kent has shown great dedication to improving his manual dexterity for surgery throughout medical school.
During weekends, Clark has honed his manual dexterity by creating dozens of intricate wood carvings for his fellow students to send to their families during holidays.
The first entry simply tells an obviously pointed fact in general terms, while the second paints a picture that includes much more information and implication. Simply stating that you’ve improved your hand skills for surgery doesn’t say how you did so, nor how that may have contributed to the people around you. But in the second entry, a lot can be extrapolated. Clark cares about his fellow students, he’s thoughtful, and is interested in a specific artform that illustrates both attention to detail and an appreciation of traditional crafts. Residency directors for surgery programs will assume a candidate has taken at least some measures to improve their dexterity and hand-eye coordination, so it’s far more impactful to tell a story, however brief, that shows how these measures were more than just marketable training.
This also highlights one of the central tensions of the Noteworthy Characteristics section—trying to tell a story without getting bogged down in an unwieldy narrative. Consider the 6-word short story erroneously attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In 6 words the anonymous author conjures an entire universe of somber emotions and implications, while simply showing what’s there and, crucially, suggesting a great deal about what isn’t there. Your Noteworthy Characteristics shouldn’t be this scant—and certainly not as grim—but it’s important to understand that telling a moving story doesn’t require 4000 words.
Another way of considering this tip is to think about the details of an accomplishment that feels most meaningful to you. For instance, if you’ve made a breakthrough in a research project, find ways of describing the actual discovery and not just its results.
In the course of Meredith’s research on the reversibility of epigenetic mutations, she formulated new approaches to CRISPR-Cas editing that have proven instrumental in validating departmental therapeutic approaches.
Gary’s M4 research project created a new pathway for development of nano-based drug delivery systems for potentiating polyphenol compounds currently being researched by the interdisciplinary program in pharmacology and toxicology.
Check out some samples of MSPE noteworthy characteristics:
Returning to our point about Noteworthy Characteristics smoothing out some of the more jagged edges of your experience and performance, it’s important to strike a balance between positive and negative aspects when describing difficult situations that you’ve overcome.
While you may indeed have been significantly impacted by a negative experience, residency programs want to know that you’re adaptable, and can bounce back from stressful experiences. If you come from an underprivileged or medically underserved population, the point of referring to it in your Noteworthy Characteristics is to show how you’ve been shaped by this difficulty in a positive way, not simply to note that it had negative impact on your life at various points.
Jared contracted COVID-19 while volunteering in the university free clinic, and accordingly took a 1-month leave to recover during his M3 year. However, upon recovery he undertook additional elective rotations in internal medicine to make up for the loss of time and excelled in each instance.
Courtenay is the first member of her family to attend university and experienced significant financial hardship during both her undergraduate and medical school years. During her M2 year, however, she began MCAT tutoring and working part-time in a physical rehab center and managed to continue excelling academically despite this additional workload.
Both of these entries lay out the scale of hardship while ending on a positive note that shows the student is incredibly committed to continuing on in medicine. If you’ve had such structural obstacles in your early career or have suffered a life-threatening illness, then you should be proud of your resilience and recovery from hardship, and not waste space simply cataloging the depth of suffering you’ve endured.
Conversely, don’t whitewash hardship either. If Courtenay simply noted that she was the first person in her family to attend university, she likely wouldn’t be alone in doing so among the rest of her potential cohort. What singles her experience out as especially unique is the rare ability to maintain part-time work while maintaining her performance in medical school.
At the outset of drafting your Noteworthy Characteristics, you should take time to really examine how you’ve ended up where you are, and what experiences have shaped you along the way. This will of course be part of the process in developing your Personal Statement, but it should be clear by now that the Noteworthy Characteristics section works in concert with the Personal Statement, and obviously utilizes much of the same source material, i.e., you!
Some schools offer lists of writing prompts for noteworthy characteristics, which mostly follow the format of medical school and . These different contexts all share the goal of providing a more detailed picture of who you are and what motivates you. Questions like this may include:
- If you could change one thing about your country's healthcare system, what would it be?
- What situations have you found most stressful during medical school? What are some of the ways you cope with stressful situations in clerkships or rotations?
- Over the last year, what's one way in which you feel you have grown or evolved?
- When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
- How have your research activities influenced your career goals?
You may also benefit from consulting other students' MSPE Noteworthy Characteristics, whether fellow students or people you know who have moved into residency already. The point of course is not to copy their responses entirely, but reviewing what others have done can often help get your mind working if you feel stuck. If you’re applying to an especially it will be helpful to try to talk to people who are current or former residents to get a fuller sense of the program’s philosophical or pedagogical principles, and then use this information to better understand what the program directors might be looking for. Don’t try to curate your Noteworthy Characteristics to this information of course, but let it help you develop a sense of your audience, so to speak.
Want a thorough breakdown of a sample residency personal statement? We’ve got you covered:
While you’re limited to 3 Noteworthy Characteristics, you can utilize this structure to create a coherent or cohesive narrative. Consider organizing your entries chronologically, or from difficult beginnings to a triumphant present. Think structurally and holistically. Consider this series of entries for someone applying to internal medicine residency programs:
Rukmini received departmental TA awards two years in a row during M2 and M3, and has shown strong desire to continue on in pedagogical roles following residency.
Rukmini’s volunteer work throughout medical school involved mentoring and research into healthcare education in traditionally underserved communities. Her M3 research project in particular contributed a wealth of new perspectives that have been fruitful for tuning our program’s curriculum to better address these social and economic inequalities.
Throughout her elective rotations in IM and nephrology, Rukmini showed incredible professionalism and communication skills, often taking time to explain symptoms and disease pathologies to patients using illustrated medical texts and accessible language. Numerous patients took the time to speak with attendings to praise her for this following their interactions.
These three entries not only form a cohesive, chronological narrative, but also show the development of Rukmini’s passion for teaching and mentorship to include a wide variety of contexts. Her empathy is on display, as is her commitment to internal medicine, albeit without it being emblazoned with neon lights shouting “she’s good for this specific residency.” The three entries form an engaging story without being blatantly structured in a 3-part narrative: each entry stands on its own, but together they paint a coherent and convincing picture.
While you should focus on crafting your own Noteworthy Characteristics using the strategies above, it may help you to consult samples as you edit and refine the language of your entries:
Adam hosts a podcast on student life in medical school, and has participated in interviews with various public radio affiliates to discuss the role of media relations in making medical education more accessible.
Beth conducted research on the effectiveness of the pulse oximetry newborn screen for critical congenital heart disease in an underserved population. This original research project resulted in presentations at two separate national conferences, one publication, and two additional manuscript submissions.
Carleton served as clinic coordinator and volunteered with the student-run UCLA HIV/AIDS clinic in downtown Los Angeles.
Throughout M1 and M2, Davina was on the university’s Dean’s List and was awarded a teaching assistant position for the Department of Pharmacology.
Edouard will be the first member of his economically disadvantaged family to graduate from medical school and has sought out mentoring positions to help undergraduate students who come from similarly underprivileged backgrounds.
Francesca was raised by a single father and struggled economically throughout her childhood and undergraduate education. Despite these hardships, she has distinguished herself in academics and athletics, receiving multiple awards and scholarships based on strong performance in both of these dimensions.
Gregory assisted in splenectomy database analysis at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The research, entitled "Laparoscopic Splenectomy in a community hospital setting: short-term outcomes, feasibility and cost-analysis” was delivered to tremendous praise at the annual International Conference on Community Health Systems in Toronto, Ontario.
Hilde passed her USMLE Step-1 examination only two weeks after the death of her father due to complications from coronary artery disease.
Ivan worked with Dr. Peter Pendragon to develop and characterize a line of conditionally immortalized human mesenchymal stem cells. He published this work in the March 2021 issue of Cytotherapy.
Justine was the class representative for the Student National Medical Association. She spearheaded a youth enrichment project in Cass Tech High School in Detroit.
Khalid is an avid reader, and ran reading groups dedicated to texts on the history of medicine through M2 and M3.
Leonara is a prolific artist, having not only produced nearly a dozen abstract acrylic paintings throughout her time at Harvard Med but also exhibiting selections at the Institute of Contemporary Art and MIT List Visual Arts Center.
Milas has completed requirements for both the Global Health and Underserved pathways. These certificate programs provide singular experiences for students interested in issues relating to public health and social justice.
Na’ama received the Certificate of Outstanding Achievement in Research for her research studying the use of peri-operative glucocorticoids on transsphenoidal surgery outcomes.
Orson ran and moderated discussion for a film club on Saturday evenings that focused on representations of medicine and healthcare in mid-century cinema. This club began as a small group of students in his cohort, but was open to the public and eventually grew to dozens of attendees, necessitating rental of a screening room each week in downtown Vancouver.
Pei steps up as a leader when she feels she can make a change, and has served as a Dean’s Council representative, a leader in her advising society, and a co-chair of a local high school health scholars organization.
Quena was the recipient of the Phi Chi Medical Fraternity, Sigma Chi Mu chapter Leadership and Service Honor Award.
Roger has demonstrated excellence in scholarship, manifest in two published abstracts and selection for an oral presentation at the Annual Society of Hospitalist Medicine Conference.
Sayori participated in a number of AUC’s Community Actions days conducting HIV screenings with the St. Maarten AIDS Foundation and volunteering with the St. Maarten Medical Center for an Alzheimer’s screening service.
Tristan was awarded a year‐long research fellowship at the NIH in clinical/translational research and healthcare policy.
Having seen firsthand the impact of health disparities on those in the Northwest Territories, Uki has invested a tremendous amount of her extracurricular time to give back to the community through service initiatives. These include [x, y, z].
As part of the education committee for the Eva Dodge House Advisory system, Vittorio arranged, promoted and coordinated faculty-to-student round table and panel opportunities over her two-year tenure.
Wendy worked with Healthy Choices Portland, a program to educate elementary students on anatomy, physiology, and healthy eating. Wendy was instrumental in designing a new curriculum and expanding the program to additional Portland City schools.
Xin has been an interviewer for prospective students, and has been a dedicated participant in the medical school admissions process during M2 and M3. Numerous students who participated in these interviews and matriculated have sought out Xin as a peer mentor during their M1 years.
Yuna was a student teacher in the Prematriculation Summer Program where she mentored and supported selected students through a predefined curriculum. Yuna received the student teacher award two years in a row.
Zed had an acute medical problem during the last few weeks of Functional Systems, and this likely affected his ability to perform at his best on the last exam. However, his performance in Medical Neuroscience, which began the following week, was best in class, and he has continued to excel following this temporary hardship.
While your and personal statement do a lot of the heavy lifting in creating your academic and professional portrait for residency committees, your Noteworthy Characteristics can in fact be a fun, albeit challenging, exercise in patching the cracks and adding definition to this portrait. Begin with a careful indexing of your journey through medicine so far, and give yourself ample time to draft, contemplate, and experiment with potential entries before committing to a draft. And by all means, always give preference to the comments of your MSPE committee. The people helping you craft this important document are not only experts in doing so, but have a vested interest in your success.
1. How long can my MSPE Noteworthy Characteristics be?
This section of the MSPE is limited to 3 entries of no more than 2 sentences each. Some schools recommend a target word length of 40-50 words total per entry, but this is not a part of the AMA’s Task Force recommendations.
2. What kind of things should I include in my MSPE Noteworthy Characteristics?
The general rule is to choose qualities, achievements, or experiences that are vital to understanding who you are, while also aren’t fully represented in other application materials like your CV or personal statement. Some of these foci are: Achievements in scholarship or research, including publications; Leadership in student organizations and volunteering; Meaningful life experiences or events; Hobbies or extracurricular activities that showcase your interests or skills; and Explanations of difficulties or obstacles you’ve overcome.
3. How important is the Noteworthy Characteristics section?
Within the MSPE, it’s considered fairly important, typically viewed as the second most important section after your clerkship rotation evaluations.
4. How long should the total MSPE be?
7 single-spaced pages in 12-point font.
5. Who writes the MSPE Noteworthy Characteristics section?
While schools differ somewhat on this, typically the student is asked to draft a list of 3 or more Noteworthy Characteristics to bring to their MSPE meeting near the end of their M3 year. The student and their committee then edit this list for the final MSPE.
6. Should I include research or scholarly work in the Noteworthy Characteristics section?
Research is its own self-contained section in the ERAS application itself, and will also be noted on the CV. The MSPE Noteworthy Characteristics section should therefore only include research or scholarly work if there are important context or details about these projects not identified in the application or CV.
7. Should the Noteworthy Characteristics section include lapses in professionalism?
In general, information on professionalism should be included in the Academic Progress section and not the Noteworthy Characteristics. This kind of information and how it’s presented will be directed by your MSPE writers/committee, so isn’t a concern for you as you draft your Noteworthy Characteristics unless you feel you can offset such a lapse with additional context. If this is the case, work with your MSPE writers to determine how to proceed.
8. Is the MSPE necessary? My school only provides a Dean’s Letter
In some cases, a Dean’s Letter may be acceptable, but many if not most residency programs will be less positive about your application if it doesn’t have a document similar in content/breadth to the MSPE. If your school is somehow entirely resistant to providing you with either document you may want to attempt to draft one yourself, but your school’s administrative body will still need to sign or approve it.