Whether they come from the tone of the writing or from the content, red flags in residency personal statement will hurt, or possibly even entirely block, your application for your residency of choice. If handled extremely poorly, they might stop you from getting any residency interviews at all.
Your goal of your residency personal statement is to help you get an interview with your top program choice, and with fierce competition, you want to give yourself every advantage; every aspect of your application needs to be impeccable.
Knowing how-to is partly knowing what to avoid. To that end, we are going to look at examples of red flag statements, why they are a problem for your application – what makes them a red flag in the first place – and what kinds of things you might write or focus on instead of these problem areas.
Read on for how to turn a red flag into a green light!
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Pride, Arrogance, and Narcissism
The old truism, “Pride goes before a fall,” will be aptly illustrated if you season your personal statement with a mélange of arrogant statements and a prideful tone. Of course, you must sell yourself, and that does involve being able to demonstrate your skills and track record. You need to assure your readers that you are talented, capable, and intelligent.
But, if you overextend yourself, bragging about your abilities, or putting down the accomplishments over others, you will be seen as a bloviating egotist, puffing out hot air instead of a competent, studious professional.
Would you like to learn why "show, don’t tell" is the most important rule of any personal statement? Watch this:
What’s the difference?
The Narcissist Writes...
I got the highest grades in my class, unsurprising given that I have an IQ of 128, and my classmates were not the brightest crayons in the box. I have always done well on tests and quizzes because of my exceptional intelligence. It would be foolish not to pick me for a residency because I am, simply-put, the most qualified, smartest, and most skilled candidate you are likely to encounter.
Let’s cover some of the red flags in a paragraph like that.
- The writer belittles their classmates.
- The writer brags about their IQ. This number has no bearing on a residency application, so bringing it up comes off as insufferable.
- Vague language without a lot of facts means that these boasts aren’t even that impressive. “...always done well on tests...” for example, doesn’t say anything meaningful to anybody reviewing the application.
- Unreasonable pride and a lack of self-awareness are demonstrated by stating that this person is smarter and more qualified and skilled than any other applicant. That is, at best, a bold statement, but will only come across as arrogant. Furthermore, it is unlikely that this applicant will factually be the most academically-impressive of all applicants reviewed for this residency, so the statement will be perceived as false as well as prideful.
The Qualified Student Writes...
My journey is what is truly important to me, and I look forward to every opportunity to learn and grow. It wasn’t always that way with me, and I used to spend all my time obsessing over my exact grades. IQ scores were important to me, and I wanted the best one; I had to overachieve to feel worth and validation.
Eventually, however, I realized the futility of searching for a number. It’s just a number, after all. I had truly missed out on the experience of learning itself when all I sought was a high test score. It’s not that I didn’t achieve results – because I did – but now I focus on the journey, on learning and growth, and those qualities that are not measurable.
What’s the difference?
To start with, the second shows us what kind of a person this is. It focuses on growth, lessons learned, and experiences. It shows the reader that the writer has values which are desirable, that they might make errors, but put them behind themselves. Never does it mention a statistic like the writer’s IQ or test scores – presumably the committee has access to these details, so why bring them up?
The tone is wildly different, going from the negative example’s pathetic braggadocio to the more confident, mature student’s humbler writing.
Note also that the second example is concerned with communicating to the reader, not just brow-beating them with numbers like IQ and class rankings.
The main thing is that the better example stresses what the individual is like and why they are a valuable person instead of a set of data.
Lack of Confidence
This is the opposite of the previous problem. Just as you can hurt your letter’s quality by spending the whole time bragging, you can also undersell yourself. The difference is that confidence is simply stating why you have ability, and which accomplishments you are proud of. Humility is welcome, but self-deprecation is not.
Imagine reading this letter:
“I got lucky and was accepted into Harvard Medical School. I’m sure other candidates were just as qualified, but as I said, I got lucky.
While at Harvard, I think I did well, in part because of the friends I made along the way; I managed to get a good group together that helped me, and I think that’s a big reason why I succeeded in my laboratory work. Lab was my favorite class, because of this group of friends.”
The writer is spending all of their time talking about luck, connections, and friendships, and none of their time talking about the one thing the reader needs to hear about: the applicant. Don’t sell yourself short, crediting everything to luck and friendships. Maybe your relationships are important to you – of course, they should be – but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a little credit here and there.
Here’s a much more confident student writing about that same subject:
“I could hardly contain myself when I received my acceptance letter to Harvard Medical School, since it was my top choice. The letter gave me a great boost of encouragement, but at the same time, lit a fire within me, for I knew that I couldn’t become complacent.
My laboratory work was my hardest course, and my most rewarding. During this class, I had a terrific lab partner. I have always believed in the importance of teamwork, dividing the workload, and focusing on each member’s strengths. I have a strange love of paperwork and documentation, while my lab partner did not, so I picked that up.”
We see a person who describes the same two events – acceptance to a prestigious school and lab work – but who is emphasizing what those stories mean to them, revealing who they are, and using those events to further their letter’s narrative.
Gaps in Education
Did you take a gap year before medical school? Are your studies taking longer than expected for one reason or another? Delays and gaps are common enough, and can be understandable, but without an explanation, it can be a red flag. To not explain it, or at least mention it, could seem like you are hiding something. Needing to take time off to care for family members, for example, is something very understandable. You will want to address why you were unable to care for that person and continue your studies.
You could even turn this into a positive. A personal statement is a chance to express who you are, what you are capable of, and why you are a great fit for the residency program that you are applying to. That means you can show your future potential through past growth. What did you learn over the gap?
Here’s an example: let’s say you were in an MD-PhD program and your research hit problem after problem – never going the way you hoped, always slowing you down. Surely this is a great way to highlight your perseverance. You kept going, and even though complications necessitated more time, it never stopped you. You kept solving problems and enduring whatever curve-balls were thrown at you. You have just showcased your ability to troubleshoot problems and that you rise to meet a challenge.
You don’t have to take your residency CV, your personal history, your academic record, and address every, single, little gap or circumstance that might raise an eyebrow in any of them. Small cracks don’t need big bridges.
If you have a low USMLE score, or lower grades in any of your academic endeavors, that appears elsewhere in your application, you should definitely find a way to address those, however briefly, in your statement.
Tell a story of how you learned to fail better, what your low score taught you, and how you are improving and working toward being better – ideally, how you have already achieved an improvement in your life and career. This lets the committee know that you are improving, and that you are aware of these shortcomings.
The red flag comes from not addressing them. With no mention of a low score, anybody reading your application might start to think that either you don’t know about this problem, that you are hoping they don’t notice, or that you simply haven’t improved at all.
Your addressing this point in your personal statement will mean taking space to demonstrate the steps you took to address this. Did you retake the USMLE? Did you ask your instructors about the possibility of getting extra credit? Show that you proactively worked on your setback! It’s important to be specific about the ways you have moved on from those low scores.
Without such clear demonstrations, you send a message that you are complacent and stagnant. You don’t want that. Show them a proactive you.
If you are applying to a specialty with a lot of experience in that area, that’s terrific. Say you’re looking into being a pediatrician and you want to apply to a residency in pediatrics. Well, if you have a lot of experience working or learning at a children’s hospital, or on a pediatric unit, that’s great! But maybe your CV doesn’t have that.
What do you do?
Well, you have to bring this up. Not necessarily in terms of saying, “I know I don’t have a lot of experience in this area,” but rather, showing why you don’t have a lot of CV-friendly experience in this area.
Maybe you’re going into pediatrics because you volunteered with children at a library or in a women’s shelter. You have had a lifetime of experience working with children, including tending to their illnesses, but not in a way that shows up on official documentation.
If you’re looking to go into a primary care specialty like pediatrics without experience specific to that specialty, link back to experiences you have in other primary care specialties. Did you work with children through family medicine or internal medicine? Maybe you were in emergency medicine and had to treat a child, and discovered that you had a knack for calming children down in harrowing circumstances. If that’s the reason for your late interest in pediatrics, that’s actually a great story and might hook the readers of your statement.
In other words: you might not have been in “pediatrics” officially, but you still got experience working with children. Use part of your personal statement to show that experience that doesn’t appear nakedly on your CV.
So, that’s one way of running down the red flag. What if you don’t have any experiences related to your field?
Well, that’s quite unlikely, but at that point, there’s a personal question you need to ask yourself: why do you want to be in this field if you’ve never pursued it before now? Can you answer that question? Can you answer that question with positive passion, in a way that truly shows why you need to do this?
Great. Now write that down.
You also might need to accept the fact that you need more experience, in which case you might need to reconsider the specialty you are applying to.
There are a lot of highly-competitive specialties – like dermatology – and if you are applying to one of them without the concrete, demonstrable background in that specialty, all you will do is waste time and money applying. That’s just a fact.
It might be hard to accept, but it could be too late to get into a program where you have no foundational knowledge. Go with something where you do have the experience.
Multiple Exam Attempts
This is another “unexplained equals bad” category. Like low grades or a lack of experience. As with the others, if you had to attempt exams multiple times, it’s best to offer up an explanation.
Working in an explanation into a personal statement can be tricky. You have a lot to accomplish in about one page of writing, and you don’t want to just jam in an explanation. Don’t do this:
“That’s my life, in a quick nutshell, and I think you can see why I have an affinity for family practice. My experience, through work, academics, and my personal life, have all led me to this area.
Also, I had to take the USMLE Step 2 twice because I wasn’t satisfied with my score the first time and my top three schools required an extra two points to hit the cutoff, and I figured I could hit that mark – just to clear that up.”
That’s tacked on and awkward.
Better to fold it neatly in, like this:
“Family practice means understanding family life, and knowing where your priorities lie. I understand this as much as anybody. My dad has suffered from health problems his entire life, and I have made it a priority to help him with his medications, and with physiotherapy over the years.
Sometimes this takes its toll on me, too. I had to retake one of my exams because of a particularly harrowing time in my family’s life; I helped with dad and my studying fell off. Since then, I have found a tutor who helps me keep my studying on track, regardless of how much I help my family. It’s still a priority, and I can’t give up on them.”
That connects your troubles with your qualifications, and note that you need also to show why you won’t need to re-take exams in the future.
Have you started working on your residency personal statement? This infographic can help
“Dear Sir or Madam,
It is with great pleasure that I apply to your program in the hopes of furthering my career in a worthwhile direction. I believe I will be a great asset in this position.”
Are you going to read any farther in that letter? Of course not.
That letter is full of generic statements that could apply to anything. In short, it is boilerplate: text that can be sent en masse to any number of places or positions without the writer putting in the slightest effort to tailor the text to whomever they are sending it. If you are trying to convince someone to let you into a residency position, you cannot do this.
Get specific: tell your reader in no uncertain terms who you are – unique and valuable – and tell them why you are a fit for the position they have available – specifically and directly. Let’s take somebody who is aiming at psychiatry.
I struggle to write this personal statement for two reasons: the first is the nervous excitement that comes with any major undertaking in life, the second is because I just find it hard to concentrate while writing anything. I struggle with ADHD.
I’ve long had a conflicted relationship with my condition. My diagnosis as a teenager felt like the most relieving end of the world I could imagine. Finally having a name for my struggles was a relief, but I dreaded the stigma and what it would mean to confront my newly-christened neurological status.
The irony is that my condition has significantly influenced my decision to apply to a residency in psychiatry, and I believe that your hospital is the perfect place for me to pursue my goal of helping neurodiverse persons.
The psychiatric wing of St. Thomas’ Hospital is not only renowned for its patient care, but also for its research, and I would like to focus on this aspect first.”
Playful, intriguing, and specific – this opening to a letter explains a personal connection with the specialty that the student hopes to enter into, but also begins to lay out why the institute itself is the perfect match.
Connect your personal experiences, unique to you, with why you will fit in at the hospital you are applying to. Be specific. Go deeper than superficialities, and focus on the medical, scientific, professional, and academic connections.
Location is tricky, and citing location as a reason for application can backfire. Saying that the hospital is close to your house, for instance, might be convenient, but it’s not a great reason to apply. Saying that the hospital is in a city you are planning to practice in, where you have family history – and therefore a deep understanding of culture and history – are better.
Still, best is to focus on why the residency – both specialty and hospital – are the perfect fit for you, and why you are the perfect fit for it. That’s what the application committee needs to hear.
All Statement, No Data, or, Telling Without Showing
Just plopping out data in paragraph form, recite your ERAS experiences section, or vomiting up a lot of purse numbers that are easily available through the rest of your application renders your personal statement redundant. They already have those numbers; don’t put them up again.
The big red flag here is, of course, the idea that the applicant has nothing to say. Your personal statement not including any pertinent personal information gives the mistaken impression that you are nothing more than a series of classes that you have taken.
Are you a mountain climber? A musician? A compassionate person who wants to finally break Alzheimer’s disease? They don’t know.
Keep the personal statement personal.
Grammar and Spelling
We live in a world of spell-checkers, grammar-checkers, and other apps that help strengthen your writing. Unfortunately, this has caused the misapprehension, among some people, that their spelling and grammar don’t matter; they believe that a grasp of language is not important. It is.
If anything, living in a world with so many, readily-available tools for assessing the strength of your writing gives you less excuse than ever before to have every punctuation mark in place, every word letter-perfect, and every statement bristling with meaning.
The technical aspects of your writing are important. A better style will convey your sentiments, ideas, and abilities far more, but poor grammar and spelling will give the impression that you don’t check your work, you don’t understand the written language, or you just don’t care.
It is understood that some people struggle with this more than others. If you have dyslexia, or if English is not your first language, that’s okay. But since you know you struggle with this area, have somebody proofread your personal statement to eliminate any errors. Don’t just rely on spell-checker programs or apps, get somebody with a good grasp of grammar and spelling to help you out.
A lot of people struggle with spelling and grammar, but the major points that trip them up are simply elements that are tricky. A lot of writers don’t even know how to use a semi-colon; if you don’t know how to use them, just avoid them.
Stick to writing plain language. Clarity is better than misguided attempts at being clever.
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What Makes a Red Flag – The Wrong Messages You Might Be Sending
Red flags can be divided into two major categories: lack of communication or lack of qualification.
Any deficit in your ability or experiences is a lack of qualification. This is something like a low test score, needing to retake a major exam, or any other failure; it could also be a missing element, like a lack of experience in a particular area.
If you have such a deficit, you need to let the committee know why and how you are moving on from that, for example, low test score.
Summary Conclusion: Avoiding Other Red Flags
We’ve given you a tremendous number of red flags, how to avoid them, and examples of what to do instead. You should be capable of spotting and side-stepping the most common red flags in residency personal statements now.
What we have identified, if you’re looking for it, are the different types of ways that your personal statement can undermine your efforts. What are the broad categories of red flag?
Because every personal statement is – or should be – unique to the individual, we cannot anticipate every combination of words that you might use. But if you set a guard against those four major red flags, combined with the advice given above, you should do just fine.
1. Do I need to address everything in my history in my personal statement?
No. Your personal statement is about telling the story of “you”, and connecting yourself with the residency you want. You don’t have to tell every, single foible or possible eyebrow-raising event in your past.
Deal with major red flags only, and integrate them into the story of you.
2. How do I know which are major red flags?
Pretend you’re reviewing your application instead of submitting it. Pretend you’re planning to bring yourself in for an interview. Do you have any major questions you need answers to? A low USMLE or MCCQE score, for instance?
Anything that you know they’d want an answer for is a red flag.
3. I’ve done so much over my school years, what do I pick to talk about?
A lot of that depends on which residency and specialization you’re going into.
Check your top-choice hospitals to see if they have a mission or vision statement. Put common elements into your personal statement.
Connect your experiences to your specialty.
Do you have any deeply-held beliefs, standout qualities, or interesting personal stories from your background? Those can form a good story narrative to use to structure your personal statement.
Finally, ask yourself if you have had any major standout moments or periods of time in your studies – something that profoundly changed you, challenged you, or brought you to a new level of study or accomplishment. That’s probably a great place to start.
4. Is my personal statement a story or an essay?
It’s both. It’s your story, and it should have the same “beats” as a story. But it’s also an essay, and you should respect essay structure.
The good news is that both are very similar, featuring a short introduction, a “body” or middle that compose the bulk of the narrative or text, and a conclusion or ending – the denouement – that brings everything home.
5. How do I work through writer’s block?
If you really can’t think of how to proceed, give yourself two minutes to free-associate ideas about what you have done during medical school, or your personal history. By the time you’re done, you’ll most likely have a bunch of exciting ideas to flow into your work.
6. How long should my personal statement be?
Whether you’re applying through CaRMS or ERAS, most personal statements should be one page. One page means roughly 700-850 words, and that means – very roughly – 7,300 characters.
7. Do I have to write a personal statement?
Yes, since most residency programs require them.
8. What happens if I don’t match?
Not receiving a match is tough to get through, but it does happen.
The Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program (SOAP), which helps a lot of unmatched students get into residencies. It’s not going to be your top choice, but a match is better than no match.
If you still are unsuccessful, read further on how to improve residency application after going unmatched.
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