The Personal Statement: Helping Medical Students Put Pen to Paper

Letter jumble and pencilBy: Bruce H. Campbell, MD, professor of otolaryngology and faculty member, Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dr. Campbell blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror.

Writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted.
-Jules Renard


Several years ago, a senior medical student was struggling with his otolaryngology application. “Dr. Campbell,” he wrote, “I have attached three possible versions of my personal statement. I realize they all still need work. I don’t want to get too far along with one and then decide not to use it.”

I sighed and clicked through the drafts. One focused on a summer construction job, his high school basketball leadership skills, and the value of teamwork. The second described the thrill of head and neck anatomy and his fascination with otolaryngology. The third combined elements of the first two.

“Why don’t you come in and we can talk?”

A couple of days later, we met in my office. We talked about his drafts and then I asked, “What would you like to accomplish with your personal statement?”

He was perplexed. “Mostly, I want to get interviews and I really don’t want to ruin my chances with a bad essay. You were a program director. What do you look for?”

“Well,” I responded, “there are some basic elements, but a good statement demonstrates insight and tells a compelling story about how the applicant came to be where he or she is now. It makes me want to know more.”

He nodded. “On the other hand,” I said pointing to one of his drafts, “I skim over essays that dwell on how much the applicant adores our specialty. With generic statements, I glance at the first sentence of each paragraph.” He looked down at his drafts and shook his head.

As the application deadline approached, we e-mailed essays back and forth. There must be a better way to do this, I thought to myself. Every senior student struggles with the same issues. How can we turn this into a creative, insightful process?

I had recently been surprised by the power of speedwriting exercises while attending The Examined Life Conference. I was also part of a writing critique group and had witnessed the value of peer editing. Working with colleagues in medicine and creative writing, we designed a Residency Application Personal Statement Writers Workshop. Our goal was to kick start the students’ personal statements and awaken their dormant reflective writing skills at a point in their careers where they had a specific, high-stakes narrative task. Student feedback has been positive and we describe our experience in a recent Academic Medicine innovation report.

After several drafts, the student who inspired the workshop created an insightful personal statement and matched with a great program. He was appreciative, “especially for reading through the million different personal statements [he] sent [my] way.” I, too, was appreciative, mostly because his struggle prompted us to launch this workshop. Now, instead of working with each student in isolation, I have the privilege of watching large groups work as teams, charting their journeys and gaining insight into some of the startling moments and complex experiences that constitute a life in medicine.