Normally, the length of a personal statement will be dictated by the application—500 words or 800 words are typical limits, as are one-page or two-page limits. If you’re given, say, a count of 1,500 words, you need not write to the maximum length, but to compose only one-half of the word count might be an opportunity missed. In any case, what matters most is that the material you present conforms as closely as possible to these word or space restrictions—parts of your application might literally not be read if you violate the rules—and that your presentation is aesthetically pleasing and easy to read. To achieve these goals, I promote the following tips:
- If your personal statement is a stand-alone document within your application, open it with a simple heading such as “Personal Statement for Janet Lerner.” Thus, if your documents would get separated somehow, they could more easily be reassembled.
- If there are any pages to your essay beyond one, number them, and perhaps include your name on those pages as well.
- Choose a publishing font that is highly readable, such as Times or Bookman. Some fonts allow for more tightness to the text, which is fine as long as the essay remains readable. Ideally, use no more than a 12-point size and no less than a 10-point size, favoring the larger, and use the same font size throughout the document.
- Allow for ample enough margins that the reader isn’t distracted by cramped-looking text. Margins of at least one inch are standard.
- Single space your text, skipping a line between paragraphs. You can indent paragraph beginnings or not, as long as you’re consistent.
At times, especially when you fill out an application electronically or have to cut and paste, word limits will be defined by physical space. In such a case, keep enough white space between your text and the application text that the material isn’t crowded, and choose a font different from that used in the application if possible. Also, if your application is electronic and requires you to cut and paste text or conform to a word or character count, check the material that you input carefully to be certain that it’s complete and reads just as you wish it to. In some cases, you may lose special characters or paragraph breaks, and words over the maximum allowable count may be cut off. The safest practice is to proofread anything you send electronically within the very form in which it is sent.
The best personal statements are memorable. They paint a picture in the mind of the reader and tell a story about who you are, how you got here, and where you want to go. The personal statement is vitally important because it is frequently used to help determine who gets interviewed and ranked.
Look over your CV and think about the experiences before and during medical school that inform what kind of family physicians you will become. Often there is a common thread that holds together even the most disparate of experiences – this common thread is usually one of your core values as a person. Identify this theme and write your personal statement so the reader could easily verbalize this theme in one sentence after reading your statement.
Experiences to highlight:
Use your experiences to give programs an idea of who you are. Be specific – talking about the aspects of care that you like in Family Medicine is good, but it’s even better when programs can see how your personal experiences reinforce aspects of family medicine that resonate with you as a person.
It’s okay to include patient vignettes and talk about your accomplishments, but be sure to relate it back to yourself. How did the experience impact you? What did you learn about yourself? How will the experience make you a better family physician? What about the experience demonstrates your commitment to the discipline of family medicine, your ability to work with others, your ability to work with patients?
Choose one experience and tell a story. This is a good way to open your statement, to develop your theme and make it memorable.
Commitment to specialty:
Talk about why you are choosing family medicine. Programs want to know why your’e attracted to a career in family medicine. What experiences convince you that this is the right field for you?
Strengths that you bring:
What do you bring to a program? What are you naturally good at? What specific skills do you have that will serve you well in residency?
Future plans/what you are looking for in a residency program:
At the end of this long road of school and training, what kind of work do you see yourself doing? What types of training do you want during residency to be able to accomplish this goal?
Organize your statement:
There are many ways to organize your statement to get these points across. One common way of organizing the personal statement is a three paragraph form reminiscent of those essays you had to write in high school. To use this approach the first paragraph tells a story to open the theme, the second paragraph fleshes out other experiences that highlight the them and discuss your commitment to family medicine, and the third paragraph reviews your strengths and future plans/training desires. However, this is a personal statement and you are free to write and organize it as you desire.
- Write in complete sentences.
- Use the active voice.
- Make your writing interesting – use a thesaurus and vary sentence length and structure.
- Have other people read your personal statement and give feedback.
- Give yourself plenty of time to work on your statement and revise it based on feedback.
- Rehash your CV or write an autobiography.
- Use abbreviations – spell things out.
- Violate HIPPA.
- Start every sentence with an “I.”
- Make it longer than one page, single spaced, 12 point font.
- Have spelling or grammatical errors.
- Write a statement that could be used for several different specialties (i.e. one that talks about wanting a primary care career but not specifically family medicine). If you are still deciding on a specialty and applying to different fields, write two different statements.
Sample Outlines for Personal Statement