How do I write a compelling personal statement? How should I approach letters of recommendation?


Try to understand the perspective of your reader when you’re writing your personal statement. They’re inundated with these things so yours needs to stand out by being simple and interesting so they’ll want to know more. You want to capture the reader’s attention by introducing something novel about yourself… You want to be authentic and a bit bold… This is YOUR personal statement! What’s the best and most unique thing about YOU? Make sure you’re soliciting the help of the right people for your letters of recommendation. You should already have these people established in your professional network hopefully… Make it easy for your recommenders to write you a fantastic letter of recommendation… Send them a list of notes or reminders about special things that you did that they would remember.

Understand the reader’s perspective (Personal Statement)

Let’s say you are now a program director coming upon recruiting season. You and your program team are reviewing applications to figure out the interview list. You’ve had a long day at work where your clinic didn’t go very well. You are dealing with a few residents who are struggling as well as others who are not getting along. You have patients to chart and family issues to deal with. You had wanted to get an early jump that evening on reviewing applications, but it is now 10:47pm. You are exhausted… In front of you are the many applications you need to review that night…

Ask yourself, what is the kind of personal statement YOU would want to read in that circumstance? The best personal statements are ones that are simple (not too complex) and keep the reader interested and wanting to know more.


Make it interesting, compelling, simple (Personal Statement)

Often, students rack their minds about telling their “perfect” story. They want to tell you everything about themselves. They agonize about the nuances and intricacies of their life story. The result is that the statements are too complex, and they are trying to convey too much. The reader can’t always follow, and instead of pouring more energy to dig into the essay, the reader’s mind “shuts down” and moves on… (For more background on this phenomenon, look up the “triune brain theory,” specifically, the behavior of the “croc brain.”)

So you can’t be “complex.” However, you also can’t be predictable! Have you ever sat in a lecture about something where the answer wasn’t clear? So you continue to pay attention… However, as soon as you “get it,” you lose that inclination to pay attention because you can predict what will happen next. Let’s say an applicant writes for a pediatrics program that he or she “likes to work with children.” This is potentially a trigger to the reader that “I’ve read something like this hundreds of times. I know where this is going.”

Therefore, it is important to capture the reader’s attention by introducing something novel which triggers the reader to think, “I wonder where this is going?” (in a good way…) Then, rather than weaving a complex message, relate a simple compelling narrative which emphasizes one key take-away about you. You want to be authentic and bold…


Be authentic and cohesive with the rest of your application (Personal Statement)

If you had to say one thing about yourself, what is that ONE thing? What is a unique strength that you have? What is a unique perspective that you bring? You might want to minimize yourself regarding your strengths and unique perspective, but be just a tad bold. After all, this is YOUR personal statement! What is a bold but authentic statement you can make about yourself? Focus your efforts in going deep on that.

What not to do. Instead of cultivating an authentic but bold message, many students rely on “tricks.” One example is the use of overwrought emotion. Another is making hyperbolic claims, or expressing extreme opinions. Some students try to use zany writing methods. These are NOT authentic; they cover up for the lack of authenticity and don’t work. Don’t try these tactics. Your personal statement is important and you need to represent yourself in the best possible light. Your letters of recommendation will be the supporting documentation that “backs up” your claims in your personal statement.


  • Personal Statement Primer  (takes about 10 minutes to read and can prompt you think about the elements you need to write a compelling personal statement)


Be strategic in cultivating recommenders (Letter of Recommendation)

Medical school is challenging, but it’s also predictable… You know, for example, that you will need letters of recommendation (LOR) when you apply for residency. So don’t wait until right before the deadline to cultivate recommenders and to solicit recommendations! Here are some things to keep in mind in thinking about WHO to solicit:

  • Medical faculty (MD, DO) from U.S. medical schools who are familiar with your clinical skills (or research)
  • Some of the LORs must come from within the specialty
  • If the faculty has a connection with the program, so much the better
  • If the faculty knows how to write well, so much the better

You will want to systematically cultivate mentoring relationships early on in your medical school career. Not only will these mentors provide useful career perspectives, they may become critical advocates for you when it comes time to apply to residency.


Making it easy for recommenders (Letter of Recommendation)

Your recommenders are likely to be (very) busy people. They may have many LORs to write for other students as well. Therefore, it is important to be timely in engaging them. Rather than waiting until application time to engage a recommender, by which time he or she might not remember the details about you well, think about engaging them at the end of a clerkship block, for example. When you engage them, rather than relying on their memory to supply everything needed for the LOR, prompt them courteously with good examples that they might utilize. Make it easy for them.