For many residency applicants, writing the first draft of their personal statement is probably the most difficult part of the entire application process. And the most difficult part of writing that first draft is often getting the first few words on the page. Don’t fret – even accomplished novelists and famous journalists struggle to get started sometimes! Here, we’ll discuss how you can get your ideas down on the page and then transform those ideas into a compelling personal statement.
You’ve cleared your schedule, turned off the television, and filled your coffee cup; now you’re ready to write. You fire up the computer and wait for the words to flow…
Relax, it’s not just you. Not many medical students have spent a lot of time writing essays for fun; among the rare few who have, not many have focused on writing personal statements. And there’s nothing quite like a blank page to dampen the most enthusiastic writer’s zeal. You’re probably tempted to get up and do something – anything! – rather than stare at that blank screen for another second.
We have some advice for you: DON’T.
STAY WHERE YOU ARE.
SET A TIMER FOR 15 MINUTES.
AND MOST IMPORTANT…
WRITE, WRITE, AND WRITE SOME MORE UNTIL THAT TIMER GOES OFF.
When you start to write a few words on the page – even words like “I don’t know what to say” – something miraculous happens. Suddenly, there are WORDS on the page, not just blank space. And these words will inspire you to continue writing. Words beget words, and before long, your babbling string of “I’m writing but I really don’t have anything to say” can transform into “well, maybe I have a thing or two worth mentioning” or “I saw an attending do something really smart last week.” Suddenly, you’re brainstorming!
How to make the most of your brainstorming
Every effective essay begins with brainstorming to identify what topics you want to share with program directors. Your life is full of details, and as you start writing about the important experiences in your life, you’ll start to see patterns emerge. This is true for your chosen specialty as well. If you’ve been journaling during your rotations, you probably have lots of material already. If not, then you might start by thinking about what you like most about your specialty. In addition to the technical skills required, dig into the personal qualities: the mental concentration and take-charge attitude that surgeons have, the rapport with children and parents necessary for pediatrics, the enthusiasm for puzzle-solving of internists. How do these connect to other experiences in your life? Do you see crossovers between the activities you enjoy and perform well in and the specialty you’ve chosen?
Once you’ve gotten these ideas down on paper, ask yourself these questions:
- Are there common threads running through your experiences? Do these connect with your specialty in any way?
- Do your experiences show a natural progression or maturation? Has your specialty brought out or strengthened skills you already possessed?
- Have any people or events been particularly influential? Which experiences have you been most passionate about? Which ones show your fit for this field?
Answering these questions can help you identify a theme for your essay. You’ll often find that you have more than one. And that’s okay!
Write big, even when word counts are small
When you allow your first draft to be expansive – writing and writing without worrying about limitations – wonderful things can happen. I frequently find that the best ideas are hidden, just waiting to be pulled out and put center stage. For instance, in the middle of one applicant’s multipage first draft, this gem was tucked away:
The radiology attending was pointing out how sometimes we forget that in interpretation, it is still an image and not an actual person. However, our interpretation will significantly impact the human and not the image. This same radiologist on a separate occasion, while a resident and I were looking at a plain film of the chest, brought up the same point, but in a very creative way. He pulled up a painting by René Magritte that said “This is not a pipe.” In this painting, Magritte cleverly communicates with his viewers that it was truly not a pipe, but an “image” of a pipe.
This passage concealed an essential truth of how the applicant had come to view radiology as a different way of seeing and interpreting a patient. We brought this idea to the beginning of her personal statement, using it to set the stage for an essay focused on the radiologist’s commitment to her patients:
“The Treachery of Images,” one of surrealist artist René Magritte’s most famous works, depicts an ordinary pipe with “this is not a pipe” written below it. While a resident and I examined a chest X-ray, our attending pulled out this image. I immediately understood his meaning. What we saw was not truly a pipe, only its image; similarly, this chest X-ray was only a representation of what we were really seeing. It was a reminder that what was revealed in these shadowed images – the reality behind the image – could be used to treat our patients.
Many things stand out about this introduction. This revelation about radiology is expressed in a creative way that shares something about the expanse of her education. The way she effortlessly extrapolates other aspects of her life to this chosen specialty implies a level of comfort with the specialty – a way of thinking of herself already as a practitioner. It also helped roll out a very clear structure for the essay that focused on how radiological images could help real people.
This applicant succeeded because she gave herself the freedom to write expansively in her first draft, expressing what was truly special in her story. Try giving yourself this freedom and allowing yourself to discover what is special about your own story.
Ready, set, go!
It’s still a long road from a first draft to a final essay, but getting started is often the biggest hurdle. So now, it’s time to unplug, set your alarm for 15 minutes, and write!
Need more help getting started? Ready to transform your first draft from okay to spectacular? Talk to our experts! We’re here to answer your questions, motivate you, and help you get ACCEPTED!
Since 2001, Cydney Foote has advised hundreds of successful applicants for medical and dental education, residency and fellowship training, and other health-related degrees. Admissions consulting combines her many years of creating marketing content with five years on fellowship and research selection committees at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She’s also shared her strategy for impressing interviewers in a popular webinar and written three books and numerous articles on the admissions process. Want Cydney to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!