Advice for your Personal Statement, CV, and Letters of Recommendation

CV Tips' Interview with Cydney Foote, Co-author of Write Your Way to a Residency Match 

1. Individuals who are candidates for residency are pouring themselves into their studies. Why is important for them to spend some time on the CV and other introductory materials?

This is fundamentally a question of time management -- an undercurrent in every aspect of the residency application process. Knowing how to divide your time effectively between your rotations, studying for the Step exams, and yes, filling out the applications, is all a demonstration of how prepared you are for the demands of a residency program.

As for the application materials themselves, these are the only way that programs have to decide whether or not you're worth a second look. If you don't impress at this stage, you're not going to be invited to the next step, the interview.

2. How do the letter, the CV, and letters of recommendation work together? Which one would do the most damage if not done well?

These are all important parts of the puzzle, and deficiencies in any one can do damage, but in my experience it's the recommendations and personal statements that are weighted the most heavily. Your personal statement has to convince the admissions officers that you're worth a second look in an interview, so it must be compelling -- a boring or incomplete essay means a quick trip to the round file. I've also seen half-hearted recommendation letters do serious damage. The way to avoid this is to provide your recommender with all the information they'll need to show you in the best light.

3. What is the most common mistake you see?

Recycling. Each year I see applicants try to recycle their AMCAS statements, which simply doesn't work. Med schools just want to know that you have the raw material that they can mold, but residency programs want to know that you'll be a valuable member of their medical team. It's not enough to be a quick learner; you need to demonstrate that you have the skills for that particular field. Worse are the applicants trying to recycle the same statement for different specialties. Each specialty has different qualifications -- that's why they're called specialties -- and an effective personal statement is tailored to address them.

4. How do individuals coming from another country minimize errors in creating these materials?

To minimize errors, having a native speaker review the essay is essential. Grammar doesn't have to be perfect, but spelling should be correct and it does need to say what the writer intends. The more frequent problem that I encounter with foreign students, however, is that they don't effectively convey their previous responsibilities. Foreign-trained doctors bring skills that are a boon to any residency team, yet applicants often minimize this.

5. How should an effective personal statement begin?

There is no set way to begin a personal statement -- it is unique to each applicant. But no matter whether recounting a patient's story or relating a lesson from a class or describing a trek up Mount Everest, your first paragraph must be compelling and draw the reader in. Employ vivid phrases, thoughtful questions, and other literary tropes to help the reader decide if he'll read the rest of your personal statement because he wants to, or because he has to.

6. Can you give an example of a success story -- someone you helped?

There are many, but one woman who stands out is someone who I have worked with for years. She came to me as a very non-traditional applicant applying to med school, and was accepted into her top program. She returned this year to apply for one of the most competitive specialties. She'd only taken an elective in this field late in her last semester, not expecting to discover how much she loved it, so she was challenged to show how her interest was genuine and lasting. We worked hard together, mining her other experiences to show the signs leading to this specialty and the skills she'd developed in all her electives. Within weeks of submitting her application she had nine interviews scheduled, and I just heard that she matched with her #1 program!

7. Are there organizational tactics that lead to a better outcome?

Of course, and the most important one is to start early. Each year applicants come to me late in the day and try to rush out a personal statement. They add a lot of stress to their lives that could have been avoided if they'd started earlier and parceled that stress out over several weeks or even months. Not to mention that their essays will likely be less thoughtful and compelling.

8. What part does attitude play? Can an admissions officer read between the lines?

Absolutely. Admissions officers can tell right off the bat whether someone's put time and thought into their personal statement or if it's been dashed off in a single night. This in itself says a lot about an applicant's interest in their education. And taking that extra step to tailor your personal statement to a specific program -- mentioning your contact with a specific professor or a new training facility at the school -- impresses admissions committees even more, and shows them that you are truly interested in what they have to offer.

9. Is there anything else that you would want to offer readers of this website?

Yes -- a bit of empathy. Personal statements are not something that most people typically write. Don't be frustrated if you don't get it right on the first try. The key lies in knowing yourself, knowing your chosen specialty, and making the connection between the two. If you can do that, your personal statement will open the door to the next step: the interview.

Write Your Way To A Residency Match can help you get started. With sample essays, CVs, and personal statements, as well as a wealth of tips about writing and managing the application process, this ebook will help guide you through the application maze.