Last Updated: March 22, 2020
For more information, also see the Personal Statement Chapter in this Atlas.
Do Not Underestimate the Importance of Your Personal Statement
The personal statement is the only part of your application that depends entirely on your own imagination; it is truly personal. Therefore, you might want to use it to demonstrate personal facets of your life, education, and character. Use it to illustrate to potential readers about who you are as a human being. The assessors might also interpret this statement as a surrogate marker of your communication skills. Although a great personal statement might not be the deciding factor in why you are chosen for a certain position or for an interview, a mediocre or controversial personal statement can ruin your chances.
How Long Should It Be?
Your personal statement should not be longer than one full A4 page. Choose a sensible font size and a simple design. Also, keep in mind that neurosurgeons, especially those sifting through hundreds of personal statements, are generally busy, which means you should not wander off into a long prosaic account of your inspirations to become a neurosurgeon. Rather, include only what is most important for you and what you think plays a crucial role in conveying why you are a fitting applicant for the program. Keep it short, simple, and easy to read.
What Should I Write?
There are many online guides that discuss which topics to cover, and you should consult such guides for specific inspirations. In general, you should always ask yourself the following questions: What do I want to convey to the assessor? What differentiates me from my fellow applicants? What is important to me but is not listed anywhere else on my Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS) application? Why neurosurgery? What makes me, as an international medical graduate (IMG), especially qualified for this position?
You might want to start the personal statement with a short personal vignette that catches the assessors’ attention and delineates why you first developed an interest in the field. In terms of form, you might also want to return to that vignette briefly at the very end of the text. You do not necessarily have to submit the exact same personal statement to every institution; you might be able to tailor parts of your application to the specifics of different programs.
Do not try to come up with something too novel or humorous. Humor is a difficult topic in applications and should be avoided; it is unpredictable how different assessors will understand and interpret your humorous statements.
Particularly important to note is that the personal statement can also be a place for you to address any potential mishaps or negative situations that would be noticed in your application, and depending on the reason that situation arose (difficult personal situation, medical reason, etc), the explanation can absolutely help your application. The goal is to not focus too much on it but to write just a few sentences addressing it and then move forward.
Take Your Time
Plan a rather liberal amount of time to write your personal statement. Depending on your individual writing capacity, expect around 1 to 3 months of writing and editing to end up with a streamlined final product. Take breaks to reflect on what you have written and on what is really crucial to include.
Do not underestimate the creative boost that a week-long break can provide, especially if you have experienced “writer’s block.” In addition, after distancing yourself from your personal statement for a short while, you might be able to much more accurately judge what a first-time reader would experience.
Have Your Personal Statement Proofread
We strongly advise you to have someone proofread your personal statement. Trusted medical student colleagues, family members, or mentors should be asked to advise you not only on the structure and content but also any grammatical and stylistic errors. These small errors can drastically lower your chances of a successful application, because they indicate that you have not spent enough time and effort in perfecting your personal statement.
Remember that this statement is the only part of the application that is up to you in terms of style and effort, so any negligence here can leave an impression of a lack in diligence on your part. If you want to check your personal statement in detail by yourself, try reading every single word from back to front, which will help you to spot errors that were missed when you read through the text normally.
What to Expect During Your Interview
You should be prepared to address any information provided in your personal statement and, for that matter, in any other part of your application during an interview. However, not all interviewers like to bring up your personal statement. It is estimated that only up to 50% of interviewers will ask you about your personal statement, although these chances might be higher if your statement is very interesting and well done.
You should also prepare to face interviewers who have not looked at your personal statement at all. Do not be disconcerted if this is the case. In fact, you can use this situation to your advantage, because you can actively bring up topics discussed only in your personal statement about which your interviewer might not yet be aware.
Special Considerations for IMGs
You might be able to go into more detail about important achievements in your curriculum vitae (CV), such as competitive research prizes and grants, the competitiveness of your university, and your excellent academic performance, as well as other accomplishments and activities that might otherwise be difficult for US assessors to interpret, because they might not be familiar with the particulars of these foreign achievements. Focusing on these subjects could strengthen your application as a whole.
Remember also that your personal statement might be judged as a surrogate marker for your English language skills. The importance of impeccable grammar and style in your personal statement, and—nota bene—for every written part of your application, cannot be stressed enough.
Victor E. Staartjes, BMed
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