Discussing difficulties in Personal Statements

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Posted by Miriam Milstein from IP on May 07, 2012 at 20:01:19:

From The Mailbox: Discussing Difficulties in Your
Personal Statement

Rose asks: It is time to write the personal statement
for Match 2011, but I have some questions about it.
Should I discuss the following difficulties that I have
experienced to emphasize my personal strengths? I had a
hard childhood, and as a physician, I experienced the
deaths of both of my parents. I had multiple attempts
on the test, but finally got certification. Now I am an
independant woman trying to survive in the US, where I
have to work to pay bills and keep a stable job so that
I can get a green card (not yet approved.) Thank you!

First of all, we’d like to commend you for your hard
work and achievement. You have managed to overcome
great obstacles so far, and we are confident that your
willpower will take you even further. Great work!

At IMGPrep, we recommend that you pick a “theme” for
your statement …and that you then stick with it. So
far, it sounds as though you’re thinking of focusing on
overcoming adversity in your quest to becoming a
physician. That’s a legitimate theme, and many
applicants do choose to focus on the difficulties
they’ve overcome, but we’d advise you to shift to a
more positive, future-oriented theme. Instead of
focusing on what you’ve overcome, why not focus on what
you are? What qualities do you have that make you a
good physician? Discuss these at length; elaborate on
them! Provide vivid examples and tell stories that will
convince the reader that you’ll be an asset to their

As far as the specific points you’ve raised, discuss
only those difficulties that have directly affected
your philosophy and career goals as a physician. Don’t
stay mired in the past: let the reader know how your
background will affect your future.
For example, you mentioned having overcome a difficult
childhood. Only devote space to this if it’s affected
your outlook or career goals –did your childhood
influence your decisions to become a pediatrician and
service underprivileged communities? Do you want to
shower your patients with the care you never received?
Definitely let the reader know how your background has
affected you –because it will continue to affect and
influence your career decisions. But if you just wanted
to relate another difficulty that you faced, skip it,
and use the space to discuss more relevant topics.

Your parents’ death must have been a very traumatic
experience, and one that definitely had a great impact
upon your personal life. Again, however, we’d recommend
discussing this only if it will affect your future
approach to medicine. We’ve had clients who lost close
relatives to diabetes discuss how they will use a
preventative approach to medicine to save others from
this trauma; we’ve had other clients discuss how their
losses have made them more compassionate physicians. If
you want to discuss this, be sure to let the reader
know how this experience will continue to affect you
for the good.

We wouldn’t recommend discussing your struggle to make
it in the U.S. This process is tough, and stressful,
and you deserve recognition for your struggles, but a
residency application just isn’t the place to get it.
It doesn’t add anything to your application, and wastes
valuable space in your ERAS application.

Program directors already know that you’ve had multiple
attempts on your USMLE exams. If they won’t consider an
applicant with multiple attempts, they certainly won’t
read your personal statement. We’ve said this before,
but it bears repeating. You have a limited amount of
space in your PS. Why would you use up that space
discussing your failures, when you could just as soon
be talking about your strengths?

Use your PS to discuss your strengths. You’ve made it
through a lot –a difficult childhood, a challenging
immigration, med school –and you couldn’t have done
that without talent. Think forwards: what sort of
resident will you be? What sort of physician will you
make? Show your readers what you have to offer them.
Remember, focus on the positive, and that’s what your
readers will see!

Best of luck,
The IMGPrep Team

To learn more about how IMGPrep can help you craft a
personal statement that will wow your readers and knock
the socks off program directors, visit our site at

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