If you’re applying to Canadian residency programs this year, it’s time to start working on your CaRMS personal statements!
Personal statements are an important part of your residency application. They’re an opportunity to elaborate on parts of your background and experiences that make you an excellent candidate. They’re also a chance to provide context to parts of your CV or transcript that may benefit from an explanation.
Most applicants will have high grades and plenty of extracurricular and research experiences. Your personal statements give you a chance to make yourself stand out from other applicants. So what is unique about you? What makes you the most suitable candidate for these programs?
This blog post will go over some do’s and don’ts of writing your personal statements to help you stand out this CaRMS application cycle. Let’s dive in!
DO: Start with an outline
Mapping out the content of your personal statement makes writing it out significantly easier. It gives you a clear list of everything you need or want to include in your personal statement that you can refer to throughout your writing process. This ensures that you stay on topic and include all of the information that programs require you to provide.
Before creating your outline, take some time to research each program In order to figure out the type of candidates they’re seeking. You can identify this by…
- Checking the eligibility criteria listed on the CaRMS website. This will identify specific qualifications you need to have.
- Browsing the program’s website to read their mission, vision, and values. These will outline general qualities that they consider important and that they are looking for in their applicants.
Once you’ve got this information, you can start making your outline! Your outline should include…
- The specific information that the program asks you to include in your personal statement. These might take the form of essay prompts or questions that you have to answer within your statement. Not all programs have requirements for personal statements, so take the time to check! You should be able to access the application information through your CaRMS Online account.
- Some information about you that isn’t mentioned in your other application documents. This could be an event or personal experience that got you interested in medicine. This information should demonstrate that you possess the qualifications and personal qualities that the program is looking for.
DON’T: Be afraid to talk about gaps in your history
One way you can use your personal statement is to provide context for portions of your transcript or CV. This is important to do if parts of your history might raise a red flag for admissions committees, such as exceptionally low grades or exam scores, gap years, or a lack of experience in the specialty you’re applying to.
For example, let’s say that you barely passed your first year of medical school but your grades improved later on and, by the end of your medical school career, you were amongst the top students in your class. You could use your personal statement to contextualize your poor grades to the admissions committee.
Some examples of such events include: a death in your family that obligated you to take on more responsibilities at home, or mental health challenges during a particular semester that prevented you from excelling academically. However, it’s crucial to follow your explanation with examples of how you coped with, adapted and grew from the situation.
For example, did you talk to upper year students to learn how they managed their workload alongside their personal responsibilities? Did you learn about and adopt time management strategies? Depending on your situation, you could have delegated responsibilities to others to ensure that important tasks were completed without burning yourself out. Essentially, with these new tools and support systems in place, you were better able to manage your workload and preserve your mental health.
Providing all of this information in your personal statement makes it clear that there were extenuating circumstances behind your grades. Your explanation also demonstrates that…
- You are resilient
- You are a self-directed learner
- You have strong communication skills
- You are able to adapt to new or challenging circumstances
You will doubtlessly need all of these qualities to succeed in your residency. And just like that, you’ve turned a potential red flag into a green flag!
DO: Make it specific
One common mistake amongst residency applicants is a failure to highlight their individuality and express interest in a broad range of subjects and skill sets as opposed to highlighting a few things that they’re especially passionate about. In reality, admissions officers are looking for candidates who stand out from the crowd by expressing passion in a particular area or a couple of areas.
The experiences you choose need to deeply and accurately demonstrate how they have contributed to your personal and professional development. You want to avoid touching on experiences just for the sake of it. Some examples you might discuss in your personal statements are…
- Travel experiences
- Volunteer experiences
- Your family’s background
The key to discussing these experiences is to highlight what you learned from them, how these lessons have served you thus far, and how they can serve you throughout your residency experience and/or future as a physician. For instance, perhaps you were a club president during university and this helped you develop a range of skills relevant to residency, including…
Keep in mind that, on their own, these skills are rather broad. You need to be specific about what aspects of each skillset you developed.
Let’s elaborate on the aspects of leadership you might have learned during your time as club president. You might have learned how to effectively provide feedback so as to empower your team members rather than chastising them. You might have learned how to resolve conflict in a fair manner that ensured all parties felt heard. You might even have learned how to receive feedback, admit your faults, and repair any potential harm caused by your actions.
DON’T: Try too hard to sound smart
This point is all about your stylistic choices. Some applicants try to write in a way that they think is profound, but really isn’t saying much at all. When in doubt, just say what you want to say. It’ll be more authentic, and that’s exactly what admissions committees are looking for!
The first stylistic choice you should avoid is using big words where a simple one will suffice. We understand the urge to look up synonyms and use a longer word because you think it’ll impress your readers, but this is rarely the effect it actually has. More often than not, using a longer word overcomplicates your writing, making it difficult to read. You also risk misusing a synonym and saying things you don’t really mean.
You should avoid using quotes in your personal statement. Often, the applicants who include quotes use cliché statements that sound profound but really aren’t adding much to the piece. Ultimately, they take up precious space you could be using to express your own thoughts and discuss your experiences in more detail. After all, admissions officers want to read your thoughts, not someone else’s.
The last stylistic choice you should avoid is using cliché lines like these ones:
- I’ve wanted to pursue medicine for as long as I can remember.
- I have always wanted to pursue a career in…
- Ever since I was a child, I…
- Throughout my life, I’ve always enjoyed…
Applicants use these phrases because they think they’re expressing something deep about themselves. However, being more specific about the inciting incidents that set you on the career path you’re currently pursuing is much more interesting and tells admissions committees a lot more about you.
For example, let’s say you’re applying for a pediatric residency and your interest in the field started when you were a teenager volunteering at a summer camp. Instead of saying “I’ve always loved working with children,” or some other cliché line, you could discuss the specific event that got you interested.
Maybe one of your campers broke their arm that summer and you had to accompany them to the hospital. The doctor who saw them was incredibly dismissive and did a poor job of putting the child at ease. You had to step up and continually ask follow-up questions, making sure you understood what was going on and could convey everything to the child’s parents once they arrived. You also put the child at ease and even made them laugh once or twice despite their discomfort.
Telling that story about this incident tells admissions officers that you have experience working with children, that you’re good in a crisis, and that you’re capable of advocating for others, all of which are necessary for a career in pediatrics.
DO: Make time for editing
Budget time for edits after you’ve finished writing! It’s a chance to catch any minor spelling or grammar mistakes and finesse the structure of the piece.
A great way of editing your own writing is to read it out loud. Hearing it will help you identify areas where your sentence structure isn’t quite right. Generally speaking, if you run out of breath while reading a sentence, then it’s too long and you need to trim it.
If you’ve been working on a piece for a long time, it can start to get too familiar. A great way of breaking out of your usual patterns is to read your piece out of order; it makes your work feel new again and you may notice things you never did before. One way of doing this is to start at the end and read your paragraphs in reverse order. Reading it backwards is especially helpful if you’re trying to identify structural issues, as it allows you to identify certain details or topics that need to be introduced earlier.
Ideally, you should set aside enough time to have someone else look over your personal statements. An extra pair of eyes can catch mistakes that you’ve missed. They’ll also be able to tell you if you’ve explained things clearly enough. If they know you well, they might even be able to suggest topics that are worth discussing in your essays!
DON’T submit the same personal statement to every program
This is especially important if you’re applying to programs under different specialties. It’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll be able to write a strong personal statement that demonstrates why you’re the ideal candidate for multiple programs and specialties while staying under the word limit.
However, depending on how many programs you’re applying to, writing a personal statement for every single program is probably unrealistic. It’s incredibly time consuming! What you need is a strategy to help you figure out how many unique personal statements you need to write.
Here’s our strategy:
- Start by determining the number of programs that have requirements for the content of your personal statement. This number is the minimum number of unique statements you’ll need to write.
- Next, determine how many specialties you’re applying to. We recommend having a unique personal statement for each specialty, as it will allow you to highlight your specific skills and experiences that make you well suited to this specialty.
This isn’t to say that your personal statements can’t have any overlap in content. Rather, the central focus of each statement should differ based on the strategies outlined above.
And there you have our CaRMS personal statement do’s and don’ts!
Check out our sample residency personal statement to get an idea of how to structure your essay and the kind of tone you should be aiming for. You’ve got less than two months until the CaRMS’ deadline for document submission!