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Good Quotes For Personal Statement

 

One of the greatest challenges—and for many the single greatest challenge—in applying for medical residency is deciding what to write in the personal statement.  How do I stand out?  What can I write to catch the program director’s attention?  These are questions that plague every one of the 40,000 applicants for medical residency in the United States every year, and they are ones that both U.S. medical graduates and international medical graduates (IMGs) have to answer.

 

The Greatest Obstacle to Writing a Personal Statement

 

I have been editing, proofreading and critiquing personal statements for medical residency for nearly a decade.  It started as a favor I would do for friends and acquaintances, and has grown to overseeing, as editor in chief, the 1,000+ personal statements that DLA Editors & Proofers reviews annually.  From what I have seen, the greatest obstacle preventing candidates from knowing what to write in their personal statements is not actually understanding what a personal statement is.

 

What Exactly Is a “Personal Statement”?

 

To understand what a personal statement is—and therefore to avoid the common pitfalls in writing one—it is necessary to consider first what the words “personal” and “statement” mean.  Let us start with the word “statement,” since it is the noun and therefore the foundation of the term.

 

According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com), a “statement” is “a report or narrative (as of facts, events, or opinions),” an “account” or “recital.”  A “narrative,” or “narration,” is “the act or process of telling the particulars of an act, occurrence, or course of events.”  For candidates applying for medical residency, both the “act” and “occurrence” is the process of applying for medical residency, and the “course of events” is the path that has led to the candidate’s now applying for medical residency.

 

When we add the definition of “personal” to this description, we get an even clearer picture.  “Personal” means “of or relating to a particular person.”  It is “not public or general.”  The “particular person,” of course, is the candidate preparing for medical residency.  Applying this meaning to that of “statement,” we can see that the “path” that is to be described by the “personal statement” should be the one of the applicant, and no one else.

 

The Challenge of Being “Personal” in a “Personal Statement”

 

Of the two components of the “personal statement,” by far the one that  most applicants struggle with is the “personal” aspect.  Our clients are smart, driven individuals who excel at gathering, analyzing and prioritizing information in order to find possible solutions to a problem.  The process is one in which they have been well trained, as the foundation for taking an effective patient history to arrive at the most likely differential diagnosis.  The greatest difficulty they have when needing to write their personal statements is not in their ability to approach a problem logically, but in being able even to know how to approach the problem of what to write, which for many defies logic.  This is particularly true for applicants raised outside the United States in cultures in which they were taught never to focus on themselves or to divulge any personal details, no matter how trivial.

 

Why Candidates Use Quotes in Their Personal Statements

 

No matter whether the candidates are U.S. medical graduates or IMGs—and therefore for various reasons—they tend just the same to want to use quotes in their personal statements, with the quotes they want to use tending to fall into one of three categories.  The first and most common is a quote from someone famous.  Examples of this are quoting Mohammed, Nelson Mandela or Thomas Jefferson.  The second is a quote from what a professor, attending or public speaker said in front of a class or group.  The third is a quote from a close friend, family member or otherwise particularly influential individual that has had a profound effect on the candidate.  In most cases, the quotes is used in the introduction, and in most of these the candidate uses it in the first sentence.  The reason for this is quite simple:  the candidate is stuck on how to start, he or she does not have enough confidence in his or her own words, he or she believes such a device will attract the attention of an otherwise disinterested program director, or all of the above.

 

Why Using a Quote in a Personal Statement Is Almost Always a Mistake

 

What many candidates do not realize is that quoting someone else—particularly in the introduction and especially in the first sentence—is almost always a mistake.  There are several reasons for this.  Most commonly—as in the first two types of quotes described above—the quote has had no direct influence in shaping the candidate’s personal or professional path.  For a quote from Mohamed, Mandela or any other person to be effective, it must be crucial to the point in the narrative at which it occurs.  If it occurs in the first sentence, for example, it must be that the quote, above all the other candidate’s influences, has been foundational in his or her path.  This is rarely likely, except in the case in which the candidate first heard the quote at a very young age and replayed it over and over again in his or her mind every—or almost every—day since.  Such quotes are more likely to have come from a parent or close family member or family friend than from a famous person.

 

When the quote occurs somewhere in the introduction after the first sentence, or elsewhere in the personal statement, it must similarly have had a profound effect on the candidate’s individual path, or it must be otherwise crucial to the narrative.  In the first case it would be from someone particularly influential in the candidate’s life.  This could be from a close family member or from some other individual close to the candidate.  It could be from a professor or attending if it represents a key moment in the candidate’s development.

 

While I have personally trained each editor who works on personal statements for DLA Editors & Proofers to be able to use quotes effectively in a personal statement, in the majority of cases we find the quotes simply do not work, and that in spite of all of our efforts the quotes still come across as a gimmick.

 

What I mean by “gimmick” is something that someone writes as a crutch in place of what should actually be written.  In most cases the candidate does not realize that what he or she has written will come across as a gimmick, or he or she—at least before using our services—is at a loss with regard to what else to write.  When evaluating whether a quote is being used effectively, we come back to the key pillar of the personal statement, which is that it must be “personal.” Too often the quotes come across as either filler material or as a result of the candidate’s, for whatever reason, not taking the effort simply to tell his or her own story.

 

What Candidates Should Write in Their Personal Statements Instead of a Quote

 

One problem we see is that there is a lot of misleading advice—and, even worse, examples—on how to write a personal statement that encourage the candidate to start with a famous quote.  For almost every candidate, this is, by contrast, the worst place to start.  What is easy, though, is to ask one simple question to help decide whether starting with a quote is a good idea.  The question is:  “Where did I get the idea for using this quote?”  If the answer is not that “it has had a profound effect on me since I heard it” or, in other words, that “there is no other way for me to tell my story without it,” then chances are it will not be successful to use it in the personal statement.

 

What a candidate should write instead is simply his or her own path in his or her own words.  Instead of trying to find a quote to use for the first sentence, the candidate should reflect on what exactly was the beginning of his or her path, and start with describing that.  One way to start could be:  “As far back as I can remember, I have had a strong desire to help others” or “I will never forget the first time my uncle took me to visit the slums.”  Opening with a clear, direct statement like this from the candidate’s own point of view will always be the most effective way to gain the attention of the program director, and to encourage him to read past the first sentence.

Without question, the most common place for writers to exercise their freedom in personal statements, as well as the most common place where writers feel uncertain about what they’ve done, is in their beginnings. Even personal statements that are scientific in tone and content might have creative beginnings. Although there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward opening simply stating your purpose, especially if you have just one page for your essay, most writers take a bolder tack. Readers of personal statements are used to openings that tell stories or borrow quotations, essays that discuss relevant current events, and even daring writers who risk a bit of well-conceived humor or surprise.

Personal Stories

As the most common creative beginning, a personal story tells a tale by briefly setting a scene, often capturing some formative moment of your past when your interest in your course of study blossomed. Whether setting the scene in a classroom or on a mountaintop, remember that your goal is make readers feel they are there with you, and remember that the setting itself can be a character in your “short story”—influencing both the action and a response to that action.

Here is a perfect example of a lengthy creative beginning that winds its way into a formal thesis statement, excerpted from a Rhodes Scholarship essay in Chapter 5:

Soaked in sweat, I sat deep in thought on the small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya, where 1.7 million years ago a desperately ill Homo erectus woman had died. Her death had entranced me for years. KNM-ER 1808 had died of Hypervitaminosis A, wherein an overdose of Vitamin A causes extensive hemorrhaging throughout the skeleton and excruciating pain. Yet a thick rind of diseased bone all over her skeleton—ossified blood clots—tells that 1808 lived for weeks, even months, immobilized by pain and in the middle of the African bush. As noted in The Wisdom of the Bones, by Walker and Shipman, that means that someone had cared for her, brought her water, food, and kept away predators. At 1.7 million years of age, 1808’s mere pile of bones is a breathtaking, poignant glimpse of how people have struggled with disease over the ages. Since that moment two summers ago, I’ve been fascinated by humans’ relationship with disease. I want to research paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases, in relation to human culture, specifically sex and gender.

Note how this opening confidently integrates technical detail and even slips in an informal citation on the journey to the thesis. Here, setting acts as a character, moving our story’s protagonist to imagine a woman’s long-ago death, and we also recognize the writer’s seriousness of purpose about her work as she (as a character in the tale) contemplates the woman’s fate from a “small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya.” Just as she was taken to this important place and moment in her life, we are taken there with her as well through narrative.

Here is another example from an introduction to a student's application to medical school:

When I was little my grandfather gave me piggyback rides, brought me donuts every day when he came home from work, and taught me about nature. A simple farmer who survived World War II and lived most of his life under Russian occupation, he told me why trees grow so high, why I should not pull a cow by its ear, and why I should not chase chickens across the back yard. As fond as I was of him, as I grew and became more educated I also saw how this great man made bad choices about his health. I constantly nagged him about his smoking and poor diet. He loved bacon with eggs and milk straight from the cow. In response to my nagging he would simply say, "Eh, you are so young, what do you know?" One morning after breakfast when I was sixteen, he had a heart attack and died in the kitchen while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

Here we find a writer who simultaneously evokes the memory of his beloved grandfather and also introduces us to his own sensibility. Simple details about his simple upbringing make up a brief but vivid tale with a tragic end, and thus we understand a very personal motivation behind this writer's choice of career.

Other essays open with much briefer and less narrative personal stories, sometimes relying on just one line to set the context, with the writer heading to a purpose statement shortly thereafter. Here are some straightforward but artful beginnings to personal statements from Donald Asher’s book Graduate Admissions Essays:

I attended seventeen different schools before high school.
I spent the morning of my eighteenth birthday in an auditorium with two hundred strangers.
Radio has been my passion for as long as I can remember.

Clearly, the style of an opening that shares a personal story can range from the flashy to the plain—what matters most is that the opening truly is personal.

Compelling Quotations

Like many writers and readers, I’m a sucker for a good meaty quotable quote, which is part of why quotations are used to open each chapter of this handbook. We tape handwritten quotes on our bathroom mirrors, clip them onto the visors in our cars, and paste them into our e-mail signature lines. In a personal essay, not only do quotes set context for the reader, they also allow you to ride on the broad shoulders of another who actually managed to say or write something that was worth quoting. Quotations might be used at the start of the essay, in the closing, or they might appear at a key moment within the body as a way to set context or emphasize a point. In Chapter 5 of this handbook, a quotation is used as an opening to a science-related essay by an applicant for a National Science Foundation Fellowship. In the same chapter, another writer uses a narrative opening in her essay to repeat a favorite quote that her mother used to say: “To find out where you’re going, you need to know where home is.”

Keep in mind that some quotations are highly overused and that quotations can also come off as merely trite and silly, depending on the taste of the reader. Some find Forrest Gump’s “Life is like a box of chocolates” hilarious; others just groan when they hear it. If using a quotation, be sure that you’re not just propping yourself up on it as an apology for a lack of substance to your text. Comment on the quotation’s relevance to your life rather than just let it sit there, and choose the most meaningful quote for the circumstances rather than one that simply tickles your fancy.

The Use of Surprise or Humor

Indeed, the weapon of surprise is a key ingredient in a Monty Python skit about the Spanish Inquisition (no one expects it, just in case you forgot). But in a personal statement humor and surprise can fall flat in the hands of a fumbling writer. Nevertheless, some writers take these calculated risks, and do so with style. Witness this passage from a sample essay in Chapter 4, as a film student explains how he spent his freshman year in a different major:

With a high school education grounded rigorously in math and science, I entered Mythic University on an academic scholarship with Polymer Science and Engineering as my intended major. I like to joke that, after seeing Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate and hearing that terrific line, “plastics,” delivered poolside to a wayward Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), I was inadvertently led into the hands of the great polymer Satan. But, by sophomore year, I quickly escaped the plastic devil’s clasp and found a new home in the film department.

Here, this student uses self-deprecating humor as many do in the personal statement: to explain what might otherwise look like a curiosity in his background. Readers need not question his devotion to film despite his beginning in the sciences—he even blends the two interests together by being influenced into his initial major by a film, aligning himself briefly and humorously with the hapless character of Benjamin Braddock.

Others use humor or surprise less expansively, but again with the purpose of revealing something personal and using intentional self-commentary. In Mark Allen Stewart’s How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, one writer quips that his high school classmates voted him “Most likely to have a publishable resume,” which shows that this writer can simultaneously poke fun at and uplift himself. In Donald Asher’s Graduate Admissions Essays. Another writer opens her essay unconventionally with a surprising admission—“Skeletons. Like everyone else I have some hanging in my closet”—then later reveals herself as a “survivor of sexual assault.” Here, the writer’s tone is surprisingly frank, which under the circumstances could help her be viewed as mature and courageous, despite the risk she takes.

Part of what unifies these disparate approaches above is that the writers clearly know they are taking a risk with their rhetoric—there’s nothing accidental or highly cutesy about it. All of them reveal a passion for their chosen fields, and the humor and surprise are attention-getting without being too distracting.

Perhaps a good rule of thumb, then, is this: If using humor or surprise, aim it squarely at yourself without making yourself look silly or undermining your character, and dispense with it quickly rather than push it over the top. No matter how well you tell a joke, some readers may not care for it. And remember that not everyone likes, or even "gets," Monty Python.

Topical Context

It’s often said that one of the best ways to prepare for an interview for a national scholarship is to read The New York Times and be ready to discuss current events. If you make it to the interview selection stage, it’s already clear that you have an excellent academic record and look good on paper. What’s unclear is how you will present in person. By showing yourself to be not just committed to your field but also knowledgeable about the world, you paint yourself as a mature thinker, an informed citizen, a responsible student of life.

In a personal statement, writers typically create topical context by narrating a recent event of some consequence, citing a respected source, or simply establishing an arena for discussion. “Martial arts and medicine,” opens one personal essay from Richard Stelzer’s How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, using an intentional sentence fragment to grab our attention and to crisply define two intertwined themes in the writer’s life. Other essays—the first from the Asher book and the second from the Stelzer book cited above—lend a sense of importance to their subject matter through topical references:

As I write this statement, Governor Mario Cuomo makes preparations to vacate the Executive Mansion in Albany, New York, after New Yorkers rejected his appeal for another term.
As the United States launched yet another small war in a distant corner of the globe, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen returned to life and captivated a hometown audience in Pekin, Illinois, with the folksy eloquence that made him nationally famous.

As these politically savvy allusions show, writers who use topical references impress upon their readers that they are both informed and concerned. Here, the color of one’s political stripes is irrelevant—what matters is that they are painted clearly. Whether employing a political reference or citing a current event, when you create topical context you represent yourself as a keen observer of the world.

 

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