A Critical Analysis Of Personal Statements Submitted By Radiology Residency Applicants

1School of Medicine, University of Puerto Rico, San Juan, PR 00936, USA
2University of California, Davis, Sacramento, CA 95816, USA
3Department of Dermatology, University of California, Davis School of Medicine, 3301 C Street, Suite 1400, Sacramento, CA 95816, USA

Received 15 June 2014; Revised 23 August 2014; Accepted 28 August 2014; Published 14 September 2014

Copyright © 2014 Jeannette Olazagasti et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Background. A strong personal statement is deemed favorable in the overall application review process. However, research on the role of personal statements in the application process is lacking. Objective. To determine if personal statements from matched applicants differ from unmatched applicants. Methods. All dermatology residency applications () submitted to UC Davis Dermatology in the year of 2012 were evaluated. Two investigators identified the characteristics and recurring themes of content present in the personal statements. Then, both investigators individually evaluated the content of these personal statements in order to determine if any of the defined themes was present. Chi-square, Fisher’s exact, and reliability tests were used. Results. The following themes were emphasized more often by the matched applicants than the unmatched applicants as their reasons for going into dermatology are to study the cutaneous manifestations of systemic disease (33.8% versus 22.8%), to contribute to the literature gap (8.3% versus 1.1%), and to study the pathophysiology of skin diseases (8.3% versus 2.2%; for all). Conclusion. The prevalence of certain themes in personal statements of dermatology applicants differs according to match status; nevertheless, whether certain themes impact match outcome needs to be further elucidated.

1. Introduction

Medical students applying for dermatology residency programs submit a less than 2-page personal statement in which they elaborate on themselves and their interest in dermatology.

While the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS) facilitates the residency application process as a centralized service that distributes all necessary documents to prospective residency programs including medical school transcripts, USMLE test scores, and letters of recommendation, it has a few shortcomings. First, the applications have become very standardized; therefore the personal statement is the only place the applicants can express their personality and interests. Second, ERAS provides limited instructions for composing the personal statements including allowed size limits and characters [1]. Nevertheless, the American Medical Association (AMA) advises applicants to address three questions: (1) what got you interested in a particular residency? (2) what are you looking for in a residency program? and (3) what are your goals as that specialist? Furthermore, there are numerous residency guides appearing in Google web searches which often include variations of these three questions [1].

Successful matching into a dermatology residency program has become a competitive process [2]. Every year, approximately 500 medical students apply for approximately 370 dermatology residency positions [3]. While prospective candidates believe that a strong personal statement will increase their chances of matching, there is a lack of research on the impact it has on the overall application review and selection process [1]. Nonetheless, according to the “Results of the 2012 National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) Director Survey,” 74% of dermatology program directors responded that the personal statement is more important than USMLE scores or clerkship grades in the residency candidate selection process [4].

We decided to evaluate the personal statements submitted by applicants to a dermatology residency program at a major academic teaching hospital with the objective of determining which themes of content were more frequently emphasized. Furthermore, we sought to investigate if the themes were different between the matched and unmatched groups and whether certain themes had a higher correlation with successful matching.

2. Materials and Methods

This study was approved by the University of California, Davis Institutional Review Board as an exemption. All applications () to the UC Davis Dermatology Residency Program in the year 2012 were analyzed. Essays were deidentified by removing the applicant’s name and other identifiable variables and a randomly generated identification number was used to link the essay to other ERAS application data. Reviewers were blinded to the candidate’s other application data.

Two investigators (JO and FG) who were blinded to the match outcome initially evaluated 50 randomly selected personal statements in order to identify the characteristics and recurring themes of content. Then, both investigators individually evaluated the content of each of these 50 personal statements in order to determine if any of the defined themes was present. For this initial analysis, the interrater reliability was deemed to be satisfactory (93%) and any disagreements were resolved by consensus. The content of the remaining personal statements was subsequently evaluated by JO. Therefore, all personal statements () submitted to UC Davis Dermatology Program in the year 2012 were evaluated. Match outcomes of the respective candidates were retrieved from the NRMP website.

Differences in the prevalence of the themes between the matched and unmatched groups were subsequently calculated along with their corresponding 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Chi-square and Fisher’s exact tests were used when appropriate in order to assess whether these differences in the prevalence were statistically significant. values equal to or less than 0.05 were considered significant. STATA 12 statistical software (StataCorp LP) was used for this analysis.

3. Results

The content of all personal statements () from the dermatology applicants was evaluated. The initial screening of the 50 randomly selected personal statements resulted in the description of 10 main themes of content, each with its own subdivisions, giving a total of 47 characteristic themes (Table 1). Each theme was defined in a measurable term to minimize interrater variability. Interrater reliability during the initial analysis of 50 randomly was satisfactory (93%), indicating that both investigators agreed with a high level of consistency on whether any of the defined characteristic themes of content was present in a particular personal statement. The prevalence of the 47 characteristic themes reported in the personal statements of matched and unmatched dermatology applicants is shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Characteristic themes of content that appeared in the personal statements.

The most commonly stated themes in both the matched and unmatched groups were “discussion of a cutaneous disease,” “why dermatology,” and “story telling.” Other specialties have found an increasing number of personal statements sharing common features. Max et al. conducted a study where they evaluated the content of personal statements submitted by anesthesiology residency applicants at a major academic teaching hospital [5]. They found that the personal statement in a typical anesthesiology residency application revolves around one of thirteen common themes [5]. Similarly, in a study examining the personal statements submitted by radiology residency applicants, the statements seemed to consistently mention at least one of eleven defined themes [6]. Therefore, a residency selection committee member recently suggested that statements should be more original and personal since the commonality noted across personal statements limits their utility in distinguishing between candidates who have similar academic records [7].

The prevalence of certain themes found in the statements varied according to whether the applicant successfully matched into dermatology residency or not. For example, personal statements sharing a personal story were less prevalent in the matched group (119/240 (49.6%)) as compared to the unmatched group (55/92 (59.8%)). However, this difference in prevalence did not reach statistical significance (). Also discussed less frequently in the matched group versus the unmatched group was the theme of having a family member within the field of medicine (9/240 (3.8%) versus 9/92 (9.8%), ).

Candidates for dermatology residency positions believe explaining why they chose dermatology is the most important aspect of the personal statement, as this theme was present in about 70% of the submitted statements. Interestingly, a similar observation was also made by Smith et al. They showed that candidates applying to radiology also feel that providing reasons for choosing the field is the most important aspect of the personal statement, since this theme was present in 29 of 30 (96.7%) of the statements [6]. While they did not analyze if these applicants matched or not into radiology residency, they do demonstrate that this theme is of importance for the members of the selection committee since they ranked it the highest out of all the categories of content they defined [6]. While discussing reasons for choosing dermatology was one of the most commonly mentioned themes by residency applicants, these reasons differed significantly between the matched and unmatched applicants. Matched candidates more frequently emphasized their desire to study the cutaneous manifestations of systemic diseases, to contribute to the literature gap, and to understand better the pathophysiology of skin diseases, as their reasons for wanting to go into dermatology. A possible explanation for this finding could be that applicants who successfully match into dermatology often have more extensive research experience and scholar publications. In fact, according to the last “Charting Outcomes in the Match,” matched applicants in dermatology have a mean number of 3.7 research experiences and 7.5 publications, higher than the unmatched applicants who have a mean number of 2.9 and 4.2, respectively [3].

The aforementioned reasons for choosing dermatology of the matched applicants revolved essentially around characteristics specific to the study of dermatology. Interestingly, Max et al. also noticed that personal statements written by anesthesiology applicants tend to be focused about 60% of the time on themes that are specific to the study of anesthesiology, such as interest in physiology and pharmacology [5]. While they did not see if this frequency was different between the matched and unmatched applicants, they did report that stating an interest in the relevant physiology and pharmacology was associated with an invitation to interview at their institution. Their results were unanticipated as they had hypothesized that statements including recurrent, common themes would be viewed less favorably by the selection committee. They thought that reading repeatedly similar subject matter would cause reviewers to view those statements with common themes as less appealing. However, this was not the case since their study showed a strong correlation between the number of common themes in personal statements and an invitation to interview [5].

The idea that personal statements should be more original and personal is supported in different specialties [7–9]. Interestingly, in our study, applicants that successfully matched into dermatology seemed to place less emphasis on a unique storytelling theme or even an applicant-related storyline (Table 1). This was somewhat unexpected considering that the personal statement provides applicants the opportunity to express their personal attributes rather than the explicit details of their CVs and therefore to distinguish themselves from other applicants. According to Smith et al., it is possible that some candidates might have hesitation in sharing their personal qualities for fear of being perceived as conceited [6]. Nonetheless, they believe that this should not be so since their study shows that radiology residency committee members rated the theme of personal attributes highly [6]. It is not feasible to determine, with our current results, if dermatology applicants should in fact try to reveal more of their personalities.

Also less of importance for the matched applicants was to mention if they had a physician relative. This theme was observed significantly less frequently in the statements from the matched group when compared to those from the unmatched group. This falls into accord with the thoughts of residency selection committee members that have an aversion to applicants who sound as if they are going into a specialty just because their parents or family members are in the field. Furthermore, very few applicants (2/332 (0.6%)) admitted that they wanted to go into dermatology for the easy lifestyle. In the past years, residency selection committee members have been trying to differentiate these candidates from the ones that are going into the field because of a genuine desire and passion for the field. Hence, prospective applicants are generally advised not to mention dermatology’s lifestyle as their main reason for applying to it. Nevertheless, one of the two applicants who mentioned this theme in our study successfully matched.

A significant limitation of our study was that the personal statements of applicants applying to a single program (UC Davis) were analyzed. Therefore, further research is needed to determine whether or not these results are generalizable to all dermatology residency applicants. While it is possible that our results remain specific only to those applying for a dermatology residency at our institution, it is rather unlikely since the 332 applications reviewed represent 65.4% of the total national pool of applicants to PGY-2 dermatology residencies in 2012 [10]. Another limitation is that the analysis of each personal statement is inevitably subjective; however, the initial analysis of 50 randomly selected personal statements showed that both reviewers showed strong interrater reliability in their assessments. We believe that the personal statement has an important role in the initial residency application screening process. However, its ultimate impact on successful matching into dermatology residency was not investigated, which is a significant limitation of our study. In addition, the role of other factors such as volunteerism and community service in the residency screening process was not explored in this study and would be worthy of further investigation.

The available literature on the topic suggests that the value placed on personal statements might vary depending on the specialty. Crane and Ferraro found that personal statements were the least important factor for selecting emergency medicine residents [11]. Similarly, a study by Taylor et al. showed that obstetrics and gynecology directors ranked personal statements last in importance for interview invitation [12]. The latter study also presented that family practice program directors consider them the second most important factor, implying that different specialties have differing views on the overall significance of personal statements [12]. Nevertheless, the fact that a personal statement’s content correlates with clinical aspects of training, as shown by Ferguson et al., suggests that these could potentially be of value for all specialties [13]. Ferguson et al. compared the impact of grades, personal statements, and letters of recommendation to predict performance over the five years of a medical degree and found that personal statements with greater number of common themes were reliable predictors of positive clinical performance [13].

In spite of the research done so far in the field, there is sparse evidence to help medical students and more often than not they still agonize on what they should write in their statements. We understand that our study is the first attempt to analyze the contents of personal statements submitted by dermatology applicants in order to instigate if there are characteristics in them that increase the chance of matching. We impart our results not only to inform students and faculty involved in the match process of what are the trends seen in the personal statements of dermatology applicants, but also to stimulate continued research on this important subject.

4. Conclusion

Personal statements of dermatology applicants discuss a number of common, repeated themes. The prevalence of certain themes differs according to whether the applicant successfully matched into residency or not. For example, describing why they chose dermatology was more commonly recognized in the statements of the matched group. On the other hand, stating a personal story was more frequently observed in those of the unmatched group. However, the possibility that describing certain themes in personal statements impacts match outcome is currently under investigation and needs to be further elucidated.

Conflict of Interests

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interests regarding the publication of this paper.

Authors’ Contribution

Jeannette Olazagasti, Farzam Gorouhi, and Nasim Fazel had full access to all of the data in the study and take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis. Study concept and design were carried out by Jeannette Olazagasti, Farzam Gorouhi, and Nasim Fazel. Acquisition of data was carried out by Jeannette Olazagasti, Farzam Gorouhi, and Nasim Fazel. Analysis and interpretation of data were carried out by Jeannette Olazagasti, Farzam Gorouhi, and Nasim Fazel. Drafting of the paper was carried out by Jeannette Olazagasti. Critical revision of the paper for important intellectual content was carried out by Jeannette Olazagasti, Farzam Gorouhi, and Nasim Fazel. Statistical analysis was carried out by Jeannette Olazagasti, Farzam Gorouhi, and Nasim Fazel. Administrative, technical, or material support was held by Jeannette Olazagasti, Farzam Gorouhi, and Nasim Fazel. Study supervision was carried out by Jeannette Olazagasti, Farzam Gorouhi, and Nasim Fazel.

 

Personal statements in the radiology field are the least effective way to bolster your application. (1) Rarely, do they help an applicant. Occasionally, they hurt the applicant’s case. Regardless, I am aware that the personal statement will often become essentially important to many viewers of this article who apply to radiology regardless of whatever I say.  Therefore, I am creating this blog for anyone that is applying for a radiology related job to learn to create that killer radiology personal statement. And, today I am going to recount some of the basics for creating one. Specifically, I am going to start by explaining the parts of a great radiology personal statement and then give you some general tips that I have learned over the years from blogging and reading many personal statements.

First Paragraph:

The Hook

After having rummaged through thousands of radiology personal statements and writing lots of blogs, I can definitely say that the key paragraph for the reader begins at the beginning. If it is average/boring, I have almost zero desire to read the rest of the statement, especially when you have another 10 more to read that day. Something in the few first few sentences needs to draw the reader in quickly. You are not writing a short story or novel where you can slowly develop your characters and plot. Rather, you need to write using a technique that I like to call the hook. Reel that program director in.

There are several techniques that I have seen over the years. Let’s start by using the writing technique of irony. Notice the irony I chose in the first paragraph of this article. I started by saying personal statements are the least effective way to bolster your application. Whoa, wait a minute! The title of the article is How To Create A Killer Personal Statement. That’s somewhat interesting. The dissonance in that first paragraph draws the reader in.

So, what other techniques can you use to maintain the interest of the reader? Sometimes quotes can certainly help. Once in a while, I come across a quote that really interests me. I tend to like quotes from Albert Einstein. They tend to be witty and have double meanings. But, there are certainly millions to choose from. A good quote can set the tone for the rest of the personal statement.

Finally, you can write about an interesting theatrical description of a life-altering event that caused you to want to go into radiology. Use descriptive novel-like adjectives and adverbs. Go to town. However, be careful. Don’t choose the same events as everyone else. Read my other blog called Radiology Personal Statement Mythbusters to give you some other ideas about what not to choose!

Tell Why You Are Interested In Radiology

The first paragraph is also an important place to tell the reader why you are interested in radiology. Many times I will read a radiology personal statement and say to myself that was kind of interesting, but why does this person want to go into the radiology field? He/she never quite answers the question and I am left feeling that this person does not know why they want to enter the field. Don’t let that be you!

Second Paragraph:

Explain Any Problems/Issues

I like the applicant to be upfront with the reader rather quickly if there was an issue that may cause a program director or resident to discard an application. It could be addressing something as serious as a former conviction for drunk driving when you were young and stupid or something milder like a questionable quotation from a mentor that you found in your Deans Letter. Either way, you need to explain yourself. Otherwise, the problem/issue can declare itself as a red flag and prevent you from getting the interview that you really want.

Second and Third Paragraphs

Expand Upon Your Application

Let’s say you don’t really have any red flags in your application. Well then, now you can write about some of the things that you accomplished that you want to bring to the attention of your reader. Typically, these may be items in your application that are partially explained in the experience or research sections of the ERAS application but really deserve further emphasis or explanation.

Show Not Tell

In addition, the meat of any personal statement should contain information about what you did, not to describe all about the characteristics you had to allow you to do it. This is a cardinal mistake I often see in many personal statements. What do I mean by that? If you have been working at NASA on the Webb Space Telescope, you don’t want to say I was a hard worker and was well liked by everybody. Rather you would want to say I spent 1000 hours building the mirror for the telescope constantly correcting for mistakes to such a fine degree that the engineering societies considered it to be almost perfect. And to show you were well liked by everybody, you can say when you were done completing the telescope, NASA held a ticker tape parade for me!!! (Well, that’s probably not the case. But, hopefully, you get the idea.)

Final Paragraph

Time to Sum Up

This can be the most difficult part of writing a personal statement (and blog too!) How do you tie everything together into a tight knot so that everything comes together and makes sense? Well, one thing you can write about is what you will bring to the table if you residency program selects you based on what you have stated in your radiology personal statement. Back to the Webb telescope example: Given my experience with my successful quest for perfection by creating an almost perfect telescope mirror, similarly, I plan to hone my skills to become an incredible radiologist by always learning from others and my fellow clinicians to get as close to perfection as possible. Bottom line. You want to make sure to apply your experiences to the job that you want to get.

General Issues With Editing

1. I have learned a few things about writing over the past years whether it is blogs, personal statements, letters, or whatever else you need to write. However, the most important is the obsessive need to review and re-review whatever you are writing for editing. It may take 100 edits to get it right!!!

2. Have a friend or a relative read your personal statement to catch errors you may not see. Your brain is trained to already know what you have written. Many times the only way to catch your own mistakes is to have another person read your writings.

3. Also, make sure to the read the personal statement out loud. Sometimes you can only detect errors by listening to what you have actually written. It happened many times when I edited my book Radsresident: A Guidebook For The Radiology Applicant And Radiology Resident

4. Finally, I recommend the use of grammar correcting programs. The one that I would like to bring to your attention is the program called Grammarly. I am an affiliate of Grammarly, but that is only because I use the program myself for my blogs all the time. It has saved me from really stupid mistakes. One version is for free and corrects simple critical errors. The other uses more complex grammatical corrections and is a paid service. Regardless, either version will assist you in catching those silly errors. In addition, I usually paste my blogs into the Microsoft Word program to correct any other possible errors. I have found both programs to be complementary.

Other Useful Tidbits

Avoid Too Many I Words

When writing a radiology personal statement, try to reduce the usage of the word I for multiple reasons. First, it begins to sound very redundant. Second, you appear selfish. (It’s always about you isn’t it?) And finally, you want to create the impression that you are going to be a team player, not in the field of radiology just for yourself.

Active Not Passive Tense

If you want a passage to sound great, make sure to almost always use the active tense, not the passive variety. When using the passive form, the reader has more work to do because he/she has to figure out who is doing the activity. In addition, the environment appears to control you rather than you controlling the environment. And finally, sentences sound more verbose when using the passive tense. Think about the following phrases: The job of creating a computer algorithm was completed over the course of 10 years vs. My colleagues and I created a computer algorithm over the course of 10 years. Which sounds better to you?

Use Sentence Transitions

If you want your personal statement to sound smooth, I find words other than the subject at the beginning of the sentence help to diversify the sound of the individual sentence. Also (notice this transition word!), it allows for a change of idea without being so abrupt.

Don’t Use The Same Word At The Beginning Of Each Sentence

In that same train of thought, try not to use the same word to begin a sentence over and over again. It’s a surefire way to bore the reader!!!

Creating That Perfect Radiology Personal Statement

Now you know some of the rules I would utilize to create an interesting radiology personal statement. Some of these are general rules that I apply to my blog on a weekly basis that I also see in the best personal statements, so I know that they work well. So, go forth and write that killer radiology personal statement. You now have all the tools you need!!!

 

 

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