Now that we’ve touched upon Personal Statement DON’TS, let’s move on to DO’s. This post will be geared towards dermatology residency applicants, but the same tips should still apply to other specialties (for the most part!). There are really only two questions every dermatology personal statement should try to answer.
Why should you interview me?
If you can’t answer the first one convincingly enough, you damn well better have an awesome answer to the second. I’d even argue that having a strong answer to #2 far outweighs having a strong answer to #1. Likewise, if there’s anything in your essay that does not answer those two questions, delete it! Avoid Pitfall #2: Making it too long. Think of it this way — dermatology attendings only want to spend a few minutes with each personal statement. Right off the bat — they need to understand your motivations for becoming a dermatologist and why they should offer you an interview over the other 600 equally-qualified candidates (see my post How to (Actually) Match into Dermatology for an overview of the process). So help them help you by S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G out your take-home points. This isn’t your college thesis! No hidden meanings or interpretations between the lines. It’s a fool’s errand to think that someone’s going to spend more than a few minutes on your precious essay, let alone breakdown and analyze your beautiful writing like it’s a college theology class on Kant.
First I’m going to cover the STRUCTURE of the dermatology personal statement, and then I’ll dive into the CONTENT.
Plan out your key points
Before you sit down and write your personal statement, first map out what you want the readers to know about you. Ask yourself, if I only have 5 minutes with someone, what are the “take-home” points I want them to remember about me? What do I want them to ask about during an interview? Is it the fact that I wrote a case report on Sweet Syndrome once? Or is it the fact that I use to play college volleyball? Maybe I want them to know that I developed a patent for a staining marker.
Whatever it is, jot down a few interesting tidbits about yourself that answer either “Why derm?” or “Why should you interview me?” After you have a running list, pick just a few topics (no more than 4) that you want to expound upon.
Paragraph #1: “The Hook”
Paragraph 1 is the hardest to write. This is where you develop a “hook” for your reader. Start off with a compelling personal story that glues the reader to the page. You don’t necessarily need to start off with something dramatic, like an opening scene to an ER episode, but you need to get the readers to care immediately about what you have to say. Some people like starting off with their “Why derm?” origin story, which is perfectly fine. If your motivations stem from a personal affliction with skin disease or an experience with a family member, it would be appropriate to include that here. Likewise, intimate patient encounters can also be tastefully written into your intro. BEWARE of Pitfall #3: Making it too general.
The caveat is that you risk making your personal statement too “derm-centric,” which means that the only thing readers remember about you is that “you’re into derm” — which if you think about — makes you no different from every other derm candidate. Don’t get me wrong, there are good non-cliche ways to start with your “Why derm?” answer. If you’ve had major career changes or even specialty switches, it would be very reasonable to address the white elephant in the room and explain your situation right away.
The other way to lead a personal statement is with the “Why should you interview me?” angle. This can be about anything you’d like the reader to know about you or ask you about during an interview. You’re trying to pique their interest, like a sneak movie preview. By the end of your intro, they should be dying to meet the candidate behind the page. Remember, dermatology programs are small and they’re looking to build a diverse class. If you bring something different to the table, they will be more likely to pay attention.
The middle: Your journey
This is generally the easiest to write. And to be honest, if there’s any part of your essay that will get overlooked or skimmed over, it’ll be the middle section. So don’t stress too much about it. This is where you should outline your “pathway to derm.” Map out for the reader how exactly you stumbled upon this specialty, and everything you’ve done to explore the field. This is relatively formulaic. When in doubt, just talk about your clinical and research experiences in derm.
Concluding paragraph: Wrapping it up
This is probably THE MOST important paragraph (second to your intro) that you will write. You need to figure out the “theme” of your essay and reiterate what take-home points you want your readers to remember. Avoid Pitfall #4: Rambling. Cohesive essays try to tie their concluding sentences back to their introductory paragraph. You can also try convincing the reader why your experiences would make you prepared for dermatology residency, or in particular, their program. For example, if you wrote about running a marathon in your intro, you could tie in how your perseverance and unwavering drive will prepare you for residency blah blah blah. It’s not necessary to take your essay back full circle, but it definitely makes it look more polished.
Alternatively, you can talk about your plans for the future. You can talk about how you hope to pursue a peds-derm fellowship in the future. Or want to be a lupus expert. The world is your oyster! Just don’t write that you’re into cosmetics or hope to do private practice. Everyone’s into academics until proven otherwise. If you really can’t come up with a good concluding paragraph, you can also write how you’re excited to start dermatology residency and thank the reader for considering you for their program. A humble ending is never wrong.
Now that we’ve gone over the structure of the the essay, let’s flesh out the nitty-gritty. Answering the “Why derm?” question is going to be one of the toughest things you’ll write — and to speak about on the interview trail (but more on that later). So dig deep to try and find a compelling and memorable answer. Let’s be honest here, most people want to go into dermatology for the same reasons: It’s visual. Skin is cool. It has a nice mix of procedures ($$$) and general medicine. It has a diverse patient population. It has good work-life balance. It’s intellectual. Blah blah blah.
But you need to somehow convince them that you’re different and have come up with a different answer than they did when they were applying. All joking aside — what’s the key to a good answer? Making it personal. Even if it requires a bit of dramatizing. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be genuine, but it needs to be personal if you want to be memorable.
There are three common ways to add some personality into your “Why derm?” answer.
1. Use research/work experiences in a derm-related field
This is an easy and straightforward route to take. If you’ve done research in derm, or worked in a derm clinic, then you can easily transpose those experiences into your essay.
Example #1: “I did a year of immunology research and hope to study immunobullous diseases in the future.”
Example #2: “I ran a support group for vitiligo patients and saw how psychologically debilitating their skin disease was to them. I want to do more for these patients.”
2. Use personal hobbies, career/life experiences in a non-derm related field
This is one of the few times you can elaborate on the “visual aspect” of dermatology in a non-generic way. If you can talk passionately and extensively about a “visual” hobby or life experience, then you have a great cohesive story. Alternatively, if you studied something non-derm related, you can still tie in how your prior background tangentially introduced you to the world of derm.
Example #1: “I used to be a photographer and was drawn to the visual aspect of dermatology.”
Example #2: “I studied bioengineering in college and became interested in how mechanoreceptors on our skin function.”
3. Use personal or family history of skin disease
This can be effective but it must be done tastefully so as not to seem exploitative. Acne might be too commonplace, but if you had Acne conglobata and had to consider home-schooling, it might also work. If you only have the occasional zit and just spot-treat at night, then I probably wouldn’t talk about it.
Example: “My mother has severe psoriasis and I want to contribute more to the field.”
Be a specialty shop, not an all-you-can-eat buffet
Now that you’ve answered your “Why derm?” question, you need to move onto the second question. How do you convince a reader to interview you? You need to develop your “one-liner” or “selling-point.” Remember, less is more. If you try to cram all of your experiences into your essay, you’ll end up confusing your readers and not leave them with a strong sense of what you’re selling. In the world of dermatology, you want to be a specialty shop offering handmade gelato, not an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Specialty example: I conducted melanoma research and patented a new staining marker.”
Readers think: “She’s the melanoma applicant with a patent. She’ll be a strong asset to have if we want to expand academically.”
Specialty example: I was a juggler in college and also volunteered at Camp Discovery, a camp for kids with chronic skin conditions.
Readers think: “How interesting! He’s a juggler! He also has some derm experience”
Specialty example: I used to study computer science and statistics in college. As a result, I became interested in mapping immune cells in psoriasis patients.
Readers think: “She has a comp-sci background and has done cell mapping in psoriasis. That might bring something different to the program.”
Specialty example: “I worked with Dr. Squamous on a derm-path chapter and spent a year doing a dermpath fellowship.”
Readers think: “He’s into derm-path! We need more of those.”
Buffet example: “I did a case report on Sweet syndrome, a review paper on wound healing, worked in a CTCL clinic, and did research in melanoma.”
Readers think: “She clearly has a lot of research experience. She’s done CTCL, melanoma — wait, no — I thought there was another melanoma applicant with a patent? Now I’m confused.”
Know what story you’re selling and stick to it. It’s okay to be known as the “melanoma girl” or the “juggler” or the “derm-path” applicant. In the world of derm, being labeled is much better than no label at all.
Good luck writing!