Saturday, June 16, 2012

The linchpin of the personal statement.

"Research is the linchpin of a thriving academic medical center." 

~ Kimberly Draper, M4


This is a sentence that was written by me what feels like twelve thousand years ago. I guess I was trying to sound smart, so I included these words (along with many other equally pretentious ones) in the personal statement I wrote for my residency applications.  Talk about a snoozer.


Look. I'm not saying that research ISN'T the linchpin (linchpin?!) of a thriving academic medical center. I'm just saying that I have no idea why these words would have any place in an essay that was supposed to be designed to convey who I am. Or at least was in 19-hundred-and-95.

Now that I'm a residency program director, I know how extremely crap-tacular my personal statement was back then. It did nothing to paint a picture of me and the person a residency program could expect to get. Instead, I wrote words that I thought they'd want to hear.

Unfortunately, many people still do.

And see, the personal statement essay-thingie doesn't exactly go away after you start residency. If you decide to pursue a fellowship training program, many of them want one, too. When I applied to be a society leader in the School of Medicine that, too, called for--you guessed it--a personal statement. Oh yeah, and last year when I submitted my portfolio for academic promotion to Associate Professor, I had to write a four page version of a personal statement. And while technically the four page promotion one had a few specific rules about teaching, scholarship and service, it still proved to be tremendously important. Maybe even a linchpin of a thriving academic promotion package.

Mmmm hmmmm.

These days I have been looking at a lot of personal statements and also meeting with advisees about their applications to residencies and fellowships. Yesterday, in particular, I had an extremely rich discussion with Kevin S. about developing his essay.

"Why are you like you are, Kevin?" I asked.

And yes, that sounds loaded but let me explain. See, Kevin is a fourth year medical student who has a heart for medicine, yes, but something more than that. His passion includes care for what the Grady elders and the church folk call "the least of these." The homeless. The unstably housed. Those with strongholds of drug addiction.  HIV-infected and out of care but needing it. And honestly? If he can find patients who meet ALL of these criteria at the same time, he's at home. No exaggeration.

Now. Let me just be clear and say that it's my guess that most kids from the northern suburbs of Chicago aren't quite as keen as Kevin is on this--the dirtiest of the dirty work in domestic healthcare. And no, this statement is not meant to offend any of you north-side-of-Chicago people who DO volunteer with this population. I'm just saying that his desire . . . and even need. . .to be in such an element comes from somewhere. And that? That's what I want to learn about when reading his personal statement.

I have a horrible confession. I have read only the first fifty words of what feels like over two hundred and fifty trillion personal statements. Mostly because they're talking about "linchpins" and such and nothing about who this person is who wrote it. If I am not grabbed in--okay-- at least seventy-five words, I stop reading and skim over to the letters of recommendation. Horrible, right?

Oh, and if those are super-impersonal and unhelpful, too? That's a real, true red flag.

Not. Kidding.

And see, this is what we, as mentors, need to be telling our advisees as we're discussing their applications. Get away from that babble that you think I WANT to hear and tell me who you are. Because it ISN'T intuitive through your grades. And you AREN'T the first smart person to apply to that program or that position.

Case in point:

Yesterday when I was talking to Kevin, he said that "loves Grady Hospital and the patient population there." And as we explored that more, it became apparent that, again, it had a lot to do with his drive to participate in the care of the underserved and the misunderstood. He loves to be in the trenches looking into the eyes of people whose faces are peering up from the bottom of the well. And normalizing them through his heart for delivering them the education, care and mostly understanding that they deserve but unfortunately don't always receive. That's why Kevin loves a place like Grady Hospital.

But me? While all of those things do apply, my main drive for being at Grady has more to do with who I am genetically. I am the child of two African-American parents born and raised in the deep south. A daddy who was one of eleven whose mama (my grandmama) was one of ten. The grandchild of a man who was quietly confident and who met his love, my grandmother, at the very historically black college where my own parents met and that the four of us would subsequently attend. Tuskegee. The school not even a two hour drive away from Grady that, also, my uncle would follow my father's footsteps to. The same uncle who had his life shredded to bits by substance abuse and who continues to fight it to this very day. I'm also the same woman whose father grew up in the epicenter of Jim Crow horrors in Birmingham, Alabama and who was looked straight in the eye by a high school counselor who told him he couldn't be a doctor.


See, that's who I am. So for me, walking into Grady Hospital and touching the hands of the patients and listening to their stories is like coming home. Home. Those elders are my grandparents and my great aunts. Those folks with their crack cocaine and alcohol strongholds are my Uncle Woody. The young ones with their babies and their issues are the girls I used to double dutch with on the corner until the street lights came on in my inner-city Inglewood, California neighborhood. Even the scores and scores of immigrants I care for are the loved ones of my friends at my elementary school and high school. You know--the one with such a growing population of Spanish-speaking students that each morning we recited the pledge of allegiance in Spanish, too.

Don't believe me? I can still say it from memory:

Juro fidelidad a la bandera de los Estados Unidos de Americas. Y a la republica que representa, una sola nacion, bajo de Dios, indivisible con libertad y justicias para todos. You may be seated. (We always said that part in Ingles.)

It's okay -- you can stop applauding. Ah hem.

Wait. . .what was my point again? Oh, yeah. So my point is that I'm at home in this environment. And some of these pivotal experiences have made a place like Grady feel like home.

And for Kevin? I'm not sure. But I know there is some explanation. Perhaps it is something he saw his parents doing when he was a kid. I have met his parents so this would never surprise me. And, hey, maybe it's something altogether different. Either way, that tells a lot about who he is and why he's wired this way.

And remember Joe, the guy working as a Grady patient transporter? Surely there's a story behind him being the kind of person who would not only want to do that for a whole year--but actually make that happen for a whole year-- before going to medical school. Getting my point?

See, my dear friend Kris who lives in Uganda was raised by a surgeon father. That father often did medical mission trips to Kenya. She grew up seeing and experiencing that. So despite what many would call a rather affluent upbringing she now she cares for patients in the middle of Africa. And is right at home doing it. And remember Mina, one of Kevin's classmates, who wants to be an ENT doctor? Much of Mina's work ethic came from her Vietnamese immigrant mother who guided her as she painted designs on toenails in her nail shop each summer. Make sense?

So I ask the students the same things I asked myself before preparing to write my most recent personal statement.

Who ARE you?
Why are you like this?
What pivotal experience or relationship got you here?
What cultivated it and nourished it?
What have you continued to do to cultivate and nourish that part of you?
Where did you learn your work ethic?
What are you looking for?
What can we expect from you?


Why is this a great field?
What did Socrates once say? 
What did Hippocrates once say?
Or Winston Churchill?
Why is research important?
Why is medicine important?
Did you know that I wanted to be a doctor since I was a baby?

*Yawnity-yawn YAWN*

It's called a PERSONAL STATEMENT for a reason. It's to tell people WHO YOU ARE. Period. That's it. That's the "linchpin" of a kick-ass personal statement. It's one that communicates the essence of professional you. . . .which should never be too far away from regular ol' you.

So the best advice is simple. Keep it personal. Keep it human. Keep it you.

Unless, of course, you only want someone to read the first fifty words. . . .

Happy Sabado. Y justicias para todos.

From Kimberly Manning, MD--now an Associate Professor (!) of Medicine. Claro que si!

Now playing on my mental iPod. . .  .a little of my personal statement . . . in song by the lovely Ms. India Arie singing "The Little Things." This just made me cry while watching it because thinking of who I really am makes me cry. In a good way.


  1. Thanks for this- my mission for next week is to get mine done (applying for peds) and you definitely gave me some things to think about!

    1. Awesome! Best of luck--getting started is the hardest part!

  2. Well, looks I'm gonna be chucking my PS and starting over. Thank you so much for these tips! Super helpful especially when they're coming from the mind of a residency director!

    1. So glad this tongue-in-cheek advice resonates with you! Wish I'd heard it sooner!

  3. Not just blurry eyes, but full on crying this morning...

    I have been composing this personal statement in my head since the end of my first term in medical school. I have even tried to put fingers to keys and put characters onto the screen. I have written a dozen versions of the first paragraph... unsure of how to guide this tour of myself, worrying about making it too personal or not personal enough, debating about using key words or giving freedom to my thoughts.

    THANK YOU!!! You have given me the courage to write about myself today. Thank you.

    I may not have been fortunate enough to don my ceremonial white coat in a medical school where I could sit with you to discuss my personal statement in person, but I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to be mentored by you in your wonderful cyberschool.

  4. I reread your post (as I often do) and it hit me... how could I have missed such an important point???

    CONGRATULATIONS Assistant Professor Dr. Manning! May you continue to thrive in every aspect of your life for countless years to come.

    1. Thanks a heap. And -- ah hem -- point of clarification: that's ASSOCIATE professor effective September 2012. Woo hooooo!!!

  5. I adore you and your blog Dr M! I sat down today to get myself in the 'mood' to write a personal statement (true story). The pressure of getting the right "linchpin" had me stuck in a creative rut.Just then I got a mail alert and saw your latest blog post waiting for me, telling me what to do. Thank you for reminding me that while high scores and stellar resumes and LoRs matter, the personal statement is a way for me to get MY story across and find my "best perfect fit". Back to the drawing board now, albeit with my game mode on!
    PS: Congratulations for the promotion :)

  6. This should be required reading for anyone needing to write a personal statement. it explains everything better than I have ever seen. Honestly, this should be published in a book about how to write a personal statement. I am emailing this right now to my niece who is applying to dental school (at meharry! other places too). she's ready to press SEND, but i think she should look at her app again with this post in mind. thank you!

  7. This is a fascinating post to me -- both intellectually and emotionally. Given my own "experience" in the trenches of the medical world with my daughter, I am warmed by all the thought and caring here -- the stretching of the box, I think -- thinking out of the box and measuring heart and mind equally. I am so grateful to have found your blog -- it feels nearly divine-ordered that my faith in medicine would be restored, a bit, by what you write about, how you write and who you are. Thank you, Dr. Manning --

    1. I love your writing and your blog, E. You know that. You are brave and smart and you teach me about love without limits. Thank you, Mrs. Aquino.

  8. Oh my goodness!!! Of course ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR (and even PROFESSORA :)... I blame it on the teary blurry vision.

  9. Congrats to you! And thank you for this. I took Step 2 on Thursday and my PS was next on the list of things to do... perfect timing!

  10. Just when I thought I was done with my personal statement for med school, thanks soooooooooooooooooooooooooo much for the tips and advice and congrats on getting tenure!

    1. Yay! Glad the timing was perfect for you. Thanks for the well wishes -- I'm not on the tenure track but it does feel great to be promoted to a senior rank! :)

  11. Congratulations! And this blog is YOUR personal statement, day after day and you could write posts of fifty thousand words and we would read them joyfully because they are...personal...statements.

    You let us see your world through your eyes.


    1. Awww dang, Sister Moon. You're about to choke me up. You, too, write lovely personal statements. So very bold and always full of grace. Thank YOU.

  12. What she said. (Ms. Moon, I mean.)

    1. Her words are always awesome, aren't they? Listen Mary Alice. . .if I haven't told you lately that I appreciate you being here, please know that I do. I really, truly do.

  13. Congratulations Dr. Manning!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. Insightful article Dr. M, really gives me a lot to think about. Avoid the fluff, keep it real. Always the right message...

  15. I was advised by my dean to play it safe, and don't ruin my chances with my PS. So 2 months ago, I wrote a very standard PS and feeling like it had nothing to say about who I am. Safe, but the most boring thing I've ever written. After reading your article, I re-wrote my PS and even though it might not talk about research and teaching and why IM is so awesome, it really convey why I do what I do. Thank you!


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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