Arguably the most important part of the application is your personal statement, included on page four of Form 56. This is your only opportunity to directly address the board and convince them to select you as an Air Force Officer. The rest of the application contains facts: your GPA, your AFOQT scores, your work history and biographical information. The personal statement is a block of text that is you addressing the board, selling yourself and making a case for why you’d make a good officer.
There is no standard format for the personal statement, and no required information. However, it should be a narrative format, not in “bullets” or one-line summaries of accomplishments.
I have seen the personal statements of quite a few selected packages, as well as provided feedback on many applicant’s statements. There are many ways to approach the personal statement, and most importantly it is your personal way of addressing the board and convincing them that you would be a good choice. I am not an expert, so take or leave my advice if you wish. However, there are some things that I believe can make your package stand out above others, which I will list below:
- Use all of the available space. If you were granted a five minute interview in front of the actual board, would you walk out after three minutes and call it good? Hopefully not. Download the actual Form 56 (Requires a free download of viewer software) and use it to type in your personal statement directly, or at least use it to see how much you can type. You’ll likely want to type it in Word or another word processing application so you can use spell check and other features to improve your writing.
Formatting is optional. My own personal preference and how I did it on my application was to include three spaces at the start of each paragraph. Some people simply include a wall of solid text that fills the entire block, others put blank lines between paragraphs. I found inserting a few spaces at the start of a paragraph provided the needed break between thoughts, without wasting space on blank lines to divide the paragraphs.
Sell yourself. A lot of the personal statements I’ve reviewed for people seem afraid to sell themselves to the board. This is your only chance to speak directly to the board and convince them to select you, don’t waste it by rambling about anything other than how great you are. Don’t be cocky, but provide reasons why you are awesome, and more importantly, how the Air Force will be better with you as an officer.
Don’t lecture the board. I’ve seen a lot of people write mini essays about what it means to be a leader or an officer. The board is made up of USAF colonels with 25+ years of military experience, they already know what it means to be a leader and an officer. What they want to know is why you would make a good one. Don’t waste a paragraph of text trying to explain that you know what a leader is. Show them how you are already a leader and how you plan to be an even better leader as an officer. I’ve seen personal statements that are basically a word-jumble of meaningless Air Force buzzwords like core values, warrior ethos, fly, fight, win, air power, and more. It sounded very disingenuous and hollow. The applicant was obviously trying to tell the board what they thought they wanted to hear rather than their own real motivation to join. The package was not selected.
Be specific. If you are enlisted, you already know that the Air Force loves numbers in EPRs and award packages. If you are a civilian, learn it now, the Air Force loves numbers. For example, say you led a project at work. Don’t say “Led successful project at work, customers were happy!”. Say something like “I led a team of 14 people on a new project at work which increased sales by 37%, leading to a profitable year at the company and accolades and a promotion from my boss”. This shows a direct correlation between you being awesome, and the results of you being awesome. If you only say you’re awesome without backing it up in some way, it has less impact.
Much of my feedback on personal statements that people send me is simply asking for more information about things they have already written. If you supervised people, how many did you supervise? If you made sales or raised money for charity, how much money? If you volunteered to pick up trash, how many pounds of trash? If you created a new process that improved efficiency, how much more efficient? It’s ok to estimate, your recruiter or education office representative isn’t going to ask for documentation to back up every single number, but obviously don’t exaggerate and lie about everything either.
Develop a theme for your statement. If possible, tie the opening and ending into a common theme. For instance in my personal statement, I highlighted how the AF and prior leadership had made me feel like the AF is truly a family, after my commander and squadron provided amazing support to me during a time when my child was going through very serious medical problems. I finished up the statement by saying that I felt being selected as an officer would allow me to pay back some of the debt I feel I owe to the Air Force for helping me through that time, and that I also believed I would have more influence to help others that were in my situation if I were selected as an officer. A common theme likely won’t make or break your personal statement, but those colonels are people too, and if you provide an interesting hook at the beginning that ties in nicely with your summary, it’s going to be more interesting to read and more memorable to help you stand out. If your personal statement starts with “I want to be an officer because…” you should probably re-think your opening and try to create a more interesting and personal hook.
Spell Chekc. Go over your statement again and again looking for typos and poor grammar. Send it to your friends and have them critique it. Print it out and read it upside down, which makes you spend more time on each word and can help spotting typos and errors. Read it out loud. Don’t look at it for a day or two and then pick it up again and try to read it as if you were critiquing someone else’s statement. I sent my statement to at least half a dozen people, asking for feedback. I didn’t follow every little tweak someone suggested, but took the best advice from each person which really increased the quality of my statement.
Don’t namedrop. This is more of a personal pet peeve of mine, but I’ve seen a lot people that like to tell the board their whole family history of who served in the military. “I want to serve because my family has a long history of service going back to the Civil War. My father is a retired Chief Master Sergeant, my uncle was a major in the Army Reserves, my grandfather was a lieutenant colonel in World War II.” That information is irrelevant to your application. The military status of your ancestors has no bearing on the type of officer you will be. Use that space to tell more about the awesome things you’ve done and will do rather than what your ancestors have done.
Choose your words carefully. The personal statement is only a couple of paragraphs long, so comb over it and analyze every word. For instance, instead of saying you “chose to become a recruiter”, say that you were “selected to become a recruiter”. It shows that it was a competitive process and you were selected above your peers for X reason. I’m not saying to get out the thesaurus and try to impress the board with big words, but word things in a way that it’s always showing how you are above your peers and great at what you do.
Red Flags of Residency Personal Statements
By Chandler Park, MD
About eight years ago, I volunteered for the residency selection committee for the first time. As a committee member, I received a batch of applications to look over before we sent out interview invitations. My job was to completely look over my batch of 20+ applications and read the personal statements. During my career, I have read hundreds of personal statements.
Being on the program’s side of the residency match process, I learned that many medical students make the same common mistakes. It is very important NOT to make these critical mistakes for your personal statement.
If you are on the fence, you may not get an interview offer. On the other hand, if you do get an interview offer, your first impression could be tainted by any red flags in your personal statement.
Every interviewer will read your personal statement to get a feel for you as a person, so make sure you don’t make these three mistakes.
Programs want residents who are hardworking team players that can fit into the program’s culture. Therefore, it is very important that you don’t convey overconfidence (nor arrogance) in the personal statement.
Every person that has been accepted to medical school is talented, intelligent, and a great test taker. Now is not the time to show this in your personal statement. We can read through your ERAS application for your accomplishments. Do not type your class rank, USMLE scores, or IQ scores in your personal statements. (I have seen this; it happens all the time, and it never works.) Instead, be very humble in your personal statement. Telling a story of an impactful patient that lead to your journey to go into your chosen field is a safe road.
Lastly, ask the astute relatives in your family to read through your personal statements. Ask if the personal statement’s tone is overconfidence, arrogance, or braggadocio. If it is, change it.
Lack of Purpose
Every program that you apply to can categorically reject your letter based on anything in your application. When I was a medical student, I thought high USMLE scores and top medical school class ranks meant one can get an interview at any place in one’s geographical range. NOT TRUE. There are other factors that I will talk about on future blogs that can help.
For now, the key is purpose. You have to demonstrate why you are going into your medical specialty. I was shocked at the number of personal statements that did not articulate why the applicant wanted to go into their medical specialty. One of my favorite residents did not have the highest USMLE score. However, when we interviewed him he had the drive, passion, interpersonal skills, and humility that was also evident in his personal statement. During his training, he was one of our best residents because he had purpose. Plus he was a team player that never complained. He was one of our best residents. He got along with others and went above and beyond the call of duty for his patients and his fellow residents. That is what we are looking for in an applicant.
Where is the drive, passion, or academic curiosity that lead to your choice for your medical specialty? Talk about your medical specialty experience as a third-year medical student and what captured your mind and heart. Your main idea in the personal statement is to talk about “Why I want to go into this medical specialty.”
Also talk about why you want to attend a certain program. Do your research. This is a good place to start. Learn about the programs that you are applying to in your medical specialty before you apply. Are you applying to an academic program or a community program? If you are applying to a community program and discuss your research prowess, you will likely not get an interview because it is not a good “fit” for that program. If you could be happy in either community or research oriented programs, you could consider writing separate personal statements: one for “academic programs” and the other for “community programs.” Send to each specific program based on the program’s fit.
Apologetic Personal Statements
Your personal statements should convey a positive light. Very few applicants have a perfect ERAS application. Everyone has a weakness on their application. There are some things you can’t control, such as the prestige of your undergraduate school and medical school. Other things are much more pertinent, such as missing a year, being dismissed from a 3rd year rotation, or taking time off. These can be addressed in the MSPE letter or a separate email to each program.
The key is to have a positive first impression. Your personal statement is your first impression for each residency program that you are applying to join. Do not use your statements to discuss a negative situation. Rather discuss why you want go into your medical specialty. We are looking for drive and motivation in your personal statement. If you have to discuss a negative situation, however, make sure you address how it impacted you and made you a better person.