Originally posted on September 16, 2013. Staff Review added on October 1, 2014.
More than any other component of the Canadian Residency Matching Service (CaRMS) process, personal letters seem to give medical students trouble. Most people find it hard to define themselves in general, let alone in a 500 word essay written for a critical audience with their career hanging in the balance. However, this reflective exercise is a right-of-passage for Canadian medical students.
I feel like no post on personal letters could be complete without beginning with the most common and true piece of advice: Be Yourself. However, I imagine that many of you, like me, will not find that horribly helpful! Certainly, you shouldn’t present yourself in a dishonest way. However, writing an engaging essay that effectively conveys who you are as a person is easier said than done.
In this post I will outline 7 steps that I think will help get you from a blank screen to an interview winning letter and answer some FAQ’s. I will say in advance that some of the steps include general “writing tips.” I hope this isn’t seen as paternalistic – I included them because my experience has been that writing is an art that takes practice and progress notes do not seem to cut it. While you might have been able to bang out 5 page essays in a single Starbucks powered night back in undergrad, if you have not written much lately it’s likely that some of your skills will be on vacation. With that in mind, be sure to give yourself lots of time to work on these. A well-done personal letter not only gets you interviews, it doubles as prep for them.
As always, this is only one personal opinion on how to go about this. My most important piece of advice is to talk to others that have gone through this process, get their opinions and form your own.
A Personal Letter in 7 Steps
1. Gather the questions
As you will have noted if you’ve spent any time looking at the program descriptions on the CaRMS website, personal letter questions and length vary dramatically from program to program. Start by compiling the requirements for each of the programs that you will be applying for. In my opinion, the most egregious error you can make in a personal letter outside of typos and shoddy grammar is ignoring the guidelines each program gives you. If you ignore the questions or word length limit it will annoy me!
There is nothing more disheartening than sitting down with a caramel macchiato for a personal letter writing session and looking up two hours later to a computer screen as white as the prairies in winter. Until you have something written down you have nothing to work with. So get something written. A stream-of-consciousness, an outline, some lists – whatever works for you.
Eventually, you will formulate into into something resembling a personal statement. Do not try to make it perfect, in fact, I wouldn’t even aim for “good” at this point. Focus on getting all of those ideas that sound so good in your head onto the page. When you finally do, take that advice from your high school English teacher and read it out loud. You will find mistakes!
3. Play the “Why?” Game
Unfortunately, your first attempts to shape your random thoughts into a coherent letter will likely result in something pretty bland. Often the first drafts I see of a personal letter are superficial descriptions of interests and reasons for applying to a particular medical specialty. The “Why?” Game is a way to increase the depth of the thoughts and ideas that you express in your letter.
For example, say you are interested in medical education. You could just say that, but it wouldn’t be very interesting. Ask yourself “why” you are interested in medical education – perhaps you had some awesome EM teachers. Then ask yourself “why” those teachers were awesome – perhaps because they took you under their wing and mentored you. Then ask yourself “why” that was important to you – perhaps you were a middling high school student until your chemistry teacher believed in you. Perhaps that changed your life.
It will probably take more “why’s” than that, but eventually you hopefully you’ll eventually come to the story that made that interest fundamental. Reading your story will make me want to meet you a whole lot more than hearing about what you like. Hopefully repeating this exercise (or a related reflection) with other “likes” will lead you to some of the stories that have defined you.
4. Give yourself a break
When you reach the point where you can not even look at your personal letter it is probably time to take a break. Try not to make it a short one. Ideally, when you get back to your draft enough time will have passed that it is familiar, but kind of feels like you’re reading it for the first time. You will probably think that it is not very good – take the time to make it better.
5. Peer Review
I have yet to see a piece of writing that cannot be approved by a critical review. When you are confident that you have a solid draft written it’s time to phone some friends. Consider including both people that understand what CaRMS is (classmates or junior residents are good targets) as well as close friends or family members that can give you feedback. Both people should be capable of being bluntly honest and commenting on whether or not they think the letter is a good representation of you. Consider a “personal letter” exchange with a trusted classmate. After you get their feedback there will likely be a lot to edit.
6. Mentor Review
This isn’t an article you’re submitting to some random journal, this is CaRMS! And in this case, I don’t think stopping at old fashioned “peer review” is enough. When even your peers think your personal letter is stellar, consider asking a trusted mentor to give it a read. This is a step that a lot of students don’t seem to take (I didn’t), but that I think is insanely valuable. Ideally this mentor has seen CaRMS from the application review side and can provide you with insights that can only come from that experience.
7. Final Review
This is your last shot to proofread your letters before you upload them to the CaRMS site. Read every word out loud. Have a friendly writer help proofread your final draft to perfection. Check and recheck that your paragraph about “why you want to move to Kingston” is in the letter you are sending to Queens. After all of that you can finally upload that stellar letter to CaRMS and wait for the interview invitations to roll in!
FAQs about Personal Letters
That’s not even a question :p
However, it’s true. I’m sure you’ll develop your own system for finishing all your letters, but I think the one I outlined above is a good one for at least the first few. Also, while the letters are different lengths and ask different questions, there is a ton of overlap.
My approach was pretty simple. I thought of each program’s criteria for the letters as the criteria for a different Mr. Potato-Head face. I made my first face to fit with one set of criteria then looked at the other program’s personal letter requirements. If another program asked for a nose similar to the first program I borrowed it to help make the second face. Then I’d make the second face and repeat. Eventually I had so many face pieces that not a lot of work was required for my final faces.
That may not have made any sense, but I am happy to have incorporated Mr. Potato Head into one of my blog posts. I hope I didn’t lose anyone with the obscure analogy…
What makes a personal letter great?
Tough question to answer. It really is a gestalt feeling that I get after reading the letter. My favorites give me a sense of who the person is and make me think that I’d like to hang out with them. They are always written in an engaging way and tend to draw me in with a hook right from the beginning. It’s a pretty intangible quality and my favorites are always dramatically different so I’m not sure I can describe it any better than that.
I feel like my personal letter needs a ‘hook,’ what works?
I think there is a thin line between unexpectedly clever and weird. Things that I find clever can often only be pulled off by the person that writes them. They need to be totally sincere. Do not just say something different to try and make a hook – if you don’t come by it naturally, you should probably leave it out. Quotes from Osler and other eminent physicians are overdone. I tried to offer some examples here, but was not able to. When I think of the best letters that I’ve read and try to summarize them in a couple of sentences they all sound insanely cheesy. However, when written with sincerity by the people that have lived those experiences and felt those emotions, you can’t help but buy in. Try not to obsess over finding the “perfect” hook, most letters do not bring anyone to tears and their writers still match great.
Should humor be used in letters?
As always, it depends. When done well, I think it is awesome. But others may have a different opinion or just think that your jokes aren’t very funny. If the joke fits with the person you are, then go for it. Definitely do not try and force it though. If you’re trying hard to incorporate it, it probably will not work!
The strength part should be fairly self-evident. What are you good at? If you’re not sure, you’ve got some serious thinking to do.
I feel like I have to address the “weakness” part because some of the answers I read annoy me so much. I have no idea why someone keeps telling people to state a weakness that they can easily turn into a strength (ie – I’m a perfectionist, but it means everything I do is nearly flawless). In my opinion, this is the wrong answer because we know what you are trying to do. Worse, it demonstrates a lack of insight (everyone has weaknesses!) and self-correcting behavior. To restate the example in a way that doesn’t make me facepalm, if perfectionism is your problem let me know how it is a problem (ie – you can’t get anything done) and tell me how you prevent it from becoming a problem (ie – I set limits for how long I will let myself spend on tasks). This type of answer demonstrates a heck of a lot more insight into your psyche and demonstrates that you can deal with it.
Personal letters are difficult and require a great deal of time and effort to write well. Fortunately, by putting the time into some serious introspection and reflection now, you will have better letters and less to consider when interview times comes around.
I hope you found this post helpful. Please share it and read my many other posts on CaRMS that you can find in the Mentorship section of the site. If you would like to be notified about future posts, there are multiple ways to follow at the top of the right column.
Reviewing with the Staff (Dr. T. Chan) | Click to Read More
Dr. Teresa Chan (@TChanMD) is the Managing Editor for BoringEM.org (in 2014, when this addendum was added). She has read over 200 personal letters throughout residency and now as an attending physician at McMaster University.
Brent has written a really good summary of really important advice for CaRMS applicants. I would like to pivot now and take you through my method for developing a convincing (and un-Boring) personal letter.
This past summer, I had the privilege of attending the Duarte workshop in Sunnyvale. The Duarte technique emphasizes the way that a really well-constructed story can help you reach your audience. In her TED talk and her book Resonate, Nancy Duarte discusses the use of a oscillating structure to a speech between “what is” and “what could be”… ultimately ending at a point called the “New Bliss” (i.e. the best way it can/should be).
A great CaRMS Personal Letter can borrow inspiration from this structure too. Your letter should impress upon the readers that the point that you’ll be a great fit to X program because of Y issues. But to really drive home this point, the use of the oscillating structure (à la Nancy Duarte) can really augment this. Take the following ‘spark-line’ like structure for a letter. (See Below diagram for an example of a structure.)
And whereas, Nancy Duarte famously instructs presenters to think of themselves as the Yoda to their audience’s Luke Skywalker, I would say that in a CaRMS personal letter it’s basically the reverse. You want to present yourself as an avid, willing, teachable pupil (i.e. a non-whiny version of Luke) to the teachers (i.e. potential Yoda’s) that are reading your letter. Remember… Yoda didn’t want to take Luke on as Jedi apprentice because he didn’t sell himself properly. Don’t be like Luke… Find a way to connect with your Yoda.