Improve Your Personal Statement With These Tips

Dena Gershkovich

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July 6, 2020
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I applied to dietetic internships this year, so you can trust me when I say that I’m personally familiar with the excitement, challenges and emotions that accompany the application process. I completed a double degree in journalism while in college, so I thought that writing my personal statement would be easy. The process, I thought, would go something like this: I’d lock myself in my room for an afternoon, have a cup of coffee or two, and the statement would practically write itself. I was excited by how seamless it all seemed.

While that might have been the Instagram version of how I imagined my writing process to go, the reality involved multiple Starbucks trips, frustrated vents and lots and lots of questioning.

What do I want to say here?
What don’t I want to say here?
Can this story be told in a better way? 
What experiences are important to include?
Does this even make sense?
Is this “good?”

These questions – and so many others! – swirled in my head for weeks. I wish I could say that I was able to shut off these thoughts when I shut down my computer, but I couldn’t. The only similarity between the imagined version of how writing my personal statement would go and the actual version was the amount of coffee involved. 

As you’ve probably concluded by now, the dietetic internship personal statement was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write. I am not exaggerating when I say that I rewrote my personal statement at least four times before submitting the final version.

This isn’t to scare you, but rather to connect with you – I want to let you know that literally everyone struggles with writing about themselves – even published, paid writers who have been blogging for 5+ years! So if you’re feeling lost, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. You are most certainly not the exception if you are unsure how to approach writing your personal statement. I would even venture to say that you are the norm.

Based on my personal experience and my experience with helping others strengthen their writing and resumes, I put together some tips for how to make your personal statement stand out. 

This is not an all-inclusive list by any means, but rather an amalgamation of characteristics that I have observed in good personal statements. Regardless of how you want to characterize this collection of thoughts, it’s definitely a good place to start when it comes to writing your personal statement. So kick back (with your beverage and snack of choice, if desired) and think about how each of the following tips can best be applied to your unique statement.

Tip #1: Hook Your Readers In 

Imagine yourself as the director of your dream dietetic internship program. You’ve just spent long hours in the hospital or clinic with patients, doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, and now you are finally sitting down to review applications. What would you like to read? If this was me, I’d want to laugh, smile or experience another type of emotional connection while reading a personal statement. I’d want to enjoy the reading experience right from the start and have that enjoyment and connection continue throughout the entire reading process.

Many people will tell you that stories and anecdotes are effective ways to capture your readers’ attention. This is certainly true, but it can be helpful to know that other attention-grabbing tactics can work just as well – or perhaps even better – in your statement. Note that whatever you decide to start with should relate to nutrition, as is the case with everything else in your statement. 

Here are some other attention-grabbing strategies that are often used in journalism and can be applied to the personal statement:

  • Start with what is most surprising or most interesting
  • Start with what is most unique about yourself or your experience
  • Start with something unexpected 
  • Start with a relevant quote or phrase
  • Start with a thought-provoking question

Keep in mind that you do not have to answer the DICAS questions in order. In addition to helping your statement flow better, mixing up the order that you answer the questions in can help you begin your statement with the most compelling information, effectively hooking your readers in.

Also, no one said that your statement has to be filled with rainbows and unicorns. At an internship panel that I once attended, one of the directors said that the best personal statements make her cry. If your story is an emotional one, don’t feel the need to sugar coat it. Whatever story you’re telling, be sure it’s a meaningful one. 

Tip #2: Be Clear and Concise

If I was an internship director (hey, I’ll wear this hat for as long as I can), I wouldn’t want to feel like I’m working hard to understand what an applicant means in their statement. Reading a personal statement should feel, to quote Covergirl, easy, breezy and beautiful – almost like reading a novel. The answers to all questions in the prompt should easily glide off of the page, and nothing should be unanswered or confusing. The internship director (or anyone else who reads your statement) should not have to work to decipher the meaning behind your words. 

Characteristics of Good Writing
Good writing is clear, concise, direct and simple. This is not the time to sprinkle in SAT words like Everything But the Bagel seasoning just to make yourself sound smarter. Always use the words that best convey what you are trying to say. Sometimes that will mean using an SAT word, but most of the time everyday language will work best.

Additionally, in your personal statement, every word should be working. In his book “On Writing Well,” expert writer William Zinsser wrote:

“Clutter is the disease of American writing….But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” 

This is one of my favorite quotes when it comes to writing, and it could not be more true when it comes to writing your personal statement, especially given the tight word count. Be smart about how you phrase things because the way you do so matters!

Tip #3: Focus on What Makes You Unique

One of the many secrets to writing a good personal statement is that it should only be able to be written by you. For this reason, it’s extremely important to avoid cliches and to focus on what makes you unique. Internship directors need to know what makes you worthy of acceptance over other applicants, and the answer to this ultimately lies in your differences. Be sure to play those up in your personal statement and in your application. 

Additionally, the stories that are uniquely ours are often the most formative ones and provide great springboards to write off of. If you play up the skills, interests, experiences and talents that make you shine, directors are bound to see your sparkle and realize why you’d be an asset to their program. 

How to Find What Makes You Unique
To figure out what makes you stand out, some questions you can think about include:

  • Do you have skills, interests or additional areas of study that are different from those of the typical dietetics student? 
  • Did you switch careers to become a dietitian? 
  • Did you realize you were interested in nutrition because of something atypical, unexpected or different? 
  • What can you bring to the (actual and metaphorical) table that no one else can?
  • Do you approach nutrition in an unconventional way? 

It may take you a few days to think of what makes you truly different when it comes to nutrition, and that’s okay! This information will become clear eventually. Talking to family, friends and professors may help give you direction.

Tip #4: Sell Yourself

After you’ve included what makes you unique, it’s time to take things to the next level by marketing yourself. Though it’s important to mention why you want to attend the programs you’re applying to, I would argue that it’s more important to hone in on why they should want you. 

A question that you must answer in your statement is this: What do you have to offer that is different from the other applicants?

How To Market Yourself
An average personal statement will highlight your strengths and experiences, but a great personal statement will take things further by explaining how those unique experiences/traits will make you a strong intern. A great personal statement will also emphasize that you are a great candidate for the specific program(s) you are applying to because your unique traits align with the program’s specific goals. You need to explicitly tell the directors why what you have to offer is of value to them and why that contribution is unique

For example, much of my personal statement discussed how my journalism background has helped me navigate past nutrition-related experiences and will help make me a stronger dietetic intern. I know that this is part of what makes me stand out from other dietetics students, which is why I chose to play it up so much in my statement.

Tip #5: Specificity is Everything

Continuing with my journalism example, in my statement, I didn’t just say that being a journalist makes me different; I made sure to specify why exactly a journalistic skill set is relevant to the dietetics field and to the internship. 

I discussed how being a journalist has sharpened my time-management skills, efficiency and organization, which are useful skills for nutrition professionals. I also wrote about how journalism has improved my interpersonal skills, taught me how to question patients in a sensitive manner to uncover relevant information not on their medical records and explain complex, medical information in layman’s terms. 

I chose to highlight these qualities because I truly believe that they are unique to me and will help me succeed in the internship and beyond.

When writing your personal statement, no matter what you are discussing, try to be as specific as possible throughout so that it’s easy for those reading your statement to make those important connections. 

How To Discuss the Program
When discussing the program in your statement, be sure to address the following questions:

  • What about the program is drawing you in specifically?
    You should mention specific rotations and/or experiences that excite you. Don’t just say that you like medical nutrition therapy and are therefore drawn to apply – so many programs have that focus! Look at the programs’ respective websites, go to open houses, speak to directors and/or current and past interns so that you can mention very specific details about the program(s) in your personal statement.

    Since every program has a different focus and schedule, it is critical to modify your personal statement for each program you are applying to.
  • Why can’t your personal and/or professional goals be met in another internship? Be sure that you are including what is unique about the program that will help you reach your unique goals.
  • What is different about the program that you like? Don’t just say that the program is great or prestigious – they know that already!

If you are having a hard time answering these questions, it might be worth checking in with yourself and seeing if the program(s) on your list are truly right for you.

How To Discuss Yourself
When discussing your strengths, be sure to employ the “show don’t tell” principle. This means that instead of merely writing that you are a certain way, you should provide examples to illustrate how you are that way.

For example, instead of writing, “I am a very creative person,” you can provide an example that shows your creativity in action, such as: 

“When I was helping a dietitian run a nutrition summer camp, I had two hours to come up with a healthy recipe that didn’t require an oven and would keep 35 fourth graders occupied for an hour. I decided to teach them how to make a whole wheat pasta salad with chopped vegetables, herbs and a homemade dressing, and the kids loved it!”

In addition to showing off your creativity, an example like this one highlights your resourcefulness and ability to think on the spot. It is also a more colorful and exciting way of telling those on the application committee about yourself. Based on your descriptions and example, readers will organically come to the conclusion that you are creative rather than you having to spell it out for them.

Tip #6: A Note on Grammar, Spelling, Formatting and Structure

It goes without say that your spelling and grammar should be impeccable. Improper spelling and/or grammar looks extremely unprofessional and can negatively impact your chance of landing an internship. If you are unsure of your grammar’s accuracy, give your statement to a trusted source for review.

In terms of formatting, remember that new ideas belong in new paragraphs. It’s okay if not all of your paragraphs are the same length. If you have a paragraph that’s on the shorter side (such as your concluding paragraph), it’s totally fine!

Tip #7: Chill With The Editing

You’ve likely been told that you should give your personal statement to as many people as possible to review, but I’m going to argue against this and encourage you not to overdo it with the editing. 

But Why?
The reason for this is that while it’s a good idea to have a few pairs of eyes review your statement, going beyond that can lead to anxiety and confusion, since the various sources of feedback will likely conflict with each other – not to mention with your own opinions and instincts. Remember that suggestions from friends, family and writing coaches should help you feel better about your writing. If they aren’t, it’s totally okay not to implement them. This is part of the reason why I make my edits/comments for my clients’ personal statements in “suggestion mode” on Google docs, since the “reject” button is so easily accessible.

So much of writing is about preference. I didn’t implement a lot of the feedback that I got on my personal statement, and I still got into my top choice dietetic internship. Your right to make the final call cannot be overstated. Your personal statement is your story, and the way it’s told is up to you. 

Some Words of Comfort
I understand that hearing all of this information can be a lot to digest (yes, even for those who know all about the digestive system). Just know that so many successful dietitians have experienced the same roller coaster of emotions you’re probably feeling right now during the internship application process. 

If you’ve made it to the point of applying to internships, I want to personally congratulate you because that in itself is a huge accomplishment! If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that you’ve made it here for a reason – now it’s your chance to tell the directors why. Look at the personal statement as an opportunity to showcase your “why”– I know that there’s a good story behind it that only you can write!

Dena Gershkovich

Dena Gershkovich

Dena Gershkovich holds a BS in Dietetics and a BA in Journalism from the University of Maryland. She will be completing her dietetic internship at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan starting in September 2020. To see more of Dena’s work, follow her blog, The Artsy Palate, and Instagram account (@theartsypalate). If you have questions or would like Dena’s help with your personal statement or resume, email theartsypalate@gmail.com.