July 6th, 2012

Panel: How to Develop the Best Fellowship Application — Part I

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Cardiology fellowship applications are due during the next few weeks. We sat down with moderators of our Fellowship Training blog to ask for their advice regarding the application process and how residents can best prepare for it.

We are joined by Dr. James de Lemos, past Cardiology Fellowship Program Director at UT Southwestern, Dr. Andrew Kates, Cardiology Fellowship Program Director at Washington University, St. Louis, and Dr. John Ryan, Cardiology Fellow at University of Chicago.

This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II concerns how having published research affects your competititiveness, whether you should differentiate yourself by stating a career path, and the new timing of the application cycle.

CardioExchange: What do programs look for in personal statements? What is the best way of approaching this aspect of the fellowship application?

de Lemos:  These should be clear, succinct, and focused—please dispense with all BS!  Too often, I read flowery descriptions of why someone wants to be a cardiologist. For us, this is a given — who wouldn’t love cardiology?  Also, statements trying to be clever totally turn me off.  Remember that the statement can hurt you much more than help you.  It should describe your journey, focusing on aspects of your career to date that provide evidence of your future direction.  If you’ve done research, this should be described in more detail, including your role in the project.  You should clearly state a future direction, even if it is still vague in your head.  We are looking for individuals who are organized enough, and plan well enough, to describe a clear path forward for their individual career trajectory.  We all know it may change — even before you start your first day of fellowship!  Finally, two don’ts:

(1) Never, ever go over one page.

(2) Be very careful about your personal stories—all of you have personal reasons for choosing cardiology, but too often the descriptions of these sound corny and self-serving. 

Kates: We are looking to see that applicants can put together coherent thoughts in a clear way.  I tell our residents to avoid waxing poetic or trying to write the next great novel.  I also tell them to avoid the story of pursuing medicine as the wish of dear departed grandmother or other family member.  Talk about your plans.  Talk about what motivates you.  The personal statement is the opportunity also to explain if you had taken a nontraditional pathway to medicine or if you took a year or two off or changed programs.  What’s most important — unless you have a great story to tell, just be concise and be yourself.

Ryan: Whereas your resume is about what you have done, the personal statement is about what you are going to do. Creating a succinct, realistic plan about what you hope to achieve over the next 5-10 years is useful. To do this, I think you should look at junior faculty members who finished their residencies 5-10 years ago and use their achievements as an example of the type of physician you want to be.

CardioExchange: How should applicants decide who should write their letters, and do all the letter writers need to be cardiologists?

de Lemos:  Remember one thing first and foremost.  You are asking for a letter of recommendation — not an evaluation letter.  Your program director or Chair will write the letter comparing you to your peers, but your other letter writers should all say you are a workhorse with a heart of gold and the intellect of Osler.  When you identify possible letter writers, ask them whether they would be willing to write a very strong letter in support of your application — you need to know the answer to this before you get the letter.  If they feel lukewarm about you, thank them for their honesty and ask someone else.  There is nothing worse than faint praise.  Since almost all of the letters exaggerate and inflate the candidate, yours needs to do the same to be competitive.  In my opinion, they should all come from cardiologists and, if possible, from cardiologists with connections or reputations outside your institution.  However, it is better to get a strong letter from someone who is not well known than a lukewarm letter from a national figure.

Kates: Letters should above all be from people who know you well.  While not all letters need to be from cardiologists, the majority should be.  The letter from your PD  tends to be more of an advocacy letter than a letter of recommendation.  Applicants want to get letters from famous names, but in reality a letter from a well-known person who spent a week with you on service says less than a letter from junior faculty who worked with you for two or three months.  If you have done research with someone, get a letter from them – especially if the research was published.

Ryan: I think it is important that the letter writer truly knows you — the personal relationship should shine through, as a form letter can be obvious. Also, you must be confident in the fact that the referee is going to actually write a supportive letter. At times, residents ask the wrong person to write them a letter because he or she is well-known in the field but does not know the applicant well — this comes out easily. If you have done research during residency, then get a letter from the research supervisor who can highlight your skill as a researcher. Still, having a letter from a cardiologist known around the country is important (with the caveat that the cardiologist should know you well). When it comes to interview season, your letter writers will be your greatest asset in making and receiving phone calls supporting your application.


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