I walked through the doors of [name of free clinic / institute in a developing country / hospital in a bad section of town] with [appropriately humble emotion]. I was faced with [appalling scene of human hardship / touching scene of expected death / inspiring scene of personal courage]. I knew then that I wanted to [help others / make a difference].
When I was [age between 10 and 20], my [rather distant relative] fell ill with [not especially concerning illness]. Watching [him / her] suffer made me realize the impact of illness on others.
During my medical school career, I have volunteered at [a free clinic / a highschool to talk about contraception / an elementary school to tutor youth]. This has taught me the vital importance of [giving of oneself / feeling grateful for my position in life].
I will never forget the face of my first patient to [call me "doctor" / ask me to hold their hand / die]. I hope I will always remember the important lesson this taught me about [trust / empathy / death].
Ten years from now, I see myself as a practicing physician who is also involved in research in some way and who teaches students and residents, but I will never forget the feeling I had that first day I walked through the doors of [name of free clinic / institute in a developing country / hospital in a bad section of town] and really [felt like a doctor / understood what it means to be human].
Afterward they all send the same thank-you note, as they were instructed to do by their medical school. So how can I be expected to keep them straight? How I wish they would leave their hair long, wear a purple suit or a nose ring, talk about politics or a broken heart or religion or the kids they hope to have. I know it's scary for them -- for the ones with so-so academic records, anyway -- but it makes me sad to see them so conformed.
I know there are some medical students reading this. When you go on your interviews, give me a break. Wear green -- or at least gray or brown. Ask, "What do you love about your job? What do you love about your life?" And if the above is your personal statement, throw it away and start over. It's not so hard -- just talk. Tell me what makes you you.
ADDENDUM: jgt asked,
My husband is making the interview rounds right now. They're told over and over that the majority of attendings are conservative folk and that anything that makes you stick out is more likely to tip the scales against you than for you.
Do you think you're less conservative than the average attending?
It depends on the specialty. In most surgical specialties (General, Plastics, Ortho, Urology, Ophtho), yes, they're relatively conservative, for doctors anyway. (In my unscientific investigations, doctors in general are more socially liberal than those in other professions, but surgeons tend to vote Republican whereas the non-surgical types are more often Democrats.) Peds, Family Practice, EM, and Internal Medicine are all fairly liberal groups, and Psychiatry is waaay out there groovy. (I'm not sure about Neurology and Dermatology; OB/Gyn is a mixed bag.)
Am I less conservative than average? Oh yeah -- I'm pretty much a lefty -- but a majority of my colleagues do agree with me on issues like abortion, the war, same-sex marriage, universal healthcare.
I certainly wouldn't advise anyone to try to be deliberately wacky to try to stand out from the crowd -- that's sure to backfire -- but hiding what's interesting about you seems like a bad idea too. What I'd do if I were on the interview trail today is try to get the interviewer talking first -- ask about a picture on their wall, maybe -- and get a sense of what they're like. If you have anything in common, start talking about that, and everything is easy after that. I love talking cats, kids, running, travel, photography, art, politics ... it's easy to get me going on any of it, and I'm not a very schmoozy person. Other colleagues would love to talk about cooking, sailing, biking, gardening, dogs, oh, I don't know. But if you don't start talking about something like that, you'll end up talking about how your worst quality is "my perfectionism!" and getting asked dumb questions like, "if you had to be the only doctor on a desert island, what two texts would you bring?"
The folks I remember clearly from last season were: the professional guitarist, the guy who drove ATVs during his every free moment, the guy from Ireland, the woman who had a baby the same age as mine (and was worried about even mentioning it in interviews), the guy whose parents immigrated to the U.S. and picked crops to get him through college, the almost certainly gay guy who directed an a capella choir with a cute name, the nine-months-pregnant woman, the professional surfer, the woman in a short skirt and spike-heeled boots ... if there'd been a juggler, I'd certainly have remembered him. And at the rank meeting months later, it wasn't hard to call these people to mind, unlike the rest of the plodding masses.