Medical Education

Is ChatGPT Writing Personal Statements On Residency And Fellowship Applications?

ChatGPT is a free artificial intelligence program that can write letters, reports, and research papers using internet information. Recently, it has generated concern by educators that students can use it to write term papers and do homework assignments. I used ChatGPT to write a personal statement for a pulmonary fellowship application that was indistinguishable from the real thing. Our application process now needs to adapt to this new paradigm.

Residency and fellowship application personal statements

Up to now, applying to residency or fellowship programs involved filling out a standard application form that included information such as board examination scores, medical school grades, research publications, and faculty recommendation letters. A central component of these applications has been the personal statement where the applicant tells why he or she has chosen a particular specialty in which to pursue further training. After reviewing these applications, residency and fellowship program directors then select which applicants to invite for a face-to-face interview. Based on the contents of the application, the personal statement, and the interview, program directors then rank all of the applicants to submit to the National Residency Match Program (NRMP). The NRMP then matches the rank list of applicants with the rank list of the residency or fellowship programs to determine where the applicants will do their residency or fellowship training.

Over the past 35 years, I have read thousands of personal statements when grading applications to our internal medicine residency and our pulmonary/critical care fellowship programs. Occasionally, a personal statement would lower my overall grade if it contained misspellings, contained grammar errors, or was just plain weird. Occasionally, a personal statement would stand out as being particularly emotionally moving or show evidence that an applicant had to overcome particularly difficult personal barriers and this could raise my overall grade of their application. Most of the time, however, I viewed the personal statement fairly neutrally and it had relatively little impact on how high I would grade an application. Honestly, most personal statements all sound about the same.

What is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence chatbot that was launched on the internet on November 30, 2022 as a prototype. By January 2023, it had 100 million users, making it the fastest growing consumer application to date. ChatGPT was developed by the company, OpenAI. This was a home run for OpenAI which is now valued at $29 billion.

This morning, I wanted to find out if ChatGPT can be used to write personal statements for residency and fellowship applications. So, I went to the website of OpenAI and opened a ChatGPT account. It is free and took me less than 30 seconds to start my account. I then asked ChatGPT to write a personal statement. I entered the following information: “I am a resident in internal medicine influenced by my intensive care unit attending, write a personal statement for pulmonary fellowship”. That was all the information I included. ChatGPT did not know anything else about me other than my email address, name, and phone number. It took ChatGPT about 15 seconds to write a personal statement and here is what it came up with:

As an Internal Medicine resident, I have had the opportunity to work in various settings, including the intensive care unit (ICU). During my time in the ICU, I have seen firsthand the impact that pulmonary diseases have on patients and their families. I have also witnessed the pivotal role that pulmonologists play in managing these diseases.

My experience in the ICU has solidified my interest in pursuing a fellowship in pulmonary medicine. I am drawn to the complexity of pulmonary diseases and the challenge of managing them effectively. Pulmonary medicine also appeals to me because it is a rapidly evolving field with new treatments and technologies being developed constantly.

I am particularly interested in the intersection of pulmonary medicine and critical care. Through my work in the ICU, I have seen how important it is for pulmonologists to have a deep understanding of critical care principles in order to provide the best possible care for their patients. I am excited about the prospect of gaining advanced training in both pulmonary medicine and critical care through a fellowship program.

During my residency, I have also had the opportunity to participate in research projects related to pulmonary medicine. These experiences have deepened my appreciation for the importance of research in advancing our understanding of pulmonary diseases and improving patient outcomes. I am eager to continue pursuing research opportunities as part of a pulmonary fellowship program.

Ultimately, I am driven by a desire to improve the lives of patients with pulmonary diseases. I believe that pursuing a fellowship in pulmonary medicine will enable me to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to make a meaningful impact in this field. I am excited about the prospect of joining a community of dedicated professionals who share my passion for improving patient care in pulmonary medicine.

I was pretty amazed… this personal statement was darn good and was easily as good as 75% of the fellowship application personal statements that I have read in the past that were written by actual human beings. There were no misspellings and no grammar errors. The personal statement expressed passion about a career in pulmonary medicine and showed no sign that the applicant possesses some underlying psychopathology. In short, it checked all of the boxes. If I had read this personal statement a year ago, I would have passed the application on as perfectly acceptable.

I’m a baby boomer and I’m not supposed to be very knowledgable about new technology and artificial intelligence. Just think what millennials can do with this. Most 4th year medical students submit their residency applications in September/October so ChatGPT has probably not been used for this year’s residency applications. However, I can almost guarantee that every 3rd year medical student who will be filling out residency applications this summer will at least think about using ChatGPT. The same goes for fellowship applications.

As an attending physician, I have also written hundreds of reference letters and letters of recommendation for students applying to residency and for residents applying to fellowship. These letters take a lot of time to write and it would probably cross my mind to use ChatGPT if I got a request from 20 students for residency recommendation letters tomorrow.

What does this mean for the future?

In just the past 3 months, the value of the personal statement has diminished to the point that it is essentially irrelevant. A personal statement that would have taken me 10 hours to write and re-write as a medical student in 1984 would take me less than a minute to generate using ChatGPT. And the personal statement written by ChatGPT would be every bit as good as anything that I would have written. So, should we eliminate the personal statement from residency and fellowship applications altogether?

I think we should.

Personal statements have always been a bit contrived. Most applicants make multiple revisions and have their personal statements critiqued and edited by friends, family members, and colleagues to the point that they are usually excessively washed, polished, and filtered versions of an applicant’s true motivations for choosing a particular specialty. I believe that most of the information contained in the personal statement can be more effectively evaluated during a live interview. Even a virtual interview done over the internet will have greater value than a ChatGPT-derived personal statement.

The world of medicine just turned on its head

But ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence systems have many more applications than just writing personal statements for residency and fellowship applications. In academic medicine, reference letters, grant applications, research manuscripts, and promotion & tenure dossiers can all be created faster and better using ChatGPT. In clinical medicine, letters to referring physicians, consultant reports, history & physicals, and progress notes can be generated in seconds, thus reducing tedious keyboard entry by clinicians.

As a medical student, I memorized mnemonics for hospital admission orders so that I would never forget about including a patient’s allergies or how frequently vital signs should be performed. How to write comprehensive admission orders was a key part of our medical education. The interns and senior residents evaluated students on the completeness of our hand-written admission orders. When computer electronic order entry was created, the computer automatically generated admission order sets that included all of the components in my mnemonic. This made life easier and better but created a void in the usual medical student education.

As an attending physician, I evaluated the proficiency of the internal medicine interns by their written history and physical examinations… did they include a smoking history? Was there a complete review of systems? Did they list the patient’s medications? When electronic medical records were introduced, the interns no longer had to know how to write an H&P, all then needed was a history and physical exam template in the computer software. At first, I lamented the loss of the time-honored skill of a masterfully written history and physical but then quickly realized that the electronic medical record H&P template was the new reality.

It does not matter what any of us think about ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence writing systems. They are the new reality, whether you like them or not. The personal statement has now gone the way of admission order mnemonics and hand-written history & physicals – shadows of a bygone era in medical education. So, how are we going to assess the motivations and passions of our trainee applicants? I think it just comes down to that most human of all methods… we talk with them.

As an aside, I’ve wondered if ChatGPT will be the beginning of the end of blogging. I suspect that ChatGPT could probably write a post far better and faster than I can. But I write posts for my own gratification and enjoyment. So, rest assured, the words that appear on these pages will always be my own.

February 26, 2023

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital