Writing a Medical School Essay
Congratulations. You’re about to embark on one of the most expansive, and expensive, journeys of your life: medical school. Somehow over 20,000 people enroll in medical school every year. This guide offers resources and approaches to help you be one of the 20,000.
Becoming a doctor is a slow, deliberate process. To this end, this guide should be taken as part of a measured, deliberate process of writing your essays. Think about your application as a whole. The admissions officer wants to know:
- Is this person qualified?
- Does this person truly want to become a doctor?
To start this process, you will complete a 5300-character personal comment, along with your MCAT scores, transcripts, and letters or recommendation. For schools that screen primary applications, you will then submit a secondary application. The Interview is the last round.
Undergraduate admissions can be likened to an industrial operation, wherein individuals from all disciplines come together to provide valuable input into a massive process. In contrast, medical school admissions offices are staffed mostly by practicing physicians and med students. Clever, creative gimmicks are unlikely to work. Rather, we must repeat, your essay must convey:
- Basic competence.
- A deep-seated desire to become a doctor.
As such, your essay should have vivid personal descriptions that highlight your motivations to become a doctor.
A Good Story
Our mission is to tell the reader why it’s inevitable that medical school is the next step in your journey. This usually means recounting an event or set of events that created a turning point in how you view the world and want to contribute to it. In admissions terminology, we can call this the “inciting incident” or “cinematic opening.” To write a creative opening, we have a number of tools to use to compel attention:
- Alliteration. “As I stared at the ceiling from my hospital bed, the pitter-patter of the IV drip breaking the silence of the night shift.” This device can help create rhythm within an essay.
- Allusion. “The orderly walked out and said, ‘Well, good luck with this Scrooge.’” The orderly refers to the main character in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to describe the patient, whose attitude the writer subsequently changes.
- Analogy. “I saw how the brain and the conch, two destitute masses of flesh, both required the protection offered by their respective skull and shell.” The author is discussing his experiences researching the brain function and the ecology of conch shells. The two experiences are thus related to one another.
- Conceit. “Although recollection of one’s birth is a biological impossibility, I clearly recall the situation surrounding my second birth into a sterilized hospital room. M.W., a Parkinsonian patient, was about to undergo a neurosurgical procedure to eliminate his involuntary tremor.” The writer degrees his experiences with a Parkinsonian patient as a second birth--a moment that had a fundamental impact on his worldview.
- Parallelism. “I underestimated the importance of a gentle touch. I underestimated the importance of a subtle smile. I underestimated the importance of my humanity.” The writer describes how she realized the magnitude of impact a positive bedside manner has, using “I underestimated” to emphasize the significance of these practices.
What Not to Write
Admissions committee members spout a common refrain when discussing less-compelling applications: “I’m not convinced this person wants to be a doctor.” You must not simply relate an experience that inspired you to pursue this field, you must stop to reflect on why it is you've done the things you’ve done. Example #1:
- “Just like clockwork, every Saturday, we would hear the same dispatch: ‘Ambulance to 92 Oakhurst Lane.’ Every week, we lifted Sue onto the stretcher, and every week, I got to know Sue better. Going to the hospital became an escape from the daily drudgery of her life.”
This is an example of a very specific event that highlights the author’s understanding of medicine. Medical practice is more than just providing a cure. It’s about listening and attempting to understand health issues. Example #2:
- “In high school, I realized that I was most interested in science and math courses. I like being able to find the correct answers to problems and learning about subjects I relate to.”
An example like this is less effective because it is generic. Cliché topics for medical school essays are hard to pinpoint, as by now, most medical school application essays topics have been written already. To make you stand out, you need specificity and reflection.
Two Approaches to Writing
The simplest way to begin an essay is to have a very specific image of something you want to discuss. We call this, as mentioned, the “Inciting Incident” or “Cinematic Opening.” If you have one, you can just “vomit” out your writing, knowing you will later pare back. If you don’t, fallback to your high school lessons on “the outline.” Having an outline will help you get ideas onto a page without requiring you consider how those ideas are going to be articulated later. Whichever method you choose, you then proceed to maintain some critical distance and begin editing your work. At least a day of distance helps. It may be helpful to have a person review your work, but don’t solicit feedback from too many people. Fix obvious mistakes such as “there/their/they’re,” “your/you’re”,” and “affect/effect” errors.
Simple, effective essays use the following format:
- Strong introduction to draw in the reader.
- Description of an event that confirmed a desire to be a doctor.
- Reflection on the event and its influence.
- A strong conclusion that ties everything together.
We discussed the “Cinematic Opening.” But as mentioned earlier in this article, a seeming paradox can make your essay stand out. Recall the earlier “Conceit” about Parkinson’s being a second birth. Make the reader’s day less boring.
Work and Activities Essay
Many people believe that you should write your work and activities essay about your most prestigious accomplishment. In truth, 800 hours of work as a nurse’s assistant demonstrates that you understand the gritty, thankless work of medicine more than, for example, winning a national medal for writing an article on the Constitution. Include specific detail, preferable numeric, and demonstrate your humanitarianism. If the essay prompt specifically concerns your post-undergraduate activities, seize the opportunity to showcase your intangible traits as an aspiring doctor. Non-academic activities questions are an opportunity to demonstrate intangible qualities of your personality.
Unique Identity Essay
A diversity of backgrounds helps to make a richer stock of doctors. To that end, keep in mind that there are many ways to define diversity. Although you can write about some underrepresented background you represent, you can also simply write about specific experiences and events that have made you a unique individual.
Some universities will inquire about your post-graduate plans. Drawing upon past experience, you may inspire to be an administrator, a clinical researcher, a pediatrician, a global health practitioner, and so on. Craft a coherent narrative about your plans that will help the admissions committee to accept a diverse cohort.
Why School Question
Some medical schools will inquire about your motivations to attend their specific program. You can write about the school’s strengths, but your personal experiences should support the rationale that leads you to each specific program. Unless you have a unique and direct connection to a particular school, write about your background and how it applies to the school. If your experiences align with the mission and philosophy of the program, you can establish a case for your candidacy.
Residency, Dental, Veterinarian Applications
As with medical schools, your residency application is reviewed by mostly practicing doctors and current residents. Instead of taking bold creative risks, provide vivid personal descriptions that highlight your motivations to pursue the specific field. You can rely on the “Inciting Event” or “Cinematic Opening” to provide a dramatic opening to your story. Translate your vision of your compelling story into the written word.
With regard to dental and veterinary applications, bear in mind that while undergraduate applications are similar to an industrial process, these schools will gatekeep admissions by using admissions officers who are currently practitioners in their field. Again, avoid application gimmicks and write a sincere and captivating story.
You’ve completed your personal statement and other essays and are ready to submit. But, before you do so, let’s do one last checklist. First, ask yourself:
- Am I conveying my message well enough?
- Have I told the story I need to convey this message?
- Have I been as specific as I can be to make this story as strong as possible?
Consider printing out your essay and editing with a pen or pencil. It will change your view of the essays. Submit your essay to sites such as Grammarly. Look for errors such as repetitive language, lack of transitions, conditional phrasing, and capitalization errors.
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