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By our guest writers EssayEdge. The Harvard educated admissions essay editors.

Please click here for the full list of essay help pages

Lesson One: Medical School Essay Question Help

Please select from the following common medical school topics:

Note: The below essays were not edited by EssayEdge Editors. They appear as they were initially reviewed by admissions officers.

Theme 1: Why I Want to Be a Doctor

Many people look back in time to find the moment of their initial inspiration. Some people have wanted to be a doctor so long they do not even know what originally inspired them. To incorporate this theme, look back to the material you gathered in the last chapter, specifically in response to “The Chronological Method,” “Note Major Influences,” and “Identify Your Goals.” Ask yourself these questions: How old was I when I first wanted to become a doctor? Was there a defining moment? Was there ever any ambivalence? Was I inspired by a specific person? What kind of doctor do I want to be and how does that tie into my motivation?

Here are a few of the common ways that students incorporate this theme:

“I’ve Always Wanted to Be a Doctor”

AKA: “I’ve Wanted to Be a Doctor Since I Was…” and “Everyone Has Always Said I’d Be a Doctor”

This is perhaps the most common approach of all. The secret to doing it well is to show, not just tell, why you want to be a doctor. You cannot just say it and expect it to stand on its own. Take the advice of one admissions officer:

“The “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor” essay has been done to death. I think candidates need to be careful to show that their decision was not only a pre-adolescent one and has been tested over the years and approached in a mature manner.”

Supply believable details from your life to make your desire real to the reader. One secret to avoiding the “here we go again” reaction is to be particularly careful with your first line. Starting with “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since…” makes the reader cringe. It’s an easy line to fall back on, but admissions officers have read this sentence more times than they care to count; don’t add to the statistic.

“My Parents are Doctors”

This approach to the “why I want to be a doctor” theme is dangerous for a different reason. Says one officer:

“It’s a prejudice of mine, but the legacy essay, the one that reads, “My dad and my grandpa and my great-grandpa were all doctors so I should be too,” makes me suspect immaturity. I envision young people who can’t think for themselves or make up their own minds.”

This is not the opinion of every officer, though. The point is not to avoid admitting that your parent is an M.D., it is to avoid depending on that as the sole reason for you wanting to go to medical school. If a parent truly was your inspiration, then describe exactly why you were inspired.

“My Doctor Changed My Life!”

AKA: “Being a Patient Made Me Want to Become a Doctor”

Some people claim to be motivated to become doctors because they have had personal experience of illness or disability. Notes an admissions officer:

“I had a student who grew up with a chronic illness. She spent much time with physicians and other health care providers throughout her young life. In her essay she wrote about this continuing experience and how the medical professionals treated her. She wrote of her admiration of them as well as her understanding that they couldn’t yet cure her. Her essay literally jumped off the page as being unique to her and a compelling understanding of and testament to her desire to join the people who had been so important to her life.”

If your personal experience with the medical profession sincerely is your motivation for attending medical school, then do write about it. The problem is that many students fall back on this topic even when it does not particularly hold true for them. We cannot stress enough that you do not have to have a life-defining ability or a dramatic experience to have an exciting statement. Admissions committees receive piles of accident- and illness-related essays and the ones that seem insincere stick out like sore thumbs (pun intended!) and do not reflect well on you as a candidate. Says another officer:

“My orthodontist changed my life!” “My dentist gave me my smile back!” These types of themes are certainly valid, but go beyond that to what particular aspect of the profession intrigues you. Do you understand how many years of study your orthodontist had to have in order to reach his level of practice? Have you observed your dentist for any significant amount of time? Do you know that the profession now is much different than it was when he or she was starting out? Have you given any thought to the danger of infectious diseases to all health-care professionals? Present a well-organized, complete essay dealing with these points.”

You may just want to mention your own experience only briefly toward the end of the essay. Use it as a confirmation of your decision to be a doctor (instead of as his primary motivation) and demonstrate that because of the experience you will become a better doctor. Try not to dwell on the experience and provide plenty of further evidence of your sincere motivation.

“My Mom Had Cancer”

This theme is really just a variation of “I was a patient myself” and the same advice applies: If a loved one’s battle with illness, trauma, or disability is truly what inspired your wish to become a doctor, then by all means mention it. But don’t dwell on it, don’t overdramatize, and don’t let it stand as your sole motivation-show that you’ve done your research and you understand the life of a doctor and you chose it for a variety of reasons.

The Hard-Luck Tale

Some truly outstanding essays are about strong emotional experiences such as a childhood struggle with disease or the death of a loved one. Some of these are done so effectively that they are held up as role models for all essays. Says one officer:

“I had a student who was considered a weak candidate because of poor grades and low test scores. She was African-American and although she had pursued all the right avenues (classes, MCAT, volunteer experiences) to prepare herself for medical school, she remained undistinguished as a candidate- until, that is, she wrote her essay. The essay revealed her tremendous and sincere drive. She was from a crime-riddled area of New York City and several of her siblings had been violently killed. She wrote about her experience and her desire to practice medicine in the city and improve the neighborhood where she was raised. It was compelling, believable, and truly inspiring.”

While it is true that these poignant tales can provide very strong evidence of motivation for medical school, they are difficult to do well and need to be handled with extreme care and sensitivity. And, as we have said before, do not rely on the tale itself to carry you through; you always need to clearly show your motivation. Notes another admissions officer:

“This is going to sound harsh, but I don’t like the tales of woe such as the ones that begin with the mother’s death from cancer. Frankly, I feel manipulated and I don’t think that the personal statement is the proper mode of expression for that kind of emotion.”

The Medical Dichotomy

One of the major draws of the medical field is its dualistic nature combining hard-core science with the softer side of helping people. This is described by people in many ways; some describe it as a dichotomy of science to art; to others it is intellectualism to humanism, theory to application, research to creativity, or qualitative to social skills. No matter how you choose to phrase it, if you mention the dichotomy, then be sure to touch on your qualifications and experience in both areas.

Theme 2: Why I Am an Exceptional Person

This theme is often tied in closely with “why I am a qualified person.” Be very clear on the difference, though; the latter focuses specifically on your experience (medical or otherwise) that qualifies you to be a better medical student, while the former focuses strictly on you as a person. Committees are always on the lookout for well-rounded candidates. They want to see that you are interesting, involved, and tied to the community around you.

To help you think about how to support this theme, look at your answers to the exercises from the last chapter and ask yourself: What makes me different? Do I have any special talents or abilities that might make me more interesting? How will my skills and personality traits add diversity to the class? What makes me stand out from the crowd? How will this help me to be a better physician and student?

If you are creative, you’ll be able to take whatever makes you different-even a flaw-and turn it to your advantage.

“One student wrote about her experience as a childhood “klutz” and how her many accidents kept her continually seeking medical care. The care she received was the impetus to her desire to become a doctor and made her essay entertaining, sincere, and eminently credible.”

Note that the candidate in this example tied her experience to her desire to become a doctor. It is imperative that this be done with practically every point you make in your essay.

The Talented Among Us

If you are one of a lucky few who have an outstanding talent or ability, now is no time to hide it. Whether you are a star athlete, an opera singer, or a violin virtuoso, by all means make it a focus of your essay.

“These people can be some of the strongest of candidates. Assuming, always, that they’ve excelled in the required preparatory coursework, the other strengths can take them over the top. Athletes, musicians, and others can make the compelling case of excellence, achievement, discipline, mastering a subject/talent and leveraging their abilities. Medical schools are full of these types; they thrive by bringing high achievers who possess intellectual ability into their realm.”

If you do plan to focus on a strength outside the field of medicine, your challenge becomes one of how to tie the experience of that ability into your motivation for becoming a doctor.

Students of Diversity

If you are diverse in any sense of the word-an older applicant, a minority, a foreign applicant, or disabled-use it to your advantage by showing what your unique background will bring to the school and to the practice of medicine. Some admissions officers, however, warn against using minority status as a qualification instead of a quality. If you fall into this trap, your diversity will work against you.

“If you are a “student of diversity,” then of course, use it. But don’t harp on it for it’s own sake or think that being diverse by itself is enough to get you in; that will only make us feel manipulated and it will show that you didn’t know how to take advantage of a good opportunity.”

So just be sure you tie it in with either your motivation or your argument for why your diversity makes you a better candidate.

Latecomers and Career Switchers

You need not be a member of a minority, a foreign applicant, disabled, or an athlete or musician to be considered diverse. There are, for example, those who have had experience in or prepared themselves for totally different fields. If you fall into these categories, give succinct reasons for wanting to go into medicine and show evidence of sincere and intensive preparation for your new chosen field.

English Majors and Theater People

Not everyone who is accepted to medical school has a hard-core science background. If you’re one of these applicants, you must turn your potential weaknesses into strengths. Point out that communication is an integral part of being a doctor, and discuss the advantages of your well-rounded backgrounds. Be very careful to demonstrate your motivation and qualifications in detail and with solid evidence to offset worries that your non-science backgrounds may have given you an unrealistic view of a doctor’s life or that you might be unable to cope with the science courses at medical school.

Can I Be Too Well Rounded?

Some people have talents, abilities, or experience in so many different areas that they risk coming across as unfocused or undedicated. When handled deftly, though, your many sides can be brought together, and what could have hurt you becomes instead your greatest vehicle for setting you apart from the crowd.

Taking Advantage of International Experience

Many applicants have international experience. So, while it may not set you apart in a completely unique way, it is always worthwhile to demonstrate your cross-cultural experience and sensitivity. To be successful, you must go beyond simply writing about your experiences to relating them either to your motivation or qualifications. Don't expect the committee to make these leaps for you; you need to put it in your own words and make the connections clear.

Religion

Some admissions counselors advise against the mention of religion altogether. Others say that it can be used to applicants’ advantage by setting them apart and by stressing values and commitment. This is a sensitive subject area and is best left to individual choice.

Theme 3: Why I Am a Qualified Person

The last major theme deals with your experience and qualifications both for attending medical school and for becoming a good doctor. Having direct hospital or research experience is always the best evidence you can give. If you have none, then consider what other experience you have that is related. Have you been a volunteer? Have you tutored English as a Second Language? Were you a teaching assistant? The rule to follow here is: If you have done it, use it.

Hospital/Clinical Experience

Direct experience with patients is probably the best kind to have in your essay. But the important thing to remember here is that any type or amount of experience you have had should be mentioned, no matter how insignificant you feel it is.

Research Experience

A word of caution: Don't focus solely on your research topic; your essay will become impersonal at best and positively dull at worst. Watch out for overuse of what non-science types refer to as “medical garble.” If it is necessary for the description of your project, then, of course, you have no choice. But including medical terms in your essay just because you are able to will not impress anyone.

Unusual Medical Experience

Even if you have not volunteered X number of hours a week at a clinic or spent a term on a research project, you might still have medical experience that counts: the time you cared for your sick grandmother or the day you saved the man at the next table from choking in a restaurant. It does not even matter if you were unsuccessful (maybe, despite all your valiant efforts, the man at the next table did not survive), if it was meaningful to you then it is relevant; in fact, these failed efforts might be even more compelling.

Nonmedical Experience

Your experience does not even have to be medically related to be relevant. Many successful applicants cite non-medical volunteer experience as evidence of their willingness to help and heal the human race.

For tips on answering general application questions, click here.

Move on to Lesson Two: Brainstorming a Topic

From Essays that will get you into College, by Amy Burnham, Daniel Kaufman, and Chris Dowhan. Copyright 1998 by Dan Kaufman.  Reprinted by arrangement with Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

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