Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Around this time every year, thousands of students, young and middle-aged, throughout the country are considering applying to medical school for admission to the fall class that will matriculate in two years. If they are fortunate enough to attend a college or post-baccalaureate program with a dedicated professional school admissions advisor, such as I did, then they are likely attending meetings on a regular basis to ensure that the important milestones in the process of selecting schools and filling out the AMCAS application are on track. Preparedness at this early stage means two things: planning to take the MCAT in the spring, and writing the first drafts of the admissions essay that will serve as cornerstone of the medical school application.

Preparing for the MCAT is mostly self-explanatory. A certain amount of science must be reviewed and, if necessary, relearned. Achieving the MCAT score that will yield the best chances of admission requires dogged persistence and rote study of the material, no more, no less. Writing a good AMCAS essay, however, is a different story, or more aptly, a consistently evolving narrative. Two years ago, when I was at this particular juncture in my medical career, I found the writing of the essay to be the most difficult task of the whole application process. Medical school applicants are a diverse bunch who find common ground in medicine. Many of us major in biology, but others take less traditional routes--English literature, history, philosophy, dance. The overwhelming majority have experience in some aspect of the medical field, ranging from biomedical research, to relief work in third world countries, to volunteer work caring for the elderly and infirm in nursing homes. And these qualifications are by no means mutually exclusive; the most visible applicants are those who defy easy categorization. A tuba-playing, HIV-researching, comparative literature and biology-majoring student who finds the apotheosis of human existence in the octogenarian whose endless font of stories she taps every Thursday afternoon when she volunteers at her local nursing home represents a typical combination of extracurricular and personal qualities seen in a medical school applicant.

Which is what makes the writing of the application essay such a taxing proposition. The golden nuggets of truth derived from years of academic and personal growth and achievement must be summarized in the cramped space of a meager 5000 or so characters. But, more essentially, these nuggets must convince their intended audience that the applicant's motivation to become a doctor grew out of a fundamental curiosity regarding the functioning of the human species within its set environment, which is really what health boils down to at its core. Which begs a single question: what leads a person down the path to becoming a doctor?

In conversations with my fellow first year classmates, I've found, unsurprisingly, that our motivations are as diverse as our backgrounds. Some are engineers who see the human body as the most intricate of machines, others find themselves enamored of the complex science that underlies the most elemental physical functions. Still more choose to enter medicine not for its scientific offerings, but for the opportunity to be part of the solution to one of the greatest humanitarian issues of our time--the unconscionable disparity that exists in our contemporary healthcare system. Personally, I have chosen to become a doctor for one primary reason--the opportunity to witness the life and health narratives of my patients.

But that certainly was not the only reason I applied to medical school, which further complicated the essay writing process. If some of my readers here are currently working on their essays and looking for some useful tips, I have one that proved very useful as I fought through numerous drafts on my way to a successful final copy. However you have arrived at your current desire to become a doctor, demonstrate how that process is one component of a consistent evolution. It might be an obvious point, but I'll say it anyway. Expect medical school to change the way you look at the world and interpret the interactions with those who surround you. Roughly six years from now, when you walk across the stage at graduation, you will be seeing the world through an entirely new set of eyes, hopefully one that allows you to better understand your fellow humans--anatomically and physiologically, yes, but also economically, socially, humanly. Let your essay show that you adequately prepared for this evolution, and understand what it entails. The medical profession requires constant adaptation and reinvention. Be prepared.

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