Quotes by members of our panel of admissions officers are in italics.
Because people don't make career decisions based on pure reason, it can be difficult to explain why you've chosen the field you have. Moreover, your basic reasons probably look a lot like everyone else's. In this section, you'll learn how to develop your ideas effectively and insightfully while emphasizing your uniqueness.
Because medicine requires such a serious commitment, few people stumble across the idea of pursuing it late in life. It's very likely that you have always wanted to be a doctor, and that's not a fact that you should hide. But you also have to watch out for two potential problems:
- Don't offer your point in such a clichéd, prepackaged way as to make your reader cringe. For example, you shouldn't start your essay, "I have always wanted to be a doctor" or "I've always known that medicine was my calling." Better to describe early experiences and then let the point about your early interest unfold naturally.
- Don't rely solely on this reason and forget to justify your choice with more recent experiences.
Tell us not only why you want to be a doctor but what you have done to test your decision. Have you had some experience? Have you observed doctors?—University of Michigan Medical School
This applicant does state his lifelong interest in the first sentence, but with a twist: "Sometimes I like to tell people that my father knew I wanted to be a doctor long before I did, but the truth is that the idea of becoming a physician has probably been gestating within me in some form or other since an early age."
By the third sentence, however, he moves to details, recalling one significant scene. Telling a story is the best way to guarantee that your discussion stays grounded in concrete evidence. The second paragraph provides the "test" aspect: how he confirmed his interest in medicine through direct, hands-on experience. In this paragraph he does not tell another story, but still stays focused on details by describing some of his responsibilities and naming procedures he observed.
Although your own details might make the difference between a good and great essay, you can ensure a solid result simply by avoiding the above pitfalls as this applicant did. On the first issue, he uses a specific story to make a typical idea his own personal point. On the second issue, he uses his childhood fascination only to describe the roots of what will grow into a more mature commitment. The result is a compelling explanation of his motivation to become a doctor.
If It Runs in the Family...
Some applicants will cite their parents as reasons for their choice. Here again you have to be careful not to sound juvenile or over-simplistic. The mere fact that one or both of your parents were doctors does not explain why you would want to follow in their footsteps. Some readers might even conclude that you haven't been able to make up your own mind. Note how the same essay above includes the following disclaimer: "I idolize my father and admire his commitment and contributions, but this alone would not be enough to make me want to become a doctor myself."
The Patient's Perspective
This is also a standard theme, but potentially a very powerful one. Describing the direct impact a doctor had on your life or the life of someone close to you can be a very effective way to demonstrate what draws you to medicine.
Perhaps someone close to the applicant was very ill once or died, and the experience with that person or with his or her doctors became very significant. After having read many statements, I believe these are the sorts of experiences that make people aware of what they themselves could do in medicine. These experiences can be very powerful material for the statement.—School of Medicine, University of Washington
The same caveats apply, however. First, the fact that admissions officers have seen this approach many times means you have to find a unique, personal story to tell. Second, the story you recount should serve only as the original inspiration, and you still need to use recent experiences to show how you've confirmed that first recognition.
This applicant recalls the impression that doctors who treated his mother left on him. He provides useful details such as the illness that afflicted her and the specific qualities that impressed him most. Although there is enough substance in his first paragraph to make a strong point, you may want to use even more details in your own essay. For example, you could describe a specific episode and the actions that your doctor took in treating your illness or easing your concerns.
Notice again that the second paragraph shifts to the trial stage, emphasizing action rather than dwelling on passive response: "I also had the chance to gain some firsthand experience in the medical profession when I volunteered for over a year in the emergency room of a regional hospital." You won't necessarily have to follow the exact structure of going from inspiration to action, nor does your inspiration have to come from a dramatic experience, but the relevant details will be present in every good essay.
When Medicine Fails...
A twist on the "patient's perspective" approach is to describe a time when medicine failed to save or heal someone close to you. The purpose of this tactic would not of course be to rail against the medical profession, but rather to show how a disappointing loss inspired you to join the struggle against disease and sickness.
This applicant describes the limits of the field he plans to pursue: "However, in time physical therapy became the logical focus of my attention for a number of reasons. For one, I have memories from a very young age of my grandfather in Czechoslovakia, disabled by a stroke, his problems unmitigated by any attempts at physical therapy. I will never forget the devastating consequences of this." He goes on to describe ways in which both he and his grandmother benefited from physical therapy, but by mentioning a failed recovery, he shows that he understands the scope of medicine at a mature level.
This applicant describes problems with the health care system that did not affect him directly, but that he observed while working in a hospital. The important point is that he plans to be part of the solution: "As a doctor, I hope to participate in these changes in order to benefit more people than are currently being served."
If there's one thing that all medical school applicants can agree on, it's that they all want to help others. So as always, you need to show rather than tell us about your commitment.
Community service is very important in our process because this is a profession devoted to serving others.— Stanford University School of Medicine
The next section of the course, Why You're Qualified, will deal with the skills and qualities that will help you serve people. Here we are concerned with why you want to help, and why through medicine.
This applicant describes his experience caring closely for his mother and concludes: "After it was all over and I was back on my feet, I decided I wanted to put myself back in a situation in which I could help others who were ill."
Similarly, this applicant recognizes that the act of caring for his alcoholic and abused mother heightened his "sensitivity to other people and the difficulties with which they sometimes must cope."
Both applicants give detailed accounts of prior roles helping others and then make strong connections to their current goals. Although both of these essays deal with caring for relatives, there are many other angles you could take. The point is to show yourself in the active position of improving someone's life and realizing that you wanted to devote your career to that purpose. If you want to use service unrelated to medicine as a reason, then you have to make a clear transition that explains why you've chosen that field as your outlet for helping others.
A Passion for Science
A passion for science is usually not the main force behind someone's decision to pursue medicine, but rather something that complements his or her desire to help others. If science were your sole calling, then you would most likely pursue a PhD. That said, showing a strong commitment to science can enhance your candidacy, especially if you have demonstrated an interest in research.
The challenge is how to show passion rather than simply tell the reader about it. This applicant devotes an entire paragraph to his enthusiasm for biology and the premed curriculum. He does a good job of emphasizing the qualities that appeal to him - problem solving, competition, the broad scope of issues - but still is essentially telling and not showing us anything.
A point that has come up before and will come up in the next section is the importance of action: the most effective way to demonstrate qualities is to show yourself in an active role. Saying that you found material fascinating is presenting your passive response to it. On the other hand, you could describe a time when you did outside reading on a topic that intrigued you, or an opportunity you earned to become a professor's research assistant based on the enthusiasm you showed. Active details are of course helpful to have in every point you make, but they come more naturally when describing a volunteer or work experience. Here you have to make a special point to ensure that you demonstrate a passion for science through your active engagement with it.
The other alternative, though less effective, is to convey enthusiasm through spirited language. What matters more is your ability to write than the content you choose. You might, for example, ask insightful, probing questions about your chosen area, or you could simply describe an issue or discovery in vivid detail. Again, you should attempt this approach only if you know you are a strong writer.
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Sample Medical School Essays
This section contains two sample medical school essays
- Medical School Sample Essay One
- Medical School Sample Essay Two
Medical School Essay One
Prompt: What makes you an excellent candidate for medical school? Why do you want to become a physician?
When I was twelve years old, a drunk driver hit the car my mother was driving while I was in the backseat. I have very few memories of the accident, but I do faintly recall a serious but calming face as I was gently lifted out of the car. The paramedic held my hand as we traveled to the hospital. I was in the hospital for several weeks and that same paramedic came to visit me almost every day. During my stay, I also got to know the various doctors and nurses in the hospital on a personal level. I remember feeling anxiety about my condition, but not sadness or even fear. It seemed to me that those around me, particularly my family, were more fearful of what might happen to me than I was. I don’t believe it was innocence or ignorance, but rather a trust in the abilities of my doctors. It was as if my doctors and I had a silent bond. Now that I’m older I fear death and sickness in a more intense way than I remember experiencing it as a child. My experience as a child sparked a keen interest in how we approach pediatric care, especially as it relates to our psychological and emotional support of children facing serious medical conditions. It was here that I experienced first-hand the power and compassion of medicine, not only in healing but also in bringing unlikely individuals together, such as adults and children, in uncommon yet profound ways. And it was here that I began to take seriously the possibility of becoming a pediatric surgeon.
My interest was sparked even more when, as an undergraduate, I was asked to assist in a study one of my professors was conducting on how children experience and process fear and the prospect of death. This professor was not in the medical field; rather, her background is in cultural anthropology. I was very honored to be part of this project at such an early stage of my career. During the study, we discovered that children face death in extremely different ways than adults do. We found that children facing fatal illnesses are very aware of their condition, even when it hasn’t been fully explained to them, and on the whole were willing to fight their illnesses, but were also more accepting of their potential fate than many adults facing similar diagnoses. We concluded our study by asking whether and to what extent this discovery should impact the type of care given to children in contrast to adults. I am eager to continue this sort of research as I pursue my medical career. The intersection of medicine, psychology, and socialization or culture (in this case, the social variables differentiating adults from children) is quite fascinating and is a field that is in need of better research.
Although much headway has been made in this area in the past twenty or so years, I feel there is a still a tendency in medicine to treat diseases the same way no matter who the patient is. We are slowly learning that procedures and drugs are not always universally effective. Not only must we alter our care of patients depending upon these cultural and social factors, we may also need to alter our entire emotional and psychological approach to them as well.
It is for this reason that I’m applying to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, as it has one of the top programs for pediatric surgery in the country, as well as several renowned researchers delving into the social, generational, and cultural questions in which I’m interested. My approach to medicine will be multidisciplinary, which is evidenced by the fact that I’m already double-majoring in early childhood psychology and pre-med, with a minor in cultural anthropology. This is the type of extraordinary care that I received as a child—care that seemed to approach my injuries with a much larger and deeper picture than that which pure medicine cannot offer—and it is this sort of care I want to provide my future patients. I turned what might have been a debilitating event in my life—a devastating car accident—into the inspiration that has shaped my life since. I am driven and passionate. And while I know that the pediatric surgery program at Johns Hopkins will likely be the second biggest challenge I will face in my life, I know that I am up for it. I am ready to be challenged and prove to myself what I’ve been telling myself since that fateful car accident: I will be a doctor.
Medical School Essay Two
Prompt: Where do you hope to be in ten years’ time?
If you had told me ten years ago that I would be writing this essay and planning for yet another ten years into the future, part of me would have been surprised. I am a planner and a maker of to-do lists, and it has always been my plan to follow in the steps of my father and become a physician. This plan was derailed when I was called to active duty to serve in Iraq as part of the War on Terror.
I joined the National Guard before graduating high school and continued my service when I began college. My goal was to receive training that would be valuable for my future medical career, as I was working in the field of emergency health care. It was also a way to help me pay for college. When I was called to active duty in Iraq for my first deployment, I was forced to withdraw from school, and my deployment was subsequently extended. I spent a total of 24 months deployed overseas, where I provided in-the-field medical support to our combat troops. While the experience was invaluable not only in terms of my future medical career but also in terms of developing leadership and creative thinking skills, it put my undergraduate studies on hold for over two years. Consequently, my carefully-planned journey towards medical school and a medical career was thrown off course. Thus, while ten-year plans are valuable, I have learned from experience how easily such plans can dissolve in situations that are beyond one’s control, as well as the value of perseverance and flexibility.
Eventually, I returned to school. Despite my best efforts to graduate within two years, it took me another three years, as I suffered greatly from post-traumatic stress disorder following my time in Iraq. I considered abandoning my dream of becoming a physician altogether, since I was several years behind my peers with whom I had taken biology and chemistry classes before my deployment. Thanks to the unceasing encouragement of my academic advisor, who even stayed in contact with me when I was overseas, I gathered my strength and courage and began studying for the MCAT. To my surprise, my score was beyond satisfactory and while I am several years behind my original ten-year plan, I am now applying to Brown University’s School of Medicine.
I can describe my new ten-year plan, but I will do so with both optimism and also caution, knowing that I will inevitably face unforeseen complications and will need to adapt appropriately. One of the many insights I gained as a member of the National Guard and by serving in war-time was the incredible creativity medical specialists in the Armed Forces employ to deliver health care services to our wounded soldiers on the ground. I was part of a team that was saving lives under incredibly difficult circumstances—sometimes while under heavy fire and with only the most basic of resources. I am now interested in how I can use these skills to deliver health care in similar circumstances where basic medical infrastructure is lacking. While there is seemingly little in common between the deserts of Fallujah and rural Wyoming, where I’m currently working as a volunteer first responder in a small town located more than 60 miles from the nearest hospital, I see a lot of potential uses for the skills that I gained as a National Guardsman. As I learned from my father, who worked with Doctors Without Borders for a number of years, there is quite a bit in common between my field of knowledge from the military and working in post-conflict zones. I feel I have a unique experience from which to draw as I embark on my medical school journey, experiences that can be applied both here and abroad.
In ten years’ time, I hope to be trained in the field of emergency medicine, which, surprisingly, is a specialization that is actually lacking here in the United States as compared to similarly developed countries. I hope to conduct research in the field of health care infrastructure and work with government agencies and legislators to find creative solutions to improving access to emergency facilities in currently underserved areas of the United States, with an aim towards providing comprehensive policy reports and recommendations on how the US can once again be the world leader in health outcomes. While the problems inherent in our health care system are not one-dimensional and require a dynamic approach, one of the solutions as I see it is to think less in terms of state-of-the-art facilities and more in terms of access to primary care. Much of the care that I provide as a first responder and volunteer is extremely effective and also relatively cheap. More money is always helpful when facing a complex social and political problem, but we must think of solutions above and beyond more money and more taxes. In ten years I want to be a key player in the health care debate in this country and offering innovative solutions to delivering high quality and cost-effective health care to all our nation’s citizens, especially to those in rural and otherwise underserved areas.
Of course, my policy interests do not replace my passion for helping others and delivering emergency medicine. As a doctor, I hope to continue serving in areas of the country that, for one reason or another, are lagging behind in basic health care infrastructure. Eventually, I would also like to take my knowledge and talents abroad and serve in the Peace Corps or Doctors Without Borders.
In short, I see the role of physicians in society as multifunctional: they are not only doctors who heal, they are also leaders, innovators, social scientists, and patriots. Although my path to medical school has not always been the most direct, my varied and circuitous journey has given me a set of skills and experiences that many otherwise qualified applicants lack. I have no doubt that the next ten years will be similarly unpredictable, but I can assure you that no matter what obstacles I face, my goal will remain the same. I sincerely hope to begin the next phase of my journey at Brown University. Thank you for your kind attention.
To learn more about what to expect from the study of medicine, check out our Study Medicine in the US section.
Tips for a Successful Medical School Essay
- If you’re applying through AMCAS, remember to keep your essay more general rather than tailored to a specific medical school, because your essay will be seen by multiple schools.
- AMCAS essays are limited to 5300 characters—not words! This includes spaces.
- Make sure the information you include in your essay doesn't conflict with the information in your other application materials.
- In general, provide additional information that isn’t found in your other application materials. Look at the essay as an opportunity to tell your story rather than a burden.
- Keep the interview in mind as you write. You will most likely be asked questions regarding your essay during the interview, so think about the experiences you want to talk about.
- When you are copying and pasting from a word processor to the AMCAS application online, formatting and font will be lost. Don’t waste your time making it look nice. Be sure to look through the essay once you’ve copied it into AMCAS and edit appropriately for any odd characters that result from pasting.
- Avoid overly controversial topics. While it is fine to take a position and back up your position with evidence, you don’t want to sound narrow-minded.
- Revise, revise, revise. Have multiple readers look at your essay and make suggestions. Go over your essay yourself many times and rewrite it several times until you feel that it communicates your message effectively and creatively.
- Make the opening sentence memorable. Admissions officers will read dozens of personal statements in a day. You must say something at the very beginning to catch their attention, encourage them to read the essay in detail, and make yourself stand out from the crowd.
- Character traits to portray in your essay include: maturity, intellect, critical thinking skills, leadership, tolerance, perseverance, and sincerity.
Additional Tips for a Successful Medical School Essay
- Regardless of the prompt, you should always address the question of why you want to go to medical school in your essay.
- Try to always give concrete examples rather than make general statements. If you say that you have perseverance, describe an event in your life that demonstrates perseverance.
- There should be an overall message or theme in your essay. In the example above, the theme is overcoming unexpected obstacles.
- Make sure you check and recheck for spelling and grammar!
- Unless you’re very sure you can pull it off, it is usually not a good idea to use humor or to employ the skills you learned in creative writing class in your personal statement. While you want to paint a picture, you don’t want to be too poetic or literary.
- Turn potential weaknesses into positives. As in the example above, address any potential weaknesses in your application and make them strengths, if possible. If you have low MCAT scores or something else that can’t be easily explained or turned into a positive, simply don’t mention it.