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.
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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. Do not expect the committee to make these leaps for you; you need to put it in your own words and make the connections clear.
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.
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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.
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.
A word of caution: Do not 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.
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.
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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. and EssayEdge.com|
“The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well being becomes.” The Medicine of Altruism: Dalai Lama
The fundamental mission of any medical school is to select those individuals who possess the qualities and personality traits best suited to becoming a good doctor. The first part of this article takes a critical look at how United Kingdom (UK) medical schools select doctors, which can vary considerably, and asks whether it can be improved. The qualities needed to be a good doctor are discussed and asks whether work experience illustrates at least some of these personal qualities and should therefore be an essential prerequisite for applying to medical school. Such experience helps the student to make an informed career choice and exploring it at interview can reflect student motivation to study medicine. My experience in Ghana gave me the opportunity to find out at first hand if I had what it takes to become a doctor. The trip was totally inspirational. It made me realise that medicine is much more than being master of all sciences. In Ghana I saw many of the qualities one needs to be a doctor, how this contrasts with the current selection criteria in the UK, and made me wonder whether the UK system offers our society the best practice available.
Critique of UK medical school selection
Applying to medical school has become increasingly competitive. Selection into medical schools is not an exact science but one assumes that best available evidence is being used. The present system almost certainly turns away students who would make good doctors and accepts some who are mediocre or poor or even drop out of medicine altogether. The selection criteria for entry into medicine have to be accurate. However, no system is fool proof and the number of drop-outs in UK training stands at 6.8 – 12%.1,2,3 I believe that better selection criteria would reduce the drop-out rate and save personal distress among those who made an unwise choice. This makes economic sense. There is widespread agreement that we should select medical students on wider criteria than scores of academic success,4, 5 though in practice many medical schools have valued academic scores at the expense of other considerations.6, 7 A Levels alone should not be sufficient to gain a place at medical school. True communication calls for some shared life experiences and empathy with others. I believe that students who are totally absorbed in their studies to the exclusion of almost everything else are less likely to make good doctors. In one study, a ten-year follow-up after entry into medical school showed no correlation between academic score at entry and drop-out rate, but significant correlation between low interview scores and later drop-out.8 Reasons for drop-out were a variety of personal reasons including lack of motivation for study or for medicine. In a medical school that carefully evaluates applicants, empathy and motivation to be doctors were found to be particularly important in predicting both clinical and academic success.9
Another major study, looking at the dropping out from medical schools in the UK over a ten year period (1990-2000), 10 showed that drop-out rates increased during this period and concluded that the probability of dropping out of medical school is 20% lower for students with a parent who is a doctor. The authors comment that this may be the result of greater commitment or better preparation and insight before starting the course. Ethnic background of students was recorded only between 1998-2000. The study found that Indian females were around 1.9% less likely to drop out compared with white females, whereas Indian males were no different from white males. Other ethnic groups were less likely to drop-out by around 0.8%. A concerning fact in this paper was the degree to which drop-out rates varied between different medical schools. No study to date has been done to find the reasons for these differences. Surely potential applicants need to be aware of these results. The differences could be accounted for by variable selection processes among the medical schools.11 Some medical schools shortlist for interview only on predicted academic performance or the number of A* GCSEs or decide by the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) / BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) scores. Some use information presented in the candidate’s personal statement and referee’s report while others ignore this because of concern over bias. In some cases candidates fill in a supplementary questionnaire. Interviews vary in terms of length, panel composition, structure, content, and scoring methods. Some schools do not interview.
The commonest reasons cited in many papers for dropping out of medical school were because it is not for them, they found it boring, they did not like patients, the work environment was not what they want to spend their time on, or they did not like responsibility.12 Essentially they had realised too late that Medicine was not for them. They had failed to find out what they were letting themselves in for before applying and the medical school had failed to pick this up. There is a strong argument for pooling resources so that applicants get one good assessment instead of four poor ones.
A levels, used for medical selection, do not indicate any personality attributes of the candidate and are affected by socio-economic bias. The UKCAT was introduced to level the playing fields. This test doesn’t examine acquired knowledge and candidates can’t be coached to pass, so in theory it should provide a fairer assessment of aptitude than A level grades. It was also thought that the various components of the UKCAT, namely verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, abstract reasoning, and decision making, could help to pick the students who have the personality attributes to make good doctors. Unfortunately, a recent paper suggests that the UKCAT does not provide any more assessment of aptitude than A levels.13 However, an inherent favourable bias towards students from well-off backgrounds or from grammar and independent schools was also found. Moreover the test does not compensate for talented candidates whose education has been affected by attending a poor school. Another paper looked at the predictive validity of the UKCAT.14 This showed that UKCAT scores did not predict Year 1 performance at two medical schools. Although early prediction is not the primary aim of the UKCAT, there is some cause for concern that the test failed to show even the small-to-moderate predictive power demonstrated by similar admission tools.
There is no doubt that potential doctors must have enough intellectual capacity to do the job but they must also possess other important traits (Table 1):
|Table 1: Personality traits potential doctors ought to possess|
|Concern for people||Committed to self-learning|
|Sense of responsibility||Emotionally stable|
|Professionalism||Good judgement and perception|
|Good communication skills||Good listener|
|Highly motivated||An enquiring mind|
|Ability to handle pressure||Mental strength|
|Determination||Respect for other people|
|Perseverance||Respect for confidentiality|
|Team player||An open mind|
|Leadership qualities||A rational approach to problems|
|Flexible and adaptable to change||Separate important points from detail|
|Logical thinking||Recognise limits of professional competence|
What patients rate highly among the qualities of a good doctor are high levels of empathy and interpersonal skills.15 Personality traits such as conscientiousness have been positively associated with pre-clinical performance.16
The criteria being used more and more by admission tutors include the candidate’s insight into medicine including as evidenced from work experience.17Surprisingly, very little has been written on work experience and the value placed on it varies considerably between medical schools. Many would regard this experience as a prerequisite for entry into medical school. It enables a student to experience at first hand what he/she is letting him/herself in for. Some find the experience fascinating and challenging while others may find it is not for them. Work experience should not be seen as a hurdle to climb, but part of the decision-making process in determining whether medicine really is for you. I fear that another contributing factor to the increase in drop-out rates from medical schools is the increasing difficulty in obtaining work experience. Gone are the days when students could join theatre staff and watch an exciting operation or shadow doctors in Accident and Emergency (A&E). Useful work experience is so important and it is becoming harder and harder to get, but is still possible. Therefore considerable desire, commitment and motivation by the student are required to obtain it. The work does not need to be medically related, but work experience in any care setting is essential. These placements can be used to illustrate at least some of the personal qualities that are sought after in a good doctor including: appreciation of the communication skills required of a doctor; a thorough awareness of the realities of medicine and the National Health Service (NHS); an understanding of teamwork; an ability to balance commitments; and observation of the caring and compassionate nature of the doctors. Furthermore, as demonstrated in general practice,18 personal experiences can have a highly positive influence on an individual’s attitude to a particular speciality. Encouraging school students to experience general practice would therefore not only increase their awareness of the life to which they are about to commit, but could aid recruitment to general practice as a speciality.
My Ghana Experience
I decided that, as part of my work experience, I would go to Ghana with a charity organisation (Motec UK Life). The reason was not to impress medical admissions tutors, but to discover if I had what it takes to become a doctor. I realised how comfortably we live in our small bubble, with little appreciation of what goes on in the rest of the world. Ghana is a third world country, which not only has great poverty and malnutrition but also has many deadly diseases such as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)/Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), malaria, hepatitis, typhoid and sickle cell disease. My trip was demanding as I was stripped of my luxuries and removed from my comfort zone, but it helped me to understand the real values in life through helping the most needy and vulnerable people. I felt the suffering and the pain they went through, day in and day out, but knew that making even the slightest difference to their lives motivated me and enabled me to persevere through my time there.
One of the hospitals we stayedwas Nkawkaw, which was in the middle of a shantytown with houses made of metal sheets. Yet, despite the presence of great poverty and disease, I did not find a single person who was not extremely kind and welcoming and always smiling. It made me think of the contrasting situation back home in the UK where people were relatively well off, and yet so unhappy. I spoke to as many people as possible, not realising that I was developing my people- and communication-skills. I played football with the children and made them smile. I was able to visit the AIDS/HIV clinic and gained a first-hand account of how this devastating disease was controlled and dealt with in a third-world country. The pain, grief and suffering were immense and difficult to comprehend unless one was actually there witnessing it. AIDS here hurts everyone, but children are always the most vulnerable. The children were born with HIV from their mothers, or infected through breast milk, or in the past infected by unsafe medical treatments. They were often orphaned and destitute, having to build their own homes, grow their own food, and care for younger brothers and sisters. That is the cruel reality.
Equally heartbreaking was seeing so many people in the HIV clinic who could
not afford the anti-retroviral drug that would improve the quality and duration of life. This feeling of helplessness motivated me even further to pursue a career in medicine in order to help people at their most vulnerable. On this trip I was greatly impressed by the dedication, commitment and professionalism shown by the doctors in difficult situations. I saw doctors working with little supervision and little equipment, and yet they seemed confident, well organised, and adapted themselves well to the conditions. Their enthusiasm and compassion never waned despite working long hours.
I saw many types of operation being performed including joint replacements, hernia repairs and caesarean sections. On one particular day, I observed the team performing many knee and hip joint replacements. The deformities of the joints were much more severe than seen in the UK. I enjoyed and appreciated the skills of the orthopaedic surgeons in carrying out these operations, which were being done under spinal anaesthesia, and so I was able to talk to the patients and comfort them. Throughout the day, after seeing many operations, I did not flinch or feel queasy at the sight, and this further encouraged me to believe that I could handle a career in medicine. On watching the caesarean sections, the excitement of bringing new life into the world was overwhelming. Seeing another baby being born with severe hydrocephalus marred this. No treatment facilities for this condition were available for hundreds of miles and the baby was too ill to be transferred such a large distance. I witnessed the doctors conveying the heartbreaking news to the family with compassion. It became clear to me that there are negative aspects to this career. There is a great deal of emotion and stress to cope with in such circumstances but I believe that, given training, I would be mentally stronger to take control of these situations.
I was always allowed to follow the doctors on their ward rounds, and was encouraged to ask questions and make comments, so that I often felt that I was being treated as a medical student, which was strange in some ways but also very gratifying. On this trip I was involved in teaching and in helping to set up a workshop, which lasted for a whole day for doctors from all over Ghana. This involved lectures as well as demonstrating the latest surgical and theatre equipment. I was impressed by the teamwork and organisation shown by the group. The communication skills of the group had to be of the highest quality in order to get the message across. I found that teaching about the devastating effects of HIV, in a local school in Ghana, was particularly challenging as some of the students before me were sufferers and so I found it difficult to look them in the eye, knowing that although they were being taught the safety precautions, many did not have much of a future. This reinforced my feeling of helplessness but, although this situation was heartbreaking, I remained enthusiastic for the children, to keep their morale high in order to prepare them for their inevitable future.
My trip was totally inspirational. It made me realise that medicine is much more than being a master of all sciences. In Ghana I observed in doctors the real passion and drive needed for medicine as well as many other essential qualities I believed doctors needed. This contrasts with the current selection criteria in the UK; sadly we are missing out on too many good doctors because of our obsession with grades rather than looking for real qualities that are going to make a difference to our patients.I discovered that seeing the immense suffering, and the close bond of doctors and patients in an entirely different social and economic context, helped me to evaluate and shape my own emotions and personal values. My motivation in wanting to become a doctor has increased tremendously since this trip. My trip to Ghana also inspired me to create a medical journal in my school as a fund-raising initiative. I brought together a group of fellow students to write articles about common teenage problems (teenage drinking, anorexia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), stress, smoking, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)) as well as articles on euthanasia and assisted suicide, stem cell research and the NHS. I wrote about my personal experiences in Ghana in addition to editing and publishing the school journal. All the funds raised from the school medical journal will be going to the HIV victims in Ghana.
ASIf RAJAH, Sixth Form Student, St Albans School, Abbey Gateway, St Albans, Hertfordshire, AL3 4HB.
CORRESPONDENCE: Asif Rajah, 41 Prospect Lane, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, AL5 2PL.
The above article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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