The following article is cross-posted from MedHopeful.com - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.
I am sure there are many extremely qualified candidates for medical school. In fact, I think there are probably significantly many more people who would make fantastic physicians than there are spots. And in some cases, I think it is possible for some of the most promising physicians to not get into medical school.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: for any admissions process, be it a scholarship, professional school, or job, it’s not the best or most deserving candidates that get selected - it’s the candidate who does the best at the admissions process. It’s the candidate who markets himself or herself the best, and makes the evaluators think he or she is the best candidate.
About a month ago, the day before Ontario medical school applications was due, a close friend of mine was busy typing up one of his admissions essays. He was really worried about it, as he thinks he’s not very good at these, so he asked me to take a look at it and provide some advice. My friend is super intelligent, and I think that he would make a fantastic physician. This essay could be the make it or break it part of his application, and despite how good of a physician he might possibly be, this essay is the one of the few pieces of evidence the admissions committee has to come to that conclusion themselves.
So I read his essay, and I could instantly see a few problems in the writing process that he had, and it is a problem I am sure many students make when writing admissions or scholarship essays.
My friend had borrowed one of those published books that contained successful medical school admissions essays (these essays were meant for United States medical schools, but a lot of it is probably useful for Canadian schools as well), and tried to write his essay with a similar style to the ones in the book.
A lot of the essays in the book start off with a vivid image of an experience, to draw the reader in. The concept of using an anecdote to start an essay is actually a pretty good one, and it’s one I will sometimes use. However, the fact of the matter is that for essay writing, you should be writing with a purpose, and not writing something for the sake of writing it.
You see, my friend’s perspective was that since other successful medical school admissions essays had an anecdote, he is best off using one as well. This is a major problem in mindset that I see a lot of students having. However, this really isn’t the right way of looking at it. Rather, you should consider using an anecdote, only if you have one that is useful and strengthens your essay - that is, if you can write a stronger essay without an anecdote, then don’t use one!
In this case, while my friend’s essay started off with a really great anecdote, the problem was that the rest of the essay just didn’t flow.
If you ever have an essay coaching session with me, the most important concept I will stress is flow. To me, flow occurs when the order of ideas, and even the individual sentences, are composed in a way that makes sense. Any two essays can have the same set of ideas and themes thrown around, but the essay that puts these ideas in an order that makes sense is miles ahead of the other essay.
For example, say you are writing a medical school admissions essay. You want to convey four main experiences/ideas/themes: (1) Volunteer experience in a hospital; (2) Family member’s health problems; (3) University undergraduate health studies; (4) Sports hobbies.
Given that we have four ideas we want to use, there are 4×3x2×1 = 24 possible different ways we can order these ideas in an essay. But for sure, I think one order can make much more sense, and would form the outline for a much superior essay.
Someone who isn’t thinking too much about order and flow might randomly do an order of 1,4,3,2 - that is, start off with an anecdote about their experience in the hospital, then mention the team work they’ve learned through sports, continue on with their health studies and its relevance in medicine, and then finally mention that their interest in medicine came from living with a family member with a serious health problem.
However, if it were up to me, I think an order of 2,1,3,4 is probably the best order - start off with an anecdote about your family member with the health problem, and how that got you interested in medicine, which led to your desire to try out hospital volunteering, which in turn confirmed your interest in medicine, so you decided to study health studies at university, and then end with some sports hobbies to show your diverse interests.
I think this second order shows the origins of your interests in medicine and your path towards it in a much more clear manner, and more importantly, in a way that shows how each of your decisions to pursue each subsequent experience makes sense. The first example really doesn’t show this at all.
In my friend’s essay, he started off with an anecdote of one of his experiences in a health clinic in a third world country, and then from there, he instantly jumped to his undergraduate biology studies. The problem for me was that there simply wasn’t any flow - there was no reason for the essay to jump randomly from one experience to the other. And when there’s no flow, it makes the intentions of the essay very confusing.
Clearly, given the same person and same ideas to use, the essay can come out very differently depending on how you choose to order and structure your ideas. That is, you need to structure the ideas of your essay with a clear purpose. Although the quality of candidate hasn’t changed, your chances of getting an interview are significantly increased with a better structured essay.
In order for the ideas to make sense, there must be an overall purpose behind them - that is, you must have clear intentions and reasons for writing what you write. This purpose should go even deeper, that is, your individual sentences and sometimes even words alone should serve a specific purpose. And these small individual purposes should add up to the overall purpose of your essay.
When I was going through my friend’s essays, and all of the major components of it, the number one question I asked him was: “Why did you write this?” That is, what’s the importance for each of these components? If you don’t have a good reason for putting it there, maybe it’s not worth mentioning for this specific essay.
A bad reason that my friend used for some things, and that I think many students make the mistake of using, is the reason of: “I thought I was supposed to” or “I saw other successful applicants do it”. In theory, both these reasons can be good, but often tend to lead you down a bad path because students use these reasons incorrectly. These reasons are only good reasons and only make sense if they apply to you.
For example, as I mentioned earlier, my friend used an anecdote for the sake of using one - because he thought that’s what medical school admissions officers want to see. And that works sometimes, but like I mentioned, it didn’t flow into his next idea properly. Not saying it couldn’t - perhaps with the right transition sentence or paragraph it would, but at the time, no such paragraph existed - and that’s crucial.
Another example in my friend’s essay was near the last third of his essay, where he randomly listed some of his extracurricular activities - sports teams, club activities, etc without explaining why they were there. I asked him why he included these, and he simply answered, “I assumed they wanted to know what I’m involved in”. I’m not saying he shouldn’t mention these activities, but he gave no strong reason why he should. In fact, the school already receives a list of your activities as part of the application - so why randomly include them here again?
If you’re going to list an activity, you should make your intentions clear. Do these activities help you relieve stress? Did they teach you team work skills that will help you work with your future medical colleagues? If you’re going to mention something, it needs to have purpose and flow in the overall context of your essay.
You should be producing an essay that highlights your story the best, not an essay that includes a myriad of components that you just assume you’re supposed to have.
You need a good reason for everything you write. Every time you want to include a significant component in your essay, you need to ask yourself: Why am I including this? Does it support my overall theme? Is this the right place to include it? Does it make sense for me to have this here? Am I including this because I have good reasons to and it strengthens my essay?
Things that might seem obvious to you, won’t necessarily seem obvious to the reader. Remember, the reader knows nothing about you. All they have is that 1,000 word essay you hand in. That’s how they view you. And you gotta make sense.
JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.
For more articles like this one, check out Joshua's blog at MedHopeful.com