The Medical School Diversity Essay
Now that you’ve turned in your AMCAS (phew!), you’re probably wondering how to tackle the monster of secondaries coming your way. One of the most common questions asked in one form or another is the diversity essay for medical school. Have you ever wondered why diversity is such an important component of the medical school admission process? I’ve heard a lot of pre-med students eager to write this off as a political move on the behalf of medical schools, without taking the time to truly consider its value.
Of course, in the US we have a powerful tradition of diversity in higher education. Diversity in the classroom (and on campus) allows students to produce a “creative friction,” thereby improving the educational experience for all.
However, in the medical school context, diversity has an additional, more utilitarian purpose: it is crucial to the quality of medical care provided by these soon-to-be physicians. An ability to understand your patients — regardless of background — is an integral part of your life as a doctor.
So, now that we have solved the great admissions diversity mystery, we can get started on the actual essays. First, what does a “diversity essay” actually look like? Let’s take an example from one of Stanford Med School’s recent secondary applications:
“The Committee on Admissions regards the diversity (broadly defined) of an entering class as an important factor in serving the educational mission of the school. The Committee on Admissions strongly encourages you to share unique, personally important, and/or challenging factors in your background, such as the quality of your early educational environment, socioeconomic status, culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and life or work experiences. Please discuss how such factors have influenced your goals and preparation for a career in medicine.”
Or this question from Wake Forest School of Medicine:
“The Committee on Admissions values diversity as an important factor in the educational mission of the Wake Forest School of Medicine. How will you contribute to the diversity of your medical school class and to the medical community in general?”
Ultimately, these medical school diversity essays are all variations on the same question, “How are you different from other applicants, and how does that difference impact your ability to contribute in medical school and beyond?”
This prompt brings us to our first action point:
1. “Diversity” and “Underrepresented Minority” are not synonymous.
Have you ever heard someone lament, “[sigh]…I’m not a minority so I’m not diverse.” I have. Many times. Most frequently, this lamentation originates from a lack of creativity and fundamental understanding about what diversity means. As we’ve already discussed, diversity serves two purposes: 1) varying perspectives in a classroom and on campus so as to produce more comprehensive learning, and 2) Improving patient care once these applicants become newly-minted MDs.
Thus, while ethno-cultural, religious, or socioeconomic backgrounds are all forms of diversity, they are by no means the only forms of diversity. Indeed, diversity is anything about you which is special and which will allow you to satisfy the objectives of diversity as described above.
Multlingual? That’s diversity.
Been in the military? That’s diversity.
Had a rare disease as a child? That’s diversity.
Have a special personal quality (such as being a talented connector, or unusually high EQ)? Diversity.
Have a very specific and innovative career path in mind (e.g., using robotics to improve prosthetics)? Diversity.
Worked as a personal trainer or a nutritionist?….you see where I’m going with this. The key is not to narrowly define diversity, but instead to broadly construe how your “diverse elements” will allow you to contribute something unique to your prospective school and ultimately, your profession.
This brings us to our second action point:
2. Your “diversity” means nothing if it isn’t clearly connected to your potential contribution.
Sometimes, applicants get too caught up in the ways they are different, that they forget that being different is not an end, but a means to an end. These differences and unique qualities/experiences have to accomplish something. They have to help prove that you are deserving of a seat at the med school roundtable.
For example, being a chronic truant or two-time felon are certainly unique qualities and experiences for an applicant to medical school. Will they help you get in? Almost certainly not, and for obvious reasons. Best to focus on some other topic for your medical school diversity essay.
The point is simple: once you have identified what makes you unique, your primary task is to explain how that uniqueness will allow you to contribute something special in school and beyond.
This brings us to our third action point:
3. Diversity, as with all other parts of your application, requires evidence.
“I am the smartest person in the world.”
Really!? Are you actually the smartest person in the world? Prove it.
“I have unique insight into the needs of immigrant populations.”
Oh do you? And what, pray tell, gives you this incredible insight?
“I have always dreamed of being part of Doctors Without Borders, and helping to save the world one person at a time.”
Is that so? Because I don’t see a single international community service experience on your application…
…see where I’m going with this? Diversity, though it may be an intangible concept or quality, still requires tangible evidence. A diversity essay for medical school is not complete without a clear explanation of how your “diversity” relates to your experiences.
For example, if you are a first generation college student and the son/daughter of immigrants, you cannot just baldly state that this background gives you some crucial insight into the needs of immigrant populations. Although it seems plausible that you would know more than others who are from affluent, non-immigrant backgrounds, you still need to prove it. Make the connections explicit.
You could do this by providing anecdotes about your communication skills with immigrant families during your time with Habitat for Humanity. Or you could explain how you used your special insights and cross-cultural communication skills in becoming a leader in La Raza.
Ultimately, if what makes you diverse is that you have a very high capacity for empathy, you don’t need to have an activity on your AMCAS experiences section called “the society for people who empathize good and want to learn to do other things good too.” You just need to explain how your diverse element(s) have affected or motivated your activities, even if they seem totally unrelated.
E.g., “I am a motivator. I love motivating people to better their lives. That is why I worked as a nutritionist. Moreover, as a writing instructor at Dartmouth’s RWIT program, I had the opportunity not only to help students with their writing, but also to show them how exciting and fun it could be.” Please note: this is not from an actual essay, and if it was, it would not be especially good. This is just to demonstrate a point.
Thus, if you do decide to focus on ethnic, cultural, or religious diversity, the best approach is not to hammer the adcom with how significant your minority status is. Rather, a strong essay might focus on your activities which were committed to diversity and social justice issues; or on your pursuits which address health disparities between minority and non-minority populations; or experiences which provide tangible evidence of your cross-cultural competence during patient or client interactions. Of course, these three topics are not exhaustive, but might be a good place to start.
This brings us to our final, and most succinct point:
4. Using buzzwords doesn’t convince anyone
This is a common mistake among applicants who think that repeating buzzwords such as “diverse,” “multicultural,” “cross-cultural,” “underrepresented,” etc. will automatically convince an adcom that they are those things. It won’t. In fact, it is no more likely to convince them of your diversity credentials than if I tried to convince you of the quality of this article by simply repeating “this article is super informative and comprehensive, and it is likely the best thing you’ve read all week.”
In short: let your evidence and experience do the talking.