The Application as a Story

By Eric Rafla-Yuan

All medical schools in the United States are looking for students who display six basic core competencies. The competencies numbered one through four are nearly always required for admission, while competencies five and six are more heavily preferred by schools which place high emphasis on research and leadership. These can be roughly approximated by utilizing the US News & World Report Medical School Research rankings.

1) The academic and intellectual capacity to succeed in the intense medical school curricula as well as pass the boards
2) An understanding of the physician-patient relationship and the physician’s role in healthcare delivery
3) The ability to communicate warmly and effectively, especially with those who might be different from yourself
4) To be of good moral character
5) An understanding of the process of hypothesis-driven research
6) An aptitude for leadership and innovation

Once you know what medical schools are looking for, you can tailor your application to best display to admissions the qualities they are looking for. Unfortunately, and nearly all the time to their disadvantage, a large number of pre-medical students have taken it upon themselves to believe that the most effective way to demonstrate these core competencies is by following a checklist of sorts. This has led to the advent of a massive horde of applicants who all appear nearly identical on paper. This is especially disadvantageous if you don’t have an eye-catching GPA and MCAT score.

Don’t let this be you!
GPA: 3.4-3.7
MCAT: 29-33
2 semesters research with poster presentation at home institution
2 semesters hospital volunteer
1 semester homeless shelter volunteer
Member of pre-med club
Generic, bullet point descriptions of the above activities

Every person who applies to medical is unique and has their own story of who they are how it came to be that they are applying to medical school. It is unfortunate then, that many applicants to medical school feel the need to reduce themselves on paper to a simple collection of accomplishments. Medical schools are not looking to invite accomplishments to interviews and eventual acceptances—they are looking for people: people who struggled and overcame, people with strong interpersonal connections to others, people who succeed—but most importantly—real people with real stories.

One of the best places to tell your story is in the 15 slots designated on the AMCAS primary for “Work and Activities”. Don’t just list simplified activity descriptions. Instead, in addition to a brief description, utilize the space to describe your motivations for pursing the extracurricular activity, what you experienced, what you have learned, and how you have grown as an individual from your experiences. Remember, admissions committees will have most likely seen many, many applicants with similar experiences. They are not really interested in how many forms you filed, how many days you spent pipetting in a lab, or how many different majors and minors you have. What is more important is why/how and what you have taken away from your experiences.

To get a huge head start on application writing, make sure you realize that the whole point of the primary application (and often secondaries as well) is for the admissions committee to get a feel for you as a person. It is incredibly hard to understand someone as an individual without meeting or talking to them first, so extracurricular activities and accomplishments are used as a proxy from which admissions committees can draw out your motivations, character, and potential. Make it easy for them. None of these things can be gleaned from your application if you just list basic activity descriptions.

For example, let’s say you transferred from a small state school with limited research opportunities to a large research institution halfway through your college career. Instead of just describing the transfer as a “challenge you overcame”, give it meaning and let it be an insight to the reader to your motivations.

Imagine if you then go on in the next section to describe the cutting-edge research you were able to conduct after transferring, and in the next section, your continuation of the project and results into an honors thesis, which you then possibly are able to submit for publication. Your personal statement then describes and supports one of your main goals as “pushing the frontier of human knowledge.” From this method of description, anybody reading your application can easily follow your motivations and growth as an individual, and gives them a much better idea of you as a person. Your application could just be a collection of scattered pieces, but will be so much stronger if you expand and link them together. This gives the admissions committee a much more complete picture of you as a mature and motivated individual who not only has goals, but follows them through.

What themes are present in your life? Leadership, service to others, experiences with diverse populations, exploration and discovery, or anything else that you feel is important and so have devoted time and energy towards. From the repeated inclusion of activities describing your consistent desire and ability to serve others in multiple capacities, admissions committees will realize that you have a real and heartfelt desire to serve others. If you simply state somewhere that you want to help others, but don’t back it up with the rest of your application, the people who read your application will doubt the sincerity of that statement.

Compare these two applications. Each did three semesters of community service helping disabled children but wrote different activity descriptions. Which person do you feel has a real desire to serve others? Which is simply “checking boxes” for the application? Which would you invite to interview?

1) Gives a bullet point list of responsibilities, and ends description by saying:
“Because I really find serving others fulfilling, I’m glad I was able to find this opportunity in my community to help others.

2) Describes past involvement in swimming in high school, and how they were able to use their swimming expertise to design swimming lessons for disabled children. Also has letter of recommendation from aquatics director testifying to the independence and interpersonal strength shown in communicating and interacting with disabled children and their families. Ends description by saying:
“This opportunity has not only allowed me to serve others, but has also given me the chance to grow as an individual. From my experience here, I have seen that life is not only more complicated for those with disabilities themselves, but can also be very difficult for those families and individuals who must care for them. I now know that taking care of others requires a carefully coordinated group effort, an understanding I know will aid me in becoming a more successful physician.”

Really, we have no way of knowing which of the above individuals is more committed to serving their fellow humans. However, it is pretty easy to pick out which description gives a sense of a mature and motivated individual and which does not. It doesn’t matter how amazing you are, the admissions committee will only know what you tell them. Make it easy for them to understand what kind of person you are by imbuing all the parts of your application with all the things that make you, you. Are you a kind person that shines when working with others? Make sure they understand this easily from your descriptions. Are you an effective and strategic leader? Make sure the reader knows this from your writings. Choose carefully, because in this process, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done—what really matters is what you can show them through your application.

Writing your application is one of the few parts of this process which you have full control over. You get to decide exactly what gets put down, so make sure to use it to your advantage. Unfortunately, many people do not take advantage of the chance to present their application as a whole as best they can. Their work and activities sections, along with the essays and letters of recommendation, don’t build upon each other to best present a complete and compelling picture of themselves. Instead the essays and extracurricular descriptions are scattered and disconnected from each other, and read like a list indiscernible from many other applicants The key then, when there are so many applicants that are otherwise so similar, is to utilize your control over what you write and make yourself stand out to score those interviews!

This article was originally published on on July 18, 2012.

Leave a Reply