The purpose of this lesson is to show you examples of how other people capitalized on their unique qualities. When it comes to your own essay, only you can identify the optimal strategy for making yourself stand out. One way to start is to look over your answers to the brainstorming questions and try to find aspects of your background that separate you from your peers. Ultimately, however, what will make the difference is your ability to assess yourself honestly and thoughtfully.
The examples that follow are not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, they represent the efforts of particular individuals to recognize the unique elements of their background and use it to their advantage. You should notice that these unique elements often have nothing to do with medicine, but can still be tied effectively to the applicants’ goals or integrated with their character and background.
1. This applicant is a woman from a military background. Notice that her first paragraph grabs the reader’s attention by emphasizing extreme experiences to which the average person has never been exposed. Don’t dilute the power of your description with premature, forced connections to medicine. Your first task is to convince the reader that what you’re describing is indeed unique on its own terms. In fact, this applicant never forces an explicit connection on the situation, but rather simply notes that she can finally apply to medical school because her term of military service is ending. The reader can easily deduce for himself how the rigor and intensity of her military background have prepared her for the challenge of medicine.
2. This applicant describes his experiences performing in a Las Vegas show. Again, he does not try to argue that his work as a performer will directly help him in handling dental operations, but instead makes the following point about his character: “Working each night, for a total of 42 hours a week, has forced me to structure for myself an educational schedule that has required more time in college than most spend. However, as a result, I will be emerging from my university experience with greater maturity, self-knowledge, and certainty about the professional direction I am choosing to follow than many of my peers.” The one mistake this applicant makes is his continual emphasis on how he’s different from his peers. In general you should try to let uniqueness speak for itself; if it’s noteworthy, the reader should pick up on it without having to be told.
3. This applicant describes the unfortunate circumstances of his childhood. He does so without seeking pity, but instead focuses on how these circumstances shaped his character. Here a connection to medicine is natural: “I spent a great deal of time trying to care for my mother, a fact of my young life that I think later on may have subliminally drawn me toward a career in medicine. Besides instilling within me a desire to help others who are ill, my experience with my mother also heightened my sensitivity to other people and the difficulties with which they sometimes must cope.” The writer goes on to back up his heightened sensitivity by describing his work assisting a doctor in rural Mexico – itself also a noteworthy experience.
4. The uniqueness of this applicant is multidimensional. He comes from an international background, he experienced discrimination, and he immigrated to the United States to face numerous new obstacles. The strength of this essay lies not in these unique barriers but the active manner in which he overcame them. The writer does not take a self-pitying tone, nor does he make his disadvantaged background a primary focus. He goes on to describe many of the same types of volunteer and work experiences as other applicants, which we view as all the more remarkable because of the early challenges through which he persevered.
5. This applicant details his commitment to martial arts. In this case, the activity itself is far from unique, even among the specific population of medical school applicants. Nevertheless, the qualities he has cultivated in his experience and the way he ties them to medicine provide a new dimension to his candidacy. This essay is an effective example of how you can turn even a standard extracurricular activity into a unique strength by using illustrative personal details and an insightful perspective.
Again, these examples are only a few of the possible routes you could take. There are even more obvious routes for which we did not include examples, such as extraordinary talents in athletics or the arts, or extensive work experience in another career. One particularly delicate issue is how to approach diversity. If you are, for example, a minority, foreign, or older applicant, you should not hesitate to use this to your advantage. To do this effectively, however, you need to show how your background has shaped your life in some tangible way and possibly tie that in to how you plan to contribute to the school’s community. You should not mention it for its own sake and suggest – even implicitly – that you expect some kind of special attention, because you risk offending the reader or coming across as manipulative.