Because people don’t make career decisions based on pure reason, it can be difficult to explain why you’ve chosen the field you have. Moreover, your basic reasons probably look a lot like everyone else’s. In this section, you’ll learn how to develop your ideas effectively and insightfully while emphasizing your uniqueness in answer the common question “Why medicine?”
Because medicine requires such a serious commitment, few people stumble across the idea of pursuing it late in life. It’s very likely that you have always wanted to be a doctor, and that’s not a fact that you should hide. Experienced medical editors always watch out these 2 potential problems in written application essays:
- Don’t offer your point in such a clichéd, prepackaged way as to make your reader cringe. For example, you shouldn’t start your essay, “I have always wanted to be a doctor” or “I’ve always known that medicine was my calling.” Better to describe early experiences and then let the point about your early interest unfold naturally.
- Don’t rely solely on this reason and forget to justify your choice with more recent experiences.
Tell us not only why you want to be a doctor but what you have done to test your decision. Have you had some experience? Have you observed doctors?—University of Michigan Medical School
This applicant does state his lifelong interest in the first sentence, but with a twist: “Sometimes I like to tell people that my father knew I wanted to be a doctor long before I did, but the truth is that the idea of becoming a physician has probably been gestating within me in some form or other since an early age.”
By the third sentence, however, he moves to details, recalling one significant scene. Telling a story is the best way to guarantee that your discussion stays grounded in concrete evidence. The second paragraph provides the “test” aspect: how he confirmed his interest in medicine through direct, hands-on experience. In this paragraph he does not tell another story, but still stays focused on details by describing some of his responsibilities and naming procedures he observed.
Although your own details might make the difference between a good and great essay, you can ensure a solid result simply by avoiding the above pitfalls as this applicant did. On the first issue, he uses a specific story to make a typical idea his own personal point. On the second issue, he uses his childhood fascination only to describe the roots of what will grow into a more mature commitment. The result is a compelling explanation of his motivation to become a doctor.
If It Runs in the Family…
Some applicants will cite their parents as reasons for their choice. Here again you have to be careful not to sound juvenile or over-simplistic. The mere fact that one or both of your parents were doctors does not explain why you would want to follow in their footsteps. Some readers might even conclude that you haven’t been able to make up your own mind. Note how the same essay above includes the following disclaimer: “I idolize my father and admire his commitment and contributions, but this alone would not be enough to make me want to become a doctor myself.”
The Patient’s Perspective
This is also a standard theme, but potentially a very powerful one. Describing the direct impact a doctor had on your life or the life of someone close to you can be a very effective way to demonstrate what draws you to medicine.
Perhaps someone close to the applicant was very ill once or died, and the experience with that person or with his or her doctors became very significant. After having read many statements, I believe these are the sorts of experiences that make people aware of what they themselves could do in medicine. These experiences can be very powerful material for the statement.—School of Medicine, University of Washington
The same caveats apply, however. First, the fact that admissions officers have seen this approach many times means you have to find a unique, personal story to tell. Second, the story you recount should serve only as the original inspiration, and you still need to use recent experiences to show how you’ve confirmed that first recognition.
This applicant recalls the impression that doctors who treated his mother left on him. He provides useful details such as the illness that afflicted her and the specific qualities that impressed him most. Although there is enough substance in his first paragraph to make a strong point, you may want to use even more details in your own essay. For example, you could describe a specific episode and the actions that your doctor took in treating your illness or easing your concerns.
Notice again that the second paragraph shifts to the trial stage, emphasizing action rather than dwelling on passive response: “I also had the chance to gain some firsthand experience in the medical profession when I volunteered for over a year in the emergency room of a regional hospital.” You won’t necessarily have to follow the exact structure of going from inspiration to action, nor does your inspiration have to come from a dramatic experience, but the relevant details will be present in every good essay.
When Medicine Fails…
A twist on the “patient’s perspective” approach is to describe a time when medicine failed to save or heal someone close to you. The purpose of this tactic would not of course be to rail against the medical profession, but rather to show how a disappointing loss inspired you to join the struggle against disease and sickness.
This applicant describes the limits of the field he plans to pursue: “However, in time physical therapy became the logical focus of my attention for a number of reasons. For one, I have memories from a very young age of my grandfather in Czechoslovakia, disabled by a stroke, his problems unmitigated by any attempts at physical therapy. I will never forget the devastating consequences of this.” He goes on to describe ways in which both he and his grandmother benefited from physical therapy, but by mentioning a failed recovery, he shows that he understands the scope of medicine at a mature level.
This applicant describes problems with the health care system that did not affect him directly, but that he observed while working in a hospital. The important point is that he plans to be part of the solution: “As a doctor, I hope to participate in these changes in order to benefit more people than are currently being served.”
If there’s one thing that all medical school applicants can agree on, it’s that they all want to help others. So as always, you need to show rather than tell us about your commitment.
Community service is very important in our process because this is a profession devoted to serving others.— Stanford University School of Medicine
The next section of the course, Why You’re Qualified, will deal with the skills and qualities that will help you serve people. Here we are concerned with why you want to help, and why through medicine.
This applicant describes his experience caring closely for his mother and concludes: “After it was all over and I was back on my feet, I decided I wanted to put myself back in a situation in which I could help others who were ill.”
Similarly, this applicant recognizes that the act of caring for his alcoholic and abused mother heightened his “sensitivity to other people and the difficulties with which they sometimes must cope.”
Both applicants give detailed accounts of prior roles helping others and then make strong connections to their current goals. Although both of these essays deal with caring for relatives, there are many other angles you could take. The point is to show yourself in the active position of improving someone’s life and realizing that you wanted to devote your career to that purpose. If you want to use service unrelated to medicine as a reason, then you have to make a clear transition that explains why you’ve chosen that field as your outlet for helping others.
A Passion for Science
A passion for science is usually not the main force behind someone’s decision to pursue medicine, but rather something that complements his or her desire to help others. If science were your sole calling, then you would most likely pursue a PhD. That said, showing a strong commitment to science can enhance your candidacy, especially if you have demonstrated an interest in research.
The challenge is how to show passion rather than simply tell the reader about it. This applicant devotes an entire paragraph to his enthusiasm for biology and the premed curriculum. He does a good job of emphasizing the qualities that appeal to him – problem solving, competition, the broad scope of issues – but still is essentially telling and not showing us anything.
A point that has come up before and will come up in the next section is the importance of action: the most effective way to demonstrate qualities is to show yourself in an active role. Saying that you found material fascinating is presenting your passive response to it. On the other hand, you could describe a time when you did outside reading on a topic that intrigued you, or an opportunity you earned to become a professor’s research assistant based on the enthusiasm you showed. Active details are of course helpful to have in every point you make, but they come more naturally when describing a volunteer or work experience. Here you have to make a special point to ensure that you demonstrate a passion for science through your active engagement with it.
The other alternative, though less effective, is to convey enthusiasm through spirited language. What matters more is your ability to write than the content you choose. You might, for example, ask insightful, probing questions about your chosen area, or you could simply describe an issue or discovery in vivid detail. Again, you should attempt this approach only if you know you are a strong writer.