From an application committee’s perspective, it makes sense why essays are such a crucial part of the selection process. Standardized tests and GPAs tell colleges about your work ethic, but essays tell them about ambition, perspectives, and personality.
Granted that you have a solid GPA and standardized test scores, essays are really going to be the “push” factor that help you get a BS/MD interview. The entire essay process (if done properly) is quite lengthy and can take up to several months. So again, the best way to set yourself up for success, especially for BS/MD programs that often have application deadlines earlier than most regular undergraduate universities, is by starting early. Below, I’ve divided up the essay-writing process into three different parts and included some tips of what to do during each part so that you’ve got a better idea on how to get started!
Every school and every program has a unique focus and different philosophy. When selection committees decide which applications to accept, they try to envision how well that student will fit into their campus community. Thus, it is important for you to emphasize in your essays how well aligned your personal philosophy is with the school’s philosophy (because then you’ll seem like a natural fit). Before you can really get into that, though, you of course need to first figure out what the school’s philosophy is. And to do that, there’s really only one way – research!
Doing research can at times feel like a drag, but in fact it can also be an exciting process. Think about it; this is the school you could potentially be spending the next 4+ years of your life, so don’t you want to figure out what the people/location/classes are like? Sometimes, while you’re doing research, you’ll actually figure out that this school isn’t the best pick for you. In which case, great, you’ve saved yourself an unnecessary application! Other times, research might actually excite you because all of a sudden, you’ve realized how interesting the school is and how much you actually really want to go there. Either way, research is only going to ever help you, so it’s something that is mandatory for you to do.
With BS/MD schools, the research process get’s a little bit more complicated. Because on top of researching the undergraduate school and it’s focus, you also have to research the medical school and what their philosophy is. In your essays, you will likely have to mention both, so skimping out and only do research on one (whether that’s the undergraduate school and not the medical school or vice versa) is going to hurt your chances.
So what’s the best way to do research? The easiest answer is through the university website. You can figure out just from the home page what are the most successful aspects of that school (because of course every school wants to brag about their accomplishments, and naturally, the best way to do that is by displaying them is on their home page). You can also look into the different departments and classes that the school offers. This could be key if you’re looking for a specific subject that maybe not a lot of schools offer. For example, one field that I wanted to learn more about in my college years was health policy; unfortunately, that’s a pretty unique field that not a lot of schools offer an entire major or minor on. The University of Rochester, however, did! Likewise, another field that I wanted to pursue in both my undergraduate and medical school years was neuroscience. Through my research, I found out that the Rochester’s Medical School has invested a lot of money into their neurology department and it is in fact one of their most successful departments. Thus, for me, it was an ideal fit. All this information I gathered simply by going online and surfing through university websites. For factual and statistical information, I definitely recommend this method. To find out more about the school’s ambiance and philosophy, though, I’d recommend speaking to upperclassmen, which I’ll talk about further down below.
When you initially start out with the essay writing process, you might find it difficult to figure out what ideas to put down on paper. Well the best way to fix that is to find inspiration from other, successful essays. There’s plenty of books you can get from the library or essays you can find online from students who successfully got into top undergraduate schools and medical schools. Read as many of them as possible and figure out what they did well, then try to do it yourself! It’s okay if your words don’t seem to flow as well as theirs; at this point, your focus should be getting all potential ideas on paper, not the fluidity of your writing. The more essays you read, the more ideas you get. Just make sure to avoid plagiarizing or molding your thoughts and experiences to better parallel those in the essay you just read; it can be tempting, but the point of this is to draw inspiration from others’ essays and to use that to help you find your own voice, not for you to simply take somebody else’s words/ideas and make them yours.
In my experience, I have always found that the best piece of advice comes from older students who have recently and successfully (or sometimes even unsuccessfully) gone through exactly what I’m going through. This is relevant with the college application process, the BS/MD interview process, the college decision process, and even all of college itself. In general, you will find that people who are successful in their endeavors, whether that be acing a class or getting into their dream school, have done certain things to ensure success. If that’s the case, then you want to find out exactly what they did and try to repeat it so that you too can experience the same successes as them. If, on the other hand, they were unsuccessful at something, they probably have an idea as to why and what they would do differently if they could go back in time. In that situation, you should take their advice so that you can learn from their experience and avoid making the same mistakes and facing the same problems. Either way, there is always something to learn from older, wiser students. Everyone always says that hindsight is 20/20, so why not take advantage of someone who’s got that perfect vision when you don’t?
In specific regards to the “Pre-Writing” process for BS/MD applicants, talking to upperclassmen is beneficial when you’re trying to figure out more about the culture of a given program. For example, what type of learning environment does the program foster? Do they encourage you to explore interests (both academic and otherwise) beyond medicine, or do they expect you to stick to science subjects? How hands-on is the program faculty and how committed do they seem to your success? What is the program’s philosophy or outlook on medicine as a progressing field? You may be able to find answers to some of these questions online, but by speaking to upperclassmen, you will get more authentic and realistic answers. These are students who know better than anyone what their program is looking for and what its focus is. So by talking to them, not only will you get a understanding of the program itself, but you might also get some tips and tricks as to what specifically to emphasize in your essays. In my experience, there really is no down side to talking to older, wiser, more experienced students, so if you have the opportunity to do so, always go for it!
The other advantage in talking to upperclassmen is the possibility that they might share some of their essays with you. When I first started out with the “Why do you want to be a doctor” essay, I had absolutely no idea where to begin. So I reached out to one of my friends (actually she’s a friend of a friend… but hey, any connection should be explored!) who was about to enter medical school that fall and asked her if she would mind sending me her medical school essays. She gladly did, and in fact essays were really helpful in showing me how to write medical school applications (since that is essentially what you are doing with BS/MD applications). Not every person is going to feel comfortable giving you their essays, so if they say no, don’t take it personally. But you really have nothing to lose, so I would just try it out and ask. If they say yes, then great! Otherwise, no worries, because in today’s generation of technology, you should have no problem finding plenty of essays online.
Most students often overlook the Pre-Writing process, but it is in fact one of the best ways to help set yourself up for BS/MD success. Follow the above tips, and you’ll likely have a leg up from other applicants. In the next post, I’ll go more in depth on what to do during the actual writing process itself, so be ready to see that!
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