The dreaded “why medicine” question is a high yielding component that can either make or break an applicant. Every year, hundreds of academically qualified individuals still get rejected not due to their intellectual deficits, but because they lacked a clear and defining story as to why they’re pursing medicine. Remember, schools want to ensure that their potential students are both academically competent as well as strongly committed before they send an acceptance letter. The latter is exemplified through a compelling reason as to why they’re pursing medicine. Furthermore, its ubiquity throughout the interview process is often met with unoriginal responses such as ‘I like science’ or ‘I like helping people’. That’s why having a unique story remains one of the most impactful ways to distinguish yourself from others. So how does one successfully accomplish this? In this post, I aim to help you navigate toward an answer. I’ll offer strategies that will help you develop not only an answer, but a compelling narrative. This will help you tremendously not only in crafting your personal statement, but also throughout the entire application cycle.
Why is it Difficult to Answer?
Before we dive in, let’s quickly go over why this question can be so tricky to answer. First of all, you are navigating through a minefield of bad responses. Money, prestige, and big yachts are a few that come to mind. Many have also heard the familiar tales regarding interviewers who will try to poke holes in your argument. The infamous “why not nursing?” is a follow up that will stump many applicants without the adequate preparation. Therefore, the notion that some answers are ‘good’, while others are not brings about some anxiety that makes it difficult to formulate an original and thoughtful answer.
Another reason is a mental fallacy that occurs during the reflective process. Many applicants try to pinpoint a single event or patient interaction as the capstone for their motivation. That one, single epiphany. While this might hold true for some, for others it’s more of a gradual process, and their motivations develop steadily over time. An interest in science or service might have prompted that initial drive, but it requires a bit more digging to explain why that has prompted you to devote endless hours into volunteering, shadowing, or research. In short, you must forge your experiences together into a longitudinal story, which leads into:
How to Approach This Question
Schools ask ‘why medicine’ because they want insight into your motivations and incentives. Believe it or not, bad doctors do exist, and the admission committees want to ensure that their future students will hold the patient’s best interests at heart. One of the few concrete ways to gauge such factors are through experience and reflection. Think of it as building a pyramid. Your foundational experiences are what delivers credible weight behind your overarching motives. Too often, students approach this process backwards by tossing out motivations or reasons without the adequate underlying support. When interviewers scrutinize their answers, those who lack this foundation quickly see their arguments fall apart.
My advice for anyone who hasn’t thought it through is to take five minutes and map out your entire pre-med journey. Don’t just think about it, physically write it down on a sheet of paper. Your brain is very adept at remembering individual memories, but it’s atrocious with establishing connections between multiple events. Start with a blank sheet and draw a line across the middle. This represents your timeline, starting when you first decided that you wanted to become a doctor. Then, you branch out into your interests, passion, and motivations. Logically, these will likely lead into extracurricular activities (pt care, research, etc). Your goal is to lay out all the pieces, then take a birds eye’s perspective in order to pick out interrelated components or themes that you never knew existed or realized.
Along the way, consider the following:
- What was it that initially interested you?
- What did this motivate you to do?
- Because of it, how has it changed you as a person, or your perception of medicine, for better or worse?
- How does it make you a better doctor in the future?
- Have your motivations, interests, or personal values changed over time?
These are only a few guiding questions, but it should drive the reflective type of thinking that goes beyond just technical descriptions. Once you have your map, you can begin connecting your experiences together. Start grouping them into batches based on any recurring elements or underlying interests. Perhaps it might be global health, or research, or a dedication in working with the underserved. It doesn’t have to be complex. For me, my main themes were teaching and curiosity. My passion for teaching led me to tutor throughout college and lead training sessions in my clinical volunteer program, while my curiosity propelled an interest in learning about health policies and web development. The key is to find a few points of emphasis that are validated through multiple experiences.
Constructing Your Narrative
Once you have synthesized your experiences into clear categories, the next step is crafting a story. A narrative requires sequential episodes and an overarching purpose. Similarly, your story will need a central theme that can spark the admission committee’s interest. I would compare this process with making a burrito. Stay with me here. All your experiences and qualifications represent the beans, meat, and veggies. They are all flavorful components, but when served as is, are only considered a pile of incoherent mush. Your central theme is the tortilla. It rolls all your ingredients into a presentable and cohesive form. As such, when the admission committee members bites into the burrito, all the delicious filling, aka your experiences, will pour out in a delicious cascade of greatness that leave them completely speechless.
Now let’s get down into the different types of tortillas, I mean themes. After reading a great number of personal statements, I have compiled it down to four major themes. Each are listed below, and are compelling in their own way. I have also included tips and strategies for each individual theme. Keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list. As the writer, you have the option to pick a single theme, combine multiple themes together, or to simply craft your own. The power is in your hands. Get creative.
Theme I. Personal Impact: Something happened to you or someone very close to you (ie: personal injury or family tragedy) that focused your attention toward the medical field. Perhaps you saw the limitations of medicine, or it made you realize the sacredness of the human life. This theme is extremely powerful because it gives you the chance to talk about medicine from the other side. What was it like seeing a loved one as a patient, or even being a patient yourself? What did the doctor do that interested you? Exploring questions like these gives a power perspective on the realities of medicine, indicating that you know what you’re signing up for.
- Do: Talk about what that experience has meant to you, how it’s changed your values, and your outlook on both medicine and life. Reflect on the physician interactions you came across, and use it as a catalyst to dive into your other experiences. Also, discuss ways in which the adversity and growth you’ve achieved from overcoming this event will help you become a better physician in the future.
- Don’t: Victimize yourself. Personal tragedies are impactful and can be quite life changing, but you should always approach the situation as ‘here’s what I did with the cards that I was dealt’, instead of ‘here’s why you should feel sorry for me’. Don’t dwell on the reactive side of what has already happened to you. Instead, dig deep into the proactive side of what it has inspired you to do.
Theme II. Pivoting: This is a common themes among non-traditional applicants, but is also applicable to older students who switched undergraduate majors or decided later on to pursue medicine. Perhaps you held a job in a different field outside of medicine, or maybe you found your previous work unfulfilling. Ultimately, the courage it takes to make a dramatic change, and the enriching life experiences that are accompanied with higher age can make this narrative mature and compelling
- Do: Employ your difference as an advantage. Experience in the job market generally equates to a more developed and pragmatic outlook. If you are switching from a different field, dig into how you are able to leverage your experiences outside of medicine. Although the fields may be unrelated, the personal growth aspects are not. Strong utilization of non-medical experiences can still demonstrate many of the same qualities that medical schools are looking for, as well as adding an extra layer of diversity in your application.
- Don’t: Bash on your previous employer, industry, or field of study. You can talk about the aspects that prompted you to make a change, but do so in an intelligent way. Lay out these specific reasons and then quickly turn it back to yourself (ie: I found my past job/field unsatisfying for reasons A and B, but with further self reflection, found that I am very passionate about medicine due to reasons C and D). Also, make sure you know that your work history does not exempt you from having to acquire medical and patient related experiences.
Theme III. Early Exposure: You were introduced to medicine at a very early age, either through the presence of a physician in your immediate family, or through some early exposure that ignited the spark. The challenging aspect is that you will need to demonstrate personal growth. If the former applies to you, you must show the adcom that you really went above and beyond to seek additional exposure other than what you observed at home. If the latter applies, you must take the reader on a vivid journey to reveal the positive qualities about yourself through a vibrant narrative.
- Do: Use the mapping exercise I explained, for it is highly effective in constructing this story. Begin mapping this timeline when you were a child, as these naive or childish reasons may often later blossom into robust inspirations. Dress your narrative with vivid imagery and rich detail. Guide your reader on an adventure. Layer your experience so that each builds off the other, with strong reflective statements along every step of the way.
- Don’t: Just list off activities; holding the reader’s attention is key. Never ever come across sounding entitled. Just because you started shadowing your mom/dad in middle school does not guarantee you admission. Also, personal growth is imperative to this argument. If you started volunteering a long time ago, and you still do, then what has changed? For it to be compelling you must show how your interests and motivations have compounded over time.
Theme IV: Medical Metaphors: This theme is great for artists, athletes, musicians and the likes. For the majority of your life, you have been passionately dedicated to a single craft, whether that be playing saxophone or football. Crafting a clever comparison between your endeavor and the study of medicine can be extremely effective. After all, medicine is all about overcoming adversity and improving your craft. This theme allows you to imply that the progress and achievements you’ve made from your endeavors will translate well into your future potential as a physician.
- Do: Talk about the procurement of grit, perseverance, and self discipline, which are the most relevant skills in acquiring mastery. Reflect on whether this endeavor somehow introduce you to medicine. (ie: sports injury, or performing music at hospitals). You must also weave in your clinical related experiences into the comparison, and draw thoughtful similarities from your specific endeavor and the aspects you enjoyed from patient care.
- Don’t: Overdo it. The comparison should be able to stimulate the reader’s imagination, so don’t try and list out every single similarity. You’re not building a venn diagram here. In addition, don’t just solely talk about your endeavor. As mentioned above, you’ll need to straddle the balance between discussing your endeavor and synthesizing your meaningful patient experiences. Remember that you are still applying to become a doctor, not the next Tom Brady.
- Always make your narrative interesting. The worst thing you can do is to sound generic or cliche. Admission committees are reading hundreds and hundreds of applications everyday. Don’t allow yours to get lost in the pile.
- Everyone’s story will be unique and different. Leverage your own strengths, and embrace your weaknesses. Never compare your narrative with that of others. You can’t change the past, so don’t let it drag down your confidence.
- Talking about unfortunate events or somber moments are completely fine, but don’t dwell on it. No one wants to attend your pity party. Focus on how you’ve grown and matured since that event.
- It’s okay to combine elements from multiple themes if more than one is applicable to your story. As always, moderation is key.
- Your journey through medicine does not have to be overwhelmingly positive. You’re not expected to like or enjoy every aspect that you come across. In fact, someone who recognizes and elaborates on these factors show a lot more depth and maturity than someone claiming that they loved everything they saw.
Hopefully, this article has empowered you with the tools necessary to construct a compelling narrative. The application process can be grueling, but keep your eye on the prize. Don’t get discouraged along the way. It takes a lot of self reflection and guts to write about many of the vulnerable topics that lie beneath our motivations, and the hard work that you invest will eventually pay off in the future. If you feel that you are still stuck, or in need of some additional assistance, please feel free to reach out to me. Good luck, and thanks for reading.