The Medical School Diversity Essay
Now that you’ve turned in your AMCAS (phew!), you’re probably wondering how to tackle the monster of secondaries coming your way. One of the most common questions asked in one form or another is the diversity essay for medical school. Have you ever wondered why diversity is such an important component of the medical school admission process? I’ve heard a lot of pre-med students eager to write this off as a political move on the behalf of medical schools, without taking the time to truly consider its value.
Of course, in the US we have a powerful tradition of diversity in higher education. Diversity in the classroom (and on campus) allows students to produce a “creative friction,” thereby improving the educational experience for all.
However, in the medical school context, diversity has an additional, more utilitarian purpose: it is crucial to the quality of medical care provided by these soon-to-be physicians. An ability to understand your patients — regardless of background — is an integral part of your life as a doctor.
So, now that we have solved the great admissions diversity mystery, we can get started on the actual essays. First, what does a “diversity essay” actually look like? Let’s take an example from one of Stanford Med School’s recent secondary applications:
“The Committee on Admissions regards the diversity (broadly defined) of an entering class as an important factor in serving the educational mission of the school. The Committee on Admissions strongly encourages you to share unique, personally important, and/or challenging factors in your background, such as the quality of your early educational environment, socioeconomic status, culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and life or work experiences. Please discuss how such factors have influenced your goals and preparation for a career in medicine.”
Or this question from Wake Forest School of Medicine:
“The Committee on Admissions values diversity as an important factor in the educational mission of the Wake Forest School of Medicine. How will you contribute to the diversity of your medical school class and to the medical community in general?”
Ultimately, these medical school diversity essays are all variations on the same question, “How are you different from other applicants, and how does that difference impact your ability to contribute in medical school and beyond?”
This prompt brings us to our first action point:
1. “Diversity” and “Underrepresented Minority” are not synonymous.
Have you ever heard someone lament, “[sigh]…I’m not a minority so I’m not diverse.” I have. Many times. Most frequently, this lamentation originates from a lack of creativity and fundamental understanding about what diversity means. As we’ve already discussed, diversity serves two purposes: 1) varying perspectives in a classroom and on campus so as to produce more comprehensive learning, and 2) Improving patient care once these applicants become newly-minted MDs.
Thus, while ethno-cultural, religious, or socioeconomic backgrounds are all forms of diversity, they are by no means the only forms of diversity. Indeed, diversity is anything about you which is special and which will allow you to satisfy the objectives of diversity as described above.
Multlingual? That’s diversity.
Been in the military? That’s diversity.
Had a rare disease as a child? That’s diversity.
Have a special personal quality (such as being a talented connector, or unusually high EQ)? Diversity.
Have a very specific and innovative career path in mind (e.g., using robotics to improve prosthetics)? Diversity.
Worked as a personal trainer or a nutritionist?….you see where I’m going with this. The key is not to narrowly define diversity, but instead to broadly construe how your “diverse elements” will allow you to contribute something unique to your prospective school and ultimately, your profession.
This brings us to our second action point:
2. Your “diversity” means nothing if it isn’t clearly connected to your potential contribution.
Sometimes, applicants get too caught up in the ways they are different, that they forget that being different is not an end, but a means to an end. These differences and unique qualities/experiences have to accomplish something. They have to help prove that you are deserving of a seat at the med school roundtable.
For example, being a chronic truant or two-time felon are certainly unique qualities and experiences for an applicant to medical school. Will they help you get in? Almost certainly not, and for obvious reasons. Best to focus on some other topic for your medical school diversity essay.
The point is simple: once you have identified what makes you unique, your primary task is to explain how that uniqueness will allow you to contribute something special in school and beyond.
This brings us to our third action point:
3. Diversity, as with all other parts of your application, requires evidence.
“I am the smartest person in the world.”
Really!? Are you actually the smartest person in the world? Prove it.
“I have unique insight into the needs of immigrant populations.”
Oh do you? And what, pray tell, gives you this incredible insight?
“I have always dreamed of being part of Doctors Without Borders, and helping to save the world one person at a time.”
Is that so? Because I don’t see a single international community service experience on your application…
…see where I’m going with this? Diversity, though it may be an intangible concept or quality, still requires tangible evidence. A diversity essay for medical school is not complete without a clear explanation of how your “diversity” relates to your experiences.
For example, if you are a first generation college student and the son/daughter of immigrants, you cannot just baldly state that this background gives you some crucial insight into the needs of immigrant populations. Although it seems plausible that you would know more than others who are from affluent, non-immigrant backgrounds, you still need to prove it. Make the connections explicit.
You could do this by providing anecdotes about your communication skills with immigrant families during your time with Habitat for Humanity. Or you could explain how you used your special insights and cross-cultural communication skills in becoming a leader in La Raza.
Ultimately, if what makes you diverse is that you have a very high capacity for empathy, you don’t need to have an activity on your AMCAS experiences section called “the society for people who empathize good and want to learn to do other things good too.” You just need to explain how your diverse element(s) have affected or motivated your activities, even if they seem totally unrelated.
E.g., “I am a motivator. I love motivating people to better their lives. That is why I worked as a nutritionist. Moreover, as a writing instructor at Dartmouth’s RWIT program, I had the opportunity not only to help students with their writing, but also to show them how exciting and fun it could be.” Please note: this is not from an actual essay, and if it was, it would not be especially good. This is just to demonstrate a point.
Thus, if you do decide to focus on ethnic, cultural, or religious diversity, the best approach is not to hammer the adcom with how significant your minority status is. Rather, a strong essay might focus on your activities which were committed to diversity and social justice issues; or on your pursuits which address health disparities between minority and non-minority populations; or experiences which provide tangible evidence of your cross-cultural competence during patient or client interactions. Of course, these three topics are not exhaustive, but might be a good place to start.
This brings us to our final, and most succinct point:
4. Using buzzwords doesn’t convince anyone
This is a common mistake among applicants who think that repeating buzzwords such as “diverse,” “multicultural,” “cross-cultural,” “underrepresented,” etc. will automatically convince an adcom that they are those things. It won’t. In fact, it is no more likely to convince them of your diversity credentials than if I tried to convince you of the quality of this article by simply repeating “this article is super informative and comprehensive, and it is likely the best thing you’ve read all week.”
In short: let your evidence and experience do the talking.
Schools like Yale, UC Berkeley, and many public universities ask their applicants questions about diversity. While this question is most common in graduate school applications, it does come up in undergraduate admissions. Yale requests that applicants for a supplementary scholarship respond to this prompt:
“A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.”
The Common Application also provides students with the opportunity to talk about some aspects of diversity in the first and fifth prompts.
What Does Diversity Mean?
Many students are baffled about what to write about themselves concerning diversity. Contributing to a school’s “diversity” doesn’t simply refer to the fact that you are a member of a racial or cultural minority. Diversity includes anything about a person’s background that will make his or her perspectives and skills unique. A person’s diverse skills and perspectives are from his or her geography, gender, socio-economic status, race, spiritual beliefs, family background and experiences, special skills and talents, etc.
For example, you might be a strong debater because you grew up in a family of eight, where everyone gave their opinion about a news article over dinner. Or, you might wake up at dawn to start reading and exercising, because you were raised on a farm where the work day started at sunrise. Colleges want a diverse student body so that students can learn about life from each other, as well as from their professors.
Why Do Colleges Ask About Diversity?
Colleges want students to be teachers as well as students. In college, students learn not only from books and professors, but from each other. However, if everyone is exactly the same, what can they learn from each other? So a diverse student body made up of different races, family backgrounds, and beliefs brings a wider viewpoint and perspective and helps in the educational process. Colleges also want students to learn to accept new ideas. A diverse student body does that. The new idea you learn could be something very simple, like your roommate may prefer to eat with chopsticks, has her own pair, and teaches you how to hold them correctly. Harvard’s stated goal is to “promote equity, diversity & inclusion within our School and the greater community.”
What is a Common Mistake in Diversity Essays?
Common mistakes: The college you are applying to will already know your racial and socio-economic demographics through their application form. This means when they ask you to write about diversity in the essay, they are not simply trying to determine your race or ethnic background. In addition, don’t make the mistake of writing something along the lines of “I am diverse.” One person is not diverse on his or her own.
Questions about diversity are looking to determine how your skills and talents make you just the right puzzle piece to fit into the jigsaw puzzle made up of all students on a campus.
Also, students will sometimes think they have nothing to say about diversity because they are not a member of a minority. You might think, “I’m white, what can I write in a diversity essay?” The answer is: A lot! A thousand experiences from your past and dreams for your future make you different from your best friend and from someone you’ve never met. Your essay on diversity should show the college how you will bring your unique point of view to the classroom and campus. What has your grandmother taught you? What book has affected you? Is there a person you try to emulate? Depending on the exact essay question, your essay could also discuss a time when you learned something from someone with a very different background.
A sample diversity essay:
Below is a good example of a college admissions essay about diversity, written by an Essay Coaching student in 2005. Since then, the author has been admitted to his top choices for both undergraduate and professional education, both of which are ranked in the top 10 by US News and World Report.
Why is this a good example of a diversity essay? Read the essay, and read the explanation underneath.
People see me as tall and black, but I am more than that: I am a lawyer in the making. As a 6 foot 5, 220 pound black man, I walk through the crowded corridors of Northern High School drawing looks from nearly everyone. Often people stop to ask me, “Are you on the basketball team?”
To most I simply answer “No.” However, when it is someone I know, and I would like to give them more information, I tell them, “No, but I play lacrosse.” On the rare occasion that a Northern basketball player asks me, I answer yet another way. Anticipating a chance to join in an after-school pick-up game, I tell them that I don’t play basketball—but I’m good.
My tall white friends have told me they are rarely asked about their involvement in sports and it is mostly black people who ask me these questions. I have come to the conclusion that everyone looks at me from the outside in, looking at my height, my race, even my size 16 feet to determine what they think of me.
I wish people could see the logic in my veins, the law in my lungs, the mock trial on my mind, and the admiration in my heart for both Clarence Darrow—for his willingness to take on challenging cases, and Johnnie Cochrane—for his ability to win them.
I will bring to your university the same qualities I see in my role models: drive, determination, and a logical mind.
Why is this a strong diversity essay?
This is a strong diversity essay NOT because this essay discusses the author’s racial minority status. Rather, this is a strong essay because it:
- Gives the reader a memorable, distinct image of the writer (for example, size 16 feet)
- Reveals the writer’s self-insight (“To most I simply answer “no”… I have come to the conclusion that…)
- Shows his tolerance of others’ views (“When it is someone I know, and I would like to give them more information, I tell them “no, but I play lacrosse”.)
- Provides a great deal of impressive detail about his goals and interests in a compact, compelling way. Although he the writer is talking about ideas, he relates them to his physical self and his activities, so the reader can “see” and remember his ideas more easily. “I wish people could see the logic in my veins, the law in my lungs, the mock trial on my mind, and the admiration in my heart for both Clarence Darrow—for his willingness to take on challenging cases, and Johnnie Cochrane—for his ability to win them.”
Are You Looking for a College That Emphasizes Diversity?
The literature from many colleges emphasizes increasing diversity on their campuses, and many schools, including Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the University of Kentucky, have entire departments dedicated to diversity. Harvard’s stated goal is to “promote equity, diversity & inclusion within our School and the greater community.” Frank Bruni argues here that diverse demographics are not the entire solution. Bruni admires colleges with programs that encourage a diverse student body to interact:
“Davidson is coaxing campus organizations and even using off-campus trips to orchestrate conversations between white and black students, between religious students and atheists, between budding Democrats and nascent Republicans. By prioritizing these kinds of exchanges, the school sends the message that they matter every bit as much as the warmth and validation of a posse of like-minded people. At Denison University, near Columbus, Ohio, there are special funds available to campus groups that stage events with other, dissimilar groups. Adam Weinberg, the college’s president, told me that he’d attended a Seder at which Jewish students played host to international students from China.”
Read more how to answer the about the diversity question for a college application essay here.
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