The current Twitter storm about grad school applications made me consider my own applications. My thoughts span more than a 280 character length, so I decided to write a blog post that I have toyed with writing for a while but was never certain about how it would impact me professionally.
The first time I applied to MD/PhD programs I got rejected. Completely. Not a single interview. It hurt – a lot. I applied again the following year and ended up turning down interviews. So, what changed?
There were a few factors. I finished my Masters program in that time and had been able to present my research at a few conferences, but I made another major change: my essays. For those who don’t know, MD/PhD applicants in the USA write 3 primary essays whose prompts, for all intents and purposes, are:
- Why medicine?
- Why MD/PhD?
- Describe your research experience.
The first time I applied I naively followed the advice of those around me:
- Don’t be cliche
- Don’t tell them you’ve always wanted to be a doctor
- Don’t tell them that you want to help people
- Don’t tell them that you love research
- Don’t tell them about your personal experiences
Over and over, I was told these things were cliche and would bore admissions officers. So I trod carefully, tried to be honest and interested but not cliche. Unfortunately, in doing so, I couldn’t write about me and my motivations. Instead, my essays were devoid of personality and said very little about me (obviously, I didn’t really think that when I submitted them, but it is clear to me looking back). I was so scared of being cliche because I was told that would get me rejected immediately and I was desperate to avoid personal anecdotes because supposedly that’s what everyone did and it was boring.
“We were told that in writing “I have always wanted to be a doctor” we were assuring rejection. So I tried to hide this fact in my initial applications, feeling that admitting my passion would make me appear naive and uninformed. I realize now that my prolonged dedication to practicing medicine has always been one of my greatest strengths.”
– A portion of my “Why MD?” essay (second attempt)
The second time I applied (after my pre-med advisor told me not to bother because I wouldn’t get in), I figured “screw them;” I wanted to be honest and I was giving it one more chance, so I would be myself.
I wrote and re-wrote many times. I am lucky enough to have a patient partner who is a fantastic editor. In my “why medicine” essay, I did write that I have wanted to be a physician for as long as I can remember, that I wanted to help people, and that I like science. In my “why MD/PhD” essay I talked about my curiosity and interest in science. I didn’t have defined ideas of how I could contribute to the field; I just knew I wanted to. Of course, my first drafts were terrible piles of cliched phrases and analogies but by the end they were a little better (though they are still painful for me to read now).
Those aren’t the only topics I wrote in the essays. I framed my “why MD” essay with a personal anecdote (not related to familial sickness, although that had been an earlier draft). My MD/PhD essay began with an example of my curiosity; I had to be hammered over the head with the idea of “showing, not telling” and by the 100th draft I finally got a little better at it.
“I had my first coherent (but decidedly unethical) research idea when I was 13. I wanted to have identical quintuplets and then charge each of my best friends to raise them separately and watch how they developed. I knew that it neither practical nor ethical, but was interested in the nature/nurture debate and this seemed like a fantastic way to study it.”
– The beginning of my MD/PhD essay (second attempt)
What is the point of this post?
I think there are many things you could take away from this. At this moment, the purpose of writing this is to speak to those students writing and submitting essays and worrying about sounding cliched and boring. Reading conversations on Twitter and being scared that their applications are being thrown into the reject pile for sounding too much like everyone else. Reading conversations from faculty about how all essays sound the same certainly don’t help these feelings.
I do not mean to imply they should be ignored. There is an important point to be found in the unpleasantness: we need to find a way to stand out. Don’t let those types of comments stop you writing about the reasons that you want to enter a program. If people say your reasons are cliched, that’s okay. You can still write about them. Instead of being concerned about your reasons being “wrong” or “boring,” focus on finding a way to share your curiosity and passions in a way that illustrates who you are and why someone would want to accept you.
Note: I am not going into all of the details of what changed between my applications or providing my full essays, but if you are interested in reading them, or want advice on reapplying, feel free to reach out. Also, I do not think the essays I wrote the second time around were amazing in any way, but they reflected personality, and I think that made a difference.