By: Ryan Kelly
The dreaded “diversity question.”
Each year, as students fill out their secondary applications, they’re bombarded with essay prompts about their “diverse qualities,” “unique insights,” or “unusual life experiences.” Schools will usually ask how these qualities, insights, or experiences will contribute to their campus or environment.
Pre-meds are quick to label themselves as average, normal, or even boring. Every example or topic they can muster sounds lame. What was once a crisis of writing is now a crisis of identity, and they start calling their whole application (and life?) into question.
Does this sound like you? Never fear! We have three tips for helping self-proclaimed “average” students find something to say.
Tip #1 - Think Small
A student might profile herself and think, “I’m white, middle class, and suburban. I’ve played on the tennis team, volunteered clinically, and written for my school’s academic science journal. How the heck am I supposed to sound diverse?”
The problem here is that she’s thinking too broadly. But if she narrows her scope, let’s say to one summer or maybe even one afternoon, she has a better chance to find an interesting angle for her essay. She could also choose to focus on one small aspect of her “average” activities.
For example, let’s say she petitioned to change the format of her school’s academic journal to increase female or minority voices within the final product. This might have taken two months, or maybe only two days, but the effort represents something larger about the student’s conscientious attitude. Her “diversity” arises from her emphasis on the diversity of her classmates. By being unafraid of change and taking on a challenge, she created a more inclusive community with fairer representation.
In her clinical volunteering, she might spend time discovering patients’ interests and then start a small program to cater to those interests. Maybe she organizes a small cohort of volunteers to check patients’ favorite books in and out of the local library. Maybe she recruits a few musicians to play violin for patients during visiting hours. Maybe she fundraises for art supplies that patients can use as a creative way to relax or find peace. The idea would be to contribute in a small, meaningful way, even if you’re limited within your role; if it works out, it will be something memorable for patients AND admissions committees.
Tip #2 - Go Off Paper
If students rely strictly on their resumes to capture their diversity, they might find themselves sounding like everyone else. Instead, it’s great to share an additional “X factor” that cannot be quantified or neatly captured in resume bullet points.
For example, let’s say you enjoy fiddling around with GarageBand or another type of music editing software. Or let’s say you’ve made it your mission to complete the painfully difficult New York Times Saturday crossword puzzle. Or let’s say you’ve stretched your body for months in order to capture an impeccable firefly pose in yoga. These stories make you unique, and you shouldn’t write them off as being trivial. As long as you can expand the meaning behind the activities, nothing is off limits!
It can sometimes be difficult to recall these moments, events, or quirky pastimes, especially since students haven’t bothered to record them for their bragging rights. But that’s also why they’re a great angle for an essay -- they are unique and memorable. They reveal deeper layers to a student’s individuality by showing the life behind the application.
Tip #3 - Failure is Just as Diverse as Success
Most of a student’s failures and shortcomings will be hidden from the application, and for good reason. However, it’s smart to consider using past failures as a way to show diversity, especially if the shortcoming contains memorable lessons or insights.
This failure should probably be small in scale, and it’s best if it doesn’t affect a large group of people. A good example would be bombing at a comedy open mic, or that one week you tried in vain to master the bagpipes. Maybe your flambe burnt to a crisp and set off the smoke alarm. Or maybe you tried and failed to design the next big iPhone app.
Research, leadership, and teaching are areas where pre-meds often experience failure (understandably). Their first experiment, event, or lesson doesn’t go as planned, so they make adjustments to see if they can get better results. But sometimes, even after this trial and error, they still come up short. That’s okay! Some of the best insights come from our mistakes, and dealing with failure shows your resilience, patience, and maturity.
Whatever your particular failure happens to be, there’s probably a lesson you can share that will spin the negative into a positive and reveal your unique, individual perspective. Don’t be afraid to stretch for meaning or attach deeper significance; with enough creativity, any experience can leave a dominant impression on the reader.
We hope that you’re feeling less “average” now, and that you’ve got several ideas brewing for that pesky “diversity question.”