June 7, 2021

Deconstructing Pre-Med Buzzwords: What Does ‘Critical Thinking’ Actually Mean?

By: Ryan Kelly

In my 9+ years of helping pre-meds write their personal statements and admissions essays, I have seen the phrase ‘critical thinking’ emerge thousands of times. And it’s easy to see why - it sounds good.

At its worst, it’s simply a stand-in buzzword for ‘intelligence,’ a particularly smart-sounding way to describe being smart. Pre-meds often insert it into their writing because they think it makes them sound academic, formal, and professional.

It has become an inescapable phenomenon - it’s one of the AAMC’s core competencies for medical students, and it appears in dozens of medical school mission statements (Howard, LECOM, Washington University St. Louis, and CUSM, just to name a few). It even appears as the topic of several secondary essays.

If you simply Google “critical thinking for pre-meds,” you’ll find everything from dense articles on the subject in medical journals to rants on SDN about how medical training actually discourages(!) critical thinking. 

Regardless of what you think about 'critical thinking,' it has unfortunately become a cliche in the pre-med world. But like most cliches, there is some truth behind it and its importance in the pre-med path.

As with most unavoidable pre-med cliches, the key goal is to “make it your own” through specific illustrations and examples from your own personal experiences. But before I show you how to do that, let’s look at a few important definitions of ‘critical thinking.’ First, here is the definition from the AAMC’s competences:

“Critical Thinking: Uses logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions, or approaches to problems.”

More broadly, here is the lengthy definition from The Foundation for Critical Thinking (yes, that’s a real thing):

“Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.”

Whew - that reminds me of my time as a humanities graduate student, parsing through complicated discourse that tries to make simple concepts sound more complex and extravagant. From this excerpt, you’d almost assume that ‘critical thinking’ simply means being an excellent bullshitter who can turn a fancy phrase.

In the spirit of my time as a graduate student, let me work in reverse to simplify something that’s needlessly complex, explain what ‘critical thinking’ really means to you as a pre-med, and show you how you can effectively demonstrate it to medical schools.

Deconstructing Pre-Med Buzzwords: What Does "Critical Thinking" Actually Mean?

Since I love the rhetorical “rule of three,” I want to break down the concept of ‘critical thinking’ into three interrelated components:

#1. Drawing Connections Across Disciplines, Settings, or Contexts

Rather than viewing information in a vacuum, a critical thinker will always seek to integrate their knowledge across their coursework, professional roles, and personal experiences.

You could consider ‘critical thinking’ as the opposite of memorization and regurgitation. It’s not simply about absorbing and reproducing information, but instead, it’s about actively applying that information outside of traditional formulas and parameters.  

#2. Asking Questions That Challenge Preconceived Ideas or the Status Quo

In one sense, ‘critical thinking’ means isolating the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind the ‘what.’ It means seeking an understanding of the reasoning, logic, mechanisms that underlie what’s on the surface.

In another sense, ‘critical thinking' means evaluating and challenging your own biases. It’s easy to find articles, opinions, and people who reinforce your viewpoints, but the ambitious thinker will seek dissenting opinions as a means of growth.    

#3. Finding Innovative Ways to Solve Problems

Basically, this is the difference between following protocols and performing expected duties versus experimenting with outside-the-box approaches and ideas.

This doesn’t mean disobeying rules or needlessly rocking the boat, but it does mean having the courage and initiative to reinvent or re-evaluate an existing system or project.

Specific Strategies to Show Your Critical Thinking as a Pre-Med

To make things more concrete, let’s look at some specific examples of ‘critical thinking’ that align with the criteria of our above definition. 

Strategy #1. Create Something New That Fills a Community Need

At Savvy Pre-Med, we are big proponents of something we call the Capstone Project, which is essentially an exercise in drawing connections between your talents, interests, available resources, and community’s needs.


The “Healing Cards” Project

Available resources: volunteer in an oncology unit

Need of community: hope and small acts of kindness during treatment

Innovative solution: personalized “get well” cards

The “EMS Ride-Along” Project

Available resources: president of Mustang EMS

Need of community: opportunities for hands-on medical experience

Innovative solution: ride-alongs with local fire department

The “Art Heals” Project

Available resources: board member for Partners in Wellness

Need of community: healthy outlet for hospital patients to express themselves

Innovative solution: facilitating art projects for individual patients

Why It’s Important for a Pre-Med:

In short, admissions committees want candidates with initiative, creativity, and innovative thinking who leave things better than they found them.

Strategy #2. Interact with People Who Disagree with You

It’s uncommon for people to intentionally seek out opposing beliefs, arguments, and viewpoints, and that’s because it’s uncomfortable. But that’s also why it’s so impressive and memorable.

If you find yourself repelled by a certain opinion, chances are you’re being closed-minded and not objective. Take a step back, acknowledge your biases, and re-approach the situation with curiosity rather than your own agenda.

And not only that - go a step further and find ways to engage with people who have different ideologies and perspectives than you!


  • Debates and dialogues between pro-choice and pro-life college students
  • Forums and panels that feature Zionist, Jewish, and Palestinian lecturers
  • Role-playing and simulations through your college’s bioethics organizations
  • Engage in conversations about moral, ethical, and medical topics as part of your college’s interfaith organizations
  • Participate in your college’s speech & debate teams
  • Organize events and exchanges as part of your college’s multicultural organizations 

Why It’s Important for a Pre-Med:

As a physician, you’ll be working with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Due to their cultural, socioeconomic, or religious views, they will likely hold opinions or beliefs (about medicine or life in general) that are incongruent with your own. Placing yourself in situations that force you confront and process this fact will strengthen your preparedness and maturity for medicine.  

Strategy #3. Complete an Interdisciplinary Project 

Medicine obviously goes hand-in-hand with several fields, like computer science or engineering, but it also overlaps meaningfully with just about every discipline - from economics to history to music.

Exploring these overlaps, especially if they're surprising or unusual, will help to illustrate your critical thinking and ability to think outside-the-box. 


  • A virtual reality app that helps diabetes patients visualize their disease and its effects on their kidneys
  • A project that evaluates classical music’s impact on childhood cognition and development
  • An engineered device that connects JUUL vapes to people’s cell phones to help them with smoking cessation
  • A research study that collects and analyzes theological end-of-life perspectives from patients of different religious backgrounds
  • A program that uses swimming and aquatic exercise to combat dementia
  • A traveling historical study of the Deep South and the medical impacts from the region’s diet, access issues, and cultural traditions 

Why It’s Important for a Pre-Med:  

Many medical schools emphasize and encourage an interdisciplinary approach to learning, so it’s wise to show them your track record for this type of thinking. It will also shows your ability to integrate different professions and draw meaningful connections across seemingly disparate fields of thought.  

Plus, the VAST majority of your future patients won’t have any connection to the healthcare field - instead, they will be teachers, engineers, lawyers, businesspeople, blue collar workers, etc. Having experience in different fields will ultimately make you a more well-rounded, relatable physician.  

Have any questions about critical thinking or other pre-med buzzwords? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll respond to you personally!

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