“I don’t want to be political,” my students will say, “what if the wrong person reads my application and suddenly hates my guts?”
I understand where my students are coming from. It can be scary to advertise one’s political views amid such contentious and polarized times, especially on the competitive chopping block of medical school admissions.
So, what’s the answer? Is it ever okay to be political during the application process?
As with many things in life, this isn’t just a catch-all, yes-or-no answer.
Regardless of the specific issue or where you stand, it all comes down to how you discuss the politics and whether the discussion is serving a clearly valuable purpose.
If you’re wondering what topics I’ve seen discussed in medical school essays and interviews, here is a short list of the most common:
These might seem like pretty controversial topics that are worth avoiding, but the truth is that all these candidates ended up getting into medical school.
So did they get lucky and just have the right interviewer or admissions officer?
Maybe, but I believe it’s because they utilized my advice well, which let them present their views in a palatable, balanced, and rhetorically savvy way.
What’s my advice? Well, if you stick to the following three rules, you should be able to discuss any issue, position, or stance.
This is a classic rhetorical strategy that helps make your argument sound more balanced, objective, and fair, especially if the person reading or listening happens to disagree with your position.
Concession: you start by admitting (or conceding) to the audience that the topic at hand is complex, contentious, and sensitive, with strong feelings and arguments on both sides. In other words, you say “There’s no easy answer or solution.”
Accommodation: even though it might pain you to do so, you should spend a lot of time accommodating the opposing perspective and pointing out what you see as being the most valid or valuable aspects of their argument.
Refutation: then finally, you can counter the opposing perspective with your own reasoning and explain how you feel like your arguments outweigh or negate those of the opposition.
Let’s say you were directly asked about abortion during an interview. Let’s put all the steps together and see how it could work:
Abortion is clearly a complex issue that has understandably divided people for decades. It’s easy to see why people would have such strong and opposing views on this topic, and I don’t think there’s an obvious or simple solution.
I can understand why pro-life people feel the way they do. Their principles are admirable, and I think most are approaching the issue from a place of good morals and intentions. From their perspective, the child is a separate entity from the mother and must be fully protected by the same laws governing anyone else. If I felt the same way–that abortion is essentially murder–then I too would be adamantly against the practice. It’s a perfectly reasonable position.
However, I value the mother’s autonomy and ability to make her own choices about her reproduction, especially as it relates to her safety and welfare. In an ideal world, no one would have to undergo an abortion, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and protecting abortion as a legal right seems preferable to the opposite circumstances. Limiting women’s autonomy in this way has negative consequences that I simply cannot accept or condone based on my own principles.
Even if this applicant encountered a pro-life interviewer, it’d be hard for them to find a lot of fault in this response, or at least in its presentation. It clearly shows the applicant’s ability to discuss a hot-button issue in a respectful, sensitive way, which will likely be important in their future career in medicine.
Although I would say that most people in the world of medical school admissions are left-leaning and progressive, it’s smart to think about whether the regions, philosophies, or vibes of your schools mesh with your own views.
Some medical schools have secondary essay prompts that indicate their own political ideologies, and from that, you can assume that they’d be pretty open to you discussing certain opinions. Here are some examples from the University of Minnesota, Miami Miller, and Loyola Stritch:
The University of Minnesota Medical School is committed to building an anti-racist community. Please share your reflections on, experiences with, and greatest lessons learned about systemic racism. (Consider this country's history, racism, racial injustice, anti-black racism, and the impact of the murder of Mr. George Floyd on the Minnesota/Twin Cities community).
What have you done to help identify, address and correct an issue of systematic discrimination?
Serving underserved and under-resourced communities is an expression of social justice. Describe an impactful experience in working with and for under-resourced communities. Explain what you have learned about yourself through this service OR what has hindered your efforts to serve others in these environments.
But don’t just assume all medical schools are this open to discussions of systemic racism, police brutality, etc. At the risk of sounding stereotypical, I’d say that you might want to be wary of addressing these topics for schools in southern or conservative states.
Same goes for something like abortion; you may want to investigate recent legislation surrounding reproductive rights for certain states in the country, which could indicate less enthusiasm for pro-choice narratives in your essays or interviews.
Similarly, there are some religious medical schools (like Loma Linda or Incarnate Word) that may have more conservative stances on issues surrounding reproduction or sexuality. If your views are left-leaning, I wouldn’t be too concerned about Jesuit schools (like Stritch, Georgetown, or Creighton) since they tend to be pretty liberal.
What do I mean by an “application narrative?” When I say that, I’m referring to your “brand” as an applicant.
For example, if you identify as LGBTQIA+ and started a mentoring program for LGBTQIA+ individuals at your college, I’d say that’s pretty central to your application narrative. This would give you further justification for making LGBTQIA+ rights a centerpiece of your essays and interviews, since it’s an unignorable aspect of your identity that is already on display through your resume of activities.
Another example would be if you’ve done research about implicit bias and institutional racism within medicine and their effect on outcomes for minority patients. Again, I’d say that’s a big aspect of your application narrative and would naturally lead to written narratives and interview answers surrounding the topic.
However, I don’t know how strategic it would be to raise these issues in your essays and interviews if you don’t have much of an established track record as an advocate, proponent, or ally. I wouldn’t say it’s totally off limits, but I feel like it could come across as less convincing or organic (or worse, as a form of “virtue signaling”).