By: Savvy Pre-Med Staff
Other than the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest news topics in 2020 were police brutality, systemic racism, and the need for greater equity in the United States.
The medical school admissions world has joined this conversation, notably through a slew of AAMC webinars and events that focus around the concept of equity in healthcare and medical education.
Certain medical schools, like Loyola Stritch School of Medicine, added new secondary essay prompts last cycle (2020-2021) that specifically addressed the problems of inequities and how to solve them. It's likely that these prompts will be featured again in 2021-2022.
Let’s take a look at these new prompts and consider some do’s and don’ts about how to answer them in your secondary essays.
In the past, Loyola Stritch’s secondary prompts were fairly typically, albeit rather long (500 words maximum), with essays about your challenges, diversity, gap year plans, and alignment with the school’s Jesuit ideal of “becoming a person for others.”
Last year, the school kept its 500-word limits, but it adjusted nearly all its prompts, including these two questions that center around social justice and disadvantaged populations:
2. Social justice in the Jesuit tradition, justice due each person by virtue of their own inherent human dignity, is an essential dimension of education at SSOM. What have you learned from your concrete social justice experiences? How do you plan to sustain your efforts to advocate for current social justice issues as a medical student and as a physician?
3. 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.
These prompts are not as overt and politicized as a school like the University of Minnesota - whose recent prompts specifically mention a “reckoning of race” and drop names like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor - but we believe these changes to Loyola’s prompts are partially inspired by the recent racial and political turmoil.
With that in mind, how do you go about answering these sensitive, hot-button questions in your secondary essays?
Focus on One (or Maybe Two) Specific, Concrete Experiences
It’s tempting to tell medical schools about every single one of your advocacy, outreach, and service experiences, but you will dilute the power of them if you cram them all together into a single response. Even with 500 words, this approach will end up feeling like a list or a narrated resume. It might also run the risk of sounding like you weren’t that committed or invested in any individual effort.
Instead, utilize storytelling to give the reader an in-depth look at ONE of your social justice experiences - a meaningful interaction, a single event, etc. - and then explain how this example represents your overall values and commitment.
Show a Degree of Continuity in Your Efforts
As exhibited in the first prompt for Loyola above, medical schools want to see sustained effort and dedication to a cause. They also want to know how the involvement will continue to affect your perspective and actions in the future as a medical student and physician.
So, the ideal flow for one of these essays might look something like this:
Para 1 - detailed story about a meaningful social justice experience
Para 2 - what you learned and how it changed your perspective (Bonus: include small supporting examples of your subsequent similar efforts)
Para 3 - how it relates to larger systemic issues in society and/or medicine
Para 4 - how will you continue combating the issue as a medical student (Bonus: bring up concrete avenues for this meeting this goal at Loyola Stritch)
Explain the Personal Relevance Behind Your Involvement
A lot of applicants have accumulated volunteering because they know that they need those hours in order to get accepted. That means that schools will see a lot of similar experiences - homeless shelters, food banks, free clinics - and potentially view them with skepticism as a way for candidates to complete their pre-med checklist.
So, if possible, it’s wise to explain the personal relevance behind your specific choices in your volunteering. For example, one applicant had several interactions with homeless people a few blocks from his university’s dining hall, where he learned about the terrible quality of the food being served to them at shelters. This glaring disparity in food security inspired him to create a kitchen and food delivery service that increased the quality and nutritional value that the shelters could provide.
This kind of initiative and personal motivation will be a lot more compelling to medical schools than simply logging hours at the local shelter.
Don’t Get TOO Political
The secondary essays are not the appropriate time to put your political allegiances on display. Avoid criticism or praise towards any political parties. Not only does this run the risk of offending readers who don’t share your particular views, but it also tends to lead to dense, expository essays that don’t SHOW anything about you. Your essays need to do more than “talk the talk.” They need to “walk the walk.”
Don’t Fall into the Trap of the “Savior Complex”
Even if your social justice efforts have been large-scale and influential, you must acknowledge them as one small step in the right direction. It’s very unflattering and naive to present yourself as solving the country’s most pressing problems on your own, so don’t exaggerate or self-aggrandize. Also, it’s wise to show a “two-way street” dynamic in these experiences, where you’re not only helping the cause but also learning from those you serve.
Don’t Blame COVID-19 for Your Lack of Involvement
It’s obvious that the pandemic has restricted applicants in their ability to safely volunteer and make meaningful contributions. BUT that excuse won’t be very convincing to medical schools since many candidates have found creative ways to volunteer virtually or in socially distanced ways. Save the COVID-19 limitations for an essay that specifically asks about them.
Have any questions about Loyola Stritch’s prompts or secondary essays in general?
Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll respond to you personally!