There are so many reasons why we decided to write Your White Coat is Waiting: Vital Advice for Pre-Meds but one of the biggest is that over the years, we have both seen people who would have become outstanding doctors but who made mistakes along the way that undermined their ability to get into medical school. When this happens, we all lose. That person loses the chance to pursue a career that is a good fit, their future patients lose, and the entire community loses.
The journey to medical school is a long one and isn’t always a clear path. That is another motivating factor for why we wrote the book. When you know where you’re going and the steps along the way, it reduces a lot of the fear and anxiety about the process. You are able to create an action plan that plots a course from where you are today to where you want to go.
It is great to have a central message you are trying to convey and then make sure that the different experiences you weave into the essay connect back with that point. Since medical schools have read about all of your experiences in the Work/Activities section, you only need to pick a few key experiences to write about in your personal statement rather than doing a narrative version of your resume.
For example, maybe your theme is teaching and learning. You could start the essay with an anecdote about observing a physician explaining a diagnosis to her patients and how you were inspired by her ability to convey the information in a way that her patients could receive and process it instead of finding it confusing. You could then transition into your own teaching experiences, whether you mentored or tutored younger kids or served as a teaching assistant in college. Finally, you could close by discussing learning and how critical a commitment to lifelong learning is, especially as a physician.
Other core themes could be the body in motion, the impact of loss, public health, global health challenges, resilience, etc.
One way to come up with potential themes is to create a list of every college class, experience, and activity and then print and cut out each item (or do this digitally, creating separate text boxes or images). Move the pieces around based on how you think different items might be connected.
Another option is to think back to your experiences that are the most vivid and impactful. Write a few sentences about each one and what it meant to you. Don’t worry about connecting it with others yet. Let’s say you end up writing 6 of these short paragraphs. Read back through and see whether you can identify a theme that connects them.
Also, keep your main goal in mind. You are trying to tell medical school admissions committees why you want to become a doctor. Make sure that whatever theme you choose answers this question and leaves the admissions committee eager to invite you for an interview. Happy writing!
I had the honor of attending a talk about how artists who had illnesses depicted their experiences in their work. Not only are the images extremely powerful, they also offer a valuable opportunity for the viewer to think about how they react to the art. Here are two notable artists who depicted their struggles with medical conditions: Robert Pope – A Canadian artist who died of Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 36. He created more than 90 works of art related to his illness and his interactions with physicians and other patients he met. To view some of his amazing art work and learn more about him, visit the Robert Pope Foundation website.
Frida Kahlo – She underwent over 35 surgeries in her lifetime and suffered from chronic pain after a car accident during her late teens. The following site offers a glimpse into the relationship between her physical pain and her art.
There are many great articles and books out there on this topic. Lisa Russ Spaar lists several in her article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Several of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Professor of Psychiatry Kay Redfield Jamison’s books also address this, specifically in the context of mental health.
As pre-meds, this is a great time to think about the relationship between medicine and the humanities. Looking at the connection between illness and art is one great way to do so.
As a pre-med advisor, I often visited different medical schools. Just about every tour included a stop at the gross anatomy lab to see the cadavers. One of the most memorable ones I saw was an older woman who had died after a long struggle with breast cancer. A double mastectomy had left deep scars across her chest. She also had a small plastic pouch near her neck. The anatomy professor giving the tour explained that the device had been implanted under her skin as a way to deliver the drug combination for her treatment. Through her generous gift, this woman was enabling students to see first-hand the way that cancer ravages the human body.
One of my students told me about her own experience learning human anatomy. During a special program during high school, “Rachel” got the chance to dissect a cadaver. She nicknamed her cadaver “Bob” and quickly got to work trying to identify how he had died. Bob was clearly a Harley Davidson kind of guy, who sported multiple tattoos and a beard. Upon examining Bob’s internal organs, Rachel saw that about five different things could have killed him. He had a severely damaged liver from years of drinking, blackened lungs from smoking, and a whole host of other conditions. Her teacher revealed that Bob had died from congestive heart failure. Rachel found it fascinating to examine his heart and see the plaque build-up in his blood vessels. Her experience confirmed that becoming a physician was the right path for her and she has worked hard to make it a reality. Throughout her time in medical school at Harvard and now after having completed her residency training, Rachel still thinks about Bob.
When you are in medical school, know that there are many people rooting for you. There are the obvious ones, like your friends and family, but there are also people like Bob. They want you to succeed in becoming the best physician you can be. Many medical schools have formal ceremonies to recognize the significance of these people’s gifts. Make sure to be thankful for those who have given their bodies to science so that you can learn human anatomy in a hands-on way instead of just through a computer simulation.