Do’s and Don’ts for Medical School Applicants When Addressing Personal Experiences With Illness

Many aspiring physicians have had an up-close encounter with illness that has influenced their decision to become a medical doctor. Some have battled a disease at a particular point in the past while others have chronic medical conditions that continue to be a part of their lives. There are also those who have not personally suffered from a medical condition but have seen its impact on a loved one.

Medical school applicants often reflect on such experiences in their personal statements, their supplemental applications and their interviews. Some describe the events as an impetus for their decision to go into medicine while others delineate how it has made them better prepared for becoming a physician.

For example, premed students may describe in their applications how an encounter with disease piqued their curiosity about the human body, or how an illness in a loved one inspired them to go into medicine.

If you have had an encounter with illness that you plan to share with med school admissions committees, it is important to be tactful in the way you present the experience. Below are several important points to keep in mind.

Be Honest and Genuine

If you are going to discuss an illness in your medical school essays or interviews, take the time to first reflect on it and consider its true impact on you. Be honest with yourself and share the genuine ways in which it has influenced you. It may be tempting to exaggerate its impact, but medical schools can read through embellishments.

[Read: 4 Cliches to Avoid in Your Medical School Personal Statement.]

One common mistake that applicants make is to draw on trivial experiences with common medical problems, exaggerating them to make a case for why they are interested in medicine or why they would be suited for the medical profession. For example, if an applicant talks about a sprained ankle as a life-changing event that propelled him or her toward medicine, admissions committees may wonder whether that applicant is being sincere.

By the same token, premed students who argue that trivial events like the ankle sprain have made them more empathetic toward the struggles of those suffering from disease will probably come across as disingenuous. After all, how could someone with a minor problem like this directly understand what those struggling with heart disease or cancer are going through?

Such narratives will not help you stand out and will pale in comparison to those where an applicant has faced serious struggles such as a personal battle with cancer or the death of a loved one due to a devastating medical condition.

Avoid Criticism of the Health Care Team

Sometimes when medical school applicants share an experience with illness, they criticize the health care system or the health care providers to bolster their argument.

[Read: Why Medical School Applicants Should Highlight Compassion]

For example, one student wrote in his personal statement about the negligence of providers who cared for his grandfather in the intensive care unit. Without presenting any evidence, he stated with conviction that the surgeons caring for his grandfather made mistakes that led to his grandfather’s death. He then went on to argue that he was inspired to become a physician so that he could serve his patients better than the surgeons who had cared for his grandfather.

This kind of narrative makes the applicant sound negative and cynical. It also raises questions about how a premed student with no medical knowledge determined that the specialists made mistakes.

Go Beyond Yourself and Your Loved Ones

Applicants should always go beyond such personal experiences as they reflect on their passion for medicine or the qualities they will bring to the medical profession. It is one thing to be on the receiving end of medical care or to see it as an outsider when someone you love receives care. It is totally different to be part of a professional team that provides medical care where you are observing or assisting physicians and other providers.

Most people will be curious about disease when it affects them personally or affects those they love. But med school applicants must show that this intrigue and curiosity will carry over when they are taking care of people with whom they have no connection.

This is why activities like clinical volunteer work or shadowing are important. It is imperative that you draw on these professional activities in medical school essays — along with any personal exposure to medicine — to show how you have developed a passion for medicine and acquired the skills to be a proficient physician.

Do Not Seek Pity

Sometimes applicants make the mistake of using personal illness to seek pity in their essay. At times they may do this inadvertently, but it is wise to avoid this approach even in the face of truly devastating personal circumstances. Medical schools are not moved by stories that are only rife with tragedy , but rather with those that show resilience in the face of that tragedy.

[Read: Ways Medical School Applicants Send the Wrong Signal.]

In talking about such events, discuss them objectively, reflect on how they influenced your thinking and motivation, and conclude on a positive note. It is understandable that dealing with a serious illness can affect a person in profoundly difficult ways , and medical schools are aware of this. They want to see you place focus on your future motivations and highlight the valuable lessons you have learned as opposed to dwelling in the past.

Remember that the first step to incorporating such experiences into your essay is to take time and carefully reflect. Ask yourself how experiences with illness have made you interested in medicine and what qualities you have gained as a result of dealing with disease up close.

Once you have a clear answer to these questions, you can put your thoughts on paper. Build further on these ideas by also talking about professional experiences that further influenced you, and be sure to keep a positive tone.

More from U.S. News

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Do’s and Don’ts for Medical School Applicants When Addressing Personal Experiences With Illness originally appeared on

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