The following article was originally written in 2009 for the University of Toronto medical school admissions essay. Although the advice here is still useful for general medical school essays, since 2012, the University of Toronto medical school changed its admissions process to require the applicant write 4 Brief Personal Essays instead. Don’t fret – I have a written a new step-by-step guide to help applicants with these new 4 Brief Personal Essays.
If there’s one question you should be able to answer, it’s “why medicine?”
Sure it’s arguably the most common interview question asked. But more importantly, you better have a darn good reason for wanting to be a physician because it would be pretty unfortunate if you did not think your decision though, and ended up regretting entering medicine after years of training and thousands of dollars invested. Of course it’s possible to change your mind and regret your decision even if you thought it though initially, though I would imagine you’re less likely to change your mind had you put a good amount of thought into it at the beginning.
That being said, I’m sure you also realize that your answer to this question is also important to medical schools, and the University of Toronto is no exception. As I outlined in Part 1, the UofT admissions committee wants your essay to: outline your choice of, and preparation for, a career in medicine.
Let me put that guideline in another way. Your essay needs to answer:
- Why do you want to be a doctor?
- What proof is there that medicine is something you have seriously thought about and are genuinely interested in?
- How do you know being a doctor is a good fit for you?
Why do you want to be a doctor?
One of the key messages I have been stressing is that medical school admissions committees want students who have a genuinely strong interest in medicine because those are the candidates who are likely to try their hardest to be the best physicians they can be. The depth of your reasons for wanting to be a physician are going to have a high correlation with this, which is why being able to convey them in a powerful manner in your essay is paramount to your success in the process.
When I talk to younger students interested in medicine, some of them just “feel” like they want to be physicians but can’t give me a tangible reason why, or they give me a really general response that could be applied to anything. For instance, one of the most common responses is “I like and/or am good at science, and I want to help people, so I want to be a doctor”. The problem with this statement is that you could remove “doctor” and replace it with many other professions, such as researcher, teacher, professor, etc. There are many careers that involve science and improving the lives of others – so why medicine, specifically?
If you can’t answer that question right now, it could mean one of a few things. It could mean that medicine might actually not be right for you, and you should start exploring some other careers.
However, it could also mean that while you know you are attracted to medicine, you haven’t spent enough time thinking about it, and being able to extrapolate your thoughts onto paper. If that’s you, then now’s a good a time as any to start thinking. You want to be as complete as possible when answering why you want to be a physician, so here are some questions to help you brain storm:
- Was there an event/experience that sparked your interest in medicine / becoming a doctor?
- Do you have any personal / family reasons that made you interested in medicine?
- What is it about being a physician that attracts you? What does medicine have that you want but can’t find in other careers?
Some students are concerned that they don’t have that “magical moment” of wanting to be a physician, like after using CPR to save a person’s life. Or they fret about not having a close relative who was afflicted with some disease. Basically, there are students who are concerned that they don’t have an “inspiring” set of reasons for becoming a physician, so dwelling on the reasons why is a waste of time for them, and so they focus their essay too much on other things.
This is a mistake. No one’s reasons for becoming a physician are “better” than anyone else’s. And regardless of how “amazing” you think your reasons and motivations are, realize that delivery of those reasons is just as, if not more, important than the actual content of those reasons. Remember, application essay writing is a skill. I am sure that if you put the time into thinking your reasons through fully and spending the effort to craft a strong delivery, you can answer “why medicine” just as well as anyone.
With regards to those three questions I wrote above, you might be able to answer only one of them well, or your answer might encompass all of them. It doesn’t really matter how you use those questions, so long as you can provide a comprehensive answer.
Prove to me that you have seriously thought about a career in medicine
It’s easy to say that being a doctor is something you have really thought about, but when you have to filter through thousands of applicants, having some evidence really helps.
Imagine you are the scout for a basketball team. A young man comes up to you, saying that he is interested in playing for your team. He sounds very passionate about basketball, so you ask him what experience he has. Has he been on a basketball team before? No. Okay, well has he ever just played basketball recreationally? No. Has he ever even watched a game of basketball before? Still the answer is no. As the scout, not only does this young man’s request to join your professional team sound rather strange, but taking him on would seem like an unwise risk. Furthermore, you question how he can even be sure basketball is for him, if he’s never even played before?
While it’s impossible to “play doctor” before actually entering medical school, the overall concept still applies. If you have never demonstrated the slightest interest in medicine, it’s not very believable to the admissions committee that being a doctor is something that you are actually serious about. Which is why I highly recommend that you do explore medicine in any way possible. Perhaps that’s shadowing a physician, volunteering at a clinic or hospital, etc.
But having these medically-related experiences isn’t the only important thing. You now have to go ahead and mention these experiences in your essay. If you volunteered in a hospital and got the opportunity to follow a physician around, even for a short period of time, I think it’s crucial that you mention it. It shows that you’ve taken the time to explore medicine as a potential career, and thus you are serious about it. Otherwise, your interest in medicine may appear questionable.
When writing about these medically-related experiences, it’s important to not just describe them, but explain their impact on you and your aspirations for a career in medicine. What did you learn from these experiences about being a doctor? How did they confirm or support your interest in medicine?
How do you know medicine is a good fit for you?
When the essay asks you to explain how you have prepared for a career in medicine, it’s a bit misleading in the sense that nothing you do before medical school can really “prepare” you the way that medical school does.
But in terms of preparation, I think one of the key things you can do is not just learn more about medicine and being a physician, but trying to find out if it’s something you actually want to do. It’s easy to say you like or don’t like something with limited information, but the conclusions you draw may not be fair – I mean for most of us, besides going to a doctor for check ups or when we are sick, how much do we really know about doctors and medicine?
Exploring medicine through volunteering, shadowing, and so on is a good opportunity to improve our understanding of what it means to be a physician, and whether it’s still something you want to do. And if these experiences do support your belief that you would enjoy medicine and would be a good fit for it, why do you think that?
Drawing on your past experiences, hobbies, and interests is crucial for making this connection. Perhaps you believe you would make a good physician because you have always been a very compassionate person and are passionate about taking care of others. It’s not only important that you say this, but connect this statement to prior experiences that prove this side of you.
Read the rest of the Mastering the University of Toronto Medical School Essay series: