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How to Become Great at Writing Essays

I was recently consulted through EssaySensei to help a high school student with her application for a prestigious undergraduate program. Her mother saw the progress we had made since her first draft and was really impressed:

Hi Josh, I love this essay. It turned out so good. I couldn't be happier. Thank you thank you! Do you have any tricks my younger daughter could learn?

Residency applications

As I write this blog post, I am in the midst of completing my own applications for residency programs. Residency is the next step after medical school and involves additional training to become a specific type of doctor. For example, a family physician requires two extra years of residency training and a general surgeon requires six.

Similar to the process of applying to medical school, we need to write personal statements, C.V.s, and obtain reference letters from physicians and supervisors who have worked with us. And like medical school, we again have to apply to residency programs at various universities. This means that we need to tailor parts of our application to the different schools we are applying to. Suffice to say, it is a lot of work and brings back memories of applying to medical school. (Subtext: you will be jumping through hoops for the rest of your life.)

Over the last week, I have been working hard to write my personal statement. I need to write a convincing letter about why I want to pursue Family Medicine, how my experiences prepare me for residency, and why I am a good fit for each of these universities.

Fortunately, I developed my theme and structure relatively quickly, and I did not have too much trouble writing my first draft. I don't want to make essay writing sound easy, because it's not. But at the same time, it's not a mountain for me. Clearly, there must be skills or knowledge I could impart to help others with the essay writing process.

So what tips could I provide to this mother's daughter?

There is no substitute for experience

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McMaster CASPer 2012 – 4 Sample Videos and My Thoughts


Want to practice before doing the real McMaster CASPer?

Dr. Joshua Liu and other Canadian doctors have created MockCasper:

  • 6 different full length practice simulations
  • Feedback on your answers from actual medical students
  • A comprehensive CASPer guide loaded with tips for success

Start practicing now


This year, McMaster medical school has done something interesting with CASPer. They have provided this year’s applicants with 4 sample CASPer videos with 3 questions each. They also state that 2 of the 4 videos will be used in the actual CASPer – however, they make no mention of whether the questions will also be re-used.

Why are they doing this? I’m not really sure, and given their propensity for testing new models and concepts, I would imagine this is also for testing purposes – I see no other reason to provide applicants with advanced knowledge unless they were trying to see whether advanced preparation affects applicant scores or something like that. Who knows?

In any case, I thought these cases were interesting. While I’m not going to write out my own answers (for obvious reasons – you should be trying yourself!), I do want to share some random thoughts that hopefully will help some of you think about the scenario in different ways. Hopefully, seeing some different perspectives on the same scenario will help you when approaching new situations in the actual CASPer.

Video 1: Affirmative Action

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The 5 Biggest Mistakes Applicants Make on Medical School Essays

Over the last few weeks, I have reviewed quite a few medical school admissions essays through my online consulting service EssaySensei. Without a doubt, it confirmed something I have believed all along: that there is no clear correlation between essay writing skills and quality of applicant.

I have seen both good and bad essays, and the quality of the essay did not necessarily reflect the resumes of the applicants. Some applicants have done absolutely amazing things, but have great difficulty marketing themselves on paper. My goal when it comes to reviewing essays is always to help applicants better understand what medical schools are looking for, and present the best and most relevant aspects of themselves.

All that being said, I continue to notice several key mistakes that applicants seem to make over and over when writing their essays. While it is just 3 days before OMSAS medical school applications are due, for those of you have not submitted yet (to be fair, I had not submitted by this time either!), hopefully you can learn from these mistakes and improve your essays.

1. Lacking an introduction

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Presenting MockCasper – online practice simulations for McMaster CASPer

For those of you unaware, since 2010, McMaster Medical School started using an online assessment tool known as CASPer as part of its applicant screening process. It is now an integral part of the admissions process, making up 32% of the pre-interview score. Two years ago, I wrote an article about how CASPer was developed and how an applicant should go about preparing for it.


Over the last two years, I have been working with Canadian medical students to develop a preparation tool for CASPer.

The result of our hard work is MockCasper: a website with full length, practice simulations for CASPer.

As I have mentioned recently, I have developed a strong interest in project development and entrepreneurship, and it was a lot of fun taking a problem (preparing for CASPer), creating a solution (practice exams) and scaling that solution to a wide level (making it available online for applicants everywhere). We have developed some very cool features:

Online practice simulations

Our practice exams are the core of MockCasper. Each version is a full-length exam with 8 scenario-based sections and 4 self-descriptive sections just like the real CASPer. The only difference is that we currently use text-based scenarios instead of video-based scenarios. However, developing video-based scenarios is something we are looking at for the future. In addition, we offer the opportunity to evaluations and feedback provided to you by our team of medical students.

Try a free MockCasper sample
McMaster CASPer Guide

Together, we have also written a comprehensive guide with a lot of tips for how to do well on CASPer. It includes advice on both preparing for CASPer and actually completing it.

Read the CASPer Guide
Applicant profile

We have also developed a neat tool to help applicants organize their application. It is a personal applicant profile where you can store your GPA, MCAT scores (including multiple attempts), ECs/experiences for various categories (leadership, teamwork, scholar, etc.), and who your reference letters will come from. The idea is to start your profile early on (even as early as the beginning of undergrad), and by completing your profile, you will start to see where holes or gaps in your application might be. It also makes it easier when you do apply to medical school because all relevant information will now be in one place. You will need to create an account to have access to your personal profile. It is completely private and for your own viewing/use only.

This is an exciting project for us and we are stoked to share it with everyone. Whether or not you end up using our practice CASPer simulations, I hope you take advantage of the CASPer Guide and the applicant profile. In any case, I wish you all the best of luck applying to medical school this year!

7 Tips for Completing Your Medical School Application

As I write this, I am about to start my 4th and final year of medical school. The past year as a clinical clerk, working full time in the hospital and clinics, was the first time I ever came close to experiencing what it means to be a doctor. The amount I have learned about medicine in the past year – not just in terms of knowledge, but applying it like a physician – is sometimes hard to believe. Your first year of clerkship will be your hardest year in all of medical school, but it will also be the most eye opening.

Even though it’s been almost 4 years since I submitted my medical school applications, I still remember much of it. I know it’s that time of year again for many of you. Summer is coming to an end for many medhopefuls – a summer often full of stress and anxiety from writing the MCAT, doing research, volunteering or travelling. While that stress is soon to be followed by the normal stressors of the new school year, for many of you, this fall brings an additional pressure – completing your medical school applications.

For some of you, this may be your first time, and you are completely lost on what to do. For others, you have been through this before, and you’re hoping this is the last time you ever have to fill out these applications. Whatever the case may be, everyone has to go through this first step. It’s tough, it’s time consuming, and sometimes, extremely frustrating.

To try and help with that, today I present to you 7 tips to help you complete your medical school application.

7. Set yourself a due date of one week in advance

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MedHopeful writes a book: Master UofT medical school’s new admissions essays today

It’s always been a dream of mine to write and sell a book. I love to write and I love to teach. What a better way than to combine both skills?

When I wrote the original guide to Mastering the University of Toronto medical school essay in 2009, I honestly did not think UofT would change their essay questions for many years.

But this year, they did. Now, UofT med applicants have to write 4 Brief Personal Essays and 3 Autobiographical Sketch statements. No one has ever had to write these before – so what the heck should applicants do?

I saw a great opportunity to write a real book and provide some significant help to applicants at the same time.

After a month of long thoughts and hard work, I have finally published my first book for sale to help those of you applying to the University of Toronto’s medical school this year.

The book is called: Mastering the Admissions Essay: University of Toronto Medical School.

In this book, you will learn:

  • Why each of the 4 essay questions is asked
  • How to select the best examples from your resume for answering the questions
  • A step-by-step template for writing each of the 4 essay questions and the 3 autobiographical sketch statements
  • Tips and tricks for turning those essays into masterpieces

You can find full details about the book here.




Please let me know what you think, and for those of you who end up purchasing the book, I hope you find it helpful!

10 Things You Can Do Today to Improve Your Medical School Application

Applying to medical school is tough. Really tough. There are more qualified applicants than there are spots. The number of applicants is increasing every year (and subsequently, the number of qualified applicants) while the number of medical school spots isn’t keeping pace.

But if you want it bad enough, with a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, you will get there. No matter how good an applicant you think you are, there is always room to be better, and ways to increase your chances of getting that medical school acceptance.

Feel that you’ve done everything you can? Looking for the next thing you could work on? Then this article is for you. I present to you: 10 things you can do right here right now to make yourself a better applicant to medical school.

1. Study
Whether it’s for tomorrow’s exam, the MCAT, or for a quiz five days from now, studying a bit more can’t hurt – it can only help. The truth is GPA and MCAT are the two most important factors for getting your foot into the door of a medical school, so academic excellence should be at the top of your list of priorities.

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Mastering the University of Toronto Medical School Essay – Part 5: Putting it All Together

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Disclaimer:
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.

Over the first four parts of this series, we looked at the overall message we wanted to convey through our essay: that we are proven serious about medicine, that the career makes sense for us, and that the reader will be thoroughly convinced to do whatever it takes to help us become a doctor. We also looked at the three guidelines/questions the University of Toronto admissions committee wants addressed in the essay, and what to consider when approaching them.

So now that you have your overall plan, as well as the main content for your essay (i.e. how you will answer those three guidelines), how do you put it all together?

While there is no “correct” way to write the essay, I think there are some important aspects to address, discuss, and debate. I will give you my thoughts on these aspects, as well as insight into how I approached them, not as necessarily guidelines for what you should do, but rather, guidelines about how to consider thinking about formulating your own approach.

First Person Perspective

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Mastering the University of Toronto Medical School Essay – Part 4: How Your Premedical Studies have Prepared You for Medicine

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Disclaimer:
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.

Of the three idea the University of Toronto medical admissions committee wants you to address in your essay, I think the guideline referring to how your premedical studies have prepared you for medicine is least important. Not saying that you can neglect it (because you shouldn’t), but rather, it’s the one you should spend the least time and effort on compared to the other aspects. It’s also why this will be the shortest article in the series!

So Don’t Worry About It

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Mastering the University of Toronto Medical School Essay – Part 3: Why Medicine and How Did You Prepare

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Disclaimer:
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?

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