How to Answer the “Tell us about yourself” Question on a Medical School Secondary application

Posted by Emily Leven on 10/14/15 10:00 AM

This is your chance to shine!

Even though this seems like it should be a “gimme” question (after all, what do you know more about than yourself?), many applicants consider this to be one of the toughest questions on a medical school secondary. Aside from being very broad, many people just find it uncomfortable to sell themselves, recognizing that there’s a fine line between self-awareness and bragging. And yet, since this is one of the most common questions on both secondaries and interviews (not just in medicine), it’s important to offer a strong answer.

As a science-minded person who appreciates structure, I often find that tasks seem less daunting if I have a general framework within which to think about them. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you start to answer this common question.

1. Consider what your primary application says about you. What additional information would complete the picture?

Now that you’ve had some time away from your primary AMCAS application while waiting to receive those secondaries, look back at your primary app and see what it says about you. Think about how the strangers reading your application will be able to describe you with only this information at their disposal. High grades might suggest you are intelligent and will continue to be a good student in medical school. Extra-curricular activities may tell a story about your interests and skills, lessons you’ve learned, or unique experiences and perspectives that you will be able to offer your classmates.

2. Make a list of things you would like someone on the admissions committee to know about you.

Hopefully, many of these things will already appear in your primary application. This is your chance to see what you want to emphasize and what gaps you want to fill in so that readers have the fullest and most vibrant picture of you that is possible. This can include experiences that have changed your perspective, people who have influenced you, and anything that makes you you. The “tell us about yourself” answer doesn’t have to focus on just one character trait, but it should be organized and focused. Everything you include about yourself should be there for a purpose- to complement information in your primary so that your application as a whole presents a more complete picture of who you are.

3. When you make a claim about yourself, support it! Demonstrate your character by telling stories.

Once you’ve decided what you want to share with readers, you need them to believe that what they’re reading is an accurate depiction of you, and not just your vision of an ideal medical school applicant. But remember that fine line between self-awareness and arrogance?

4. Show, don’t tell.

Telling personal stories that show the traits you’re trying to convey can help keep you out of bragging territory. You should absolutely not shy away from giving yourself credit and explicitly talking about your positive qualities, but you must also convince your reader that the things you’re telling them are true. It’s not enough to say “I have always been a determined person.” Think about a time in your life when you really were determined, and use that story as a vehicle to get your reader on board with the idea you’re trying to communicate. 

5. Guide your reader through the anecdote.

Set the scene, present the “conflict,” and demonstrate that your analysis of the situation and subsequent actions did, in fact, show your determination. The story doesn’t have to be longwinded or dramatic. It just has to be enough to support the claim you’ve made about yourself.

6. Be genuine; don’t just tell them what they want to hear.

Your audience is a tough one. The readers of your application are influential in the final decision of your potential acceptance into medical school, so you want to think about what they’re interested in learning about you. Many people use the “tell me about yourself” question as a way to talk about a character trait that tells people that they’re awesome and unique and going to be a great doctor.

7. But don’t think that you are limited to talking about why you want to be a doctor.

And don’t fall into the trap of telling them what you think they want to hear. If you want to talk about how much you love yoga, you can! Just make sure you pick your topic for a reason. Maybe yoga is a hobby that has kept you grounded during stressful times or something that you see as a personal physical challenge. Both of those discussions say something about who you are as a person, and the point of this question is to make yourself come alive off the application page.

8. Think about whom you want as your peer.

Show that you can be that person for others. Medical schools are interested in finding students who are a good fit for their programs so that they will succeed and be happy there. And that’s a good thing! If you are honest and genuine about who you are, how you view the world, and what is important to you, schools will have an easier time coming to the same conclusion you’ve already reached- that you will thrive as one of their students.

What schools are really looking for:

Overall, remember that you can use the “tell us about yourself” section to say anything about yourself- extracurricular activities, hobbies, important people in your life, character traits, personal and professional goals, you name it.

What the reader actually wants to know is why they should want you to join their medical community, and the reasons for this may be different depending on the school. In general, though, schools like people whose accomplishments are motivated by personal interest and passions rather than competitive ambition, alone.  So tell them about your interests and your passions! Show them how you’ve already pursued those interests and passions, tell them something about where you come from, or a share a lesson that you’ve learned from experience. Remember to think about your secondaries in the context of your whole application, and be yourself- this is your time to shine!

 For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our medical school admissions consultants: The Truth About Med School CostsDo's and Dont's of the Med School InterviewHow to Be Pre-Med and Still Enjoy College. Looking to work with Emily Leven? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.

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Tags: medical school admissions