Four traits Harvard Medical School looks for in applicants

medical school admissions strategy
By Fang

There are four main qualities that Harvard Medical School looks for in its applicants. Highlighting the following aspects in your application will help you stand out to the Admissions Committee:


At Harvard Medical School, the first thing I noticed was the diversity among my class. It was not just about gender, race, or ethnicity—or even things one could notice at first glance. Rather, I was struck by the diversity of ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds. One form of diversity I had never thought about was where one lived. For example, I have friends who hail from Idaho and Montana, have lived in impoverished countries, or have served abroad in the military. All of these experiences contributed to diversity—I was able to hear stories of classmates delivering baby lambs on a farm and those running women’s health clinics in rural Peru. Medical schools look for this type of diversity because it is translatable to becoming a doctor in the forms of caring, understanding, and advocating for patients. For example, during a healthcare policy discussion session, one classmate described how the Affordable Care Act was viewed in his state given that he lived in the Rust Belt. His viewpoint was not only different from others in the room, but also helped me understand the integration of politics and healthcare that directly impacts our patients. Throughout your essays, I urge you to consider the diversity you can bring—nobody has walked the same path you have. Highlight those differences! 


I will be the first to tell you that medicine is rewarding. I will also be the first to tell you that the schooling and training is tough. There are 24-hour calls, endless days of 5AM wakeups, and unending algorithms to memorize. More than that, there are times when you have to deliver bad news to patients, families are angry and upset, or those you care for might pass away. All that is to say, medicine is not easy. What that means for medical schools is that they want to know you are ready for the challenge—physically, mentally, and emotionally. From an academic standpoint, medical schools need students to have the knowledge to be a good physician: every student that fails to pass a year reflects poorly on the medical school during their AAMC Accreditation processes (learn more From another standpoint, medical schools hope to train holistic, empathetic doctors who will care for patients despite challenges. What this means for your essay is it is important to highlight times things didn’t work out. Just as important, what did you learn from this experience? After all, medicine will always have new challenges, so it’s important to showcase how you will be a better person and physician after these experiences. Things to highlight include resilience, resourcefulness, and growth. Topics can range from challenges in research, working in teams, or finding mentorship. One thing to consider is that through these essays, you can present weaknesses as strengths—you can detail what didn’t work, but also what worked and how you grew from such challenges. 

Big Dreams

On a daily basis, I am impressed with my classmates at Harvard who have sat on White House committees, formed their own community-based nonprofits, and gained funding for their research that will enhance the care of patients. My conversations with classmates often focus on their aspirations and the common thread is that they will become the leaders in the next generation of healthcare. This is exactly what top medical schools are looking for in their incoming students. Whether your interests are in clinical, research, policy, or business, highlight these aspects of you. Essays are the perfect place for a 2D individual to become 3D. How can medical school nurture you and build your impact and legacy? Thus, highlight your leadership experiences—more than this, highlight your goals down the road. Do you want to be the spearhead of universal healthcare? Do you want to become the next Surgeon General? Flesh out your thought process in your admission essay. Don't be afraid to dream big!

Personalized Stories

How do I stand out? This is the question that students frequently ask me when I help them with essays. My answer is always to personalize your essay to highlight diversity, adversity, and your dreams. What this means is that it’s vital to spend a lot of time on to craft your narrative. Don’t just tell me about how your volunteer experience with elderly patients inspired you to go into medicine. Instead, show me how you spent time with them playing jig-saw puzzles and crossword puzzles. Don’t tell me how much you cherished the bond with them. Instead, tell me about how they always wore red nail polish, how they made to save you a piece of candy for your visits, or how they remember your friends.  Another thing to remember is that medicine is filled with uncertainty. Thus, stories don’t always need a positive resolution—in fact, stories that don’t could be opportunities to highlight your maturity and growth. Of note, if you talk about the death of a loved one, make sure that you still focus on yourself--not somebody else no matter how much they impacted you. Ultimately, the key to crafting the most memorable stories is less about achievement and resolution, and much more about the uniqueness and power of the experience. Think creatively! If you choose, tutors from Cambridge Coaching can help guide you as you craft an essay that truly reflects your best, most authentic self!

Fang is a MD candidate at Harvard Medical School, spending his time conducting research at the Harvard Institute of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. He holds a DPhil in Cardiovascular Medicine from Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar.


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