How to answer a secondary about community

medical school admissions secondary applications
By Jalen

Essay prompts that ask questions about community are becoming increasingly common secondary prompts. They can range from questions about the communities that you are a part of, what community service means to you, and which communities you want to serve in the future (among other variations). These prompts can often feel confusing, and you may feel the impulse to try to read the minds of admissions committee and guess what they are looking for. Resist that impulse! The "community prompt" is a great opportunity to highlight your altruistic side and meaningful past experiences, which in turn highlights your potential to be an empathetic and caring physician in the future. Here are some tips to ace this essay:

Know What The Prompt Is Asking

This advice applies to all essay prompts, but it especially holds true for questions about community. There are a few common variations to this question, including:

  • Describe a community that you are a part of.
  • What does community service/engagement mean to you?
  • Describe how you want to serve communities in your practices.

These are all very different questions, and they will require slightly different approaches in order to answer them effectively.

Responding to "Describe a community that you're a part of" 

This is your chance to talk about what you bring to your work as a clinician and to give insight about how you will join the medical school community. You certainly can talk about past community service work when answering this question, but you should also take this time to highlight who you are within your various communities. This could be anything from your faith community, which may have been a part of for a long time, to your ethnic background or national origin-based group, to an organization or club that you have been a part of, to a sports team, and more. This question is really open ended, so be sure to highlight experiences and communities that show your selflessness, empathy, collaboration, or support of others (as these are all characteristics that a medical school will want to see within their community). 

Responding to "what service means to you"

This prompt is a clear invitation to talk about your past experiences with community service. Makes sure you avoid the pitfalls of portraying yourself as a savior that dramatically changed a community with your service. Your essay should talk about your work directly, emphasizing what that work meant to you while also showing your awareness that many of the challenges this community faces are outside your control. Showing that you understand the greater factors that impact the wellbeing of a community reflects a level of maturity that bodes well for your future leadership capacity as a physician advocate. I also would also suggest writing about activities that were longer engagements. I am not saying that a week-long experience can't be impactful, but demonstrated continued or longitudinal engagement with a community is a better route to go when answering this prompt. 

Responding to "which communities do you want to serve"

For this prompt, it is important to consider which patient-types the school you are applying to serves and which communities and areas of interest you have already highlighted in your application. The mission statement is a great place to start when trying to figure out who exactly the school aims to serve. Looking at the hospital(s) where the faculty are affiliated and/or where students conduct their rotations will also give you insight into the communities the medical school actively serves. A program like Emory, where students will be rotating at a busy county hospital like Grady, serves a very different population than the rural patients of Dartmouth Hitchcock or the medically complex patients of Harvard’s Dana Farber Cancer Center. Make sure you adjust your essay for who exactly the school already serves.

The exception to this strategy applies to an applicant who has already made serving a specific community central to your application. If you have already talked about a community that is important to you during your application (in your most meaningful medical moment or personal statement, for example), then you should continue your conversation about that community in this essay. Your essay should focus on how an education from this school would be an important part of your learning and journey to continue serving your previously established community. It should be true to the rest of your application, but consistent with mission and communities served by the school. 

A Florida native, Jalen traded sunshine for scholastics and is now an MD and MPP Candidate at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Kennedy School respectively. He spent his undergrad at Dartmouth College where he majored in Ecology.

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