How to write about your biggest challenge or adversity

medical school admissions secondary applications

Your adversity statement, often called “the challenge essay,” has the potential to be a major contributor to your medical school application. The goal of the essay is not just to explain the adversities you faced or the challenges you experienced, but rather to demonstrate your ability to overcome them and grow from them. The specific challenge or adversity itself is often times the least important part of the essay! Instead, the majority of your limited word count will be dedicated to demonstrating your preparedness for the many challenges and adversities that you will face in medical school and beyond. Looking at the prompt from this angle may help it seem a bit less intimidating. Now, let’s tackle this essay in three simple steps: 

Step One: Reread the prompt, and select the experience you want to talk about 

Before you even begin brainstorming, reread the prompt! In your excitement (or nervousness) to get started, you may have missed a helpful detail that will narrow the scope of your essay. Depending on the school, you may be asked to discuss a professional challenge, a personal challenge, or even an academic one. Make sure that you understand which of these, if any, is being asked for. Once you have a sense of what type of experience is being requested, start to brainstorm the adversities you have faced, no matter how big or small. As you make a list, make sure each example fits the following criteria: 

  1. You have overcome the obstacle or have made meaningful progress towards the goal of overcoming it
  2. You have completed the emotional processing of the obstacle/experience and are comfortable talking about it in writing and potentially in an interview 

Once this is done, take a look at your list and see what experiences you are most confident in. Do those align with the narrative of the application you submitted in your primary application/personal statement? Is this an experience that you’ve discussed extensively in your 15 activities or personal statement already? Asking yourself these questions will help you narrow down the list further until you make a final selection that will complement your application and demonstrate your characteristics well. Examples include: losing a loved one, not succeeding in a class, navigating a health concern or diagnosis, overcoming a language barrier, navigating financial hardship, and more. 

Step Two: Map out the essay by talking through exactly how you overcame the adversity/challenge 

You have your experience selected, but before writing the essay, you need to be sure of the characteristics you wish to demonstrate. Knowing this before you write will help you frame the story in such a way that these characteristics shine through. Remember, you are only using a small amount of the essay to describe the event itself; most of the essay should focus on your journey overcoming the adversity/challenge, so you need to be direct and clear from the start! You can also use this time to get a sense of how long the essay will be. Do you find yourself taking 5 minutes or more to fully explain your story? You may need to be more succinct in order to condense that into an essay with a limited word count. 

Step Three: Write, write, write 

Dedicate a brief intro of the essay to describing the circumstances of the challenge/adversity you faced. No need to be too detailed, but give the reader enough information to understand what you were up against. Next, explain your feelings throughout the experience, how you were affected, and how you overcame. The key to this step is alluding to the qualities you are demonstrating without actually stating them. Rather than saying, “I was resilient,” simply explain the steps you took to keep pushing through despite the circumstances. Do this, and the key words and characteristics will leap off the page between the lines of your story! Once you’ve described the actions you took to overcome, close out the essay with a brief statement about how the experience changed you or gave you an opportunity to grow. This is a great opportunity to demonstrate your ability to reflect and use any experience as a learning experience. 

When you are finished, be sure to go back to the prompt one last time and make sure that your essay answers it appropriately. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments, and keep in mind that the readers of your essay are looking to recruit their future students, colleagues, and patient care providers. What qualities would you be looking for if you were in their shoes?

Olivia attended the University of Rochester, studying Neuroscience and American Sign Language. She's pursuing her MD at Harvard Medical School, where she’s exploring her interests in pediatrics and neonatology.

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