What will you contribute to this institution or community? A guide to this secondary question

medical school admissions secondary applications
By Mary S.

This is not an easy prompt to answer well, and it is no wonder that applicants are often stumped by this common secondary question. However, if written strategically, this essay can really boost your application. I suggest tackling this secondary question from three main angles:  

1. Career Goals

Answering this question by illustrating your career goals is a strategic way to not only highlight what is unique about you, but also showcase to the admissions committee why you would like to attend their medical school and how their institution can help you attain your goals. The key is to always tie it back to the institution/community. Below is an example of how to answer this question from a career goals perspective. 

“As a first-generation immigrant who has witnessed and experienced inequities in healthcare, my goal is to one day provide quality primary care to underserved and refugee communities. I am drawn to X medical school’s commitment to serving the large number of minority and refugee populations who call the surrounding community home. As someone who self-taught herself five languages, I envision myself deeply involved with the student-run clinic—not just as a provider, but also as an interpreter during clinic encounters. In fact, I hope to expand interpreter services at the student-run clinic, create a medical mandarin course and train fellow volunteers. In addition, as someone interested in primary care, I am also drawn to X medical school’s emphasis on teaching preventative medicine in the preclinical curriculum. I hope to create opportunities for classmates to learn more about nutrition’s role in preventing co-morbidities, a topic near and dear to my heart.” 

2. Extracurricular experiences

Look back at your extracurriculars and brainstorm how the experiences and lessons learned can help enhance your medical school and/or community. For example, if you were involved in student council in undergrad, you can talk about your desire to continue making a difference by being involved in medical student council. Share what you have learned about teamwork, management of different perspectives, conflict resolution, and how you will use these skills to help better the community at X medical school.  Below is an example of how to leverage your extracurricular activities to answer this prompt. 

I will never forget when I first stepped into the world of medicine and research as a bright-eyed college freshman. Dr. Fishman’s lab was at the forefront of developing therapies for heart failure, and I wanted nothing more than to play an important role in advancing treatment. However, my five years in Dr. Fishman’s lab were some of the most rewarding yet challenging and humbling years of my life to date. Yet somewhere along the way, while learning bench techniques, scaling the steep learning curve of cardiology without a medical background and writing an embarrassingly high number of manuscript drafts before they were finally published, I fell in love with research and medicine. As a medical student, I plan to continue contributing to cardiology research at X institution. I am especially interested in Dr. Y’s work; his resources and expertise is an excellent fit for my interests and will allow me the intellectual freedom to forge my own project. Most importantly, I hope to start a peer mentoring program for those interested in research. As someone who initially struggled while learning the ropes of scientific research and navigating academia, I want to be able to teach and mentor others who are just starting in research. I hope to create a supportive, safe and welcoming environment in which peers mentor each other by sharing experiences, advice and opportunities.”

3. Life experiences, cultural perspectives and personal identity

If you have experienced a significant or meaningful life event(s), think carefully about how you can spin those lessons learned into something valuable. If you have previously worked in finance, how has that changed your perspective of teamwork, leadership, customer service or medicine? Maybe you helped out at your family’s restaurant every summer—what lessons or perspectives have you learned and gained that would translate well to medicine? Do you have unique hobbies that would add value and dimension to your class? How has your culture influenced your view of medicine and how will that inform your approach to patients? If you identify as LGBTQ, what challenges have you faced and what advocacy perspectives can you add to the institution/community? Sometimes, answering the prompt from this angle requires vulnerability. If you would like to share extenuating or difficult experiences, be careful to not perseverate on the negative, but rather spin the story into what you have learned, how you have grown, and what you will ultimately contribute. Here is an example. 

“Amelia. That was her name—inspired by my grandmother who was obsessed with Amelia Earhart. I had been overjoyed, beyond ecstatic even, to learn that I was pregnant with my first child. Nine months later, I laid in the hospital bed, numb with grief, battling the excruciating reality that my daughter was gone. This experience not only molded me into who I am today, but also inspired my path to medicine. I aspire to reduce stigma around miscarriage/stillbirth and to increase access to reproductive health services for women, especially those living in resource-limited settings. My experiences conducting research to identify barriers to access and leading efforts alleviate these barriers taught me that physicians have a powerful advocacy role. I am drawn to X medical school because it is one of the few schools that offer students an elective Health Justice course; however, currently missing from the curriculum are lectures on access to reproductive health care for low-income women. I would love to contribute by helping to design lectures/activities on this topic and leverage my network gained from years of volunteer work in reproductive health to invite speakers and potential lecturers. I also hope to start a sexual and reproductive health department within the student-run clinic to better serve the local community.”

Summary

When medical schools ask how you will be able to contribute to their institution or community, what they really want to know is what makes you unique and how you can shape class diversity. Diversity comes in the form of career goals, extracurricular activities, life experiences and perspectives gained from different cultures and personal identities. If writing about something personal or sensitive, remember to focus on how you have grown and what you plan to contribute, rather than the negatives. Think outside the box, but remember to always tie the story back to something relevant to the school (i.e. courses, electives, extracurricular activities, research, faculty mentors, etc). 

Mary is a resident physician in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and an incoming Stanford dermatology resident. She received her MD degree from Yale School of Medicine and her BS in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology from Yale University.

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