The Medical School Diversity Essay
Now that you’ve turned in your AMCAS (phew!), you’re probably wondering how to tackle the monster of secondaries coming your way. One of the most common questions asked in one form or another is the diversity essay for medical school. Have you ever wondered why diversity is such an important component of the medical school admission process? I’ve heard a lot of pre-med students eager to write this off as a political move on the behalf of medical schools, without taking the time to truly consider its value.
Of course, in the US we have a powerful tradition of diversity in higher education. Diversity in the classroom (and on campus) allows students to produce a “creative friction,” thereby improving the educational experience for all.
However, in the medical school context, diversity has an additional, more utilitarian purpose: it is crucial to the quality of medical care provided by these soon-to-be physicians. An ability to understand your patients — regardless of background — is an integral part of your life as a doctor.
So, now that we have solved the great admissions diversity mystery, we can get started on the actual essays. First, what does a “diversity essay” actually look like? Let’s take an example from one of Stanford Med School’s recent secondary applications:
“The Committee on Admissions regards the diversity (broadly defined) of an entering class as an important factor in serving the educational mission of the school. The Committee on Admissions strongly encourages you to share unique, personally important, and/or challenging factors in your background, such as the quality of your early educational environment, socioeconomic status, culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and life or work experiences. Please discuss how such factors have influenced your goals and preparation for a career in medicine.”
Or this question from Wake Forest School of Medicine:
“The Committee on Admissions values diversity as an important factor in the educational mission of the Wake Forest School of Medicine. How will you contribute to the diversity of your medical school class and to the medical community in general?”
Ultimately, these medical school diversity essays are all variations on the same question, “How are you different from other applicants, and how does that difference impact your ability to contribute in medical school and beyond?”
This prompt brings us to our first action point:
1. “Diversity” and “Underrepresented Minority” are not synonymous.
Have you ever heard someone lament, “[sigh]…I’m not a minority so I’m not diverse.” I have. Many times. Most frequently, this lamentation originates from a lack of creativity and fundamental understanding about what diversity means. As we’ve already discussed, diversity serves two purposes: 1) varying perspectives in a classroom and on campus so as to produce more comprehensive learning, and 2) Improving patient care once these applicants become newly-minted MDs.
Thus, while ethno-cultural, religious, or socioeconomic backgrounds are all forms of diversity, they are by no means the only forms of diversity. Indeed, diversity is anything about you which is special and which will allow you to satisfy the objectives of diversity as described above.
Multlingual? That’s diversity.
Been in the military? That’s diversity.
Had a rare disease as a child? That’s diversity.
Have a special personal quality (such as being a talented connector, or unusually high EQ)? Diversity.
Have a very specific and innovative career path in mind (e.g., using robotics to improve prosthetics)? Diversity.
Worked as a personal trainer or a nutritionist?….you see where I’m going with this. The key is not to narrowly define diversity, but instead to broadly construe how your “diverse elements” will allow you to contribute something unique to your prospective school and ultimately, your profession.
This brings us to our second action point:
2. Your “diversity” means nothing if it isn’t clearly connected to your potential contribution.
Sometimes, applicants get too caught up in the ways they are different, that they forget that being different is not an end, but a means to an end. These differences and unique qualities/experiences have to accomplish something. They have to help prove that you are deserving of a seat at the med school roundtable.
For example, being a chronic truant or two-time felon are certainly unique qualities and experiences for an applicant to medical school. Will they help you get in? Almost certainly not, and for obvious reasons. Best to focus on some other topic for your medical school diversity essay.
The point is simple: once you have identified what makes you unique, your primary task is to explain how that uniqueness will allow you to contribute something special in school and beyond.
This brings us to our third action point:
3. Diversity, as with all other parts of your application, requires evidence.
“I am the smartest person in the world.”
Really!? Are you actually the smartest person in the world? Prove it.
“I have unique insight into the needs of immigrant populations.”
Oh do you? And what, pray tell, gives you this incredible insight?
“I have always dreamed of being part of Doctors Without Borders, and helping to save the world one person at a time.”
Is that so? Because I don’t see a single international community service experience on your application…
…see where I’m going with this? Diversity, though it may be an intangible concept or quality, still requires tangible evidence. A diversity essay for medical school is not complete without a clear explanation of how your “diversity” relates to your experiences.
For example, if you are a first generation college student and the son/daughter of immigrants, you cannot just baldly state that this background gives you some crucial insight into the needs of immigrant populations. Although it seems plausible that you would know more than others who are from affluent, non-immigrant backgrounds, you still need to prove it. Make the connections explicit.
You could do this by providing anecdotes about your communication skills with immigrant families during your time with Habitat for Humanity. Or you could explain how you used your special insights and cross-cultural communication skills in becoming a leader in La Raza.
Ultimately, if what makes you diverse is that you have a very high capacity for empathy, you don’t need to have an activity on your AMCAS experiences section called “the society for people who empathize good and want to learn to do other things good too.” You just need to explain how your diverse element(s) have affected or motivated your activities, even if they seem totally unrelated.
E.g., “I am a motivator. I love motivating people to better their lives. That is why I worked as a nutritionist. Moreover, as a writing instructor at Dartmouth’s RWIT program, I had the opportunity not only to help students with their writing, but also to show them how exciting and fun it could be.” Please note: this is not from an actual essay, and if it was, it would not be especially good. This is just to demonstrate a point.
Thus, if you do decide to focus on ethnic, cultural, or religious diversity, the best approach is not to hammer the adcom with how significant your minority status is. Rather, a strong essay might focus on your activities which were committed to diversity and social justice issues; or on your pursuits which address health disparities between minority and non-minority populations; or experiences which provide tangible evidence of your cross-cultural competence during patient or client interactions. Of course, these three topics are not exhaustive, but might be a good place to start.
This brings us to our final, and most succinct point:
4. Using buzzwords doesn’t convince anyone
This is a common mistake among applicants who think that repeating buzzwords such as “diverse,” “multicultural,” “cross-cultural,” “underrepresented,” etc. will automatically convince an adcom that they are those things. It won’t. In fact, it is no more likely to convince them of your diversity credentials than if I tried to convince you of the quality of this article by simply repeating “this article is super informative and comprehensive, and it is likely the best thing you’ve read all week.”
In short: let your evidence and experience do the talking.
As the United States becomes a more culturally and ethnically diverse nation, public schools are becoming more diverse, too.
A growing trend
The Census Bureau projects that by the year 2100, the U.S. minority population will become the majority with non-Hispanic whites making up only 40% of the U.S. population. No doubt students will need to learn how to interact in a diverse environment. Jean Snell, clinical professor of teacher education at the University of Maryland, believes cultural diversity enhances the school experience, too. “There is a richness that comes from students working side by side with others who are not of the same cookie-cutter mold,” she notes.
Students who attend schools with a diverse population can develop an understanding of the perspectives of children from different backgrounds and learn to function in a multicultural, multiethnic environment. Yet, as public schools become more diverse, demands increase to find the most effective ways to help all students succeed academically as well as learn to get along with each other. Teachers are faced with the challenge of making instruction “culturally responsive” for all students while not favoring one group over another. A 2007 study by Public Agenda and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality found that 76% of new teachers say they were trained to teach an ethnically diverse student body but fewer than 4 in 10 say their training helps them deal with the challenges they face.
Schools must take a proactive approach to acknowledging diversity
A parent needs to look beyond the numbers to evaluate a school’s approach to diversity. To create a positive environment where students and teachers are respectful of different backgrounds, schools have to be proactive. “Above all, schools shouldn’t just do nothing,” says Rosemary Henze, associate professor of linguistics and language development at San Jose State University in California and author of Leading for Diversity: How School Leaders Promote Positive Interethnic Relations.
Structured classroom activities can highlight diversity. She suggests that teachers structure their teaching to acknowledge different perspectives. For example, in a history lesson about the Vietnam War, they should draw attention to the perspectives of North as well as South Vietnamese citizens, the feelings of the soldiers and diverse views of Americans. In a classroom the teacher can structure learning groups that are diverse and devise activities that require each student to contribute to the group. In this way students learn that each person in a group can contribute and has something of value to say.
Mutual respect is part of the equation. Henze believes teachers should never tolerate disrespect. They should establish ground rules for the class, and even let the kids help to establish these rules.
She also believes the principal has a huge role in creating an environment where people respect the opinions of others and are open to multiple perspectives on any issue. This should be modeled for students, and in relations with faculty and staff, as well.
No Child Left Behind shines the light on achievement gaps among diverse groups of students. The federal No Child Left Behind law has put pressure on schools to see that all students succeed, regardless of their ethnic or language background. Schools are required to meet state “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) goals for their total student populations and for specified demographic subgroups, including major ethnic/racial groups, economically disadvantaged students, limited English proficient (LEP) students, and students with disabilities. If these schools fail to meet AYP goals for two or more years, they are classified as schools “in need of improvement” and face consequences. A broad approach works best to address achievement gaps.
Belinda Williams, an education researcher and co-author of Closing the Achievement Gap: A Vision for Changing Beliefs and Practices, advises school leaders to implement a broad range of strategies to improve teaching and learning, rather than instituting quick fixes to address the achievement gap. The book argues that educators must become more sensitive to the world views of disadvantaged students — and incorporate this awareness into their day-to-day work.
Henze sees value in organizing special events at the school that raise awareness about diversity but warns that “these events should be built into the fabric of the school, rather than being a one-shot deal.”
Schools should strive to create an environment where all children feel valued and all children can learn. Snell says the principal should set the tone by having a policy of “no excuses.” If there is a problem with a particular student, she says principals and teachers should ask themselves, “What do we need to do to ensure that this child is engaged in learning?” and “What more can we do?” This may mean following up to see that the student has the proper place to study, healthy meals and all the support he needs.
What parents can do to promote a positive environment that fosters achievement for all students at the school:
- Find your school and check the test scores on the school profile, and where available, pay particular attention to the results by subgroup.
- If your school has disparities in outcomes for different groups of students (often called “the achievement gap”), you should ask why and find out what measures the school is taking to close the gap.
- Ask how the school addresses the needs of diverse students and if there are support programs available for students who are not meeting the standards. Ask if there is specialized instruction for students who are English language learners.
- Does the school have a cultural fair or assembly to highlight diversity? If not, work with your PTA or parent group to organize one.
- Express your concern if you see different discipline consequences for different groups of students, or if the best teachers are only teaching the strongest students.
- Observe who is involved in student leadership. Is it an ethnically diverse group? If not, ask why.
- Does the school have tracked classes for high and low ability grouping? If so, if you see racial or ethnic patterns in these classes, i.e. more racial minorities in lower ability groups, ask why.
- What’s the makeup of the school staff? Are all the teachers white and all the aides people of color? Is there a racial hierarchy at the school? Ask what the school can do to change these patterns.
- Does your parent group reach out to parents of ethnically diverse students?
- Don’t be alarmed if you see groups of students separating by ethnic group at lunch or recess. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be in their own group at recess,” says Henze. “They can gain a lot from a feeling of belonging.” But do pay attention to what goes on in the classroom. “Classroom activities that give kids the opportunity to interact with different groups can help to break down barriers,” notes Henze.
- Does the principal use a variety of avenues to get parental input? Henze says, “Parental involvement may not be a cultural expectation in some cultures. Schools should not ignore the silent parents. Principals need to listen to all parents and experiment with other ways of getting parental input-written forms, translators and phone calls. Schools should find multiple ways and times to communicate, not just when there are problems with a student.”
Leading for Diversity: How School Leaders Promote Positive Interethnic Relations by Rosemary Henze, Corwin Press, 2002
Closing the Achievement Gap: A Vision for Changing Beliefs and Practices by Belinda Williams, Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2003
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Basic Books, 1999
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