One of the most popular secondary questions asked by medical schools is “why our program?” Saying why you’re attracted to a particular school can be a hard thing to explain, especially when you’ve looked at so many programs that they seem to blur. I think that’s why I so often see the same answer: “early clinical exposure, great faculty and learning environment, and opportunities to work overseas and/or in the student-run clinic.” These reasons may all be true, but they come across as if all medical schools are similar. And just like you want them to differentiate you from your competition, they want to know that you’ve taken the time to learn about them.
Here are a few ways you can go beyond the cookie-cutter response to show that you’ve researched the school and discuss the program’s distinctive appeal for you:
1. Highlight the unique fit: What about this program, and this program alone, matches with your particular interests? If you have been volunteering in an oncology lab and know that Vanderbilt is investigating patient responses to neoadjuvant chemotherapy, then discuss your interest in that field and the special opportunities the school provides. Perhaps even bring up the work of a particular professor or researcher you admire, particularly if you’ve read one of their works. If you want to explore opportunities for medical publishing, then you’ll want to mention Stanford’s interdisciplinary studies and highlight your interest in their other faculties.
2. Explain why “where” is important: Sometimes you might also want to bring in the school’s locale and explain why it’s important to your education. For instance, George Washington University‘s proximity to Washington DC makes it great for people interested in community health promotion and policy; a busy urban center like Tulane or SUNY Downstate will expose you to diverse patient populations found nowhere else, and are special draws for those interested in fields like infectious disease; and the University of Washington gives students access to rural medicine that few programs can offer. Support systems – family members living nearby, for instance – can also be mentioned (in fact, some schools specifically ask for this information) but in general, don’t make accidents of geography the main focus of this essay.
3. Align your philosophies: Finally, I find that one of the best ways to approach the “Why _____?” question is to try to discover the school’s philosophy and then shape your answers around that. For instance, Yale is renowned for the “Yale System” and takes a lot of pride in their interdisciplinary, non-competitive, self-directed learning approach. Each program is going to have its own philosophy that you’ll discover by exploring their website (as well as talking with alumni, if you have the chance to do that).
Identifying why each school is special is definitely a time-consuming task. However, it might be one of the best ways you spend your time in the application process. While you’re ensuring that you attract the attention of multiple schools, you’re also gaining information you need about them. And when you have to choose between multiple acceptances, you’ll know exactly where you fit.
By Cydney Foote, Accepted consultant and author of Write Your Way to Medical School, who has helped future physicians craft winning applications since 2001.
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