In a minute, I’m going to provide some rock-solid advice that, if experience is any guide, you’ll ignore. You’ll ignore it even though, on some level, you suspect it’s sound advice that would boost the odds of your being admitted to medical school, if only you would act on it.
So I’m going to begin by trying to entice you to defy my hunch. Think of these rules as Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar.
• Limit this activity to ten minutes a day.
• Do it at any time of the day you wish.
• Don’t worry about the quality of what you produce.
Now for the medicine. Start a daily journal in which you answer this question: What has brought me to the point of applying to medical school and becoming a physician?
This tweak of the actual application prompt will help you remember what too many applicants forget, or seem to: that the decision to pursue medicine was the culmination of a process. To suggest that it wasn’t says something you don’t want to say about yourself.
An effective answer to the application’s seemingly simple question – Why do you want to go to medical school? – is an essential element of virtually all successful applications. Of course, it is not a simple question. This is why keeping a journal on a process-oriented version of the question will prove to be an exceptionally useful tool in helping you do your decision justice.
There are other reasons journaling in general is important, but I’m going to limit my argument to the benefits of a focused daily journal for you and anyone else who is thinking of applying to medical school.
Benefit #1: Journaling teaches you things about yourself you didn’t know.*
I used to run a college honors program that required students to design a curriculum on a subject that intrigued them. One of the requirements was that students explain, in writing, why they found their subject interesting. In their initial drafts, the majority of students were unable to. They didn’t actually know why they found the subject interesting; they only knew that it was. Consequently, they focused on the subject and ignored the mystery of their own interest.
Deciding to pursue a medical career is analogous to deciding to study a subject in only one respect: both are about honoring personal investment. And the weird thing about personal investments is that their histories and contours are often invisible to the person invested.
This is where daily journaling comes in. Writing is a heuristic, a problem-solving tool, and in the daily journal I’m recommending, the problem to be solved is your motivation for pursuing medical school. It’s a momentous decision, and the process of deciding should reflect that weight. For every applicant, the process is personal. But as we’ve seen, the personal is often a mystery.
The rule for heuristic journaling is that you not be intimidated by the pressure of producing quality prose. Quality prose is not the point of journaling. Grammar, punctuation, coherence, cleverness, interestingness – whatever concerns hang you up or slow you down, do your best to shelve them. Let the words fly. I know that’s a hard thing for most conscientious students to do. Do it anyway. The journal is for your eyes only.
What happens when you give yourself permission to not worry about these things can be extraordinary. Think of journaling as a form of lucid dreaming. You are clothing your motivation in words, but you’re on holiday from worrying over the words. You are discovering your motivation’s history, as well as its depth and breadth.
Conversation can also help with this, but writing has two benefits that speech lacks. First, writing provides a document of your thoughts. Even if you forget them, your journal won’t. Second, writing encourages a level of focused intention that is difficult to replicate in speech.
Benefit #2: Journaling sharpens your ability to write about yourself and improves your ability to introspect.
Critical introspection is the faculty that was missing in my students’ early drafts of their “Why do I find X interesting?” essays. For medical school applicants, few faculties are as important.
I remember being surprised by how difficult it was for even the most gifted science majors to write effectively about themselves. But in one sense, it made sense: few of them had been taught autobiographical writing, much less the sort of introspection that memorable autobiographical writing requires.
Daily journaling requires you to spend time and energy looking inward. Over time, it accustoms you to the discipline of being thoughtful about the subject that presents the most impediments to thoughtfulness: yourself. If you attempt to take the full measure of this subject, you might soon long for the simplicity of organic chemistry.
Benefit #3: Journaling provides grist for a compelling, nonboring personal statement.
Accepted has a fine post by Michelle Stockman on the possible uses of artificial intelligence (AI) for MBA applicants and the quite real risk and significant limitations of AI for personal essays.
The first-order risk of submitting a personal statement built around AI-generated language hogs most applicants’ attention, and for good reason. If you dabble in AI-generated prose and you’re found out, you’re cooked.
Less obvious is that AI-generated attempts at personal statements, so far at least, are eye-glazingly boring. Correct, sure. But for any species of post-graduate personal statements, boring is bad. Boring is poison. Boring is damn close to disqualifying. If you remember nothing else about how to craft a compelling personal statement, remember this: admissions reviewers are seeking an actual, human voice. They covet this, and AI won’t help you. But journaling will.
The most persistent mistake I’ve found in working with medical school applicants is that they underplay the particularity – and thus, the interestingness – of their personal process of figuring out why they are applying to medical school. For the vast majority, the particularities of their process did not become clear to them until they started journaling about their experiences with health and healthcare.
If you take journaling seriously – if you honestly inventory your experiences, your thinking, your ethical and practical reckoning with the decision to start down this hard road – you will discover details that become elements of a story that’s unique. And a unique essay, rather than an overbaked calculation of what you think admissions reviewers want to read, is what you’re trying to write.
Medical school admissions committees receive oodles of applications from conspicuously talented and hardworking students. They receive far fewer from applicants who do written justice to their decision to pursue a career that will require a lifetime of sacrifice. Daily journaling will bring you one step closer to becoming an exception.
* Some of the things journaling teaches you about yourself might not please you. For example, you might discover that you don’t have very good reasons for choosing a career in medicine. If you’ve given the journal its due and this is your conclusion, consider yourself lucky that you found out now.
Madison Searle managed admissions for three undergraduate honors programs at the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin and read more than 5,000 applications while also advising students applying to graduate and professional programs. He has taught writing seminars in two programs at the College of Natural Sciences – Health Science Scholars and Polymathic Scholars – and worked with students on their applications to medical school and other health professional schools.