Adversity feels like an intense word, and in some ways, it is. Do a quick thesaurus search and you’re likely to find way more negative synonyms than positive ones. Bad luck, hardship, distress…and you have to write a secondary essay for your medical school application about it?
The adversity essay, sometimes known to applicants as the ‘challenge essay,’ is a common prompt on medical school secondaries. But contrary to the name, its purpose isn’t to make you rehash something terrible you’ve experienced, or list all the obstacles that have ever come onto your path. The adversity essay is actually a chance to infuse some positivity into your secondary application.
The key to demystifying and stunning your admissions committees with this essay is responding in a way that shows how you rose to meet a challenge…and why you’re better for it!
If you’re struggling to understand how to go about responding to an adversity essay prompt, don’t worry…we’ve got your back. With a clearer understanding of this secondary, as well as some tips and tricks to guide you, you’ll soon be well on your way to crafting an effective adversity essay; one that shows admissions committees how effectively you turn lemons into lemonade.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret…med school is tough. But you knew that! After all, your premed journey hasn’t always been easy. You’ve worked exceptionally hard to get to this place; the place where you’re writing a secondary essay for your dream medical school. But because medical education is a marathon, and because becoming a physician is a serious undertaking, medical schools want to know that you’re up to the task. They ask adversity questions to get a sense of how you react when faced with a challenge or obstacle. They want to know that when the going gets tough, you have a toolbox and a means to respond.
Importantly, the adversity essay is a place to show how an experience you faced brought you to be the person you are today. It is not a place to complain about something that happened to you, nor is it a place to process emotional events. The adversity essay is an opportunity to show how you can evolve and change. It’s an essay that should be mature, thoughtful, and introspective. It’s not a place to bemoan past events, express grievances, or unpack situations that you haven’t fully processed for yourself.
Just like our other secondaries we need to start this one with a solid outline. In fact, for the adversity essay, I argue that the end is even more important than the beginning. Because this essay is intended to build a narrative, show growth, and change, we need to be mindful of our structure. Like any good story, the adversity essay for medical school must have a beginning, middle, and an end. This sounds overly simplistic, but it can be exceptionally hard to do. We don’t often think about the things that happen to us as having a narrative arc…but when we write about them for admissions essays, this is what we must work hard to accomplish. Let’s explore my approach to the 6 steps of this process and see if we can make this act of storytelling a bit clearer.
Some students feel they haven’t faced enough hardship to successfully tackle this essay. They wonder how to choose a scenario when nothing ‘that bad’ has really happened to them.
This is a misunderstanding about the adversity essay, most likely born of its unfortunate name. When choosing what to write about, remember; you’re thinking about a challenge, or a struggle…not necessarily a terrible memory or a life event that caused you pain.
To be honest, I was intentional about NOT writing about the worst things that had ever happened to me. That was a lot of pressure for a small essay and it was much harder to articulate the skills and attributes I used to meet challenges when writing about topics like trauma or grief. That isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t write about these topics if you are comfortable doing so.
Vulnerability in your application is a very personal choice. You must be mindful though, that whatever you chose to write about has to be reflective, and demonstrate growth. It is also fair game to be asked about on the interview trail; if you can’t talk comfortably about the experience and its impact on you, you shouldn’t write about it in your essay.
When considering what to write for this essay, reflect on a difficult situation or experience; maybe this was a class in school, or a tricky research problem. Maybe you had a problem to solve at work or a difficult family dynamic to address. Ask yourself:
As we start this essay, we begin by providing some context on the situation. I like to start with a little bit of background and storytelling. I will first introduce my setting and my characters before I move on to the next step: identifying the obstacle or explaining the problem.
Once we’ve picked a situation, the next step in writing this essay is identifying the obstacle for readers. In order to build this narrative, I have to explain what the problem was; this is the key element that we will ‘overcome’ if you will, in our response. Think back to what you identified as being challenging in the experience you chose. Once you’ve named the problem that you needed to solve, for your readers, you’re ready to move on to the next step of the process.
This is the part of the essay, after we’ve laid out the background and the problem, where we, as central actors in the story, realize we’ve got a problem. I like to think of the “uh-oh,” moment in the adversity essay as the place where the protagonist (that’s you!) recognized there was a challenge to surmount. Maybe there were some feelings of hopelessness, worry, or fear. Maybe you didn’t know what to do and panicked. This is when you recognized the setback that ultimately set you up for the comeback. Be honest about your emotions, and the reactions you experienced as well as the emotions and reactions of other people in the story
The turning point is where we explain how things changed. For example:
This is the part of the essay where you indicate a change occurred. Tell readers how you made the pivot, and how you became more in that moment than you thought you could be. If we think about this in relation to our narrative arc, this is the climax of the story. All the action is building to this point; our hero (that’s you!) has finally realized how to solve their problem. Nothing can stop you now!
As we wind down our essay, we want to consider;
Show us how far you’ve come in this essay; remind us where you started, and show the impact of this story on your life today.
As we bring this story to its conclusion, we want to end by reflecting on those big lessons learned by you, our protagonist, over the course of this story. We also want to look ahead and comment on how you will apply these skills to your future work as a member of the academic community to which you are applying, and even later on, as a physician.
When finishing up this essay, you’ll want to make sure of a couple things.
So while this might be an ‘intense,’ essay, it certainly does not have to be filled with hardship. You’re ready to write a strong, powerful essay about your ability to overcome…and get into a great medical school.
Example 1: “What has been your biggest challenge in pursuing medicine? What have you learned as a result? (250 words maximum)“ (California Northstate University College of Medicine)
Example 2: “The admissions committee is interested in gaining more insight into you as a person. Please describe a significant personal challenge you have faced, one which you feel has helped to shape you as a person. Examples may include a moral or ethical dilemma, a situation of personal adversity, or a hurdle in your life that you worked hard to overcome. Please include how you got through the experience and what you learned about yourself as a result. Please limit your response to 1 page (about 3,500 characters), and leave a blank line between paragraphs.” (Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine)
Example 3: “Please discuss challenges in your journey thus far to medical school. (150 words)” (Rosalind Franklin University – Chicago Medical School Secondary)
Example 4: “Describe how you have dealt with a personal challenge or major obstacle that you have overcome. Focus on what you learned about yourself and how it will help you during the challenges you might face in medical school. (2000 characters” (Creighton University School of Medicine)
Example 5: “We seek students who are self-aware, resilient and adaptable. Discuss a personal or professional challenge you’ve experienced and how you resolved it. Please include insight on what you learned about yourself as a result.” (Rutgers New Jersey Medical School)
Example 6: “Describe a time when you suffered a setback. How did you respond to this challenge? (Persistence/Grit)” (University of Massachusetts Medical School)
Example 7: “Describe a situation in which working with a colleague, family member or friend has been challenging. How did you resolve, if at all, the situation as a team and what did you gain from the experience that will benefit you as a future health care provider?” (New York University School of Medicine)
Example 8: “Other than work-life balance, what will be your greatest challenge in becoming a physician? (1550 characters)” (Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine)
This specific prompt asked me to consider a time when I had failed at something. I used variations of this adversity essay for multiple medical school secondary applications, always making sure to make adjustments to be specific for what the prompt was asking.
My first task, at my new job on the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Community Health team, was to create a database for Community Health Workers (CHWs) to enter Protected Health Information (PHI) secure data. I had a background in monitoring & evaluation & I knew all about data collection from my years in sociology. The problem?
I had zero background programming. I struggle to program the microwave to bake a sweet potato.
I was going to need help.
I started first by meeting with the CHWs— to create a system that met their needs, we needed to understand what they needed. They told me stories about their patients. We identified our collection goals. I met scholars in Dartmouth academia, asking for their advice. I read forums, watched videos, & created the first draft.
It did not work.
When our CHWs tried to enter data, it felt clunky. We had to start again.
Thomas Edison once said that he learned many ways not to make a lightbulb. We did the same; for databases. I sought out my boss & her boss. I enlisted programmers & web experts to join our team. The CHWs & I met again & again. Five months later, we succeeded. Our system has been rolled out to three separate population health programs; CHWs report an improved ability to care for patients through reduced burden of data collection.
Over those months, we became great at making bad databases. We did not give up, in part, because I pushed forward. “Failure” is often a misnomer. Experience is not the sum of its parts. The same is true of people; in shared effort we create something far greater than we ever might have on our own. As a physician, I’ll apply this same spirit of collaboration to my team based care. If given the privilege of a ______Medical School education, I will bring this same problem solving ability to all my clinical and interpersonal endeavors.