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December 20, 2023

Describing Adversity on Your Medical School Application

In 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States ended affirmative action in higher education. This had immediate implications for medical school admissions committees. Reducing the underrepresentation of ethnic and racial minorities in the medical profession has been a goal of medical schools for many years, but now racial diversity can no longer be considered as a factor in admissions. Partly in anticipation of this ruling, the American Medical College Application Service® (AMCAS) re-worded a key section of the primary medical school application for the 2023-24 cycle.

The application used to ask students from “disadvantaged” backgrounds to describe experiences they had overcome on their path to medical school. Now, to avoid the potential interpretation of “disadvantaged” as being about race, the application asks “Have you overcome challenges or obstacles in your life that you would like to describe in more detail? This could include lived experiences related to your family background, financial background, community setting, educational experiences, and/or other life circumstances.”

This article looks at some of the factors students from diverse backgrounds can incorporate into an answer to this essay prompt.

Family Background Factors

If you’re a first-generation college student, you may want to indicate this on your application. Students who are among the first in their families to go to college often struggle to adjust to college more than peers who have a family history of college attendance.

Parents, caregivers, and older siblings who have been to college can help students prepare themselves for what to expect from the experience and provide advice for navigating college bureaucracy. First-generation college students are missing this piece of their support network.

Other family background issues to consider incorporating into your statement may include:

  • Immigrating to the U.S. under duress (e.g., as a refugee from war or persecution)
  • Enduring periods of homelessness or poverty
  • Being a primary caregiver for another relative—e.g., siblings, a parent, or grandparent

Community Factors

Another obstacle you may have overcome is growing up in a socioeconomically disadvantaged community. This can include a community that:

  • Has few educational options available or a low level of educational attainment
  • Has inadequate healthcare facilities
  • Has a high proportion of families in poverty
  • Has a high rate of violent crime

Disadvantaged communities can be urban, suburban, or rural, and can include people from any racial or ethnic background. Overcoming the challenges of living in a disadvantaged community of this type can demonstrate your persistence, but it can also show admissions committees that you would be equipped to understand the needs of patients from similar communities.

Financial Factors

Financial disadvantages don’t just extend to the amount of student loan debt you may have had to take on. They also influence how much energy you can devote to your studies when you also have to work to survive, or how much disposable income you have to spend on tutoring, MCAT prep courses, etc. Financial factors can include:

  • Growing up in a family below the poverty line
  • Being estranged from your family at a young age and having to support yourself
  • Having to work to support your family from a young age
  • Needing to work or rely on grants for low-income students during your undergraduate studies

Personal Factors

Finally, you may have faced other obstacles or challenges during your life that don’t have to do with money, community, or the direct influence of your family. These can include any challenges that threatened your ability to complete your education, such as:

  • Experiencing serious illness, injury, mental health struggles, or physical disability
  • Being diagnosed with a learning disability
  • Being involved with the criminal justice system
  • Becoming a parent while young

Explain the Lessons You Learned

Whatever factors you include in this section of your medical school application, make sure you structure your statement in a way that does not sound like you are trying to excuse a lower GPA or MCAT score, seek pity, or ask for a pat on the back. Instead, try to show how the challenges you’ve faced strengthened your personal resilience and your commitment to a career in medicine. Also demonstrate your understanding of the challenges that face patients from backgrounds like yours, and how you would work to serve them as a medical professional. By connecting the difficulties in your life story to the people you want to help in the future, you show medical schools that you’re capable of something all medical practitioners need: empathy.

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