Writing A Winning Essay

“There are weapons you cannot hold in your hands. You can hold them only in your mind.”

– Frank Herbert, Dune


WCC General Writing Guidelines

One of the more interesting facts about science fiction and fantasy novels is that they can be far harder to write than non-fiction or contemporary/historical fiction. Contemporary authors are usually describing a context which is grounded (to some degree, at least) in a recognizable time and place. The challenges are far greater when the landscape is completely blank and every small custom, or piece of historical back-story, must be crafted with painstaking precision to weave together a compelling tapestry to fully immerse a reader in the narrative. Admissions essays are far closer to creative fiction than non-fiction in this one respect: your audience knows nothing about you other than what you communicate about yourself. Even worse, the sheer volume of correspondence admissions committees have to review can deaden them to an endless onslaught of emotionally desperate, poorly written compositions. An essay must stand out in some significant way, preferably many ways, to hope to survive the endless process of identifying candidates interesting enough to merit an interview invitation.

White Coat Checklist models communication as a process comprised of multiple layers of complexity:

  1. Courtesies: Necessary formalities, examples include, “Hi, how are you?” (often, neither party cares to know the actual reality)
  2. Information: Necessary exchange of abstract realities, examples include, “The hospital’s visiting hours today are 9 to 5.”
  3. Emotion: Optional exchange of subjective perspective, examples include, “I feel stressed today because I’m due for my performance review.”
  4. Narrative: Opportunity to define experiences in context, examples include, “My family has always preached the value of hard work, so I’m comfortable pushing myself during this crunch period.”

Seeking to build narrative essays, and succeeding in doing so are two different realities. White Coat Checklist has identified five tests which any essay must pass to qualify as effectively written for maximum impact:

  • Meaning – Do you have a compelling narrative which conveys a message worth the time of the audience?
  • Structure – Is your essay strategically arranged for maximum effective impact?
  • Logic – Are your arguments sound and written for straightforward understanding?
  • Grammar – Have all conventions of effective writing been honored?
  • Tone – Have all word choices been evaluated for implications and secondary meanings which may impact the audience’s response? 


Personal Statement Content Structure

White Coat Checklist recommends that candidates consider the personal statement as an exercise in self-reflection,  not just any old essay you have to write to get in to med school. Before brainstorming possible stories to tell, you should first verify that you understand the following items: 

1. Who you are. Seriously sit down one day and try to put 5 words on paper that explain who you are and what you are like. White Coat Checklist calls these your Fast Five Facts. You should structure your essays around proving that this self-description is objectively true. Keep in mind that some descriptors (smart, hard-working) are not promising candidates for Fast Five Facts since they are generally true for any competitive medical school applicant. 

2. What your goals and values are. Keep appropriate perspective – for example, “I want to be a trauma surgeon at a major metropolitan Level 1 trauma center” is NOT a winning answer. A values-oriented commitment to the medical profession such as “All people have a right to safe and equitable care, and as a physician I would be empowered toward making that value a reality in my community” is one response which is much more appropriate. 

3. What you have done/experienced so far and what you want to dedicate yourself to during your life. In the context of your aspiring career as a physician these should prove items 1 and 2 above while also being informed by both of them as well. 

In medicine and clinical research, in cases avoiding abstraction and theoretical arguments is completely appropriate, but the medical school application cycle is definitely one time where pure concepts are essential to presenting a clear and convincing argument. When top-ranked schools receive 10,000 or more applications per cycle you get only one shot at convincing a reviewer to flag your essay for further in-depth review. There are tens of thousands of undergrads with reasonably good GPA/MCAT who can point to some shadowing and volunteering experiences, so those factors alone cannot be the centerpiece of the story. Instead, use your real-life experiences to pull the reader in and maintain interest, using your rhetorical talents to help move your application from the “eh” category to the “Must Interview ‘stack. You are trying to prove to someone that not only are you committed to being a successful physician but that you would personally make a good doctor – someone who knows the challenges ahead and is prepared for a lifetime of commitment to medicine. A physician candidate who offers something unique and special to the profession is always treated with respect. Another important consideration to keep in mind is showing that you demonstrate the core competencies that AMCAS has agreed are required in medicine


Secondaries Essays Primer

Each concept is unique unto itself, and many writers may be strong in some yet less familiar with others. In combination, these writing conventions create an outcome greater than the sum of their parts. Many people simply see what they believe they have done rather than undertaking a practical assessment of their writing’s current progress. The greatest communication skill is disassociation, or the art of partitioning awareness. Through this skill, one learns to read what you have written as both someone new and as the author, to let both experiences enrich the other. White Coat Checklist offers advanced educational resources, including critiqued first draft secondary essays composed by successful medical school applicants, to offer interested candidates every possible opportunity to master such skills for themselves. Many specific strategies and techniques are context-specific in terms of how best to apply them to demonstrate effective communication competencies.

White Coat Checklist’s Member Resources section includes the free AppTrackR medical school dashboard to allow applicants to track their target schools in real-time, question prompts for composing a compelling personal statement, and real-life secondaries essays to learn from the mistakes of prior applicants who have successfully matriculated. Members are also eligible to Contact WCC to ask questions or request 1:1 Advising or Remote Editing Sessions for individual targeted support. 

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