Applying to Medical School

Weekly Weigh-in: The Adversity Secondary Essay

Welcome to PDr’s Weekly Weigh-in! Each week, we ask medical students and physicians to weigh in on some of our most frequently asked pre-med questions.
This week’s question: How did you approach “the adversity secondary essay” on your secondary applications?
Edward Chang, DGSOM MS3
For the adversity question, I tried to talk about events in my life that I felt others could relate too. On most secondaries, I talked about a mistake I made as a leader of my club and how that affected the club. Basically, I forgot to re-register our club as an official group on campus, which prevented us from having general meetings. It was a minor mistake that unfortunately affected us significantly since we needed to meet every week. I focused on my thought process at the time and how it was a humbling experience that I learned from. I explained that I was embarrassed and felt incompetent as a leader, nevertheless my fellow leaders supported me and we came up with a solution together.

I think it’s important to let the readers gain insight into your thought process while you go through adversity. They want to see how you think, cope, and handle yourself in these stressful situations.

|| Read: Three Secondaries to Pre-Write ||

Brandon Brown, UCSF MS2
I interpret adversity to be a challenging or difficult situation or circumstances due to something beyond my control. While the severity may vary, everyone has experienced some form of adversity, so I don’t think it was particularly difficult for me to think of some periods of adversity in my own life. In my essays, I usually described some adversity I experienced as an adolescent (that is too personal to detail here), how I handled the situation, how I got through it, and what I learned from it. Those last 3 parts are the most important; the particular situation is the least important. The basic advice for this type of essay: don’t write a sob story, write a narrative of your resilience and maturity.
|| Read: Weekly Weigh-in: The Diversity Secondary Essay ||
Evan Laveman, DGSOM MS3
For the adversity question I focused on a situation where I was making a rescue as an ocean lifeguard on a drowning victim. A lot of it dealt with my own doubts. Ocean lifeguards are never supposed to let a situation get so far as to ever have a drowning, so during the entire rescue effort, and the period afterwards, I was left with a feeling of failure and guilt. I felt like this could have only happened because I missed something, or didn’t swim fast enough, or did something else wrong. I doubted whether this setting was right for me. I learned later that the victim was drunk and had been attempting a suicide, therefore absolving me of any real responsibility for the outcome. Despite learning that, the feelings of uncertainty and grief were still real for me in those moments. I felt like I got lucky, this one wasn’t my fault, but now I knew how it would feel if the next it was, and it was hard to handle for a 18 year old. My takeaway from this was that uncertainty and doubt will always live within me, and I have to learn to accept myself for my successes and failures. I can’t always hold myself to an unreasonable standard, and learning how to sacrifice achievement for health, balance and family has been an active and wonderful process for me. The key for these questions is to not get lost in your own narrative. It’s not about how interesting the situation is or really even how “adverse” it is, it’s your analysis of it. It’s how you matured through it, it’s how you show your ability to reflect on yourself and be aware of how you handle challenges. Don’t get sidetracked by trying to make an admissions committee feel bad for you. If you have had a blessed life, that doesn’t mean you have no good answer for this question- it can still be amazing if you show that you are grounded and self-aware. Likewise, I traumatic childhood doesn’t mean that you have this question squared away. An admissions committee cannot admit you because they feel bad for you, and you don’t want them to for those reasons either, so make sure they know the real reason you’re qualified for medicine- make sure they know they are dealing with an active thinker, a problem solver, and someone who can work their way through adversity, because there will certainly be a lot more coming.
||Read: Weekly Weigh-in: Prioritizing Secondary Applications ||
Emily Singer, DGSOM MS3
Why do admissions committees want to know about the “adversity” you’ve faced anyway? Well, as potential colleagues or future patients of yours, they want to know that you will be relatable, can manage stress, and can learn from tough personal situations. I took this prompt as an opportunity to explain why my grades dipped during my sophomore year. The essay I wrote was less about the period of “adversity” I was dealing with, and more about its resolution, what I learned, and how I applied what I learned to helping other people.

If you have any sort of gap in your resume or unexplained drop in grades, it is important to explain that period. This can either be done in your “adversity” essay or in your “anything else you’d like to tell us” one. My recommendation is to be really honest about adversity – if the hardest thing in your life has been disappointing your parents or having a falling out with a best friend – that’s okay. You don’t have to have overcome poverty or fled an oppressive regime to be a great candidate for medical school, and – in the same vein – adversity in itself doesn’t make you a good candidate. The important thing is that you communicate whatever hardship you have faced in a mature and thoughtful manner. What did you learn from fighting with the person closest to you? Or moving away from the people you grew up with? How did you deal with being the only “new” person in school? Try to think outside of strictly medical arenas too – “I have asthma” typically does not make for a compelling adversity essay, unless you started a running club for asthmatics and placed first in a 100-mile relay race.
|| Check out: PDr’s Secondary Essay Prompts Database to start pre-writing! ||

Evan Shih, DGSOM MS3

Since my own adversity essay topic is a bit personal for me to put on the internet, I’d like to reiterate my advice surrounding this popular prompt. The word “challenge” is found 38 times throughout the PDr secondary database in 2014. Indeed, a common theme that medical schools love to hear about is how their applicants have overcome a challenge, persevered through adversity, struggled with a moral dilemma, etc. However the prompt phrases it, the essay asks for three things:

  • What problem did you face?
  • How did you respond to the problem?
  • What did you learn from it?

And those questions are ordered in in increasing importance. Medical schools are interested in learning about how a specific challenge shaped your character, and how you will integrate this experience into your medical education. Let’s face it: Medical school is hard. It will be one of the toughest endeavors of your life – the stress, the criticism, the failure, it will add up. Medical schools want to know that they are accepting students who have dealt with this type of pressure before, and know how to handle themselves.  Use this secondary to discuss the qualities that will help you persevere throughout your medical education and beyond.

Emily Chiu

Emily Chiu is the Director of Logistics at She is currently a third-year undergraduate student at UCLA. If you have any questions about her work, or are interested in contributing to, please contact her at [email protected]. Follow ProspectiveDoctor on Twitter, @ProspectiveDr.

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