How to Answer Adversity Secondary Essay Prompts for Medical School

Including Successful Essay Examples

Updated: April 29, 2020

Medical schools desire applicants that can effectively manage stress, overcome challenges, and navigate their way through life's curveballs. Successful applicants must prove they can endure the rigors of both medical school and a career as a physician. The secondary application adversity essay is a way for the admissions committee to evaluate your resilience as an applicant. Keep reading for everything you need to know about the adversity essay, including successful essay examples and strategies for how to answer this prompt type, even if you feel you haven't faced adversity.

This blog will cover the following topics:

What is an adversity essay for medical school?

Examples of adversity prompts

How to answer adversity secondary essay prompts

What if I haven't faced adversity?

Successful adversity essay examples

Would you like us to help you with your medical school secondary essays?

What is an adversity essay for medical school?

In addition to writing a diversity essay for medical school, an adversity essay for medical school is one you'll likely have to write when filling out your medical school secondary applications. Although the AMCAS work and activities section includes up to 15 experiences, medical school secondary essays dive deeper into unique applicant characteristics that haven't already been covered. While most schools send out secondary applications to all applicants, some schools are choosier about who they send secondaries to, often screening using MCAT and GPA scores. While there are many medical school secondary essay examples, the adversity secondary essay is among the most common. Typically, in the essay prompt, you'll be asked to discuss a challenging time you experienced as well as how you overcame that challenge. 

Examples of adversity prompts

Adversity prompts often come in the form of an "overcoming challenges" question. These questions ask the applicant about a difficult situation they were faced with, an obstacle they encountered, or a hurdle they had to push past in order to succeed. Check out our blog for a comprehensive list of medical school secondary essays which are sorted by school so you can see which prompts you'll likely receive depending on your chosen school. The following prompt examples fit into the adversity category:

1.Discuss a time in your life in which you have failed at something other than an academic experience. How did you confront the failure and what did you learn from it? Please describe how you typically approach challenges that you face in your life.

2. What has been your biggest challenge in pursuing medicine? What have you learned as a result?

3. 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.

4. Describe a major problem you have had to deal with at some time in your life. Include how you dealt with it and how it influenced your growth.

5. Please describe to the Admissions Committee a challenge you have overcome and what you learned about yourself from that experience.

How to answer adversity secondary essay prompts

First, you need to make sure you read the prompt thoroughly and understand what the prompt is asking. In some cases, the challenge the admissions committee wants you to discuss is a professional challenge, in other cases, they are looking for a personal challenge. If the med school adversity question should be answered using a particular type of example, it will be specified in the prompt. Secondly, check the word or character count and keep this in mind when structuring your answer. Some prompts may allow for 1000 words while others are limited to only 200 words. These limits must be strictly adhered to, any violation of the limit will be seen as a red flag and will exclude you from progressing further through the admissions process. When answering these prompt types, begin by reflecting on your past experiences, which you likely already did when you wrote your medical school personal statement. Think about a time when you faced a difficult situation. What happened? What were the steps you took to overcome the challenge? What did you learn from the experience? Often, you won't have a lot of available words or characters to answer the question, so you need to make sure your answer is direct and to the point.

Start your essay with a brief introduction to the situation or experience, notice the word brief here. The least important part of this essay is describing what happened and all the details surrounding the experience. Make sure you don't get lost in the story because you won't have any words left to describe the important aspects which are covered in the body paragraph. This includes how you felt, how you were affected, and what you learned. Discussing how you felt is particularly important as it helps the admissions committee understand your thought process when you're faced with adversity as well as how you cope in these situations. Tie everything together with a short conclusion that summarizes how the experience changed you. Have you become a stronger person because of the obstacle you faced? Have you learned to be more compassionate? Did you gain a better understanding of a complicated issue? Everyone's experience will be different, so it's important to reflect on your individual experience to determine how you gained something positive from it. 

Avoid playing the victim when answering this type of prompt. Remember, the admissions committee is looking for a demonstration of resilience and maturity. A time when even though you were knocked down, you didn't stay down, you picked yourself back up and you continued, grew, learned and are better today because of that experience. They won't be interested in admitting an individual because they feel bad for them, they want students who can show personal growth, determination, and problem-solving skills. During medical school and your career as a physician, there will be many hardships, both in your personal and professional life. Everyone faces difficult situations at some point in their life, but what's important is that you can demonstrate your ability to think actively, manage stress and rise above any obstacles.

Check out our video for some adversity essay tips:

What if I haven't faced adversity?

Some students struggle with the "overcoming challenges" prompt because they feel truly fortunate in life and don't feel that they've faced adversity. So, if you haven't faced adversity, what should you write in this section? The truth is, everyone has faced adversity, the struggle that students face in answering this question is that they are categorizing the prompt incorrectly. Adversity simply means difficulty or misfortune, but students often take this term to the most extreme and feel that it only applies to a serious situation such as the loss of a loved one, a serious disability or a life-altering illness. While these are certainly hardships worth discussing, they are not the only hardships people face. Everyone has overcome a difficult situation, but if you're having a hard time identifying such a time in your life, read these questions below to help determine a hardship that affected you personally. If you answered yes to any of the below questions, you likely have a good topic for discussion, as long as you can expand the topic and think about how it affected you and what you learned moving forward.

School Challenges

Did you have to move because of issues at school?

Have you been bullied before?

Have you had a hard time making friends?

Did you face an obstacle while gaining shadowing or clinical experience?

Do you have a poor grade or a gap in your academic record? What do you think the main cause of this was?

Have you been the new person at school?

Family Challenges

Have you lost a loved one?

Have you or a loved one faced injury or illness?

Has a loved one struggled with addiction?

Did your parents get divorced?

Do you or a loved one struggle with a physical, physiological, or developmental condition or disability?

Has your family lost their home?

Was your family forced to move?

General Challenges

Can you think of a time when something didn't go the way you had hoped? For example, maybe you could have played professional basketball but an injury forced you to change plans.

Have you faced discrimination or prejudice of some kind?

Have you had to learn a new language?

Have you had to manage a financial hardship?

Have you fallen out with a best friend?

Have you made a mistake that had unfortunate consequences?

Adversity essay examples

Check out our video for adversity essay examples:

1. Please describe any significant barriers or challenges you may have overcome in the pursuit of your personal/professional goals.

During my senior year of undergraduate studies I had struggled to cope with my diagnosis of vitiligo. It started off as a faint light spot near my eyes that I did not pay much attention to at first. Eventually, that spot became whiter and I noticed two other small spots forming near it and other around my lips. I became concerned at that point for my health.

During this time, peers began to notice the white spots on my face. I received a lot of odd looks and whispered comments from people as they questioned what was on my face. I did not know at the time how to explain to my peers what was happening with my face, so I shrugged it off to them as some kind of a skin rash. Unfortunately, I had to endure some distasteful jokes about the spots on my face. This was initially demoralizing to my self-esteem and made me feel embarrassed about something that I had no control over. As a result, I avoided leaving my apartment in order to prevent people from seeing my face. My mind became full with self-doubt as I contemplated my future and how my condition would affect my goals of finding a potential spouse and securing a job for myself without being judged or discriminated against.

I had finally gone to my primary care physician who simply told me that I had vitiligo without fully examining my face or doing additional tests to confirm my diagnosis. I was devastated to hear this conclusion and was angry with myself for allowing this condition to develop in the first place. After my brief visit with the primary care physician, I was given prescription steroid cream to treat my spots as well as a short pamphlet about my condition and how to use the cream. This caused me to be in denial about my diagnosis, so I decided to seek out a second opinion with a dermatologist, Dr. Maggie, who used a wood’s lamp to examine my skin thoroughly. I was crushed again to hear that I have vitiligo. I knew very little about this disease since the pamphlet I had initially received did not help and was scared of the possibility of it spreading all over my face or to other parts of my body. My heart began pounding with anxiety and panic as I pondered what my life was going to be like with this diagnosis. I was fearful that this condition would only get worse and potentially hinder my future life opportunities due to social stigma and societal isolation. However, unlike the first physician I went to, Dr. Maggie carefully and meticulously explained my disorder to me. He even ordered blood tests and conducted various allergy tests to supplement my treatment. He reassured me that there is a strong possibility that the pigmentation in my skin would return naturally and that worst-case scenario, laser light therapy would be an option. He thoroughly answered all of my questions and helped create a diet plan that could help improve my immune system.

After this comforting consult, I decided to not care what anyone thought of my vitiligo and I would continue being the same person that I have always been. With the help of Dr. Maggie, I came to the conclusion that vitiligo does not affect me internally, and ultimately should not get in the way of fulfilling my dream of having a family and becoming a physician. After a few months, I noticed that there was quite an improvement in the pigmentation on my face and that the vitiligo did not spread anywhere else on my body. Through Dr. Maggie’s guidance, I was able to equip myself with the knowledge and understanding of my disorder in order to change my outlook on life and strengthen my determination to overcome my vitiligo. This direct personal experience exemplified how a physician can greatly affect a person’s life in a positive light given the right approach and consideration. I hope to one-day reassure my own patients in the same manner and sensitivity that Dr. Maggie has shown me in order to put their minds at ease and provide them with the necessary support and education to manage their health.

2. Describe a time in your life that demonstrated resilience.

During my sophomore year of high school, my family’s financial situation had just begun to improve to where we lived comfortably with a steady income. However, on my 15th birthday, my dad accidentally sawed off three of his fingers while building a shed. He was rushed to OHSU, where the providers surgically reattached two of his fingers. Due to the cost of the surgery, we suffered a major financial setback, since the injury prevented him from returning to work for several months. I vividly recall helping my mom in deciding which bills to pay, which created feelings of uncertainty that I had not felt since we immigrated to the US. I gave up driving and walked 1.5 miles to school each morning, gave up my cell phone, and cut down my spending, but it still was not enough. I had considered dropping out of school to work full time, but my parents insisted that I continue my education. I had to figure out a way to make money without taking my focus away from my education. I got creative and found my way into the sneaker culture of Portland where I began to buy and sell rare Nikes as a way to make money. I gave up my social life to wait in line at shoe stores after school and on weekends. I became one of the main breadwinners in my family and was able to make the payments on the bills as well as maintain a 4.0 in school. Through this hardship, I learned how to manage my time efficiently, prioritize tasks, and forge new solutions for seemingly impossible barriers. 

Remember, it's not a competition as to which applicant faced the most adversity. When describing a challenge you overcame, think about what happened, how you responded, and what you learned from the experience.

Would you like us to help you with your medical school adversity essays?

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BeMo Academic Consulting