Even though diversity secondary essays are increasingly common in medical school (and other disciplines), some students think that they can dismiss them because they are typically optional. While this is an understandable misapprehension, students should take advantage of this prompt to give the admissions committee a better view of themselves as an applicant. Many prompts ask students to discuss what they can bring to the incoming class. "Diversity" doesn't refer only to marginalized or underrepresented groups; we all have qualities that differentiate us from others. Asking students to write about their experiences with diversity isn't meant to exclude those traditionally well represented in higher education, and thinking about diversity "broadly defined" offers opportunities to reflect on your unique traits, experiences, and identity. Also, read our two samples of diversity secondary essays for medical school!
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There are many misconceptions regarding the diversity secondary essay – a now-common essay prompt for medical schools and professional programs of all sorts. In particular, some critics assume that “diversity” is a kind of politically correct code word, and – stemming from a similar misunderstanding – some assume that if they are part of a “majority” (whether this means ethnic majority, linguistic majority, or even a majority within a discipline), then that means they can’t be “diverse.” These are both incredibly unfortunate and carry a wealth of assumptions that need to be addressed before discussing how to write a great secondary essay on the topic of diversity.
Consider the qualities of a sound definition of diversity:
1. Diversity is multi-definitional
Diversity does not necessarily (or exclusively) refer to religious, ethnic, cultural, or linguistic minorities. Yes, such applicants would indeed be diverse and would contribute to the diversity of a school or program and advocating for traditionally underrepresented or marginalized peoples in academia is a worthwhile task pursued by many institutions.
However, there are any number of other identities and designators you might apply to yourself that act as distinguishing features. If you’re a returning student, a parent, or a non-traditional applicant, those are “diverse” attributes on a university campus. If you’ve served in the military, for example, that would be considered a “diverse” attribute.
Let’s see some examples of diversity:
- You’re someone with a disability or unique health challenges
- You’re the first person in your family to pursue higher education
- You come from a lower socioeconomic background
- You’re from a rural area
- You’re multilingual (either by choice or by necessity)
In short, “diversity” isn’t just some kind of PC buzzword (not that this would necessarily be a bad thing); seeking reflections on diversity, along with diverse candidates, is a genuine effort on the part of institutions to bring a variety of voices into the intellectual arena of academia. The more kinds of voices we have in our institutions, the more robust, nuanced, and intersectional that education becomes.
2. Diversity breaks convention – and is always changing
It wasn’t all that long ago that campuses were nearly exclusively dominated by a relatively homogeneous demographic – this isn’t meant as a contentious statement, it’s a simple statement of fact. Today’s campus makeup is considerably different from that of even 50 years ago, and the ways in which we understand what constitutes “diversity” expand continuously. That means that there is an array of experiences, perspectives, worldviews, and intellectual positions in contemporary academe, and our institutions are all the better for prioritizing such a plethora of voices.
3. Everyone has “diverse” experiences
That leads us to the third point: the misconception that if you are a candidate from a majority demographic in your country, or if you are part of a well-represented demographic group within a particular discipline, you would not qualify as “diverse” and wouldn’t have anything to contribute to an essay on diversity. However, the idea that “diversity” simply refers to, say, racialized minorities, is a very narrow assumption, indeed, and one that does a disservice to the spectrum of human experience and the value of such experience in our educational institutions. You can be a member of the “majority” culture, linguistic group, religion, etc., and still have experiences that differentiate you from others.
This broad understanding of what constitutes “diversity” offers everyone an opportunity to reflect on the uniqueness of their own situation and life experiences. Who among us wouldn’t be able to connect to at least one of these categories? All of us have faced challenges in our lives; all of us have lived through “personally important” experiences; all of us have “life or work experiences”; and none of us have lived any of these in ways completely identical to others. This is in no way to diminish some of the specific challenges faced by minority or underrepresented groups (in fact, helping to ensure equitable access to higher education, regardless of social status or cultural background, is one of our!). The point, rather, is simply to open up our understanding of “diversity” as a multifaceted term without one specific, universal definition.
We still have a way to go in terms of creating a truly equal – and equitable – society, and there is no sensible person who could deny that some people and groups have had advantages within our social structures, including general and higher education, which have been denied to others. Indeed, universities have historically (and somewhat paradoxically) both maintained and challenged such divisions, and the push for diverse campuses is one method of trying to counterbalance long-standing inequities. Reflecting on the notion of “diversity” from a different perspective, however, gives us the opportunity to consider the multilayered issue of identity itself. The idea of a “center” or “majority” is somewhat insufficient, when we step back and contemplate the vast wealth of human experiences.
4. Diversity is whatever makes you “you”
The “secret” to writing a good diversity essay is recognizing that “diversity” can refer to any of those things that make you “you.” Anything that makes you interesting, any terms you use to describe yourself, can be “diverse.” If you’re a middle-class, heterosexual, white, male-identifying individual from a mid-sized city, who went to standard public schools, got average grades, and goes home to do laundry every weekend (an admitted caricature of a “majority” in North America), there are still unique, defining elements that make you who you are.
From a slightly different perspective, if you feel that you are from a background that is already heavily represented in the area you want to study, that doesn’t mean that you don’t manifest diversity in any number of other ways. Think about the landmark moments in your life: events, achievements, or challenges that shaped how you think about the world and about yourself. No one has lived exactly those events, experiences, or challenges in precisely the same way as you. Think about your values and priorities and the reasons behind them. No one holds exactly these same values and priorities for the same reasons as you.
The point here is that everyone has something – some set of qualities, perspectives, and experiences – that makes them who they are. This can be the focus of your diversity essay.
Want more tips and secondary essay examples? Watch this video!
There are a number of reasons why writing a diversity Secondary Essay is important. Not every medical school requires applicants to write a diversity secondary essay, but submitting one can attract the attention of the admissions committee. Here are a few reasons why you should write the diversity secondary essay for a more impactful application:
1. To show that your values align with the school’s
The first and most important reason why you should consider a diversity secondary essay a requirement, even when it’s listed as optional, is because it’s an opportunity to show that your values align with theirs. For instance, notice the explicit mention of diversity in mission statement:
“Yale School of Medicine educates and nurtures creative leaders in medicine and science, promoting curiosity and critical inquiry in an inclusive environment enriched by diversity. We advance discovery and innovation fostered by partnerships across the University, our local community, and the world. We care for patients with compassion and commit to improving the health of all people.”
Most medical schools make diversity an integral part of their mission and growth plans. If you can elicit your definition of diversity and what it means to you, you’re showing the admissions committee that you have the potential to be a valuable contributor to the school’s culture and community.
2. You can show personality
Medical schools know that people are more than just their stats. That’s why secondary essays, resumes, and personal statements are part of the application process. Medical schools want to get to know the person behind the application because qualitative traits tell a story about who you are as a person. Diversity essays are an opportunity to introduce yourself on a more intimate level; you can explain where you came from, or how a formative experience shaped you as a prospective medical school student. Don’t underestimate the explanatory power of the diversity secondary essay; use it to show the admissions committee that you’re a resilient, prepared candidate.
3. You might have some explaining to do
Sometimes, diversity secondary essay prompts are more open-ended; in other words, they don’t explicitly mention diversity. Rather, they might ask the applicant to mention anything else they might like the admissions committee to know regarding academic records, or if there’s an important aspect of their background they think the committee should consider. You might think that your circumstances are extraneous; on the contrary, you can use the diversity essay to explain gaps in your academic background, interesting or influential experiences, or to simply give the committee a better view of who you are. If you look at your application holistically and identify valuable information you think is missing, take the opportunity to rectify those gaps in the body of this prompt.
Building on the above observations, the first step in writing an excellent diversity statement as part of your is to explore your own diversity (“broadly defined”). If you’re applying to med school through AMCAS, you likely had to write a , or at least assemble your list of experiences for the , which would have required you to think about your experiences, qualities, and overall trajectory as a student and as a person. Similarly, if you're applying to med school through TMDSAS, you would have had to brainstorm for the . Returning to that and thinking through what you wrote through a slightly different lens is a great way of gathering some ideas about what sets you and your life story apart from others. For more ideas, you can always read some that can inspire your own.
While you can certainly go through the litany of traditional categories of "diversity" and discuss ways in which you represent these (racial[ized] background, economic class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, language, immigration status, disability, etc.), you also want to think about experiences you’ve had that may not be common experiences among other members of your class. For example, all of us have had to overcome things – illness or injury, bullying or rejection, loss or separation, things outside our control that threw us into turmoil or that caught us in a pit from which we had to find a way to emerge. As well, all of us have triumphed or excelled in some way – music, art, or craft; academics, athletics, or competitions; personal triumphs only evident to those who care to hear of them. Though others may have experienced similar things, only you have experienced those specific things in your own way, in the larger context of your own life. Thinking deeply about your life and those beautiful things that make you “you” helps you appreciate all the things – little and big – that you’ve done or that you’ve overcome in your life. Whatever those things are, they aren’t common to everyone (few things are!), and anyone who has gone through them hasn’t gone through them as you. Only you have!
Increasingly, “cultural competency” is a quality valued by any number of different professions and disciplines, including medicine, law, education, and even business and management. Cultural competency broadly refers to acknowledging the validity of diverse beliefs, values, and practices – especially when they are different from one’s own.
Just as we all have experiences unique to us – or have experienced similar things uniquely – we have all interacted with people who see the world differently from us. Think about such exchanges and what they mean to you, what role others have played in your life, and what role you’ve played in the lives of others.
Consider these questions to help you start thinking about how diversity manifests in your life:
- Have you done volunteer work that allowed you to work with or for people from a different background than yourself?
- Have you traveled to places or taken up service opportunities that let you see other ways of life different from your own?
- Have you connected in meaningful ways with someone who challenged you to think from a new perspective?
- Do you have family, friends, or loved ones who have shown you other ways to think and be? If you have, and if you can articulate such experiences, then this may be something to reflect on as part of your diversity essay.
In writing, we must always ensure that we are “showing” our thoughts to our audience, not just “telling” them. In this context, that means the following: don’t just tell your reader that you’ve had diverse experiences or experiences with diverse others. You must show your readers these things, both with your words and – importantly – through your deeds. This is particularly the case when discussing service or other work with marginalized or underserved communities.
It’s not enough, for example, to simply state that you have unique insights into the needs of those living in poverty. You need to be able to demonstrate such insights and point to specific events that helped you develop them.
Using the example of understanding the needs of those living in poverty, ask yourself the following questions to test how demonstrable your experiences are:
If you answered no to these questions, that doesn’t necessarily suggest that your intentions aren’t genuine, but it does mean that an admissions committee member may raise an eyebrow as they look for evidence of your claims.
So, to develop a strong diversity secondary essay, you must have the following:
Asking you to think and write about diversity and your own diverse experiences isn’t meant to make you feel like you don’t belong. Quite the opposite. With each passing year, we find new ways to value and cherish the unique experiences and qualities that make up the larger human endeavor, and that’s a good thing. The more voices contributing to the conversation – whether that “conversation” is about medicine, education, justice, or any other facet of life – the more we can learn, understand, and grow, both as individuals and as a society. So, think about what you have to contribute to that big, human conversation, what makes that contribution uniquely your own, and let it shine in your diversity secondary essay!
Learn more about the medical school secondary essay prompts you MUST know in this video:
The diversity essay prompts you receive from different schools may vary; that is, the wording of the prompts and what they ask for will be specific to the school. It’s a good idea to read a few examples, so that you know what to expect. While the gist of what you should include in each prompt won’t vary all that much for each school, you might choose to alter the structure or order of content for different prompts.
Here are a few examples of diversity secondary essay prompts:
Check out our 3 sample diversity secondary essays below. Written for two different programs, you can see how different diversity essay prompts can be!
Diversity Secondary Essay Sample #1
Prompt: “Diversity comes in many forms. How do you think you might contribute to the diversity of the class?” (1500 characters)
I am extremely fortunate to have a strong connection to my roots. Spending time in Italy throughout my life has allowed me to see how the ideology of this culture differs from that of the United States.
Italian society is often marred by the stereotype that its citizens are lazy or not willing to work. I believe that if people look through a truly objective lens, they will see a society that derives its happiness less from material objects and more from love and companionship. Resultantly, there is a monumental emphasis placed on the health and wellbeing of others. There is always time for a family meal, a coffee with a friend, or an evening walk to clear one’s mind. Growing up, my family always made sure everyone had enough to eat and someone to talk to. I believe in this philosophy and view the health care field as an opportunity to help others live a full and fruitful life pursuing their own happiness.
Throughout my life, health care professionals have consistently given my loved ones the ability to live autonomously and be present in my life. It is a service and a gift that they have given me and a gift I wish to spend my life giving others. My culture, upbringing, and life experiences have fostered my desire to pursue medicine and my holistic approach to life. I will bring these elements of empathy and holistic care to not only as a training physician, but as a fellow classmate who is there for others through the rigors of medical school. (1466 characters)
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Diversity Secondary Essay Sample #2
Prompt: “The Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont recognizes that diversity extends beyond chosen and unchosen identities and encompasses the entirety of an individual’s experiences. Reflect on a time you learned something from someone or a group of people who are unlike yourself.”
Through globalization, the world is smaller than it has ever been, and so diverse that it’s easy to only care for and be informed of one’s own interests. To connect with someone else is to choose to abandon ignorance and aim to understand other people and their backgrounds. This choice is critical to a society that uses diversity as a strength instead of a tool of division.
In my freshman year of college, I roomed with an international student named Jorge who had immigrated from Guatemala to attend X University. We had a lot in common, despite our differences, and helped each other a lot in this transitional time in our lives. However hard adjusting to college life was for me, I saw how hard it was for him to transition to a new country and breach cultural barriers, while also acclimatizing to the responsibility and workload of a college student.
Instead of accepting the fact that our backgrounds rendered us incompatible, I decided to educate myself on his culture. I began reading about the political unrest in Guatemala, I found Latin Hip-Hop we could listen to, and I worked to develop my Spanish to try to make him feel at home. We grew very close and I learned a lot from being his roommate. Seeing his work ethic and commitment to building a life for himself inspired me to pursue my own goals with the same vigor I saw in him. He looked at the opportunity to study in the United States as a privilege and didn’t take his chance to pursue his education for granted. We were roommates throughout college and in that time I learned a lot culturally from him as well. Through our friendship, I spent time with his family and within the Latin community at X University, and came to incorporate many aspects of his culture into my own life. I learned a lot about letting the people in my life know they are loved and taking the time in my day for simple pleasures like a good meal with friends. I am very thankful for my friendship with Jorge and for the growth fostered by our friendship.
My experience with Jorge has made me particularly excited about the Larner College of Medicine, which I see as an institution invested in producing physicians who are culturally adept and equipped to treat all members of a patient population. The Larner College of Medicine’s commitment to improving health care for the LGBTQ+ population and investing in the wellbeing of its community speaks volumes about what this program values. My undergraduate and my own personal experiences as a first-generation citizen in this country have demonstrated for me how continuing to learn from others who are different is imperative, and how an enriching life comes from an open mind. (470 words)
Diversity Secondary Essay Sample #3
Prompt: “Without limiting the discussion to your own identity, please describe how you envision contributing to the core values of diversity and inclusion at our School of Medicine, and in the medical profession.” (1500 characters)
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of diversity is “a difference of opinion.” As a debate club member and as a student with a fledging interest in classic philosophy, I’ve learned to appreciate the value of a different perspective. I believe that it’s fundamentally impossible to make progress without having the ability to challenge our beliefs and preconceptions about ourselves and the world.
As a volunteer scribe at a mobile clinic, my job was to record the details of patient exams. Most of the patients we saw were middle-aged or elderly. There was one patient, Paul, who had arrived at the mobile clinic with a deep cut on his foot, which he told us he caught on an old rolled-up fence tucked behind his barn. We recommended a tetanus shot, but he was immediately sceptical. He explained that he didn’t believe vaccines worked.
It was important to remain non-combative. We explained that his autonomy was our priority, but there was a chance that he would develop tetanus, which could be lethal. Elaborating, we told him that the tetanus shot is the reason for cases of tetanus decreasing by roughly 95% since about 1950. After taking a moment to reflect, the patient agreed to receive the vaccine and went on his way after thanking us for our help. My experience using placatory, open dialogue is precisely what I seek to contribute to the University of Maryland School of Medicine. (1,404 characters, with spaces)
1. What is the secret to writing a strong diversity secondary essay?
The secret is understanding that diversity is universal. The definition is much broader than most traditionally think it is; for instance, having a diverse perspective qualifies just as much as other common diversity signifiers, like racial or ethnic background.
2. Are diversity secondary essays mandatory?
Not all schools make the diversity secondary essay mandatory. However, even when it’s optional, you are encouraged to reflect on your experiences and what you can contribute to the school’s culture and mission. Diversity is important, but so is taking every opportunity to use your qualities to your advantage and stand out from the crowd.
3. How do I avoid telling instead of showing?
Telling means you’ve simply stated a fact about yourself. For example, you might say you’re a “compassionate” person. To show that this is true, you need to use an experience that evinces this quality.
4. How can I start brainstorming what to write?
It’s best if you reflect on your experiences with others. Interaction and connection are the two cornerstones of diversity. For example, maybe you collaborated with a diverse group of people in a music band and this was a challenging but emboldening experience.
5. What does diversity not mean?
Diversity isn’t about what makes us separate from other people. On the contrary, part of it defines our role in society and in large or small interdependent groups.
6. What are the most important facets of diversity?
Diversity is about breaking convention; the definition is never fixed; everyone has diverse experiences; and diversity, in the final analysis, is what makes you “you.”
7. Are all diversity essay prompts the same?
No, each school’s diversity essay prompt will most likely be different. Read each prompt thoroughly and be sure to address each component of the prompt, including character or word count.
8. How can I avoid sounding self-righteous?
It’s impossible to sound self-righteous if you’re being authentic. Pick out relevant experiences and show the admissions committee that you can demonstrate your moral convictions through action.