The “Secret” to Writing an Excellent Diversity Secondary Essay

Reflections on “Diversity” and 3 Steps to Succeed

Updated: April 3, 2020

Summary: Diversity secondary essays are increasingly common in medical school (and other disciplines). "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 who are traditionally well-represented in higher education, and thinking about diversity "broadly defined" offers opportunities to reflect on your own unique traits, experiences, and identity.

In this blog, you'll learn:

What is “Diversity“

Writing a Successful Diversity Secondary Essay - Step 1: Explore your own diversity

Writing a Successful Diversity Secondary Essay - Step 2: Reflect on your experiences with others

Writing a Successful Diversity Secondary Essay - Step 3: Show, don’t tell - with a twist

Would you like our help with your medical school secondary essays?

What is "Diversity?"

There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to 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 some 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.

First, “diversity” here does not necessarily (or exclusively) refer to those of 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, that is a “diverse” attribute in relation to the majority of students. If you are someone with a disability or unique health challenges, if you are the first person in your family to pursue higher education, if you come from a lower socioeconomic background, if you’re from a rural area, if you’re multilingual (either by choice or by necessity), these are all features that would be considered “diverse” in the context of the traditional university campus or professional program.

In short, “diversity” isn’t just some kind of PC code word (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 centers of education, the more robust, nuanced, and well-considered that education becomes. 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 than 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. But, 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.

That leads us to the second 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, that you would not qualify as “diverse” and wouldn’t have anything to contribute to an essay on diversity. The unfortunately narrow perspective of the first point, above, leads to a similarly unfortunate and narrow interpretation in this second point. To expand this view, let’s start by looking at Stanford Medical School’s recent secondary essay prompt on diversity:

“The Committee on Admissions regards the diversity (broadly defined) of an entering class as an important factor in serving the educational mission of the school. The Committee on Admissions strongly encourages you to share unique, personally important, and/or challenging factors in your background, such as the quality of your early educational environment, socioeconomic status, culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and life or work experiences. Please discuss how such factors have influenced your goals and preparation for a career in medicine.”

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 core values and driving philosophies here at BeMo!). 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. 

The “secret” to writing a good diversity essay is realizing that “diversity” can refer to any of those things that makes 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.

Learn more about diversity secondary essays in this video:

>>FREE: 100 Sample Official Medical School Interview Questions!<<

Writing a Successful Diversity Secondary Essay - Step 1: Explore your own diversity

Building on the above observations, the first step in writing an excellent diversity secondary essay is to explore your own diversity (“broadly defined”). If you’re applying to med school through AMCAS, you likely had to write a medical school personal statement, or at least assemble your list of experiences for the AMCAS work and activities, 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 TMDSAS personal characteristics essay.  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. 

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 types of 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!

Check out these medical school personal statement examples including one that got SIX acceptances!

Writing a Successful Diversity Secondary Essay - Step 2: Reflect on your experiences with others

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 as valid the diverse beliefs, values, and practices of those who believe, value, and practice differently than oneself. The AAMC considers cultural competency one of the core Pre-Professional Competencies for entering medical students, where someone with “cultural competence” is defined as follows:

“Demonstrates knowledge of socio-cultural factors that affect interactions and behaviors; shows an appreciation and respect for multiple dimensions of diversity; recognizes and acts on the obligation to inform one’s own judgment; engages diverse and competing perspectives as a resource for learning, citizenship, and work; recognizes and appropriately addresses bias in themselves and others; interacts effectively with people from diverse backgrounds.”

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 than we do. 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. Have you done volunteer work that allowed you to work with or for people from a different background than yourself? Have you traveled 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. That brings us to Step 3…

Writing a Successful Diversity Secondary Essay - Step 3: Show, don’t tell (with a twist)

In writing, we must always ensure that we are “showing” our thoughts to our audience, not just “telling” them the thoughts we have. 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 – in 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. Have you lived such an experience? If not, have you worked with any groups that specifically support those who do or have? Have you volunteered at a shelter, soup kitchen, or non-profit organization? Have you visited an impoverished area (locally or abroad) doing community service or worked in a free clinic? Do you have concrete experiences that demonstrate your knowledge and priority in this area? If not, 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, use descriptive narrative, provide an anecdote when appropriate, be specific, and show your reader all the ways you have lived your convictions, connected with those you want to support, and prioritized the well-being of others with your words and actions.

Learn more about medical school secondary essay prompts in this video:

Follow this link to check out our list of medical school secondary essay prompts!

Asking you to think and write about diversity and your own diverse experiences isn’t meant to make you feel like you somehow 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 endeavour, 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!

Would you like our help with your medical school secondary essays?

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

Image credit: Manel Torralba, via the Creative Commons License: