This is one of the most frustrating questions to answer for most premed students, yet it is also the most important question to answer convincingly. In fact, if you don't answer this question well, you are going to get rejected. Period.
Being a medical doctor is really great. It's stimulating and interesting. Medical doctors have a significant degree of autonomy over their schedules and time. Medical doctors know that they get to help people solve problems every single day. Medical doctors get to witness humanity at its very best and very worst.
But being a medical doctor is not easy. This is not a career for people who do not see themselves working more than 50 hours per week and on holidays. This is not a career for people who prefer to move around a lot. This is not a career for people who aren't good with responsibility and focus.
When you're in front of the interview panel or when an admissions committee is reading your personal statement, unconvincingly spewing a list of reasons why being a doctor is awesome, comes across as such and admissions committee members know that. You want to focus your answer on the YOU part of why YOU want to be a doctor and why YOU would be an excellent doctor.
On that note, here is a list of terrible reasons to become a doctor:
- To make money: You will, but there are way easier and more profitable ways.
- Because your parents are doctors: If you're doing this to earn someone else's respect or love, this will never work. Medicine is not a birthright. However, the skills and aptitudes for medicine can be socially and environmentally influenced. Either way, you have to want it independently of your parents or grandparents.
- To hold power over people: An obviously bad answer.
- To launch a career in politics: See #1. Wanting to use your cultural authority as a doctor to be a sociopolitical advocate and an agent of progressive change is, however, different from wanting to be a career politician.
- To make a name for yourself: You can, but see #1. And also you shouldn't be building a personal brand off of another's pathology.
- To prove your self worth: Medicine can be esteem-crushing. You will fail harder in medicine, and with terrible consequences, than in any other profession before you start to figure it out. So save your ego the bruises.
- Because your current career is terrible: You have to be driven from a positive place, not from a deficit.
Why the personal statement or interview stage will eliminate you if you don't know why you want to be a medical doctor:
The interview and personal statements will either explicitly ask you why you want to be a doctor or inadvertently through questions like, "tell me about yourself?" The interviewers and reviewers are looking for something that seems real and genuine, given your background and past experiences. For example, the fact that your parents are doctors may be part of the reason for you, but not just because they are doctors. There is another story underneath that one that has influenced your path. Perhaps you're inspired by their dedication to a clinical problem over decades. Maybe you were there when the child of a patient they treated came up to your parent in the street and thanked them for their commitment to caring for their ailing parent. Find your narrative. Answering this question in an honest and unique way could be what separates you from the top 20% of candidates and this will matter when push comes to shove.
Why I want to be a doctor:
I want to be a doctor because it is the best and highest pursuit of a life’s work for someone who loves solving problems, relating to and being encompassed by stories of humanity, and is a curious interrogator of data. That's who I am.
The most awesome thing, though, is that you could have an entirely different set of strengths and being a doctor could still be your best and highest use in society. You could be the most brilliant, precise tactile hand worker with extraordinary geo-spatial awareness and a desire to save lives. Your best and highest use could be as a surgeon.
How to figure out the answer for yourself:
Knowing why you want to be a doctor is really about knowing your strengths and knowing your best and highest use as a human being. If you don't know your strengths, there is a career counselor, mentor, a brave best friend or self-help book that can start you on your journey.
If you get to know your strengths, then the answer becomes clear. For me, my strengths are in synthesizing a lot of information into higher order ideas, turning theory into action, identifying narratives and helping others figure out their own unique stories and solving problems effectively. At the emotional-social level, I am really dedicated to justice and fairness. My Grade 4 teacher gave everyone little dolls out dressed as the career they might have when they grew up, and my little doll was dressed as a judge. Did anything like that happen to you? Can you remember a defining experience that could shed more light on your strengths? Know the answer to this question for yourself, do good work and the rest becomes a matter of logistics.
How to organize your answer to this difficult question:
Now let's assume you know the answer to this question. And you have discovered your genuine desire to become a medical doctor instead of choosing from an infinite number of other careers paths. Now it's time to have an answer that's concise, coherent and convincingly. Here's how to do just that:
- First you have to communicate the event or events that triggered your curiosity about the field.
- Next, you'll have to explain what you did after your curiosity was triggered to learn more about the field.
- Then, you'll have to explain what solidified your decision to wanting to choose medicine as a career path and explicitly identify YOUR specific reasons.
You'll have to include a lot of personal details to back up your story and you must remember to avoid cliches such as "because I want to help people" in or to stand out.
About the Author
Dr. Ashley White, former admissions committee member at McMaster, former MMI evaluator, and a family physician.
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