From the Archive: Connecting through Stories: Help for the Medical School Application Essay (Fall 2008)

By Bryn Chancellor (Originally posted Fall 2008)

Dr. Robert Baum, M.D., loves the written word. Novels, medical journals of the past centuries, you name it. Of late, he has been reading works by historian Shelby Foote. Like any good book lover, he often asks colleagues and acquaintances what they are reading, and he jots down the tips in hopes of getting to them. Alas, his roles as Director of Vanderbilt’s Health Professions Advisory Office and Assistant Professor of Orthopaedics don’t always leave a lot of free time for pleasure reading. Still, he has a passion for good writing.

This love of good writing, in fact, relates to his work of advising Vanderbilt students who are applying to schools in the medical professions. The rigorous application process features a personal essay, in which students must convince an admissions board of their motivations, commitment, and background, all within a short space. As a former member of Vanderbilt Medical School’s admissions committee, Baum knows firsthand how important that essay can be.

Baum said, “An average essay won’t keep a good applicant out. A great essay won’t get an applicant who’s not strong enough to be accepted in, but it can really get people’s attention and perhaps be a significant factor.” In a typical set of fifteen essays, “twelve were average. One or two were outstanding, and one people were blown away by,” he said. “It was so nice, from my perspective, to be able to meet these people who wrote these impressive essays and get to know them. And from the students’ perspective, how nice is it for them to walk in where the interviewer likes them before they even come?”

Baum wants his advisees to make those striking impressions in their writing. His interest in improving students’ essays led him in spring 2008 to collaborate with the Writing Studio on a workshop that focused on the application personal essay. He said he envisioned an event “where you had people from both perspectives: the admissions committee who reads these essays and the Writing Studio which has the ability to help students write a more compelling, and technically more proficient, essay. Obviously it would be [students’] words, but even the great writers have editors.”

The three-hour workshop ran in two parts. In the first section, doctors who serve on the applications committee offered advice on what they admire and hope to discover in applicants’ essays. In the second section, four Writing Studio consultants presented tips on how to craft meaningful essays. Baum said that students’ feedback about the workshop has been positive, and he wants to do another session again in the spring, though “probably later in the afternoon,” he said with a chuckle, recalling some sleepy-eyed students at 9 a.m. on a Saturday.

He also encourages applicants to meet individually with Writing Studio consultants throughout the essay-writing process. Baum hopes that such workshop and individual interactions will help students compose not only a technically proficient essay but also “an essay that is really able to capture their feelings and who they are, to tell about their journey, their story, and convey that in a way that the committee finds special.”

Compelling storytelling also is important to Baum as he writes some 200 letters for his advisees. When he interviews students, his goal “is to try in some way to connect with them. So I try to get something personal that I can add into a letter.” He recalled a young woman who as a child would go with her father, an ophthalmologist, to his office. Her job for the day was to hold the hands of elderly people who came in for minor procedures. With a smile, Baum said, “And how sweet is that. I put it in her letter because I thought it was very sweet, but also because I thought it was consistent with whom I perceived she was as a person. It humanized her for a committee who might not otherwise have a sense of who this person was.”

Beyond the application essay, Baum hopes to convey to his advisees a love of words like he has, and he also sees writing as an avenue for stronger doctor-patient relationships. He said, “There is a trend toward narrative medicine. Some of it involves getting the story of the patient and hearing the story, because they’re not just a collection of symptoms, they are also individuals trying to deal with all the issues that one faces in life.” A strong grasp of the writing process might help aspiring doctors “be more understanding of and more able to get the story, not just of the health issues but the entirety of the patient. That might be stretching,” he said with a laugh, “but it sounds good.”