July 30, 2011

Forbidden Fruit

Among Secondary Application questions, the “ethical dilemma” is by far the most challenging. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by tackling this question, and many applicants struggle to choose a topic. My list of cautions is below.

1. Brevity is the soul of wit. Your response should not be long. Character or word limits are exactly that: limits. Do not interpret them as guidelines or suggestions about length. Admissions committees are simply assessing your ability to first identify an ethical dilemma and then behave appropriately in the face of it. The less you say, the less likely you are to dig a deep, deep hole.

2. Avoid “overshare.” Admissions committees do not want to know intimately personal details about you. This is a balancing act. If you depersonify the essay entirely, it becomes less interesting because it is no longer about you. That said, use care. Essay readers will be rightly skeptical if they find you positioning yourself smack-dab in the middle of a questionable situation. Similarly, avoid overtly controversial topics, particularly lifestyle decisions.

3. Do not be the hero. The essay does not need to be a story about your intervening in an unethical act. Enough said.

4. Do not attempt profundity. Your essay is not a philosophy dissertation. You do not need to be profound; you simply need to demonstrate good judgment.

5. Finally, do not choose academic dishonesty as your topic. This topic is so worn out that some schools will even forbid it in their instructions to the applicant. If they do not, assume they thought you would know better. Everyone has seen cheating, and studies show that most students themselves have probably done it at some time. If this is the only topic that comes to mind, it suggests to Admissions Committees that you may not be observant enough to identify the ethical dilemmas that occur daily in your life, and if you’re not observant, you won’t be a good physician. See Point 4. You do not need to be profound. It is better to choose a small, insignificant dilemma than to choose cheating, plagiarism, etc.

For inspiration, try reading a few entries from the collection of Ethicist columns from the New York Times Magazine. Times Magazine columnists also answer ethical questions on this free podcast: NYT: The Ethicist Podcast.

Then, re-read Point 5: do not plagiarize.