Can You Answer This Essay Question from a Medical School Application?

MC900439599Here is an actual medical school essay prompt that one of my clients had to answer as part of her medical school application:

The University of XXX College of Medicine is committed to
excellence in education which prepares graduates to deliver quality
health care. Developing cultural competence is an important goal in our curriculum. Cultural competence is defined as an awareness,
understanding and ability to use specific methods to deal effectively
with cultural issues and its role in health and health care. Please
discuss a life experience in which you feel you demonstrated cultural
competence. You may use the back of this page or attach an additional
sheet of paper.  

As a language student, you know that cultural practices vary around the world.  It’s not a surprise to you that one person’s deeply-held beliefs differ widely from another’s.  You have witnessed different traditions within each sub-culture of a sub-culture of a culture that you have participated in.

But to answer this medical school essay question well, you also have to embrace the relative nature of facts.  You have to accept that knowledge varies.  Even interpretations of empirical data yield a variety of different practices.  

Here’s one example of relative knowledge: continents.

If you were educated in the U.S., you know that there are 7 continents. It’s a fact.  

If you went to school almost anywhere else in the world, you learned that there are 5 continents (Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania).  What!? How can something so discreet–so concrete–vary like that?  Perspective. Interpretation.  

To answer that medical school essay question, you need an example from a medical context.  Here’s one from my own experience: breastfeeding.  

When I interpreted between English-speaking medical professionals and Spanish-speaking patients, this was a common culture clash:

U.S. medical professionals insisted that newborn babies should latch on to their mothers’ breasts in order to consume the nutritional colostrum and to expedite arrival of the breast milk–the mother’s milk “coming in.”  

Many immigrant women from Spanish-speaking countries threw out colostrum, waited for their milk to come in, and then latched their babies on to nurse.  

The U.S. medical establishment fighting against that cultural tradition often led frustrated new mothers to abandon breast feeding in favor of bottle feeding.

You might have empirical data to prove you are right, but if generations of women have lived experiences that differ from your empirical data, then you are doing yourself and your patients a disservice to fight against another culture’s long-held beliefs & practices. Better to work with it and get the ultimate result that you presumably want: a breastfed baby (even if that baby missed out on the colostrum).  

Here’s a more generic example: placebos. It’s well established that the rate of effectiveness of placebos is 33-35%–the same as plenty of double-blind, control-and-experimental-group tested, FDA-approved actual drugs.  So if your patient believes that rubbing oregano oil on his back relieves the pain from the slipped disc and that does not interfere with your medical treatment, go with it!  Look at it like this: “I’ll take all the benefit the placebo effect offers.”

In other words, you do not have to give up on your cultural practices, nor change your interpretation of facts. You do not have to embrace anyone else’s belief systems.  You just have to be willing to work around and with the cultures of others, to put differences aside, and to collaborate with patients & their families on pursuit of the shared goals of successful treatment and good health.

Now: what’s your own life experience from foreign language programs or medical volunteer positions that you could use to answer this medical school essay?  Post your examples here!

Darcy Lear is a Chicago-based career coach specializing in training students to highlight their language studies so they standout in the job search and workplace. For one-on-one coaching or to set up a workshop, contact Darcy:
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1 Response to Can You Answer This Essay Question from a Medical School Application?

  1. Pingback: What’s Your Cultural Perspective on Taking Compliments? | darcylear

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