What It Means to Be a ‘Disadvantaged’ M.D. Applicant

There’s room for interpretation, but not every medical school applicant can claim to be disadvantaged.

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rural town
Med school applicants from rural areas are among those who can claim disadvantaged status.

Many premedical students have encountered some form of hardship. So when medical school applicants see the category "Disadvantaged status" on the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), they may wonder what a disadvantaged status really means.

Officially, AMCAS states that applicants determine whether to designate themselves as disadvantaged. Each medical school has its own policies on how it handles applicants who self-declare the disadvantaged status, or whether it treats those applications differently. AMCAS also provides certain categories for guidance in determining status:

Underserved: If you grew up in an underserved or rural area up until the age of 18, AMCAS states that you can identify yourself as a disadvantaged applicant. When you generate your AMCAS application, you can mark your county of residence as rural (R), medically underserved (U), or both.

[Learn what to consider when applying to med school with a low GPA.]

Immediate family: If you have a situation involving your immediate family that affected your educational opportunities or social circumstances, you can self-designate as disadvantaged.

State and federal assistance programs: If your family received state and federal assistance because of socioeconomic or other circumstances, it would be considered appropriate to self-designate as disadvantaged by AMCAS.

If you think there are other circumstances that have contributed to your disadvantaged status that are not listed on the AMCAS page, don't feel constrained by the above. In addition to requesting family financial data, AMCAS provides the opportunity for a 1,325 character statement explaining why you feel you should be considered a disadvantaged applicant.

In June 2009, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) published a compendium of examples of disadvantaged applicant statements, as well as other data that characterized admissions statistics of that group.

[See why minorities still don't feel completely comfortable in medicine.]

The AAMC noted that there were three common topics used in applicants' disadvantaged status statements:

1. Lacking financial resources: If you had to forego educational opportunities or work to support family due to economic hardship, the disadvantaged statement could be one place to mention this situation.

2. Feeling a lack of belonging: Students from immigrant backgrounds, or who otherwise faced cultural or racial adversity in school, often use this space to discuss those issues.

3. Lacking sufficient social or environmental resources: Applicants from rural or impoverished urban areas often used this section to discuss the impact of their upbringing in these areas on their educational opportunities or overall wellbeing.

[Read about med schools' admission of neglecting gay applicants.]

Knowing the general guidelines of disadvantaged status, if you choose to self-designate, here are some tips in preparing your statement:

1. Don't include hypothetical situations: All too often, applicants discuss how their situations could have been different had some event not occurred, or had they not made a certain mistake in college, such as taking too many classes. While either circumstance is fair game for the personal statement, it generally doesn't belong in the disadvantaged applicant statement.

2. Address overcoming hardships: It is important, in such a short space, to focus on specific examples of the hardships you feel placed you at a disadvantage, how you dealt with these challenges, and lessons you learned from these experiences. Medical schools want to get to know you during the process, and while it's okay to have ongoing hardships, if you haven't learned how to manage them, they may feel you're not ready for the rigors of a medical education.

3. Don't repeat your personal statement: Every additional mini-statement is another opportunity to add another dimension to your application and let the admissions committee get to know you better. In a few cases where your story is particularly compelling, you can always write about the same topic from different angles.

Many students struggle with deciding whether to self-designate as a disadvantaged applicant. Knowing what this designation means and reflecting on what you learned from your circumstances are key to preparing an effective statement.

Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How to Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.