Your Guide to Writing About Your Brigade on Your Medical School Application

By Madison Dutson, Program Associate (staff member who will start medical school at NYU this fall!)

Maybe you’ve always known you wanted to be a doctor, maybe you figured it out last year, or maybe you realized it on brigade! However you’ve made the decision and here you are. It is time for the Medical School Application Process (dun dun dunnn!). The time applying for medical school can be extremely daunting. Lucky for you, you have been preparing for years, committing your time to things you care about that make you a well-rounded person, and hopefully a great future-physician. How you write about these experiences will allow the admissions committee at each school to understand not just what you did, but why you did it and how it has impacted you. With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of tips for talking about your brigade on your medical school application.

Triage station at the 2019 Marshall University Medical Brigade in Honduras.
  1. AAMC Resources are your friend

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has great resources as you prepare to fill out your applications. Even if you are not applying to US Medical schools, check out their list of Core Competencies for applicants. Reflecting on your brigade experience as you look over the list competencies can give you great insight into what skills to focus on in your essay. Some great areas we think Global Brigades fits well into are Service Orientation, Cultural Competence, and Teamwork. Intentionally focusing on a competency that resonates with your brigade experience will help you stay on track as you write, allowing you to clearly demonstrate the skills you want to highlight that medical schools are looking for.

  1. I know what you did, but what did you learn?

You had an awesome time on brigade—we know, we did too! However, medical schools want to hear about more than a list of your activities and how you spent your time in the programming country. Professional schools are seeking bright, curious students who evaluate and critically reflect on their experiences. They want to see that you didn’t just spend 3 days building a hygiene station, but that through your time being with a family you learned about a new culture, the importance of community, or your passion for sustainable solutions. Make sure that you don’t get so caught up listing the itinerary that you miss how the brigade uniquely impacted you.

  1. Steer clear of heroics 

There is a close eye right now on the ethics of international volunteer programs. Global Brigades involves volunteers in a way that leverages sustainability and partnership, but the admissions committee won’t know this unless you tell them. As a GB volunteer, you are a small part in a much bigger picture—and that is what makes your time volunteering with GB so unique! Make sure you convey this by portraying community members respectfully, and not writing yourself in as the savior of the story. In GB, we value every volunteer, staff member, and community partner. We know this work wouldn’t be possible without the dedication and collaborative effort of all involved.

  1. Be specific, Bob!

Admissions committees have read way too many generic stories. Grab their attention with specific examples of moments on brigade that gave you new insights. Don’t fall into the trap of simply saying “I learned how to better connect with patients”—show them how that happened! Did you have a great moment where you bonded with a patient in the clinic over your love of dogs? Tell them about it! Then go on to use that experience to highlight the importance of connecting with patients on a personal level.

Brigades preparing for the children’s charla on the Pace University and University of Connecticut  2019 Medical Brigade to Panama.
  1. Put your money time where your mouth is

We know your projects had an impact in communities that lasted much longer than your brigade. Hopefully the personal impact lasted a lot longer, too! Did your brigade inspire you to join your chapter’s executive board? Do more community service? Take Spanish or global health classes? It’s great to say that you learned from your brigade, but it’s much more convincing to show with your actions and time that your brigade impacted you. Think about how your brigade changed your commitments and priorities, and make sure whoever reads about your experience sees your commitment in long-term choices.

  1. Be true to you

Worried your Engineering Brigade won’t support your medical school app? Fear not, it definitely will! Admissions committees can sniff out a cookie-cutter app better than I can smell when my roommate is making snickerdoodles. Be true to you and your unique interests and experiences. An activity doesn’t have to involve patients for it to make you a better physician. Look back at the AAMC competencies. Your engineering brigade might have taught you a lot about listening to community needs or critical thinking, both crucial traits of any healthcare provider. There is no “perfect application” for medical school, so do what you love! Your passion will be appealing and apparent in your writing.

  1. Be genuine! 

This goes right along with being true to yourself. Don’t make your brigade out to be something it wasn’t for you! Maybe for your friend, going to Honduras on brigade changed her major from Neuroscience to Public Health (yup, this was me). But if this isn’t your story, don’t feel pressured to make your brigade into a life-altering moment it wasn’t. Maybe for you, your brigade simply exposed you to a new patient population or helped you understand more about economics in rural communities. Those insights are important! Not every experience you include in your essays has to be earth-shattering. So just be honest. Each of the small lessons you learned from all your activities add up when your application comes together.

University of Connecticut volunteers talking with community members on their Public Health and Medical Brigade to Ghana in 2020.

As you reflect on your brigade to complete your application, we’d love to see you post about your experience on social media with your #MyGBStory. Once you’re accepted, tag @globalbrigades and #MyGBStory in a post on your instagram story with a photo from your brigade and the name of your future medical school! We can’t wait to see where our alumni will end up. Best of luck in your applications! Your GB family is cheering you on.

Global Brigades