Because writing isn’t a huge part of being a doctor, you might be thinking it’s pretty low on the list of activities med students do.
We know you have to write essays for applications, but do you have to write essays in medical school?
Some med schools, specifically the top tier ones, expect students to write formal research essays in med school. Others might ask for essays as part of a final assessment for a specific course. Although essay writing isn’t as heavy as it can be in other majors, it is often required of med students.
In this article I’ll go into the question further. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- When you might need to write essays in med school
- What types of subjects/topics you could be asked to write about
- If you have to write a medical dissertation or research paper
- What tips you can use to improve your med school writing
Having written my fair share of med school essays myself (especially in subjects like biophysics, social medicine and even anatomy and physiology), I know how annoying a task it can sometimes be. And that’s as a former English major!
The truth is, for many of us, writing is a serious drag. Especially when we thought we’d escaped it by studying medicine…
So are you ready for the good and bad news? Let’s go!
When do I have to write essays in med school?
Depending on where you study medicine, the amount of writing you’ll need to do in med school can vary.
Some schools, like Yale, Harvard and NYU, require you to do a research thesis as part of your degree. In this case it’s not optional (opportunities to publish in these respective schools’ journals also exist).
But most other med schools almost always require some form of essay writing too.
Here are some circumstances that call for it:
- As a “final” exam component of a particular course/subject
- Detailed patient history or physical reports
- Group papers/presentations in classes/seminars
Of course the quantity and level of writing vary. Depending on where you go to school and what’s assigned, you might only ever need to do 1-2 pages of writing for a single course each semester. Others might only ever grade you based on oral examinations or question-based tests.
The different medical school curriculums also factor in. Practice based learning (PBL) schools have a reputation for a fair bit of writing.
Check out the specific curriculums (and grading criteria) for the med schools you’re interested in to get a sense of how much (or if) you’ll need to write. Or talk to existing students.
That’s the only way to know for sure.
What med school subjects involve the most writing?
Common med school subjects that can involve essay writing include:
- Medical ethics
- Clinical practice
- Public health and sociology
These are subjects that are a little more “esoteric” than the harder sciences. And ones where a thesis or case study goes well.
Other subjects might ask for essays too. As I mentioned before, I’ve had to write mini-essays for many subject finals (including anatomy, biochemistry, biology, physiology and more). Here’s how it usually works:
- The course syllabus lists all possible topics making up a subject (anatomy, in my case, had something like 350+)
- You draw a topic at random to write about for a set time (usually 30-60 minutes)
- You then present this essay to the professor and are asked questions about it
- Finally you’re awarded a grade based on your performance
Of course this is just my own experience as a student at MU Varna. Your med school might not operate this way, while the pandemic has also encouraged a shift away from the “essay-oral” format.
The bottom line is; you could be asked to write an essay on any syllabus topic for any subject in med school.
It depends on the subject’s department and how they like to format final and mid-term exams.
Do you have to write essays in medical school in the UK?
The UK is similar to both US and most European international med schools. Many of their schools expect med students to write essays. Oxbridge is a case in point.
Here are a couple of students explaining exactly how this works…
Many other students at UK-based schools suggest the same.
Follow the same advice to know for sure; double check with existing students and the course curriculum (if publically available).
Are med students good at writing essays?
Obviously I write a blog about medical education (and healthcare work) so am no stranger to writing.
For most med students however the story can be quite different.
Not all students are confident writers. Or have a lot of experience.
Oftentimes the closest they’ve got to writing essays are in earlier studies (as pre-meds) or in their carefully put together med school applications. It’s not something you typically get a lot of practice with.
There’s obviously a lot of international students in medicine whose native language isn’t English either. For some, writing essays can seem even more anxiety-provoking.
How well are med students expected to write?
The good news is, at least in my experience, that the standard of writing (especially when it comes to the types of essays you do in final exams, midterms or class presentations), by no means has to be perfect.
The most that’s expected are factors like:
- Handwriting that’s not too difficult to read
- Good grasp of grammar and punctuation
- Solid understanding of the topic you’re asked to write about
Med school professors aren’t looking for well polished, proofread, near perfect essays for the most part.
Not unless they’re submitted as a research thesis (which you’re expected to have put serious time and effort into).
In that case they’re expected to be as professional as possible. For which you’ll usually have a thesis supervisor or research lead to help guide you.
Do medical doctors have to write a dissertation?
There’s no rule that says doctors have to write a dissertation (or even do published research). It’s possible to get into med school, graduate and find a job without ever having done any serious writing.
But it is rare.
To be competitive, especially when it comes to residency applications (and even admissions in some cases), medical dissertations or research papers can help. A lot.
General writing tips for med school essays
As for tips on how to approach your writing in med school, here are a few pointers that’ve helped me:
- Don’t aim for perfection: keep the language simple and the arguments easy to understand
- Define everything: your professor will be looking to see you understand what you’ve written about
- Break it up: use subheadings to divide the essay up and improve the flow (don’t throw it all out there in one chunk)
- Practice: sketch out essay outlines for the high yield topics (those likely to show up on exams) and attempt a couple
Getting comfortable with the process will help improve your confidence.
Med school essays aren’t anything to fear for the most part. For the more serious research or thesis-based essays, make sure you follow the guidance of the research lead or project coordinator.
Summary: Writing essays in med school
You might get lucky and never have to write an essay in med school but it’s unlikely. Writing is more central to a successful doctors career than you might think.
Being more confident with it (and learning how to do it better) can definitely help when it comes to reports, research, patient communication and everything else.
Writing is still a major skill you’ll want to focus on if you plan on a career in healthcare.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.