An Example Essay
Whenever people find out I worked as a medical scribe in the Emergency Department, they ask with wide-eyed enthusiasm: “What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen?” Jaws drop as I pick between scribing for a patient with parasites inside his brain, a patient who barely survived a cougar attack, and a patient who came in with her pet guinea pig stuck inside her rectum. However, being chief scribe mostly involved keeping a real-time legal medical record for multiple patients per hour, building quick connections with patients, and educating my thirty-scribe team on continuously changing hospital regulations. I often worked sixteen-hour coffee-fueled night shifts, even though I had school the next morning. Some weeks, I was one toothbrush short of living out of the ER, but I thrived in this grueling environment, loving every minute of my work.
Every now and again, though, I’d document a case that I would never forget. One night, I was rushed to scribe for a pediatric emergency. When I saw the two-year-old patient with skin as gray as the San Francisco sky, my fingers froze on my keypad and I felt myself holding back tears. His mother only spoke Spanish, so I translated for the doctor: “I woke up to find my baby pale and unresponsive.” Putting my emotions aside, each time the doctor shocked the baby or a nurse attempted CPR on his tiny chest, I meticulously wrote it down with a time stamp. My heart sank as the doctor helplessly announced the time of death. But when he told the mother that her son had died, I was puzzled by her reply: “I need to move my car.” She left and never came back.
Social services was called for suspected negligence or abuse as cause of death. But hours later, after the police found the mother, we learned the full story and I had to amend the patient’s chart: “The patient and his mother are undocumented immigrants. The mother had been afraid to call an ambulance when she found her baby pale because she has no health insurance and fears deportation. She had tried to revive the baby herself and, after many hours, drove to the ER as a last resort. By then, it was too late.” As I typed, my sadness turned into confusion and discomfort. My brother was also two years old when my family immigrated from India. In that moment, I understood with full clarity that our access to healthcare would have been severely limited if we hadn’t gotten those little white insurance cards with our names on them.
Limited healthcare access puts undocumented people at risk and places a huge financial burden on taxpayers. Since the ER cannot deny treatment to patients who cannot pay, many uninsured individuals have no choice but to visit the ER for non-emergent concerns like colds and sprained ankles. I once scribed for a Hispanic woman with benign gallstones who was sent home with pain medication and instructions to follow up with her primary. But because she had no continuity of care, the gallstones became infectious and she returned requiring emergent surgery that cost thousands in taxpayer dollars. I’ve scribed for children suffering diabetic shock because their parents, despite working two jobs, couldn’t afford insulin. The stories I tell at social gatherings are certainly crazy, but I’m far more shocked by how normalized—and hidden—medical inequality has become.
I’ve seen firsthand how our country denies healthcare as a basic human right. Being chief scribe has taught me to keep a meticulous legal record, to work under pressure, and, most importantly, to listen to others with respect and empathy. But a legal education will allow me to construct policy to reduce emergency department misuse and promote greater access to affordable primary healthcare services. I can use my knowledge to advocate for clients who have been mistreated by our healthcare system. With a JD, I can work towards making medical inequality visible and implementing policy to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving racial and socioeconomic health equity. I am ready to do more.
Why It Works
1. The essay tells a story.
This essay is many things—a sad anecdote; an explanation of why the author wants to practice law—but above all, it’s a story. You can see it from the very first line, when the author tees up a scene-setting question: “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?” Classic storyteller move! (Writers call this sort of thing a “framing device.”) The author goes on to dish juicy tidbits (cougar attack, anyone?) before shifting gears to tell us about the undocumented child. That brings us to storyteller move number two: make them laugh and make them cry on the same page.
It’s only after the author recounts the tragedy of the child that she discusses its significance. Importantly, she doesn’t preach or lecture. She’s not here to expose healthcare inequality: she’s recounting her own journey of understanding. Put another way, she’s not giving us a lesson. She’s telling a story about how she learned a lesson.
Note that the central anecdote comprises less than half of the essay. The author’s economy means that, after she engages us on a visceral level, she still has lots of space to explain what she learned and what she plans to do about it.
2. The essay is full of specifics.
The author makes no general observations until the second page. She fills the paragraphs before that with anecdotes, details, and dialogue (which is just another kind of detail).
Let’s take those one by one.
Anecdotes can fill whole pages, but they can also be compressed to a phrase. This author draws us in with three tiny anecdotes—the brain parasite, cougar attack, and guinea pig—that the reader is unlikely to forget.
The author didn’t just work night shifts: she worked “sixteen-hour coffee-fueled night shifts.” Her details make the sentence pop.
A word of caution: you shouldn’t describe everything. You should describe the most characterizing moments of your experience. In this case, the author’s description of her night shifts helps us imagine her time on the job.
Nothing brings a moment to life like a good line of dialogue. Here, the mother’s response to her child’s death—“I need to move my car”—is devastating. It’s also a milestone in the author’s journey of learning.
3. The essay explains why the author wants a law degree.
You can think of a personal statement as having two components: the personal part and the statement. Telling a story that’s full of specifics is what makes your essay personal. Explaining why you want to go to law school is often the heart of the statement part.
This particular statement is effective because it follows naturally from what came before. By the time the author tells us that her legal education will help her “reduce emergency department misuse” and promote
“affordable primary healthcare services,” we immediately understand why.
To put this another way, her essay isn’t a story with a “why law” attached to the end. It’s a story about why she wants to pursue a law degree.
Looking for more examples? Check out this roundup of six of the best essays we’ve ever worked on.
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