Every once in a while at Forster-Thomas, our blog takes a break from tips, tricks and shortcuts to a better admissions future to comment on something we consider to be of great importance to the future of education in our country. A recent article in the New York Times, derived from a speech given in Australia, raises just such a topic.

The article, called the Dying Art of Disagreement, raises some incredibly disturbing findings. One that jumps out is that over twenty percent of liberal arts students think it is acceptable to silence a speaker with violence, if that speaker is saying something with which they disagree. That's one in five students fully prepared to become a fascist, as long as they're marching behind the 'right sort' of Dear Leader. And this is the most educated subset of our society. I promise you that in the swamps, plains and plateaus, the same and worse is espoused.

The facts of the situation are grim. Liberals (and intellectual conservatives) are in the process of 'normalizing' the worst habits of their worst enemies, including fear, oppression and blind hatred. Morality, the act of making another's opinion 'immoral' or 'ethically wrong', does as much damage to you as to your opponent. Morality binds and blinds, and hate is anti-scientific, anti-rational, and thoroughly tribal. If you think your feelings are leading you to a more just world, you're deluding yourself, and more importantly, helping preserve the delusion of those around you who value your opinion.

Our higher education system, the envy of and the model for much of the developing world, should be designed to combat that kind of thinking. Education, as the Lowy Institute speech makes clear, is not a fixed lesson, but rather a process of self-interrogation. To treat no proposition as sacred, and no objection as impious, used to be the cornerstone of a liberal education. And any intellectual not currently competing for a social media popularity prize would probably allow that it still is.

Many people today justify intellectual laziness by proudly labeling themselves partisans. It's too oppressive, they claim, too triggering, to be forced to consider anybody else's point of view. Besides, they're activists -- living in what has also been referred to as soldier mindset -- 24/7. How can it be wrong when it feels so right?

Because the root of activism is action. No change in the world can take place without action. A tweetstorm is not an action, it's a reaction, and a poorly reasoned one at that. Action occurs in the real world, with other people. Meaningful action takes place when we are forced to justify our beliefs before those who hold the opposite view -- we disagree well, because we understand well.

As educational consultants, we here at Forster-Thomas try to play this Socratic role to our future scholars. We challenge their preconceptions, push them to explore their own flaws and failures, and remind them how important it is to deeply evaluate difficult questions about their own futures, and the role Universities play in that future. Their choice of college or graduate school, after all, will help define them. Not every idea our clients hold dear is currently trending. On the contrary, many would get you shouted down on Twitter, or worse. But they're a necessary part of a balanced intellectual breakfast, and as long as the client can make a rational case for his perspective, we say, go for it!

IECs speak to an important audience. Our charges will one day, relatively soon, rule the world. When they do, they will face entrenched societal problems, including issues of climate, massive transfers of wealth, and a worldwide assault on free speech. We should not stand by and encourage those who disagree with us to remain silent. A silent mind never changes.

If you agree with what we're saying here -- if you want our future leaders to be well-versed and prepared to refute the specious arguments of nativists, fearmongers and opportunists -- then take action. Make sure you tell each and every one of your students that they are in college to learn, not to inform the faculty of what they already 'know' to be true. Tell them to reject any and all ideas that hold them back from gaining a better understanding of the world as it is. Tell them to stop demanding, and start understanding. Remind them that no idea is sacred, not even their favorite one. And thank them for the service they are doing for us, themselves and future generations.

Or, in the words of Badass Historical Lady Evelyn Beatrice Hall (sometimes misattributed to Voltaire) --
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

By Ben Feuer, photo by Phil Dolby

There are literally thousands of secondary essays put out by medical schools each and every year. But most of those essays can be subdivided into specific categories and dealt with in groups. In this blog, we’re discussing the ‘adversity’ category.


Any medical school secondary essay touching on a long-term challenge lasting 5 years or more. The challenge can be external or internal in nature, but should constitute a meaningful obstacle to the student’s aspiration to practice medicine. The challenge need not have been fully overcome, and may not be possible to overcome – it is the process of the struggle itself that defines the adversity essay. 



Describe a problem in your life. Include how you dealt with it and how it influenced your growth.  DAVID GEFFEN SCHOOL OF MEDICINE, UCLA.


Briefly describe a situation where you had to overcome adversity; include lessons learned and how you think it will affect your career as a future physician. JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF MEDICINE. 


While you were growing up, did you experience any of the following types of adversity? Economic, Educational, Ethnic/Cultural, Family. Please describe the nature of the adversity. OREGON SCHOOL OF HEALTH AND SCIENCE


Describe an obstacle you’ve overcome and how it has defined you. STONY BROOK SCHOOL OF MEDICINE.



Medical school secondary essays can be divided into two basic subtypes – narrative essays, which require the applicant to tell a story, and factual essays, which require the applicant to answer a series of factual questions.  The adversity essay is a narrative essay, and one of the most challenging essay types for the typical applicant. We find that this is in the top two most challenging prompts to answer for our candidates.

Begin by eliminating challenges that make for bad essays or sound like justifications of a problem or bragging – academic struggles, making second place instead of first in your swim meet,  not having enough time in the day to do everything you want to do.

Avoid discussing trivial problems, such as malaise or stress, self-incriminating problems, such as depression or severe drug addiction, and temporary problems, such as having a broken leg for six months and having to walk around in a cast.

Instead, look to your core strengths – the virtues that make you who you are. Reliability, wisdom, confidence, bravery, or whatever they may be. Ask yourself, is there a dark side, a flip side, to my strengths? Is there a consistent area of my life where I struggle to apply these strengths?

Classic examples (DO NOT copy these – come up with your own!) include overcoming a challenging cultural or learning difference, adjusting to family circumstances (loss of money, sudden wealth, divorce, moving around the country), inter or intra-family struggles (managing relationships with sick loved ones over a long period of time, job loss), or a long-term ambition that didn’t work out (getting most of the way to being a professional baseball player, only to tear your hamstring and end your career).

Once you know the topic of the adversity you are discussing, you must figure out IF you have overcome the adversity, HOW you have overcome the adversity, and HOW you have grown as a result of facing this adversity. Use concrete examples from your life to illustrate your points about growth – I couldn’t have done XYZ years ago, but I can now.

This essay should be written in a warm, engaging personal tone – it should move the reader, and be heartfelt, funny and/or personable, not technical, cold or disengaged. 


Do you have more questions about this secondary essay, or about other secondary essays?  Feel free to contact us and we’ll be happy to help.