Factors to Consider When Applying as a Disadvantaged Applicant

By Renee Marinelli, MD

As pre-medical students complete the AMCAS application for medical school, they are confronted by the question, ‘do you consider yourself disadvantaged?’ Most applicants are not sure if they qualify as disadvantaged or how they should present themselves if they do check the box. Let’s explore what it means to apply as a disadvantaged applicant and how to complete this portion of the application:

First of all, what is a ‘disadvantaged’ applicant?

AMCAS does not fully define what it means to be disadvantaged. However, when you actually click the box on the application to see if you the status applies to you, here is what AMCAS provides:

Underserved: Do you believe, based on your own experiences or the experiences of family and friends, that the area in which you grew up was adequately served by the available health care professionals? Were there enough physicians, nurses, hospitals, clinics, and other health care service providers?

Immediate Family: The Federal Government broadly defines “immediate family” as “spouse, parent, child, sibling, mother or father-in-law, son or daughter-in-law, or sister or brother-in-law, including step and adoptive relationships.”

State and Federal Assistance Programs: These programs are specifically defined as “Means-Tested Programs” under which the individual, family, or household income and assets must be below specified thresholds. The sponsoring agencies then provide cash and non-cash assistance to eligible individuals, families, or households. Such programs include welfare benefit programs (federal, state, and local) Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC or ADC); unemployment compensation; General Assistance (GA); food stamps; Supplemental Security Income (SSI); Medicaid; housing assistance; or other federal, state, or local financial assistance programs.

So what does disadvantaged really mean?

Given the limited information and ambiguity regarding the guidance that AMCAS provides, let’s look at what some admissions committees would believe qualifies as disadvantaged. Most would regard ‘disadvantaged’ as having some extrinsic or intrinsic limitation(s) compared to other medical school applicants. Often times, being disadvantaged can be considered in the context of other areas of your application. For instance, are your grades on the lower side since you have a learning disability? Or could do you not have any shadowing or clinical experience because of the lack of healthcare facilities in your area? Perhaps you had a difficult time paying for college as personal finances were strained? Instead of just evaluating whether or not an applicant checked the box, the admissions committee will want to know how this really affected you and your path to medicine.

How to explain it

If you click the disadvantaged box, AMCAS provides 1,325 characters to explain why you are disadvantaged. Take this space to provide some background on your situation, and then explain to them how this has limited you during the course of your life or during your preparation for medical school. Do not use this space to try to make excuses for deficiencies in your application, rather it is best utilized to provide context to your unique situation.

Let’s look at some examples of how to and how not to write the disadvantaged statements. (For brevity, these will not be the full 1,325 characters, but you are encouraged to use as much space to explain your situation as you need to.)

Example of a well-written disadvantaged statement

Due to my parent’s limited income, I had to pay for college and related expenses myself. Although I received financial aid, this was not enough to cover my cost of living. Therefore, in order to pay for rent, food, and personal expenses, I had to work full time while taking courses. Initially, I struggled with maintaining my schedule, and my course grades were unfortunately poor. However, as I developed better study habits and balanced my work schedule to fit in with my courses, I achieved higher grades and continually earned a spot on the dean’s list. Although this initial struggle was difficult, it has made me stronger in the face of adversity, and has allowed me to further develop my problem solving and time management skills.

This statement provides a brief explanation of the applicant’s circumstances and how this contributed to a deficiency in their application (i.e. low grades). However, the applicant then uses the remaining space to emphasize their growth and strengths developed from a difficult circumstance. This is an effective way to explain to admissions committees why you are disadvantaged and allows them to review your application with this in mind.

Example of a poorly written disadvantaged statement

Though I was accepted to many top-tiered institutions, I was unable to afford the tuition and thus had to settle on a state school. As this was not my top choice, my motivation for doing well was initially poor, and I received poor grades. After some time, I accepted that I was not at my top choice school and my grades improved.

This statement really paints the applicant in a poor light. They come off as entitled and unable to adapt to changing or difficult circumstances. Though the applicant was disappointed to not get to attend her top choice school, she should demonstrate resiliency to stay focused on goals and do well. An admissions committee may interpret this statement as someone just trying to make excuses for their poor marks.

It is important to take time to decide whether or not being disadvantaged applies to your individual situation and circumstances. If you are in doubt, it is good to discuss with an advisor or mentor. They can help gauge your situation and provide on objective opinion on how to proceed.

About the Author

Renee is a primary care physician and serves as the Director of Advising with MedSchoolCoach. Renee has extensive experience mentoring pre-medical students and shares her knowledge of the admission process through individual advising, webinars, pre-health conferences, and blogs. She currently lives in Colorado with her husband and son, and enjoys traveling, hiking and running. 

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