January 25, 2020
Medical School Applications
Most medical school applications include an extenuating circumstances section in which you may explain the context behind low performance in a period of time. But what constitutes an extenuating circumstance?
Extenuating circumstances (ECs) are events or situations that are particularly serious, unusual, or extreme in nature. Such circumstances are typically unforeseeable and unpreventable. As you will see below, they need to be expected to have a significant impact in your ability to complete normal expectations. Below are some common events that qualify as ECs, as well as examples of what not to include in this section.
A health problem is significant if it has impacted your ability to meet normal academic demands and/or required significant time to manage, such as time away from school to attend numerous medical appointments or treatment. While a bad cold may have impacted your focus on an exam, or strep throat may have required a visit to the doctor and antibiotics, these examples would not be deemed serious or unusual events and do not warrant an EC letter. Similarly, feeling tired or stressed because of academic pressure is a common student experience, and is not considered an acceptable EC. This example does not mean to exclude students with formally diagnosed depression or anxiety disorders.
Close Family Health
Similar to personal health issues, illness of a close family member may impact your school performance. For example, you may have had to spend significant time at the hospital or providing care for your family member. You may have been emotionally upset by a serious diagnosis or death of someone you were close to. In contrast, serious illnesses in family members you have little regular interaction with are not grounds for a letter of EC.
Medical schools recognize some applicants may not be able to engage in volunteer or athletic opportunities due to financial burden. Such financial circumstances may have required you to take lighter course loads or time off school to accommodate continued employment. It is worth describing these circumstances so that admissions can better evaluate your non-academic activities.
Occasionally, school strikes or natural disasters trigger unplanned disruptions in the school year. Definitely include such circumstances if they resulted in school closure and affected your academic performance or course planning. However, intermittent school closure for a snow day for example is not a valid EC.
Victim of Crime
As with the above categories, being a victim of crime may or may not constitute an EC depending on the severity and impact of the crime. Small theft or minor burglary typically will not meet criteria of significance. More serious crime causing bodily harm, court time, or significant emotional upset would be appropriate to include in your application as these are expected to significantly impact your academic performance.
Some other situations that should not be considered ECs include computer failure (e.g. loss of data caused you to fail your term report), transport problems (e.g. traffic delayed you getting to an exam on time), and vacations because these are all easily preventable (e.g. by backing up your data, leaving earlier, or booking vacations around school, respectively).
This blog is not a definitive list of ECs, but is intended to highlight they are generally rare, serious, unforeseeable and unpreventable situations that have significantly impacted your performance. If you are still unclear whether to include an issue in the EC section, consider calling the admissions office to discuss your individual situation. Next, check out this blog on how to write EC letters, and these packages for comprehensive consulting and application editing services to maximize your chance of success.
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