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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

"What Do They Want Me To Say?" The hidden curriculum at work in the medical school selection process: a qualitative study

Jonathan White1*, Keith Brownell2, Jean-Francois Lemay3 and Jocelyn M Lockyer4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Surgery, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

2 Departments of Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada

3 Department of Pediatrics, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada

4 Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada

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BMC Medical Education 2012, 12:17  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-12-17

Published: 26 March 2012



There has been little study of the role of the essay question in selection for medical school. The purpose of this study was to obtain a better understanding of how applicants approached the essay questions used in selection at our medical school in 2007.


The authors conducted a qualitative analysis of 210 essays written as part of the medical school admissions process, and developed a conceptual framework to describe the relationships, ideas and concepts observed in the data.


Findings of this analysis were confirmed in interviews with applicants and assessors. Analysis revealed a tension between "genuine" and "expected" responses that we believe applicants experience when choosing how to answer questions in the admissions process. A theory named "What do they want me to say?" was developed to describe the ways in which applicants modulate their responses to conform to their expectations of the selection process; the elements of this theory were confirmed in interviews with applicants and assessors.


This work suggests the existence of a "hidden curriculum of admissions" and demonstrates that the process of selection has a strong influence on applicant response. This paper suggests ways that selection might be modified to address this effect. Studies such as this can help us to appreciate the unintended consequences of admissions processes and can identify ways to make the selection process more consistent, transparent and fair.

Admissions; Medical school selection; Hidden curriculum; Conforming; Qualitative methods