There were no secrets on the path to medical school. It all seemed so defined – almost etched out as I began considering the sacrifices I would be making nearly four years ago: get a respectable GPA, some research experience, and learn the art of shadowing. However, there is a portion of the path that has been a little hazier to me. At one point or another, you might have asked what experiences make you stand out against other applicants. It seems that every medical school proudly boasts how they are in search of individuals who have “diverse and unique experiences” – yet many students remain confused as to what this actually means. In fact, these are words that still make me scratch my head from time to time.

When medical schools search for diverse and unique individuals, perhaps what they are looking for are applicants who have experienced some degree of culture. In a sense, they are expected to appreciate, even tolerate, the world they live in to the extent that allows them to deliver sound care. It is common, almost comical, how easy it can be for PreMeds to pretend those words do not exist and sweep them away. As a result, it is sometimes easier to confront lab reports and studying than it is to address the question of culture, and how you fit into the world that surrounds you.

The sad truth is that I did not figure out how I fit into the world as a future doctor for a while. Once, an overseas trip was the clear answer to my lack of unique, culture-building experiences. Being dropped in another country, witnessing another culture’s medicine at work, and coming back within two weeks were all hard to argue with. Yet, each day moved closer to my designated leave – and each day grew a little more unsettling. If applying to a two-week internship in an underprivileged country would truly make me a better physician, why did it feel otherwise? The thought rang in my ears.

You might be in a position where service overseas is where you feel most comfortable and helpful. In fact, plenty of medical students across the country admit that an overseas trip has helped shape their medical decisions positively. For me, I had gotten it wrong. An overseas trip was more of a superficial, quick way to fix to my lack of preparation in the past. When I made the initial decision to go to another country, I was looking for experiences that would specifically get me into medical school. In turn, I spent less time looking for the experiences that would prepare me for the career I was excited about.

Before I knew it, I fell into the trap of trying to force meaningful experiences into my life to build a better application. It was the moment that I gave up on being cultured that I learned what it truly meant: Becoming diverse is not a two-week ordeal, but a life-long commitment to understanding your surroundings.

Much like most of your experiences as a doctor, diverse and unique experiences might never present themselves to you in the way you would like. You might travel the world, witness dozens of surgeries, and still manage to miss how it makes you a better physician in the long run. The experiences that teach you cultural adeptness often teach you to soften your heart to the world, to accept it for what it is from time to time.

Culture may not necessarily define the doctor you become, but it influences it. Find what peaks your interest as a student and helps you become more tolerable. Do whatever it is that makes you more compassionate towards people who are different than you. Perhaps it is learning a second language. Maybe volunteering at a free health clinic or a homeless shelter will make you more prepared, or maybe it really is leaving the country. Regardless, allow the world to turn you into a better future doctor, not just a qualified applicant.