Q & A Sessions and Guest Writers
A few week ago, I think a day or two before some exam, I sat down to do a podcast interview Accepted.com.
We spoke for about 45 minutes about medical school and my own medical school admissions experience.
So, if you ever wanted to hear me blabber on about medical school, here’s your chance:
It’s winter in Boston, I hope all is well for everyone. Now, again, at my school applicants are interviewing. It’s a curious sight, I remember making the trip before, peering off into the classroom when I could to get an idea of who these mythical creatures called medical students were. So, it’s strange to be on the other side of the window. Anyways, nostalgia aside, I wanted to share with you an interview with a recently accepted applicant (see below). I believe we met on Twitter, when I was editing and critiquing personal statements in my downtime. I distinctly remember her personal statement, so I’m excited to see her progress from a hopeful applicant to an accepted medical student with a full scholarship.
So, here’s the interview:
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? — e.g. major, participation in college, post graduate work or activities, continued and concluded work/projects, notable experiences.
My family is originally from Peru, my father completed medical school in Lima and we immigrated to the United States when my father got a pediatrics residency offer in New York. I grew up and attended school in Texas, where I majored in Biology and minored in Psychology. I was very fortunate to have several mentors along the way who really pushed me towards research and am grateful our paper was accepted a few months before applying to medical school. I worked in two very different labs in undergrad, a summer in an entomology lab and a neuroscience lab my junior and senior year. Although I considered medicine, I originally planned on pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience/Neuropharmacology, so my focus in undergrad was research and teaching (I worked as a Teaching Assistant for Cell Biology lab and Supplemental Instruction Leader for Analytical Chemistry) and did not really have very much clinical volunteering (at least compared to my ‘intense’ pre-med peers).
My main extracurricular was Colleges Against Cancer (CAC), where I helped start Relay For Life at my university. Unfortunately, it seems that people in my life keep struggling with cancer. My first awareness of the disease was when my fifth grade teacher went through breast cancer treatment. In college, I discovered my lab mate was a lymphoma survivor (we co-founded our CAC chapter), my godfather battling colon cancer and losing my first research advisor to pancreatic cancer, and recently losing family members to lymphoma and glioblastoma. Although I have no idea what it says, I believe that my evaluation letter from my American Cancer Society staff partner had significant weight in the strength of my application.
There are people that seem to know they were destined for a career in medicine since they were fetuses. To say I am 100% certain that I should become doctor would be inaccurate, sometimes I still question if I have the desire pursue a career that in practice seems increasingly more centered on costs and paperwork, and less focused on quality and prevention. Seeing my father practice medicine in a private practice setting was off-putting to me, especially as I developed a real knack for teaching early in my undergraduate career. However my somewhat cynical, not idealist view that our current healthcare system is ‘broken’ is one of the many things that fuels me to strive for change. My senior year (after much introspection), I realized that academic medicine was a great way to consolidate helping with others while teaching and decided to apply to medical school. Since I still needed time to study for the MCAT, I decided would take a total of two years off before matriculating in medical school (which thankfully I will next fall!).
Applying to medical school is pretty difficult, besides the prereqs, a lot of steps have to be made correctly on a timely manner. How did you prepare for the applying to medical school, anything in retrospect you would have done differently now that you understand how the process works?
Honestly, I read a lot of blogs and from there searched for books. Hannah’s (@MDPhDtoBe) blog (side note: I met her a few months ago and she is an incredible human) and this one were probably the two I referenced the most. I used two books (one which you have mentioned in your own blog) the Medical School Admissions Guide and Cracking Med School Admissions, both which gave interesting examples of personal statements and suggested timelines. After the MCAT, the two most challenging parts of the application were the Personal Statement and the Activities Section (also, insanely time consuming). Looking back I would have kept better records on my activities because I ended up spending a lot of time tracking down faculty/staff for their contact information and wracking my brain to guesstimate how many hours I spend on all of my activities. Something important that I reflected throughout the interview process was to try not compare yourself with other applicants. It’s difficult when you’re in a room filled with brilliant, driven people, but reminding yourself that you have your own story, that everyone’s journey to medicine is different is good perspective to have because it’s easy to become intimidated and not think you’re good enough. You have made it this far, be proud (never arrogant) of your accomplishments!
Last year I edited your personal statement, how was the experience for you and how did it help?
The personal statement was very challenging for me to write. I probably went through ten drafts of my personal statement before I felt “satisfied”. Mr. @doctororbust kindly agreed to look over my personal statement and gave me great feedback, particularly with the flow of my ideas. Most of the people I asked to edit my personal statement were very familiar with my story and everything I had done throughout undergrad, so having someone who was completely impartial was extremely useful and I am extremely grateful for the direction my personal statement took after you reviewed it! Forever grateful.. this brings up another point, do not be afraid of asking for help. There are kind people in this world who genuinely want you to succeed 🙂
What were some things that surprised you about the application process? — this could be either positive or negative or even just an observation.
Overall, the application process was a journey. Equally beautiful and frustrating. Writing the personal statement was somewhat revelatory and defining. Creating a narrative that portrays you and your passion for this career in 5,300 characters is nothing short of daunting. I think I did not expect the application to take so long. I tried to finish it up as soon as I could. I am surprised to have gotten three out-of-state public university interview offers, so I wouldn’t discourage someone to not apply out of state, however make sure you do your research and write a compelling narrative on why you want to attend a specific school. If you can attend a recruitment fair, take advantage and stay in touch with people. An admissions staff member I met at a recruitment fair arranged for me to meet with a pediatric psychiatrist after my interview because I mentioned this was a strong particular interest of mine. As much as medical schools are interviewing you, you are also interviewing them to see where you will be the best fit and if they are granting you an interview, it is likely they will accomodate you to make you feel welcome. As I mentioned, I strongly considered pursuing a PhD, and debated applying to MSTP (MD/PhD) programs. Ultimately, I decided not to apply since I did not believe my MCAT was very competitive for MTSP programs. However, in my interviews and after talking to a few MSTP minority students, my MCAT score was higher than one (by 3 points) and exactly the same as the other MSTP student. Although I do not believe in holding myself to a “low standard” because I am considered a minority in this country, I do feel a slight sense of curiosity of what would have happened if I had applied to combined programs.
How many schools did you apply to? If you don’t mind disclosing it, can you share what school you decided to attend?
I initially intended to apply to more, but I ended up completing 13 allopathic medical school applications. To date, I’ve had two rejections, five interview invitations and acceptance offers from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the University of Wisconsin- Madison. If I do not get any more interview offers, my last one will be at the University of Illinois-Chicago in February! Since I did also complete an application through TMDSAS, I’ve ranked UT Southwestern and UTHSCSA and will have to wait for ‘match day’ on February 2rd (Texas is special).
For schools that are a part of AAMC, I legally have until April 30th to make my final decision… However, during winter break when I was in Peru, I found a letter from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health saying I have received a full tuition scholarship!!! I am about 99.99% certain I will accept this offer because frankly I loved the students I met, the interviewees (we did a group one with 2 medical students and 3 other applicants), and the city of Madison. I am beyond thrilled to have this incredible opportunity, as I am flawed and far from a perfect applicant (as in I have a C in calculus and several Bs early on in my transcript.. but I worked hard to bring those grades up!).
What will you do as you wait to start?
I am happily continuing to work for a medical non-profit association in Washington, DC and tutor Biology, Chemistry, Biochemistry and Spanish while I wait to start medical school next fall! Taking time off school was the best decision I made to solidify my decision to apply to medical school. If you have any questions about anything, please feel free to send me a tweet @brainyloma! Best of luck!
Thank you @brainyloma, please check her Twitter out if you have more questions.
I’ve been browsing the search terms people use to find my blog, and I decided to answer some common questions that seem to come up through people’s search or stuff people ask me a lot. This will be a quick rapid fire Q & A, this time I’ll focus on the MCAT. Though bear in mind the scoring system and the subjects will be changed on the new MCAT, in general the test represents the same idea i.e. part of your application to enter medical school:
1. [Is there a difference] between the AAMC practice tests vs the real MCAT?
Yes and no, but mostly no. The AAMC practice tests are representative of what you should expect on the MCAT. If you’ve taken enough practice AAMC tests you’ve probably noticed there’s some relative variability in perceived difficulty — some tests you’ll think are easy, some you’ll think are less so. In general, the core material doesn’t change much, instead it’s how they ask you that may stump you on a particular test. For myself, while self studying my practice scores varied in the last month from 32-36 and I was averaging about a 33 on practice exams (my first practice score was about a 22). But, I ended up with a 30P on the real exam which I suppose isn’t that bad considering how bad my personal life was on test week (family issues) and the night before the exam was. The key to these practice tests is to establish a range, and know that you may either score within that range or about 2-points below it. Why 2-points? Well, that’s within the confidence interval stated by the AAMC, if you score a 29 then a 27 or a 31 were in your range in theory. I can’t promise you that every school is open to the AAMC interpretation of scores, but that’s actually why the new MCAT is coming out with a new scale to further enforce this point and make it easier to interpret. This may also be why applicants who underperformed on their MCAT with a 28 or so are surprised to find that the bulk of their interview (if invited) isn’t spent on defending their MCAT score, this is probably especially true if everything else in the applicants file suggests they could have done better.
The biggest difference however will be in how anxious you feel about the exam, or at least it was that way for me. The good news it’s a good feeling to think that with each question you attempt the closer you potentially are to not seeing the MCAT ever again (hopefully).
2. Is it bad to take a MCAT practice test twice?
There are two skills you pick up while studying for the MCAT:
– 2.1. Getting better at the content on the MCAT
– 2.2 Getting better at taking the MCAT
You’ll definitely get the most value the first time you take the test to see how well you know the content. However, reviewing your past exams is part of the process of getting better at taking the MCAT. The first pass through the test is the easiest, you just take the test and do your best. But, reviewing the exam is a skill all in itself. For that part you want to ask yourself the following questions:
A. Why did I get this question wrong, or why am I getting these types of questions wrong? — separate the material into: 1) I had no idea how to even approach it, 2) I sort of knew it, and 3) I should of gotten it but misread etc. The last one, 3, is the easiest to fix as you just need to start annotating things better to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The first part, 1, is probably the most time consuming as you’d likely need to do a targeted content review on that subject (or that subject’s foundation). The middle one, 2, is the trickiest because it’s easy to fall into false comfort of classifying things as “I sort of knew it” and not dedicated enough time to these issues. In other words, you either know it (3) or you didn’t (1,2).
B. If I got this question right, was there another way to arrive to the same answer? — knowing alternative ways to answer a question is not only good conceptually, it may save you on the next exam. For example, if you’re given the answer choice of:
a. 9.21 E-23
b. 4.21 E-26
c 9.21 E-18
d. 4.21 E-34
You might have arrived to the right answer, let’s say it’s C, by crunching the numbers. But, likely in these types of math problems you could have arrived to the same answer by just evaluating the powers without doing any of the math that made the 9.21 part. This is because as long as you do the powers correctly, the max you can be off without fully evaluating the problem is by a factor of 10 (i.e. you’ll either come up with E-17 or E-19). So, sure, if you had answers within a factor of 10 you’d then need to do more math, but in this case you likely wouldn’t and it ends up being a very quick calculation.
C. Make a plan of how to NOT miss these types of problems again, though except for discrete questions never expect to see the duplicate permutation of the same question again.
3. Are there miracles on the MCAT?
Probably not, in fact you should expect just the opposite. This is why you need to practice and attempt to overshoot during practice because on the real test, for various reasons, it may not go so well. One person I interviewed with told me on their test day there was obnoxious construction going on across the street, another talked of an equally annoying fellow test taker, mine had a character that apparently was into keyboard S&M. Though, I do know a person who felt the test they received was everything they happened to be strong at, and she did better than any of her practice exams. However, realistically don’t expect a match made in heaven for your exam.
The biggest mistake you can make on the MCAT is expecting a miracle, you’ll probably score somewhere around your practice scores — maybe you’ll do a little better, maybe you’ll do a little worse. The practice tests aren’t trying to scare you into studying, if you find the practice AAMC impossibly difficult then there are no miracles to be had on test day.
My exams are almost over, just one more to go — they were very hard in case you were curious. A few weeks ago, before the exams, I was invited to have a podcast conversation with Dr. Ryan Gray of Medical School HQ. So, after stripping off my tie from clinical site duty and me frantically trying to remember what my Skype screen name was we finally got down to it. It was sort of surreal, as before applying to medical school I book marked this site because I really enjoyed the content. If you haven’t heard of Medical School HQ, then it’s a good link to add to your favorites list. Here’s their about statement:
MedicalSchoolHQ.net takes the RELEVANT pre med and medical school topics and creates a one-stop shop for you to quickly get the information you need. Follow our current, constantly updating “Pre Med 101″ page for an easy step-by-step guide to your pre medical years. We´re working hard on developing a Medical School 101 for those students going through it right now. We are constantly looking for new ideas that will help YOU. Please let us know what you need to succeed and we will provide it.
MedicalSchoolHQ.net is the work of physicians. This site is here to help medical school applicants guide their way through the admissions process. It’s here to help medical students pick a specialty, aces the board exams and more. We remember how the MCAT and the AMCAS were (and still are) very intimidating and overwhelming for anybody wanting to apply to medical school. We remember how the USMLE seems to be the make or break test to get you into the residency of your choice. Let MedicalSchoolHQ.net be your hub of information to simplify the process.
My podcast interview was their 95th installment, I haven’t listened to it myself because I cringe at the thought of hearing myself speak (haha). But, if you’re interested in listening and learning some private details about my experience as a nontraditional medical school student please check out:
As promised, here’s the confidential(identity) interview from the accepted Stanford student. They’ll be starting this year as a M1. As a nontraditional premed, switching majors several times before finally deciding to apply to medical school.
It’s interesting to note we both applied to Boston University and Stanford, however we both never received interview invitations from each other’s respective current medical school — it really goes to show there’s interpretation about what constitutes a good fit for their institution, and we found our own fit. For myself another interesting point of this person is that, like me, it took them many years to finish their college career — we both took multiple breaks for work and switched majors innumerable times before deciding on applying to medical school.
Anyways, I had to distill a nearly two hour conversation where we easily went into tangents (
mostly entirely my fault). After laughing and removing the tangents, here is the more educational and likely useful results:
Q. 1. When did you decide that medicine was for you, and why?
Basically, I realized medicine could be a career for me because of the position it occupies in relation to other fields. As a community college student, I had the opportunity to take a wide variety of classes in different fields, without needing to prematurely declare a major. I had always been interested in fields where I thought I could make a difference, I dipped my toes in psychology, sociology, political science, “hard” sciences (thought about a PhD), public health, and even art (documentary photography). For me, medicine fits snugly between public health and the hard sciences, and gives me the best of both worlds (well, what I feel is the best of both worlds). Public health was hard for me because it was a bit far removed from the individual level, obviously since it’s more focused on populations. This is great of course! But that was hard for me to work with, because actually seeing change takes a LONG time, if you see it at all. Bench research is cool too, I still love it, but couldn’t see myself devoting my life to it because it was easy to get caught up in the little things, without the human perspective, and I felt a little lost there, honestly. Medicine allows me to inform both fields with a clinical perspective, work with both fields as part of the health team, and still enjoy what I do
Q. So, do you think being a nontraditional gave you a different point of view? For example while studying.
I think so. I can’t say that more traditional premeds didn’t learn the same things I did, but I can say that I wouldn’t have the perspective I do without doing it my way. Having studied a variety of topics, I kind of felt that medicine was just one career path that could be taken. It fits a small niche in between all the other things people can do with their lives, or to help others. Plus, being nontraditional, working through school, all of that…I had to learn to prioritize and really figure out WHY I needed to do some of these things. I think premeds often get caught up in “the list”, the list of shit we’re supposed to do to be competitive. And a lot of us end up with huge resumes of shit we did that had no impact on us or our communities
The end goal is to be a great doctor…so these experiences should be towards that goal. Activities aren’t just there for filler. Med schools look for these activities because they think we have something to learn from them. And as a nontraditional student, I think I may have had an easier time figuring that out
Q. Lately, schools have really been pushing for diversity, how do/will you bring diversity to your program?
As for the diversity question…I STILL have trouble answering it. I think it’s because there’s no single factor that stands out as HI THERE DIVERSITY. I’ve mentioned before that I am certain that all of us are really diverse. We have our collections of scores and activities on the applications that look the same in bullet-point form, but different students get into different schools. In any case, I think being a nontraditional premed has given me some interesting opportunities. I took extra time in school; it took me eight years to finish up my degree, so I was able to explore a number of different areas of study and work part-time throughout undergrad. After all of that…I can’t help but see medicine as integrated with every other field, and my approach to healthcare in general requires that we don’t separate “health” from the rest of our patient’s lives. I also had time to make big commitments to projects that I cared about, and learned more than I could have imagined. I helped get a nonprofit global health organization started, which taught me as much about public health as it did about team work, leadership, and resource management. I worked in a research lab for a few years doing more engineering-based health projects, and was inspired by the potential future of stem-cell based diagnostic devices and therapies. I think the biggest opportunity I had while being nontrad, and perhaps bringing some diversity to the mix is my restaurant work history. I got my first job at 16 working in a cafe and bakery, and from there moved on to other cafes and finally ended up serving and bar-tending at a restaurant as I got older. It seems like working during undergrad isn’t typical for a lot of premeds, so I’m so glad I had a chance to do it. Of course, I hated it at the time and it was stressful, but being forced to talk to strangers day in and day out will probably help my bedside manner more than any amount of shadowing doctors could do. I learned a lot about making people feel comfortable and responding appropriately to misplaced anger by waiting tables. Although it isn’t directly related to medicine, waiting tables taught me a lot about professional communication in strained situations. People can get really upset about their food, it seems! Or parking, or having to wait for a table…about a lot of things outside my control. And I feel that happens in everyday medical practice often, so having a little bit of experience managing those situations will likely help me in the future. Waiting tables was also a great teamwork exercise; you really can’t survive the floor without working together, even if you don’t always get along with your coworkers. Maybe that gives me some of that coveted diversity? Who knows, I think it’s the summation of our experiences that gives all of us a unique perspective.
Q. So, as a nontraditional or traditional premeds was there anyone who mentored you? Also, applying to medschool is pretty nebulous; have any guidance or tips along the way?
I’m lucky to have had a great mentor in this whole thing. I think as you’ve pointed out a few times, there are a lot of people who are just waiting for us to fail, to not make it. So, I had my mom, who is a doctor and a teacher. When I have questions about how to be a great doctor, I always turn to her. For the premed-y things though, I kind of just went with it. Internet-searching. Berkeley doesn’t have official premed advisors, so I kind of went at it based on anecdotes from friends and the internet
As for my tips…I think the best ones I have are to do what you love…pick a few key activities that will help define and shape you, and give them your all. Don’t mess around with 100+ random activities that you only contribute 10 hours to.
Also, keep a journal of everything. Not only does it make it so much easier to learn from and reflect on your experiences, but you will thank yourself SO MUCH when applications roll around.
And surround yourself with good people, even if they’re not premed or doing the same things you are. Don’t let negative folks discourage you, don’t take SDN too damn seriously, and don’t put other people down because we never know where they’ve been
Regarding the question of, “For premeds without a committee or reliable advisors do you have any tips?” that’s a hard one. Reliable information is difficult to come by, and you don’t want to get sucked into the anecdotes too much, because they may be wrong! I think some of the books out there are pretty good –the ones written by previous admissions officers. I guess my major tip for anyone is just always frame your activities or potential activities by thinking “How will this make me a better doctor? What am I learning or contributing?” If you can come up with solid answers to that, then it’s a worthwhile activity lol.
And the usual: don’t let your GPA slide, set study schedules to keep it up, check school websites to meet prereqs, and don’t think the MCAT will be a breeze.
Q. I suppose you should probably jot down that answer [from the journal etc.] as well for later during secondary/interviews?
- YES, absolutely. Take notes, always. Makes life so much easier down the line when time is of the essence. I was lucky that I had some notes and journals, but I WISH i had an updated CV.
- Oh…another pro tip. Start saving a lot of money — like yesterday. Charging app fees to your credit card is awful (that was me, it sucked).
Q. As you already know, I don’t report MCAT scores; but, you did very well, do you have any study tips?
Well, since everyone studies a bit differently, it’s kind of a hard thing to say for sure. The one thing that I think will work for everyone is to set a study schedule. Like map out every single day, what you’re going to review, how many problems you’re doing to try, etc. Even map out your break days
- I also tend to think that you shouldn’t review all of one area, then the next. Should probably do one chapter of physics, one chem, one orgo, one bio, then repeat with the next chapters
- Practice problems are golden, obviously. do as many as possible, but I think it’s best if you don’t re-do the same ones. I saved all my AAMC practice exams for the last month
- Flashcards are great for random facts, and can be taken anywhere for quick review (on the bus, between classes, etc)
- Always focus on understanding and connecting concepts, rather than memorizing shit
*Doctoorbust: a caveat, remember pick tips that work for you, ignore any that don’t.
Q. I know you’re tired of hearing this but, any idea what you’re going to specialize in?
Not a clue! I’m trying to go into it with an open mind, simply because I know I haven’t seen even half of what specialties are out there. Even for the ones I have “seen”…it’s difficult to know if my experience in them as a premed was anything like the way they actually are. So, I’m trying to be open.
Plus, it’s hard to know where the field will be in 4-5 years. Things change. The structure of medical practice is undergoing some pretty significant changes, and I’m not really sure where it will all end up.
Q. How do you feel about the coming changes (healthcare)? There’s a lot of anxiety in some groups about it.
I honestly don’t know. I see it as a good thing, a step in the right direction for expanding patient coverage, but I can also understand the concerns from a doctor’s point of view, as far as who is getting reimbursed for what, and additional constraints on their time I think it is easy for us to say, as folks who have yet to enter the medical field for real, that expanding coverage is GREAT and it’s easy and things like that. But I’m not sure we really know what it’s like in the trenches. I’m thinking specifically of primary care, it seems that it’s going downhill fast for those currently in family practice and internal medicine.
For the record, my personal opinion is that expanding coverage equates to awesome. But I don’t think we can neglect the concerns that have been brought to the table by our colleagues, either.
Q. What are some things you wish you did as a premed now that you’re going into medschool?
I wish I had traveled more, and taken more time for non-premed activities. I definitely enjoyed all the work I did in preparation for becoming a doctor, but I let some things slip too
I would just advise people to always make time for hobbies, for themselves. This is because hobbies are every bit as important as engaging in research or volunteering. Being healthy and happy will make you a better doctor, too.
Maintain relationships! Friends, family, don’t let it slide because you’re too busy studying.
Q. Now, you’ve been there and done that. What are some misinformation points you’ve heard about being a premed or applying that you believe to be false, at least from your experience?
The biggest thing I think is that you need a perfect GPA and perfect MCAT score, or that having X hours of these activities are all it takes. Or that it’s guaranteed to get in if you have those things. And you see this everywhere. “My friend has a 4.0 and a 42 MCAT and thousands of hours of volunteering and research and didn’t get in” or the other commonly seen thing “I need a 4.0 and a 42 etc in order to have a shot.”
Yes, you need decent numbers, but that will only get you so far. We have to learn from our experiences in order for them to count. The hours spent doing an activity are usually correlated with learning and reflecting, but the hours themselves don’t mean anything
The other thing about applying that I saw a lot is the obsession with school rank and the numbers. It’s not all a numbers game. Schools have different missions, different focus points that they look for in their applicants
The smart applicant will choose schools that they will fit into, whose goals are in line with the applicant’s, or the applicant feels he/she can contribute to
The process feels like a crapshoot. To some extent, it probably is, but that doesn’t mean that applicants can’t maximize their chances. Obsessing over numbers won’t get you anywhere. and the thing is, just because your experiences don’t fit into one school doesn’t mean they don’t fit somewhere else. For instance, I was rejected outright from BU! But I got in somewhere. And you got into BU! And were rejected from other places we all have different strengths, just have to play to them. it takes some serious self-reflection and honesty on the applicant’s part. Still, no one’s saying it’s not competitive. But…always remember the numbers aren’t everything. My GPA sucked, and I got in somewhere.
Thanks for reading! I’ll try to keep posting while moving!
Just prior to starting medical school I wrote an response to a frequent question, “How did you decide how many/which medical schools to apply to?” Now that I’m in medical school I’m going to go ahead and amend this entry. To immediately answer the question: I submitted 20 primary applications, about 13 secondary applications, I was offered 8 interviews (by the way, all out of state). My budget only allowed for me to attend 5 interviews, I was accepted into all 5 (no wait listing), and I canceled the remaining interviews (3 interviews canceled) and I although I did complete the other secondaries I didn’t pay to submit them (the other 5 schools). On of May 15th, I became a Boston University School of Medicine student (BUSM).
How did you decide how many schools to apply to? — Primary Applications
There was a clear mathematical cut off based on how much money I did not possess, so at the very least I knew how many I could not afford. This sounds sort of silly, but its important to think about because it’s a rather expensive process (see my article “How Applying to Medschool Left Me With $3“). There are three phases of the application, if you’re not wait listed: 1) the primary, 2) the secondary, 3) interview. I saw a thread recently on SDN about someone planning on applying to ~100 schools (we can only hope they were trolling). But the whole process is pricey, so you better make sure you have money to follow through with each step.
People usually apply to about 15-20 schools if they’re average applicants, so I just went for that range as it worked within my budget, i.e. I applied to 20 schools during the primary. If you decide to DO schools as well, then you can easily see that 15-20 going into the 30’s. But, at the same time, I know people who’ve applied with 15 and did just fine (though she had stellar stats, intelligent, and is a great person to be around, a winning combination for medical schools).
How did you decide which schools to apply to? — Primary Applications
Before I was a premed I was applying to graduate school (I was accepted but didn’t go through with it, instead deciding to apply to medical school), so I during that time I already had some experience with “graduate level applications”. The process is rather different, that is applying for pure “research” graduate programs and a pure MD program. Most premeds will tell you it’s a “no-brainer”: go to the most prestigious program you can get into. In graduate school, say if you wanted to get a PhD in the field of electrophysiology, then picking X university because of it’s name wouldn’t be a sound strategy because A) you don’t know if that school has that program, and B) not all universities fund all research equally (it’s not all merit funding). I knew one guy who made the first mistake of applying to a school, writing in his personal statement how much he loved some type of niche chemistry technique only to find out that the schools he applied to didn’t actually have a program accepting students for such work. Anyways, long story short, the way I learned to apply to graduate schools was to spend a lot of time researching individual programs: going to their webpage, seeing how much I felt the program aligned with me, reading the school’s blogs. I didn’t use any ranking systems or any SDN advice/tricks (not to say there isn’t useful advice there, just not my groove). I just chose the hippy way — I used my heart and research in the hopes of finding a custom “fit”. Aspects of picking a medical school that were important to me were:
1) I first figured out if my potential acceptance be statistically astonishing or normal (I checked with the MSAR). This was really easy to check, just look at the GPA/MCAT of the class they accepted before, if I saw mine fit in there I figured statistically my possible acceptance wouldn’t sound so outlandish.
2) Grading system, I wanted pass fail. I’ve talked to medical students, and they’ve said they liked “pass/fail” because it made it ‘feel’ less competitive. And schools that have pseudo A,B,C,D (High pass, pass, low pass, no pass) grades were considered less desirable — though I did apply to some of them. I hate hierarchy, I know it will exist one day, but I want to delay it as much as possible. Personally, I just want to know how I’m doing I have no interest in stratifying myself against others in my class and I have this now at my current program. I’ve never attended another medical school, so I can’t compare my experience of difficulty to others, but in general getting that “P” is a lot tougher than you might assume.
3) I knew I had a modest research background and some unusual volunteer experiences, so I also focused on schools that had either (or preferably both) research and heavy community involvement as a sales point. Since BUSM had both of these aspects, it made them an easy choice when it came time to make my final decision. Currently, I’m involved in talks as I consider participating in clinical research this summer.
4) Location. Relocation was always part of my plan, but I wanted to live in a place where I wouldn’t need a car. Sure, I’ll be pretty busy in medical school, but I don’t want to be miserable about where I am for four years (it wouldn’t be fair to my classmates who DO actually want to be there). Right now I commute back and forth to school, through the rain and snow, with public transportation. As a student commuter, it’s been a lot easier on me as fewer things in live destroy the soul after a long day than hours at the wheel in traffic. As a bonus this lifestyle allows for me to do things like review flash cards, catch up on voicemail, or even pull off a little reading while on the train or bus etc.
5) Every [accredited] medical school will teach you medicine, but at least until congress allows for more dollars to go towards residency the positions are capped per year rather tightly. So, it’s important to think about how competitive you’ll be after you graduate. People take 4-5 years to finish medical school in the US, and the lion’s share of them will successfully match into a residency. As I’m a pragmatic person and the match disparity in non-US programs I focused on US programs only to keep my options the broadest later. Also, I did background research on each program more intensively if I received an interview: does this school have a match list at all, do people usually match locally, do I see people match into hospitals I’ve heard of? Knowing the match situation will give you a better idea of what type of candidates they’d prefer. I don’t think you can necessarily rate a school by their match list, but it gives you an incomplete snapshot of their situation/preferences. I wanted to know what percent of the class passed the USLME Step 1, and what percent of US seniors matched etc. I didn’t know the proper term until I was a medical student, but I was also looking into programs that are “safety net hospitals/networks”. I was also curious what type of interest groups existed in the programs, especially interest groups that mirrored my past experiences. Post graduate I was involved with prison education, now in medical school I’m part of the Physicians for Human Rights.
Of course none of this means the school necessarily generates success, if you invite ambitious people you’ll get ambitious results. During the secondary application I had a lot more time to research these types of topics, knowing these things also made interviewing easier because I genuinely did have questions.
How did you decide which/how many schools to apply to? — Secondary Applications
I didn’t complete all of my secondary applications. One program I just lost interest in entirely. The others, I either had enough interviews lined up by the time to comparable programs, so if schools were late sending me a secondary, it was likely they were lower on my priority list. I put higher priority on schools that made efforts to contact me directly and schools that screened my application — I knew if they had already screened me then I’d already got pass their “stats requirement”. I really got to know the schools more during this time, I data mined every piece of data the MSAR, I devoured every piece of publication I could find about the school — even in their local news. I really got to know each school that I finally put a secondary into, this also allowed for me to customize my secondary applications a lot. I’m sure this helped a lot, especially for an out of state applicant. I think the application process is a mutual selection, I don’t just want to get dropped into a medical school like a military draft — after all, what if our philosophies conflict? To learn more about the departments (this helped a lot for interviews) I already looked up some of the professors who’d be teaching my future classes, and looked up their research as well. When it came time to really think about the secondary application, I usually had enough random specific information about the school where it was rather easy to honestly praise each program.
Other than that, I did complete them as they came. It’s just that I got more selective about which ones I completed towards the end of my cycle, but I certainly gave priorities to schools that were already showing interest in me.
Interestingly, all of my work to personalize each essay only made it harder for me to select schools I’d be interviewing at, and finally make that life changing decision of where to matriculate. I never considered price, because medical school is expensive, I even turned down a full tuition ride to go to my dream school. I don’t believe in reincarnation so, this is my only chance to be a doctor, and I know I’ll pay it back. In the end, you just have to chose the program that “fits” you the most. =)
You can find me on twitter @doctororbust
As promised, here is the Q& A interview from a Johns Hopkins M2 student going onto M3. Her identity has been withheld to retain her privacy, within the article her answers are identifiable from her label Johns Hopkins School of Medicine student (JHSM student), if I interjected then the comments from me were labeled under Boston University School of Medicine student (BUSM student). The questions were taken from my followers on Twitter, enjoy:
Q. “what’s one thing she wish she knew about medschool before starting?”
A (JHSM student). Oh so many things ha ha. Honestly, if I had to pick one, the thing I wish I knew most was that it’s okay to struggle and if you’re struggling, I can guarantee you’re not the only one. The first year of medical school is difficult both academically and in terms of adjusting to a new lifestyle. This is complicated by the fact that a lot of medical students are used to being above average and so sometimes it can feel like a sign of weakness if you admit that the material or some other aspect of medical school is difficult for you. I fell into this trap at the beginning of my first year because I was afraid to admit that I thought anatomy was difficult and it was unpleasant being in a room with a cadaver for that many hours a day but didn’t want my classmates to think I was ‘dumb’, for lack of a better word. Only later after I made some closer friends did I realize that MOST of our class struggled through our anatomy block and found that period of medical school to be generally depressing, but no one was talking to each other about it. It might have been nicer if we had been able to talk to each other about our struggles and realize that we weren’t alone.
Also just to add on to that, I’d like to say it gets better! The first year of medical school for me (and I later found out for many of my classmates) was one of the most depressing years of my life because I didn’t know how to be a medical student yet, but after the second year you kind of learn how to game the system, you make really good friends and you get to see/do increasingly cool medical ‘stuff’
Q. The next question is also from a Twitter follower, they ask ” [During ] undergrad. for example, if you receive a C+ in a chemistry course, would it be impossible for me to get into medical school. Should I retake it?”
A. (JHSM student): in general, a C won’t kill your chances, I think I once got a C in chemistry once as well. It just needs to not be a pattern
A. (BUSM student): same here, I’ve had a C show up on my transcript, it wasn’t a big deal because I performed well in the upper level courses. For example, I may of received one C in general chemistry, but then I went onto rock organic and biochemistry. Also, it’s important to remember that AAMC looks at all of your grades, so they’d probably like to so a upward spiral rather — this is especially true if retaking the course won’t really result in any statistical difference in either your science or “other” GPA. You should sit down and do the math, if your GPA can absorb the C+ then I’d just take it and be sure to do better in higher level material. Again, one C+ won’t kill you, just don’t make it a habit.
Q. Knowing what you know now, how would you study differently for year one if you could go back? Also, are are the first semesters of year 1 different?
A. JHSM student: I suppose that’s curriculum specific in some ways. Generally though, if I could go back I think I would work harder in certain blocks. My school is pass/fail so once I knew I had enough knowledge to be in the ‘passing’ range sometimes it was very tempting to just stop studying then. I wish I had learned more in the blocks where I did that because the pre-clinical curriculum gives you the opportunity and time to learn and really understand medical science in greater depth than you can on rotations. There’s not time when you’re studying for boards or during rotations to go back and learn the basic science of everything so if you don’t understand the basics by then, you’re kind of stuck just memorizing.
Q. So, the big question, “Why medicine?”
A. JHSM student: I got stuck thinking about why medicine. It’s difficult because it’s a question that we’re asked all the time and anyone who applies to medical school is asked to compress their answer into a succinct 400 word statement. I think in some ways, though, this creates the false impression that the reason people decide to do things is always based on one dramatic was actually supposed to read “life changing experience or one goal that a future physician might wish to accomplish to make the world a better place, etc. but in reality I think the reason people make any huge life decision is ultimately complex and multifactorial. For me, I went through an intense period of weighing the pros and cons of different careers. I personally really, profoundly love science, especially life science. I was actually undecided between graduate school and medical school up to the summer before I started medical school, after I had gotten in. I think what made medicine win out over graduate school was the opportunity to really learn an organism in complete depth from the molecular level up to the social level (I particularly love systems biology), an opportunity rarely afforded in pure research. I also relish the relatively instant gratification medicine can provide over research, seeing a patient improve in hours or days instead of waiting years for research ideas to either pan out or not pan out. Lifestyle was also another important factor for me and I guess I enjoyed the idea that going into medicine would afford me the opportunity to work in a research position but wouldn’t leave me obligated to scratch out a living based on my ability to write convincing grants because I could always fall back on clinical practice. One thing I wish I had done before coming to medical school was getting more experience working with patients. I did do a fair amount of volunteer work in medical settings but retrospectively the things I did were more clerical and really didn’t give me an idea of what it’s like to work with sick people. I was actually really luck because I didn’t realize it at the time, but since coming to medical school I’ve realized I really enjoy working with patients and I think I have somewhat of a knack for it but I know that’s not true for everyone.
Q. You were wait listed at Johns Hopkins, but later accepted (so it obviously worked out well), any idea why you were wait listed in the first place?
A. JHSM student: I’m assuming it’s because I wasn’t as a competitive a candidate as people who were directly offered positions lol. I think the biggest weakness in my application packet was my relative dearth of hands-on clinical experience. A very large number of my classmates had worked as EMTs and taught CPR classes, etc but my clinical experience was much less hands on.
Q. Who were the influential people in making your decision to go to medical school?
A. JHSM student: To be honest I think I was the most influential person in deciding to go to medical school and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Going to medical school is an amazing, amazing opportunity but it carries with it a huge amount of opportunity cost in terms of the other potential careers you’re giving up, free time, going into debt, etc. In terms of people who inspired me, I would say primarily the heads of the labs I worked in who always believed in me and stuck by me even when I made mistakes. There was also one physician whose office I worked in for several months who really encouraged and inspired me.
Q. You’re interested in the realm of primary car despite recent articles out there disparaging new applicants (especially those interested in FM or PCP), do you have any words of encouragement — or a take on the trend?
A. JHSM student: For new applicants, all I can say is the world is changing fast around us and it’s hard to predict what practicing medicine will be like 20 years from now. Medicine 20 years ago is certainly different then medicine today and it will continue to change. As far as the grim outlook for primary care physicians goes I can only say that many of the primary care attendings at my school have indicated that they think that the semi-absurd compensation gap between specialists and primary care physicians is likely to shrink with health care reform due to changes from a per-procedure payment which benefits opthamologists or radiologists for example who do a large number of procedures in a short time to different types of payment plans.
Q. Describe an average school day and weekend for you as a first year.
A. JHSM student: Average school day during pre -clinical curriculum, for me: wake up at 9:00 am, shower, get to school by 10:00 am for required small group activities which run until noon, then lunch, then in the afternoon we’d either have lectures until 3:00 pm or clinic time depending on the day of the week. During my first year I had a once a week clerkship at a pediatricians office. That was usually done by 5. Then home by 5:30, I’d watch the 8:00 am and 9:00 am lectures that I missed (my school took video recording of all our lectures and posted them online ) at 1.5x speed then check my email, study a little until 9:30, by then I would usually stop working and engage in self-care activities (cooking, cleaning, friends, etc) until around midnight and then to bed and repeat the next day. Of course as exams got closer the studying time would usually increase lol.
Q. For the final question, it’s pretty hard for a lot of medical students to decide what to specialize in, when did it become more to clear to you about what you may specialize in?
A. JHSM student: Oh well it’s still not really clear to me lol. I have an idea about what I want to specialize in that I think really came about from interacting with the faculty from the different blocks. I felt like the physicians and professors from our micro/ ID block were ” like me” in that they were kind of fun and a little bit quirky in addition to really enjoying the material itself. That said I think the specialities people are attracted to are influenced by the people they interact with from that speciality but I don’t think that’s the sole determinant: for example there was one really weird week during medical school where I really thought I wanted to become a pathologist. I really liked the faculty for that section and I thought it was interesting. I ended up shadowing a pathologist for a couple days to learn more and no offense to future pathologists out there, but I quickly realized it was just not for me.
JHSM student is has just completed her USLME Step 1, and will start her 3rd year rotations soon. She was kind enough to give this interview during her vacation right after completing Step 1.
Thanks for reading. If you want to ask questions to a medical student leave a Tweet, and it’ll be added to the Q & A archive — similar questions will be grouped together. Twitter: https://twitter.com/doctorORbust