Applying to Medical School: The Application: Work/Activities Section Tips

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There’s more ways to not get into medical than in, but if you approach it with a plan there’s a good shot!

Applying to medical school application is more than a set of forms, the AMCAS is an extensive process that may last anywhere from half to a full year (or years if you’re reapplying).  Ideally, you’ve taken the MCAT and have finished your medical school prerequisites prior to filling in the AMCAS, the entry of the primary application itself will probably be about 20 pages printed out (see the elements of the AMCAS below). And, being that it’s so lengthy it’s quite easy to poke holes into your own application by being inconsistent and redundant.

To remind you, here are the basic elements of the primary AMCAS application (medical school application link to AMCAS):

  • MCAT (Medical Colleges Admissions Test)
  • Undergraduate & Graduate Course Work (Data Entry)
  • Transcripts to Verify Coursework (send official transcripts to AMCAS)
  • Letters of Recommendation (LOR or LORs plural)
  • Personal Statement (PS, the best composition you’ve ever written)
  • Work/Activity Section (W/A)

The general mantra for the Work /Activity section is to verify you have the credentials to join the medical profession. 

This entry will focus on the Work /Activity section, and discuss how I completed my own section. In general, to holistically evaluate my application I divided my own AMCAS application into two categories :  objective scoring (MCAT/coursework and resultant GPAs’), and subjective testaments (PS, LORs’, W/A sections). When I was applying to medical school I had already graduated college and successfully taken the MCAT, so my objective scores were already written in stone. However, the rest of the application was mine to write, and my narrative to control. Don’t write off the 15 entries you’re given by the AMCAS  to enter your work / activities as a purely obligatory busy work. It’s another opportunity for you to show the admissions boards you’re capable of becoming a physician.

Wait, so what’s the Work / Activities section and why does it matter?

Let’s face it, even assuming you get the pro-typical “safe” GPA and MCAT, getting into medical school isn’t easy. In 2012 almost 45 K hopeful students applied for medical school, and only around 19 K successfully found a seat. But, at the same time from the school’s perspective, selecting from a pool of almost equally talented, intelligent, and driven premeds is also pretty tough. Having a strong work / activities section makes it easier for them to remember you. So, the AMCAS gives you 15 short  entries (700 characters) to denote your commitment and accomplishments in volunteering, conferences, work, clubs etc.  Furthermore, you have to select three events to be the most meaningful (an additional 1325 characters) — good luck with that. As a nontraditional premed, I had a really extensive work / activities history, this came up a lot during my interviews as a positive thing.

First, I took the elements of primary application and tried to quantify them in relative terms. In other words, I took the AMCAS primary list I presented to you above, that is : MCAT, GPA, LOR, and W/A, then tried to weigh my strengths and weaknesses for each category. I compared myself against typical applicants, the things I’d rather not come up while the medical school was reviewing application probably was my weaknesses. In contrast, parts of my application that I could happily presumably talk with my interviewer about were probably my stronger portions of my application.  This helped me decide how/what work and activities I should focus on. Then, I took my resume and curriculum vitae to tell a narrative that, while not negating my flaws, showed my growth whilst plugging holes in my AMCAS ship. It also helped me narrow down how I should allot my “top three” choices.

Okay, I wasn’t actually anal enough to graph attributes, but you get the idea.

Show and Tell with W/A : To be more helpful I used my actual AMCAS entries, with my university info and other identifiers removed, you can refer to them but copying them wouldn’t be smart for obvious reasons.

After I evaluated myself, I then chose how to best distribute my potential 15 entries. In the end I actually only used 13 entries, I believe you should go for your stronger entries as opposed to space fillers.  To show schools that I’m intellectually sound, besides my upward spiral in grades, I used my work /activity section to tell them “don’t worry about my old grades” with me becoming a science/biology college tutor:

  • Targeting my academic weakness with tutoring (normal activities entries will be 700 characters)
  • While at University of Frenchtoast (UF) I obtained recommendations from the biology and chemistry department to tutor at the UF Learning Resource Center. Helping others was doubly rewarding, I achieved satisfaction from helping fellow UF students, and reinforced my understanding of the subjects tutored: organic chemistry, general chemistry and biology, physiology, and introductory biochemistry. An effective tutor must be an effective listener, as even if the problem sounds similar, students have disparate reasons for not understanding. After graduation I was still retained as a tutoring advisor and upper level science tutor.
  • Targeting my academics with applied research, this was also one of my most meaningful entries, so I had more characters allowed (see below).
  • I started the project by performing a comprehensive literature review, and creating a muscle electrophysiology timeline in neonate and adult mice. This timeline was presented to the lead investigator, and used to justify our need for animal experimentation to the Animal Care and Use Committee. From this project I was selected as a Ronald E. McNair Research Scholar, helping to fund my study. I learned how to conduct electrophysiology experiments, seeing the effects of electrochemical diffusion at first hand, strengthening my understanding of physiology. After nearly two years of work, 20-30 hours a week, I was able to present the project at UC Berkeley in 2011.
  • The Most Meaningful Entry allows for 1325 characters.
  • I was invited to start in a new lab focusing on muscle electro-physiology, biology department with Dr. Awesome Voss. After several months of background training, I started bench research, trying to tease apart the mechanisms of chloride conductance across the excitable muscle membrane. The project centered on the concept that adenosine-5’-triphosphate (ATP) has been reported as being released from exercising muscle. Besides possibly nociception, it was a mystery to what the physiological benefit of active muscle releasing ATP. Our first observation was that ATP, even released distally to the neuromuscular junction, made whole muscle fibers excitable for an extended period. To understand the conductance properties better, my project was to measure this effect in enzymatically disassociated muscle fibers. Using microelectrodes, I impaled the muscle membrane of myofibers of mice, measuring current or voltage responses, with currents and changes in voltages corresponding to changes in conductance of charge carrying ions. Using neurotoxins to block other charge carrying ions (potassium and sodium) we discovered that chloride was the ion responsible for the observed hyper excitability. We speculated that aberrant chloride channel conduction may explain some of the symptoms of the disease myotonia.

In the end it’s important to remember that unlike the GPA and MCAT which are pretty much set in stone, the over parts of the application allows for admissions boards to view you more holistically. Therefore, your primary interest should be making a strong primary application, and simply following through with secondaries. Primary applications are analogous to the school viewing your profile, secondaries are like when they finally call/text you for the first time, and you’re interview in the first date. If your profile makes you look like an axe murdered then guess what, no dates. Make your primary application strong in all aspects, and use your W/A section to reinforce to admissions to why you’re a logical pick from the herd.

Feel free to message, chat, what-have-you on twitter

If you have oddles of time, you can read the 90 page manual for the AMCAS yourself =)


Applying to Medical School: How I Was Left With $3

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The real cost of applying is something to plan for when applying for medical school.

Two weeks ago I returned home from another round of interviews, in fact it was a multi-flight interview expedition starting from California to Boston, to Michigan and Chicago and back. I had an interview just about every other day for a week, so it allowed some time for me to both enjoy a post interview celebration beer and figure out how to get to my next destination. All and all, I’d say the interviews were moderately successful all of the programs were sending good vibes, though admittedly the Chicago interview was a little tough because I was surprised by the format — my interview was first thing in the morning, usually schools feed you and do some icebreakers before running you through the meat grinder. The cheapest way to travel to these three cities, and return home was to take seven flights in a week; I dare say I’m a airport screening professional now.

Again, you may be wondering why would anyone throw so many interviews together, well it’s pretty simple: pure finances. The process of playing to medical school is rather expensive, as applicants should pay for the MCAT prep materials (cost varies by person), MCAT test registration (hopefully only once), primary applications, secondary applications, flights, hotels/motels, rental cars, bus/taxi/train fare, food, missed time from work, it’s a large investment. An applicant can easily spend 2-7 K all depending on their individual situation. Of course there are those who pay significantly less: Fee Assistance Program receipts, and the brave souls who sign up for early decision may end up paying significantly less if all works out. But there are also those who pay significantly more: additional MCAT prep (~1-2K), MCAT tutors (40-100/Hr), admissions advisory companies (sky’s the limit) etc. My fees fell somewhere in the middle as I didn’t take a prep course, nor did I receive professional advising, but I did have to pay for the MCAT twice. I only took it once actually, but I didn’t consider that my legal name is actually misspelled on my license until it was too late to change the information without getting a refund — my fault, lesson learned.

It’s a good idea to purchase the MSAR

You can save money during the primary application by purchasing full access to the Medical School Admissions Registry (MSAR, it’s the best ~$25 you’ll ever spend). It has genuine data straight from the horses mouth, the schools themselves. By the MSAR when you’re planning your school selection list. You want to know what the lowest GPA and highest GPA Stanford accepted last year? Check the MSAR. Curious how many admitted students performed research? MSAR. The MSAR will also tell you things like the previous year’s: class size, interview/acceptance ratio, out-of-state vs in-state acceptance data, tuition, mission statement, links to housing and student clubs, it’s pretty useful to say the least when trying to find a program that fits you.

Be aware that some schools just automatically send you a secondary after your primary and haven’t actually checked or screened your application in any way.

You can also save a lot of money and anguish by seeing which school’s automatically send you a secondary and those who screen you first. I made sure to apply to some schools that didn’t screen (roll of the dice) and other schools who did screen me first (my canary in the cave). It worked out, I bought the MSAR after I paid for my primaries, so I used it to focus on what secondaries I should focus on when they started rolling in. I knew I made it past the initial score hurdles when I received secondaries from schools who screened first. I knew they already liked me by the time I was doing their secondaries, subsequently all three schools that I was accepted into right off the bat were schools that pre-screen their applicants primary to making you complete secondaries. It should be noted that I was also handed down a rejection by a pre-screening school. I was also invited for interviews to schools who didn’t pre-screen, but I’m actually waiting to hear back from several schools still. I believe focusing on schools that fit me, and schools that pre-screened saved me a lot of money.

Though, there is a benefit to not getting screened, you might land a good interview surprisingly. I won’t know my acceptance status of my top choice until January, but it was from a good program that didn’t screen; so rolling the dice is sometimes worth it.

If the school offers a hosting program sign up as soon as possible, it’s a pretty awesome experience and saves money. Notice I said “if”. 

I’m not sure how but I literally had the best hosts in the world. My host in Boston set up the logistics of my stay from afar, all while being consumed by doctor stuff on his clerkship. Our schedules didn’t work out, but our phone conversations and outlook on being a physician told me more about the program than any tour could do. My other hosts in Michigan were so welcoming, accommodating, and forthright honest that I really started to wonder how one is reasonably supposed to select a medical school — along the way you meet great people, and you just want to stay there. They may be your future classmates, so learn from them what the program is like, the pros and cons, what the school considers important etc. And of course not fronting for room and board is pretty great on your wallet. It’s also pretty great because they can take a lot stress off of you on interview day by telling you how to actually get to your interview. Be sure to buy them a beer if possible because they just saved your life.

If you’re sticking in state then a lot the room and board problems won’t exist. Interestingly, Californians are rather competitive candidates out of state, but not that competitive in-state. Usually, states are pretty generous to their own, so a lot of people choose to save money with travel and tuition fees by applying in state.

Planes Trains and Automobiles  

If you have to travel to other states like I did, then you’ll find websites that do rate comparisons to be pretty essential, personally I used Priceline for all of my flights, and I stuck with one carrier the whole time. I tried to buy multi-flight tickets, because it’s much cheaper than doing one trip at a time, for example my Boston-Michigan-Chicago trip, flying out of southern California, cost $805, compared to perhaps costing $400/500 each (early ticket prices). To save money I never checked bags (it costs about $25-$35 per bag, per flight), you can bring two carry-on’s: one must be stored in the bin above you, and one can fit under the seat in front of you. I found it was okay to fold my suit neatly as long as my hotel had an ironing board.  The window for cheap tickets for a single round trip flight seems to be about 6 weeks. Sometimes you’ll take a smaller plane with inadequate bin space, and you’ll have to do some ‘last second’ bag check, it’s free though somewhat of a hassle. I never checked my bags because I’d be pretty screwed if the lost my suit and dress shoes, so it was like a suitcase full of gold to me. You can also check into your flight online, and send your boarding passes to your phone, this saves you a lot of headache.

Upon landing at my destination I needed to already have a idea of if I wanted or even needed a rental car. Cars give you an ability to control your fate in an unknown environment, but it’s just another expense to tack onto your bill, so if you can get around with buses, trains and an occasional taxi then you probably should just go with that. But, you’ll have to plan ahead, if it’s a $70 dollar cab ride from the airport to your hotel then you probably should just opt for the car in my opinion because it might be as low as $25-45 a day to rent it if you shop around.

In general, you’ll save a lot of money if you plan ahead and cut costs where you can, but do remember if you go too cheap you’ll be in a foul mood and possibly late to things.

Did you get accepted? GREAT! Now pay a deposit. You need to drop a refundable deposit for most schools, it’ll range in costs from $100 to $500 (ouch).

So the good news of spending several hundred dollars more is admittedly better than not getting offered anything at all. The bad news is that you’re paying deposits, and if you’re paying them mid-interview season then you’re probably going to be hurting because most deposits are due two weeks are less after you receive an offer of admission. For very early applicants an acceptance will roll in at the earliest October 15th (perhaps earlier for those who applied for the early decision process), so you’ll need to plan for deposit money in case you receive an early interview plus good news. The deposit are purely symbolic because you’ll get all the money back on May 15th, it prevents applicants from hoarding acceptances, and thus frees up space for those on the waiting list.

In the end, despite my frugal spending, and planning I was left with $1 dollar in my checking and about $2 dollars in my savings account. They say medical school is an investment, they aren’t kidding.  But, at least my pre med days are over.

Update December 24th

So far I have received four US MD acceptances , and awaiting one more result in the beginning of January. So, now, with the power of foresight I’d say it was all worth it. Hang in there premeds.

Update April 16th

So, I was accepted into 5 schools (yay!), I was sent 8 interview invites, and declined 3 after the acceptances were rolling in and the money was rolling out. It seems that I am settled on Boston University School of Medicine. It was well worth the gamble!

Nothing risked, nothing gained.


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MCAT Advice

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MCAT Advice

It’s rumored that if your first time seeing a real MCAT test is on test day your face may melt.
#artist credit: Adrian Ghenie

Interview Day: How to Approach the Interview

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You got an interview, so what now?

This may be your first interview, or maybe one of several, either way this article should be useful for you. I scored a lot of interviews at the very beginning of the application season, and so far I’ve landed three acceptances early on in the US. The intention of this article is to give you an edge during interview day, to make you stand out, I’ll talk about lessons I’ve learned during the process.

Do your homework.

You’re about to invest almost a quarter of a million dollars after interest, it would really behoove you to know what you’re getting into. All accredited institutions will grant you that Medical Doctorate, but don’t think selecting a school is a minor undertaking. You must get into the mindset that you will be accepted into more than one program, this will allow for you to be more proactive about comparing and contrasting programs. Because, while yes you will get that MD either way, your home institution will probably have a large effect on your philosophy as a practicing physician.

Do extensive data mining, while thinking how would this program fit me.

And trust me, you want to be selecting them just as much as they’re selecting you. While you should do the ‘run-of-the-mill’ investigation: reviewing their website, and MSAR (Medical School Admissions Registry), be sure to go above and beyond. For example, go search the school on YouTube, chances are they have a few videos that hardly anyone ever watches (great for you to stand out!). Maybe there are twitter info sessions allowing applicants to speak directly with admissions. Schools do more than enough to try to give you information about why you should go there. Programs are typically pretty excited when they heard you actually were one of the 200 people who checked their web upload, there’s also high chance someone in admissions had something to do with the content. When doing your homework you want to figure out what types of extracurricular programs they offer, clubs, student run clinics, etc., anything you might be interested in. Jot down a few notable things that seem unique to that school: a prominent researcher, a vaccination program for the under-served community, elementary school mentor-ship programs etc. Personally, I think it’s best to pick activities that are congruent with your secondary application, to show that you’ve been carefully considering your fit into the program. A lot of background may be covered during interview day, try to get those questions answered during the Q&A session (if there is one). Save your hard or unanswered questions for the interviewers.

You should walk into the interview day with the correct mindset. 

The reason they invited you to interview day wasn’t to see if you have a chance of getting into medical school. Instead, the school likely believes you’ll do fine in a medical school, they actually just want to make sure you fit into their specific program. In fact, the school usually assumes if you’re interviewing there you might be interviewing at other places. Therefore, they usually have three goals on interview day: verify you were who they thought you were from secondaries, ascertain you fit into their program’s philosophy, and lastly give you the tools to determine if that place is the right school for you. With that said, this may seem even counter-intuitive, walk into the interview with the mindset of you trying to figure out if it’s the right place for you. Do be humble, but remember the school is looking for a future colleague, not a subservient serf. Focus on projecting to the future, and have fun.

Interview day starts as soon as you arrive to the campus. 

It should be noted I forgot to shave at a few interviews =)
It should be noted I forgot to shave at a few interviews =)

Medicine isn’t a TV drama, physicians aren’t demi-gods solving problems by themselves in a hour block. To deliver effective health outcomes requires a team. If the sanitation department doesn’t do their job then the number of hospital infections would climb precipitously, if nurses weren’t there than many patients would fall to the way-side, everyone is necessary for the healthcare juggernaut to work. When you walk onto the campus you’re demonstrating how you’ll function around others. First impressions go a long way, with that being said be sure to be nice to everyone. For example, I recall at one interview the assistant dean of admissions would go around introducing herself without her badge on to gauge our reactions prior to formally introducing herself. Instead of playing the guessing game, just be respectful and courteous to all the staff and your fellow interviewees. Interview day isn’t time for you to sabotage your cohort, if you send good vibes then you’ll likely receive them. I always try to loosen up the room when the staff is gone, I always feel if everyone else isn’t stressing out I’ll stress out less.

Always have questions ready for your interviewer, it’s perfectly okay to stump your interviewer. 

Remember all that homework I talked about, well that’s where you form you questions from. If you applying this year, you’re lucky if you’re politically savvy because there’s a lot of pertinent issues that have a large effect on the medical profession. This is where a lot of premeds fumble, they’re so typically so inundated with the steps just to get into medical school: prerequisites, the MCAT, and AMCAS, that they tend to willfully bury their hand in the sand when it comes to tangible issues. I’ll demonstrate a few examples, I’ll also include the context:

1. How would this school make me competitive during the residency application periods?

Context: because of several government cuts combined with increases in medical school applications there’s a severe strain on residency programs. This translated to about 500 MDs not finding a residency program after the first round of matching. This is obviously no bueno. Now, this was only about 6% of all MDs that experienced this problem, never the less you want to be sure you’re competitive. If you want to find out more follow the hashtag #saveGME, and follow the American Medical Association (AMA) on twitter

2. How will your program prepare us, as future doctors, for the coming healthcare reform?

Context: if you didn’t know there’s healthcare reform rolling out, and if you don’t know the Affordable Health Care Act is also dubbed Obamacare then shame on you. While it’s pretty universally agreed upon that more people having healthcare is good its still up in the air about how this will effect doctors. Your interview is a good time to ask a real doctor who’s likely very active in issues. Ideally, you should also form you own opinion about this prior to the interview, because healthcare reform did show up in one of my interviews anyways.

3. Are there programs such as ___ (something you’d like to see), and if not is it possible for students to lobby for it’s creation.

Context: you want to show that you’re already planning on setting up your office at the school, it shows you really want to go there. Also, projecting towards the future while linking your secondary application interests would be a great way to unify your application, i.e. help them verify you are who they thought you were.

See the pattern? Find something you’re interested in, find a reason why it matters, than ask about it. That’s how you ask non softball questions. You interviewer will ask you hard questions, its indicative of how well they prepared for you, well it’s time for you to return the favor. By asking hard hitting questions it shows you’re really trying to evaluate if you fit there.

Take note of the pros and cons during the information session or tour.

Try to think of the information session as the schools attempt to get you to date them. maybe there are some things that bother you (tuition, mandatory class sessions, etc.). This list will be very important to you if you’re one who receives multiple acceptances. During the interview day, your list will help guide your when it comes time to answer the infamous “so, why do you want to come HERE?” question.

Tackling the why do you want to come here question.

There’s two don’ts:

  1. Don’t say because I like the location.
  2. Don’t say I’m not sure.

While it’s okay to have location be one of your priorities in school selection it shouldn’t be your primary interest. For example, the interviewer could follow up with a grizzly follow up question such as “so, if we were at another state would you not of applied?”, awkward. For obvious reasons, you probably don’t want to say “dunno, medical school is medical school” either. For a list of three strong reasons, don’t make a laundry list, make a strong list validate your reasoning with examples. For example, maybe you like their outreach program in the city of Mayberry, or you like Dr. Ostrich’s ongoing missionary work with Herpes in Scandinavia, perhaps you know that the school is famous for cardiology and that’s your niche.

After the interview do I write thank you cards and letters of intent.

I’d say yes to the thank you cards, send them out as soon as possible. But, if you write a letter of intent, I’d hold out a little bit so you can compose a custom and well written letter explaining exactly why you go there. You copy and pasting several letters of intents, and sending it an hour after your interview probably isn’t fooling anyone. It’s much better to write an honest letter of intent, than to right one out of obligation. For the record, I only sent thank you cards to one school, and no letters of intent so far because it’s quite early in the game and I was sent three acceptances. Now, if you’ve interviewed and haven’t heard anything for several months, or they have a late matriculation announcements then by all means write a letter of intent, just make sure you’re not b’sing them because they’re pretty capable of smelling it.

I hope these tips helped you, I wrote this article in between other articles I’m working on because I had a specific request about strategies for interview day. You can always ask for more topics, or advice here, or by contacting me at twitter at

Applying to Medical School: The Process

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TODAY'S GOAL: Get into medical school.
TODAY’S GOAL: Get into medical school.

SO, what is the admissions process?

You’ve probably scoured the internet trying to find the answer to just this question.  The good news is that there are not many steps, the bad news is that each step is challenge in itself.  In a nutshell all you need to do is take the premed prerequisites of the programs you want to enter, take the medical school admissions test ( referred to as the MCAT), and turn in a primary application through a system called the AMCAS and turn in secondary applications to individual schools.  And if all goes well you interview, and well get in.  Biggest advice I can give is get that application in early, that is the first week or two when the application window opens.  If you want a concrete and concise road map for applying to medical school I’d highly suggest picking up a book off of Amazon called The Medical School Admissions Guide by Suzanne M. Miller, MD, you can follow her on twitter @MDadmit.

Step 1: Finish or finish off most of the prerequisites for medical school.

This can be trickier than it may appear, because there is some variation in what each medical school you apply to requires as prerequisites.  Ideally, you want to apply broadly, so don’t get lulled into the trap of taking a narrow set of prerequisites just to fit your dream program.  Admittedly, no matter your stats applying to medical school is somewhat of a numbers game, so it’s important to apply broadly.  Moreover, the prerequisites aren’t simply hurdles meant to weed people out, instead they are meant to prepare you for the rigors of medical school; and ultimately these courses will serve as your science foundation as a physician later.  Interestingly, when medicine schools first hit the US the most important prerequisite was anatomy.  At some point they realized that memorizing gross anatomy didn’t necessarily have a positive correlation with training good physicians. So, over time the current stereotypical required course lists evolved into what we see now:

  • a year of General Chemistry (lab + lecture)
  • a year Organic Chemistry (lab+lecture)
  • a year of Physics (lab + lecture)
  • a year of Freshman English (this should include a critical thinking course)
  • a few upper level math courses (Calculus and/or Statistics)

However, as science and our understanding of what it takes to make a good physician evolves so does the need to add more courses to your breadth.  Don’t shy away from the “recommended” courses as they’ll give you a leg up during the admissions process (well, if you do well on them) and on the MCAT:

  • Biochemistry
  • Psychology
  • Genetics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Microbiology

Step 2: Take MCAT — hopefully only once.

The MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) is often billed as the hardest entrance exam in the US.  As the MCAT itself also evolves its important to go straight to the source:  The MCAT has three sections, Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences, each section is scaled so that each section has a value of 15.  The maximum score is 45 (3 sections, 15 points each), but typically the highest score achieved each year hovers around 42 — not a score to laugh at.  The average score among all test takers ends up being about 24 with a standard deviation of about 3 points, scoring at or over two standard deviations means you had a pretty good score i.e. the magic 30 or higher score we all lust over.  So, your goal is to get your 30 or higher on the real test, and to never take the test again unless you believe you can do significantly better than the first time (within a standard deviation or two).  After you take the real MCAT, it’ll take about a month to receive your score, so you must include this month in your time table of medical applications.  It may comfort you to know that the MCAT wasn’t designed to keep people out of medical school, it was implemented because the drop out rate in medical school was atrocious, so they’ve done more to mentally prepare people before taking the medical school plunge. Ideally, you should finished your prerequisites prior to taking the MCAT, though merely anecdotal I have known one person that did just fine on the exam without finishing all of the Organic Chemistry sequence — but, that person was an exception to the rule and Organic Chemistry is only glossed over on the MCAT compared to the rigorous year sequence.   Though, if you got destroyed in Organic Chemistry lectures you may differ in my opinion of how lightly Organic Chemistry is covered on the exam. To prepare for the MCAT you have several avenues:

  • take a preparation course
  • self study
  • take a preparation course then self study to fix you weak points

There are pros and cons to all of the options above.  The pro of taking a prep course is that you’ll have a guided and structured method to prepare for the MCAT.  Some prep programs also have the benefit of teaching test taking strategies, though it’d take a lot of practice to actually be able to depend on them come test day.  The con is the cost, and perhaps lack of flexibility to deviate from the schedule.  If you can afford to take a prep course I would suggest you do.  I self studied, so I can’t make any specific suggestions about which prep program is the best.  Typically people end up taking Kaplan, but this is probably because it’s a lot easier to stumble upon a Kaplan prep center than any other prep course in my opinion.  What ever you pick be ready to shell out several hundred to a few thousand dollars. Again,  having self studied for the MCAT and I did just fine, so it’s by no means impossible to pull it off by yourself.  The largest pro to self studying is costs (if you’re internet savvy you may find quite a bit for free).  Another pro is that, you get to learn at your own pace, but that could also be a double edged sword.  The cons are blatant, you’re on your own when it comes to everything from understanding to scheduling.  Be honest with yourself, if self discipline isn’t your thing then a prep course may be the way to go.   If you decide to self study, then you’ll have to find a self study prep package that works for you.  I used ExamKrackers study package plus their Audio Osmosis.  Later, after to get more exposure to material I added in a Princeton Review science workbook.  If you have the time and the money, I think the best route would be to take a prep course then take several months to self study, this worked exceptionally well for a friend. [I may add an additional entry on the MCAT should it come up]

The most important part of prepping for the MCAT is taking practice the official AAMC practice tests.  Until you have a few of those under your belt don’t even consider taking the real test, because nothing in your prep material is going to be as close to the MCAT as the MCAT.  Just go to the official AAMC they’ll have plenty of information about how to purchase access to legit MCAT tests, a little birdie told me that some of the old versions can also be found on bittorent.

Step 3: Fill out an AMCAS primary application and all it entails.

Ready for more acronyms?  Well, after you finish your MCAT you’ll likely become very ‘intimate’ with the AMCAS (American Medical College Admissions  System), affectionately uttered as one word by all those who toil under its rule.  The AMCAS is a general application that you feel out, called the primary application. And at the end your click some buttons to select schools and drop loads of cash (unless you qualify for Financial Assistance Program, I didn’t fyi).  The primary application will consist of:

  • the BEST Personal Statement (PS) you’ve ever written
  • course work plus grades (all college level work regardless of institution)
  • MCAT score
  • Letters of Recommendations (LORs)
  • Resume / Curriculum Vitae
  • Submitted Transcripts to verify your entries

It goes without saying that your PS and resume sections should be well written and concise.  Don’t feel pressured to push the character limit, don’t fall into the college trap of feeling compelled to reach a good ‘number’.  Instead, focus on being succinct, what can be said in ten words is always better than blathering about it for 100.  Also remember like most things: quality trumps quantity.  So, for your LORs it’s better to have 5 stellar LORs than 10 generics.  With that line of thought, don’t feel compelled to jam space filling entries into the resume section.  I will tell you that I went well under the character limit for the PS and didn’t use all of my resume entries because I didn’t feel it was necessary. Though, in the  end the primary application is mainly a test of how good you are at data entry.  It may take up to 6 weeks for the AMCAS to verify your course / grade entries you self entered.  Each time you enter a course you must also classify it, this is usually the trickiest part.  Though, I’ll save you the stress and tell you that you can easily find most of proper classifications if you follow the link and DL the pdf here. If you did everything write, and everything is received, AMCAS will ‘verify’ your application, as well as give you a two new GPAs one for the sciences / biology and another for everything else.  If you AMCAS finds issues with a lot of your entries they may return it to you for corrections.  After verification you’re ready for the next phase of applications, choosing schools to apply to.  If after verification you find issue with AMCAS evaluation of your transcripts and GPAs you have about 10 days to petition.  I petitioned successfully, this helped me raise my science GPA up, so it’s worth the effort if you think you have a case.

Step 4: Choose schools after being verified. *Though you should already know which schools you intend to apply to.

Getting verified is quite a relief, you earned a beer if you got this far.  After AMCAS recalculates your GPA don’t be surprised if it drops (though typically it’ll be nearly the same).  Now its time to pick schools, this can be hard to figure out.  In general I suggest purchasing the Medical School Admissions Registry (MSAR), look at each school, and make your own ranking depending on what’s important to you.  US News rankings are useless in my opinion, find a program that fits you as far as mission statement, stats, costs, location etc.  Also, the first school you apply to will cost about ~250 (I forget the exact amount) and each additionally school after that will cost about 35 dollars.  Make this cycle your last cycle and try to apply to as many schools as you can both afford and finish secondary applications to.  For most people 15 schools is a good number, 20 if you are nervous.  Anything after 20 is a waste of time because you probably can’t complete more than 20 secondaries without them starting to drop in quality.

Step 5: Fill Out Secondaries as they arrive.

Pretty much enough said.  Some schools will automatically generate a secondary for all applicants with a verified primary application, while others may screen applicants prior to asking them to fill out a secondary.  Sadly, a few schools even ask for you to pay for them to screen you application in the first place.  Secondaries range from school to school, so you will no longer be doing a general application, instead you’ll be inundated with various log-ins and passwords to use to enter your entries per school.  The content of the secondary varies greatly from writing many small entries, to writing very lengthy essays, all the way to just slipping a check in the mail.  Each secondary will run from 75 to 150 dollars — make sure to save that tooth fairy money.

Step 6: The waiting game: Interview Invites & Rejections

Schools will call or email you to invite you to interviews, or the worst case scenario to email you to let you know they are not interested in you.  If you did things right you’ll have a few interviews lined up, and you’re ready to think about “interview day”.  If you receive nothing, you probably already have a good idea of what may be the problem i.e. grades, MCAT, PS quality, experiences, so do what you need to do to address your shortcomings. After your interview there are three fates: accepted, wait list, and rejected.  The best news would be an acceptance, after a school makes an offer you pay a deposit to hold your seat.  You can accept as many offers as you’d like to, but you can only have on offer after May 15.  If you get wait listed, there may or may not be a priority wait list, also schools may or may not rank you by number.  If/when the matriculate dust settles they offer spots to fill up the remaining seats prior to school starting.  Being on the wait list is probably stressful, I was fortunate enough to not be left in limbo, and was accepted straight out to the program I wanted into.  I’ve heard of people being wait listed all the way until the day before the school year starts, so there’s hope for those who wait list even to the last second.  Now, you could also be rejected (received two myself), you’ll have to learn how to get over it, and move on.  Just remember all you need is one acceptance, and a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not fit to be a doctor instead they may just feel you don’t fit their program. Best of luck, for more info drop a comment or message me on twitter

Medical School Interviews MMI

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What weight does getting an interview have?

Gaining a coveted invite to a medical school interview is nothing to scuff at, at least that’s what they’ll drill into you when you arrive at the school on interview day.  Overall, under 10% of those who apply (this will be a better ratio if you’re in-state, with a few exceptions) land interviews according to the MSAR (Medical School Admissions Requirements).  For example in 2012 Boston University received around 10,900 applications (840~ in-state and just over 10,000 from out-of-state), around 20% of those from in-state landed an interview while only 8.6% of out-of-state — ouch.  Now, here’s the good news, about 1 out of 5 students who interviewed there ended up matriculating.  I know what you’re thinking, that’s still pretty daunting.  However, keep in mind that schools send out more offers for admissions than the seats they have to give away, this should be kind of obvious if you consider that many people will get multiple acceptances.  So, a school might send out no more than double the offers than the seats offered, but when the dust settles the numbers of those who matriculate to those who are offered spots is different, so don’t let the numbers frighten you.   So if we assume that information we can extrapolate that if you interview your changes of getting in are actually about 1 out of 3, and that’s not half bad — especially if you have multiple interviews.

So, if you have an interview celebrate, you passed the weeding out phase of the application process.  If you are invited it’s because they already believe you can make it into medical school, and perhaps will even be a stellar medical scholar.  Here’s an analogy (stolen from a dean of admissions): if your AMCAS was your online dating profile, the interview is the first date.  During this first date, they are not just evaluating you but you should be also evaluating them, after all you’re in for a long committed relationship (and a likely a quarter million in debt).  Remember, they already liked you, that’s why you ended up their on interview day.  You just need to prove you’re the person they’ve been imagining or perhaps they’re ready to take you in but need to find out just a little more.

What are the formats of the interviews?

In general, there are four types of interviews you’ll encounter on the interview trail:

  1. Single interviewer (traditional)
  2. Panel interview (traditional)
  3. Multiple Mini Interview (MMI)
  4. Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE, a medically oriented MMI)

Single and Panel interviews

The single and panel interview format will vary by program.  Some interviewers will have access to your entire AMCAS application, on the other extreme interviewers may only be allowed to see see your AMCAS essays and class listings without grades and MCAT scores or even letters of recommendation.  Whether it’s a single or panel interview it’s important that you pay attention to what information your interviewers are privy to, don’t just assume they believe you’re the golden child as they may know very little about your file by design.  Your interviewers may be PhD holding staff at the medical school, physicians, or even medical students.  In either event, it’s okay to be cordial and even funny, but keep in mind that it is a professional meeting so leave the self depreciating and late night comic club humor at home.  The interviews will typically last about 45 minutes, they may go longer if you and the interviewers hit it off (one of mine went over an hour, we didn’t notice the time).  Be ready to discuss just about everything from your childhood to your current family life (if you have started one, note that your parents aren’t your family, you are in THEIR family), to problems in school, to ethical questions and questions border-lining on politics.  One of the hardest questions I was asked was “How would you improve the healthcare system?”

I’m not going to write a treatise of all the questions, you’d need a book for that,  but in general they’re trying to figure out what exactly makes you tick, why they should take you not only as a student, but also as a colleague.  Here’s a plug for a good book that covers the questions you’ll typically hear in one form or another: Why Medicine?: And 500 Other Questions for the Medical School and Residency Interviews, by  Sujay Kansagra MD.

The biggest advice I can offer is read up on the school you’re interviewing, know about their philosophy and find 3-5 things you really like that’s unique to their program.  And be sure to practice your ‘elevator speech’, know what you wrote on your application to them, and stick to that.

What is MMI and OSCE MMI?

In an effort to screen out the robots applying to medical school many schools have adopted non traditional methods to evaluate you.  Both MMI and OSCE MMI toss you into a room with an actor for 5 to 10 minutes after you’ve read about 2 minutes to read a brief prompt prepping you for the situation you’re about to encounter.   Your interaction with the actor will be videotaped (very Big Brother like) and your tape will be used to evaluate you as an applicant.  The idea here is that it tests your real reactions to situations, as opposed to you running through the laundry list of answers you’ve prefabricated prior to the interview day.  Supposedly, this will measure your inter-personal skills and professionalism (as they’re is usually some type of ethical twist involved).

MMI and OSCE MMI differ in the scenarios you’ll encounter.  MMI is truly random, it might be a situation where a friend admits to cheating on the exam, or you ‘hit someone’s car’ resulting in the person going off on you.  I think schools that practice MMI pride themselves in how differently their MMI is, so with that in mind be ready for anything.  I didn’t interview at any schools that had pure random MMI, so my only advice is to pick the moral high road while acknowledging both sides of the argument.  On the other hand OSCE MMI, as you might of imagined, will always have a medical context behind it.  For example, you’ll pretend to be a doctor and they might give you a small paragraph about the mock patients chief complaint, and you merely need to go in and get a history on them.  But don’t be lulled into thinking that’s the end of the story, as there’s usually some type of ethical twist.  For example, during your examination on a patient who’s complaining about ankle pain you might surmise that actually they’re a possible drug addict looking for a fix.  At that point, it’s up to you to figure out how to take the ethical high road without being a robot — by the way, it’s probably never good to say “Sure, how much do you need?” in this scenario.   Just use common sense, don’t worry you don’t need to be a physician or even have much experience in the hospital to handle these, just treat it like it’s the real deal.

In a nutshell…

Interviews aren’t meant to break you, they are there to make you.  Always remember it’s a two way street, you’re both evaluating each other.  Make sure it’s the program for you, make sure it ‘fits’ you.  Do your homework on the school, their new programs, new research, philosophy etc.  Ask yourself, would I be happy there?  Bring questions to your interviewers, real questions no brown nosing.  For example, you want to know if they allow students extra time to prep for boards, what makes their clerkship better than others, or how will they make you a competitive when you’re applying for residency.  In otherwords, you need to stop trying to get in, believe you got in, and try to project to the future a medical professional.  Must of all, have fun.