The Art of Obtaining a Stellar Letter of Recommendation

Letters of recommendations are a key component of any health professional application process. In order to enter college, graduate school, professional school or obtain employment, someone else’s words can be required to help you reach your intended goals.

Sometimes, this can seem unfair. How can a professor or previous employer really know who you are and display that on paper? Is he even a good writer? Does she even remember me? These are common thoughts that run through the average applicants mind.

The letter of recommendation is a part of the health professional school application process that is not entirely within your control. As such, it is a source of significant anxiety among students. Your admission to your desired program will be based, at least in part, on the words of others.

This article attempts to quell your fears and arm you with tactics on approaching that unsuspecting potential letter of recommendation writer!

Of those who write letters of recommendation on your behalf, often the most important is your premedical or pre-health advisor. Even at large universities, this responsibility usually falls on a single person. You should get to know this person fairly well, and more importantly, you should allow this person to get to know you. Everyone applying to medical, dental, veterinary or other health professional school should have a formal meeting with their college pre-health advisor at least once, but the best motivated students will meet with them on several occasions.

You should treat each meeting with your pre-health advisor as a mini-interview for health professional school—they are forming an opinion of you at each meeting. You do not want to make a bad impression, but you also must make them aware of your intentions. Go over your statistics and your extracurricular activities with this advisor. Oftentimes, they will have a list of former pre-health students (now health professional students) who share your qualifications. They can then show you what schools they successfully entered and give you a rough idea on your chances of successful professional school admissions.

In most cases, it is appropriate to meet your pre-health advisor once during freshman year or soon after you have decided to apply to health professional school. After the first meeting, you should see them at least twice per school year. These “meetings” do not necessarily need to be during formal meetings at all—you may just stop over and say hello at pre-health functions or social gatherings. You want to make your face familiar, but not give yourself a chance to commit a faux pas.

While your pre-health advisor can be an excellent source of information, you should have most of the information you want them to know about you already in hand at your first formal meeting. This time should be an information sharing experience. You share the things you have accomplished and are planning to do and then ask them what they would recommend to improve your preparation for medical school. Incidentally, it is best to frame your questions as “What can I do to prepare for health professional school?” even if you really mean “What do I need to do to get into health professional school?”

For schools that use a pre-health committee, when you apply to a health professional school, your application will include a packet of information from the committee that is constructed in large part, by your pre-health advisor. By the time that this document is prepared, you should have developed a reasonable, professional relationship with your advisor. You should have accomplished all of the tasks that were laid out for you in previous meetings. The words of your pre-health committee are weighted fairly heavily in the selection process, at least for medical school.

It is important to note that many but not all universities offer a premedical or pre-health committee. Sometimes, you will be collecting letters of recommendation independently. It depends on your undergraduate institution.

In addition to the letter from your pre-health advisor, letters of recommendation from faculty and other professionals are very important. In most cases, you will only be able to include three letters of recommendation, but you should ask for a letter from anyone that you feel is appropriate.

The problem is, who do you know who to ask? The ideal person to ask is a faculty member who is respected at your university or in his field. This person should be able to write good and specific things about you, about your character, and about your potential. It makes little sense to ask your general chemistry professor if you were in a freshman class of 400. What can that person possibly say about you? Now if you performed research with that professor, then by all means, ask for a letter.

In fact, the best rule of thumb is to ask people that can reasonably say good things about you. As you plan your college experience, you should pursue interests that will allow you to develop close working relationships with faculty members. Small group lectures, special seminars, laboratory work, organizations outside of class frequented by faculty, brown bags, and journal clubs…all of these venues should put you in a good position to interact personally with a few faculty members

Your volunteer sites are also fertile ground for letters of recommendation. The person that writes your letter does not need to sign as “professor” or “Ph.D.” Other professionals can be excellent resources—especially if you were highly visible, active and your time was well spent.  If their job title is regional director of the Red Cross, director of a free dental clinic in inner city Detroit, or lead veterinarian at a major zoo, these letters will carry weight with admissions committees.

How do you avoid common pitfalls when asking for letters of reference?  Here are some do’s and don’ts:

  • DO NOT be afraid to ask. For some reason, students are often afraid to ask for a letter of reference. You don’t want to be pushy, but you should show authority in your voice – don’t be timid when asking. Writing these letters should be fairly easy for these faculty members. Faculty members know it is part of their job and should treat it as such. When you do ask, you must state “Hi, Dr. ABC, are you willing to write a STRONG letter of recommendation for me? The keyword here is “strong”. Of course, a professor can agree to write a letter for you but it may be very weak and actually hurt your chances of professional school admissions. So, remember to use that key phrase “strong letter of recommendation”.
  • DO ask for letters early, DO NOT wait until your application is due. Make sure that the person you ask has a fresh idea of you in mind. When you are finishing a research fellowship, ask for a letter within a few weeks after it is complete. If you are ending a volunteer experience at the end of a semester, ask for a letter before finals week. Follow up with the professor or professional you asked if you don’t receive anything two to three weeks prior to the deadline to submit recommendations.
  • DO NOT become a stalker. Do not send multiple emails, leave messages or notes on their desk if your letter of recommendation was not yet submitted. I know this is tempting because I myself almost fell into the type A tendency trap. But hold back! Send one email and maybe follow it up with a phone call at least three to four weeks prior to the deadline. If you do not hear anything, assume they are not writing a letter for you. Instead, make sure to ask for recommendations from more than three letter writers because if one faculty member flakes out, you still have a fall-back plan and are not short of recommendations. This can become a student’s application nightmare since everything HAS to be complete in order for professional schools to even take a look at you and your credentials.
  • DO ask for letters when the writer knows you best – right after you have finished working with them.  Sure, the letter may not be specifically for the program you are applying to and dated two years in advance but here is the thing: the work of writing a letter only has to be done once. The mentor will have a much easier time writing a letter at this point than two years down the road when you are a distant memory. Faculty save these letters in case the student comes back for another one.Do you think you are imposing on a faculty member by asking for two letters? Think again. The second one only takes a change of date and a few words here and there to make it specific to medical, dental, pharmacy, or other health professional school. Trying to remember a particular student from two years ago is the hard task!Asking early also helps you in case you change courses in life. Many dentists did not decide to go to dental school during freshman year of college. In fact, many successful medical school students entered after a post-baccalaureate program. If you ask for letters immediately after a program, and then you need to go back years later to ask for a new one, it is less awkward for both you and the writer.
  • DO ask for a letter from the “boss.” You will not likely work directly with the highest ranking member of an organization, but that is the best author of the letter. Much more likely, you will work with a graduate student, staff member, technician, assistant, etc. Many students would feel more comfortable asking the person who knows them best. This is a mistake. The “boss” will ask the assistant for information about your performance in order to write the letter.
  • DO provide the writer with information about you. People are busy. Make the process as easy as possible for the writer. Give them ample information about you like a resume, a transcript (if it is good), and other background info. Give them a copy of your personal statement so they have an understanding about your intention to enter the health professional field. But DO NOT give them a novel—make it easy to scan and pull out salient parts. A cover letter may be useful. Remind them how they know you and what interactions you had with them and when. You cannot write the letter of recommendation for yourself, but you can provide all of the information that is needed to write the letter.
  • DO ask for sealed envelopes. Part of the trouble with letters of recommendation is that you never know what goes in them. As long as you ask people that think highly of you and know your work, you will be fine. Faculty are not about to slam their students to outside observers.Be prepared for an honest assessment, though. If you are worried that you might not get a good letter, perhaps you should trust that feeling and ask someone else. It is unrealistic to expect that someone that you do not get along with will write a glowing letter on your behalf.

The following are brief examples of poor vs. stellar letters of recommendation:

Poor Letter of Recommendation 

Jared Smith is a very diligent student who will make a great pharmacist. He studies well and is involved with the track team. I recommend him for pharmacy school because he knows how to be a good student. 

I was Jared’s freshman chemistry professor and he always sat in the front row. He was very attentive and taking notes well. He performed well on my exams— achieving a B+ on the first general chemistry exam and an A on my final exam. I would want him to be my pharmacist in the future…… 

This is considered a poor letter because it is obviously a professor who does not know Jared as an individual. He only knows Jared in the classroom.

Stellar Letter of Recommendation 

Anna Kline is a delight to have in my class. I have taught her organic chemistry, molecular cell biology and served as her mentor with various biology research projects involving the human immunodeficiency virus since her freshman year at State University. We have co-authored papers jointly and she is a very diligent premedical student who puts her all into her work. She spent her weekends working in the lab, devising techniques and developing ideas that I, myself, never thought possible. I see Anna as being an individual at the forefront of medicine, never backing down when challenges arise. 

Anna also volunteers at the local free clinic. She frequently tells me and the other lab staff about her various touching patient stories. For instance, a man presented with trouble breathing, chest pain and sweating and Anna tells the story of entering the scene calmly, giving this man aspirin and seeking the help of those around her. Anna is intelligent but is also very humanistic. I highly recommend her for admission into medical school. She will become the ideal physician who takes care of people just like she takes care of her family members……

This is a strong letter because this professor knows Anna inside and outside the classroom. He knows of her specific characteristics and can describe them concretely.

In summary, here are the things you will need to obtain a stellar letter of recommendation:

1) Confidence: Don’t be afraid to ask!

2) Information about yourself: Resume, Curriculum Vitae, and ideally your Personal Statement

3) Logistics: Self-addressed stamped envelopes.

4) A good attitude and a smile!

Dr. Lisabetta Divita is a physician, medical writer/editor and premedical student mentor.

Dual Degree Medical Programs

Interest in dual degrees among U.S. medical students has increased considerably during the last decade. Students can now supplement their medical education by pursuing graduate or professional degrees in nearly any discipline, including public health, bioethics, business administration, law, the humanities, and the basic sciences. Pre-medical students should be aware of the different educational opportunities available, as interest in a particular program may influence the medical schools to which they apply and require additional standardized testing, application essays, and recommendation letters.

Obtaining a second degree requires a substantial investment of time, money, or both, but can be incredibly rewarding and provide the training and credentials leading to a specialized role within medicine as a physician-scientist, physician-executive, or global health leader, in addition to many other possibilities.

In this article, I will first discuss several of the most popular dual-degree programs. Following this overview, I will address some of the critical questions students should consider before applying for or beginning a dual degree program.

MD/PhD: The physician-scientist

MD/PhD programs are among the oldest and most well established of the dual degree programs. The vast majority of medical schools offer an MD/PhD of some variety. The purpose of MD/PhD is to provide training in both clinical medicine and the basic sciences, creating physician-scientists who spend the majority of their time conducting research as faculty members at academic medical centers or research institutions.

MD/PhD students typically spend between six and eight years completing their education, which is followed by standard residency training. Most programs provide full tuition and a stipend of approximately $25,000/year, making positions highly desirable and very competitive.

Students typically apply for admission to both the MD and PhD programs simultaneously, which entails additional essays, interviews, and recommendation letters. However, many programs allow currently enrolled medical students to apply for entry into their school’s MD/PhD program if additional funding is available. Though competitive applicants must have excellent MCAT scores and GPAs, quality and quantity of research experience is critically important for admission to any program. Although many programs only require students to take the MCAT, some also require the GRE, so prospective students should research admission requirements of all schools they may apply to well in advance.

Most students spend the first two years as medical students taking the standard pre-clinical courses. When their MD-only classmates enter the wards and begin clinical training, MD/PhD students break away and enter the laboratory, where will they will spend the next two to four years conducting research and eventually write and defend a PhD thesis. After completion of the thesis, students return to the hospital where they will finish their medical education by completing their clinical clerkships and electives.

MD/MPH: The global physician

The MD/MPH is probably the most popular of the combined degree programs. The MPH coursework provides focused training in epidemiology, biostatistics, community health, and health policy, which prepares graduates to approach healthcare from the population level. The MD/MPH is particularly useful for students interested in preventative health, global health, or healthcare policy.

Most MD/MPH programs take five years to complete, but some programs allow students to take all of the required coursework for both degrees within four years. While some of the more prestigious MPH programs have generous scholarship opportunities, most students should anticipate an equivalent of five years tuition to complete both degrees, even if pursuing a four year program. For most programs, students can apply during the first, second, or third year of medical school, but those pursuing four-year programs typically must apply at the beginning of medical school. The MCAT is often accepted in place of the GRE.

MD/MBA: The physician-executive

The number of MD-MBA programs has grown exponentially during the previous two decades, from five in 1993 to more than 50 today. With the enormous focus on healthcare reform and the business of healthcare, demand for physicians with focused training in healthcare management and business administration will likely continue to increase.

MD/MBA programs are usually five years in length. Students typically apply for admission to business school during the first or second year of medical school, though students can often apply to both concurrently. The GMAT is generally required for admission to the business school, though this may change in the near future as some business schools have recently starting accepting the GRE in place of the GMAT. The structures of MD/MBA programs are variable, but in most programs students devote the majority of the first through third years to medical school, the fourth year to business school, and the fifth year completing requirements from both schools.

Graduates of MD/MBA programs can find careers in hospital administration, academic medicine, healthcare consulting, entrepreneurship, industry (pharmaceuticals, biotech, medical devices), managing private practices, or leading healthcare organizations.

MD/JD: The physician-attorney

There are many MD/JD programs throughout the country, most of which require seven years to complete. However, few students tend to participate in these, largely because of the time required to complete both degrees and the enormous cost of attendance. Students typically apply to both the medical and law schools concurrently, requiring the applicant to have taken the MCAT and LSAT.

In general, admitted students devote the first two years to medical school, years three through five to law school, and the final two years to completing their clinical training. Graduates of MD/JD programs can be found on the faculty of law and medical schools, as leaders of various medical and legal organizations, as medical malpractice attorneys, and in general medical practice.

Questions to Consider

1. Is a second degree necessary for my career goals?

Before beginning a second degree, you need to seriously consider and determine what you really want to do. Many premedical and medical students have a tendency to get blinded by ambition and the endless pursuit of prestige, seeking additional degrees simply to have “more letters after my name.” This is foolish and self-defeating. Spending additional years and thousands of dollars pursuing a degree that you will not use will not impress anybody and/or help you begin your career, particularly if you do not want to work in a capacity related to your additional degree.

On the other hand, if you know that you want to work, for example, in global health policy, then an MPH may be almost essential. Do a quick search of job openings at the CDC in global health or health policy – most require an MPH or years of equivalent experience for an application to even be considered. In this situation, the time and expense of obtaining the additional degree is easily justified.

2. Can I afford it?

Medical students are drowning in debt. Those who pursue dual degrees (with the exception of the MD/PhD) will amass even more debt than their MD-only peers. Sit down with your parents, financial aid officer, or anybody else involved in your finances and figure out exactly how much debt you will have at graduation if you pursue the extra degree. Make sure to factor in the additional year(s) of deferred earning potential that pursuing the second degree will require.

3. Is now the best time?

Remember that you do not need complete all of your formal education while in medical school. Some residency programs allow residents to work towards a master’s degree while completing their training. The program might even provide some or all of the funding required to pay for tuition. There are also many executive and part-time programs that allow working professionals (including clinicians) to complete a master’s or professional degree in their spare time. Waiting until after medical school may be particularly attractive to students who are not certain that an additional degree is required for their career goals or those unwilling to defer gainful employment for additional years.

4. Am I compromising my education by combining degrees?

Not all dual-degree programs are created equal. Make sure that you will not be compromising your education by trying to do too much or compressing a two year program into a single year. When comparing different programs, see which structure makes most sense to you. For example, I am currently an MD/MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. When I was applying to medical schools, I also looked at schools that offered four-year MD/MBA programs. Completing the degrees in a shorter time period was obviously appealing to me, but I wanted to get the “real” MBA experience, which I thought I could only enjoy by spending time as a full-time MBA student, working on a daily basis with traditional MBA students. I therefore only applied to programs that featured at least one full year of MBA coursework. However, for other students the four-year combined degree might be a better fit, depending on their personal needs and expectations.


Dual degree programs have become increasingly popular among US medical students in recent years. There are now dual degree programs to match nearly any student’s interests and schedule. While I have provided an overview of the most popular programs, there are many other options available. Though there are many benefits to pursuing a second degree during medical school, students should carefully consider the pros and cons of any program before investing the time and money required for an additional degree.

About the Author

David Flynn is an MD/MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Wharton School. He is also the founder of Prepera (, a premedical tutoring and advising firm based in Philadelphia.


This article was originally published on on May 12, 2010.

Premedical Preparation

By Dr. Lisabetta Divita

While the profession has changed over the past few decades, being a physician is a challenging and esteemed calling.  As such, medical school admissions are quite competitive.  Medical school applicants are required to complete the AAMC or AACOMAS applications, take the MCAT and fly out for interviews. Even with all of these requirements, sadly, many excellent candidates are rejected each year.  This can be a blow to your ego but if you are determined to reach your dreams, your premedical preparation cannot begin too early—some important decisions are made in high school.

Premedical Preparation – Inside the Classroom

Your first major decision will be to choose a college that can provide you with a strong background in the premedical sciences. While some students may begin their college education at a community college, medical schools will be looking for a bachelor’s degree from a university. If you are going to start at a community college, make sure that your credits will transfer to a four-year college. Remember that you will be competing with other students for a few coveted medical school seats. The education at a community college may be excellent, but the people reviewing your application will want to know that those grades came from a college with a reasonably stringent acceptance policy.

Perhaps surprisingly, your undergraduate major does not need to be in the biological sciences. Sure, many pre-meds will be biology majors, but they will be sitting next to history majors, economics and philosophy majors on the first day of medical school. In fact, medical school admissions officers like to see candidates with diverse backgrounds. Major in something that you truly enjoy because those are the classes that you can ace.

While the college major is not important, there are a number of courses that are required of everyone applying to medical school. At a minimum, applicants will be required to take two semesters or three quarters each of biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry and one semester or two quarters of physics. Each of these semesters or quarters must be combined with a laboratory associated with the class. Students are also required to complete a calculus course. Special emphasis is placed on these eight courses and seven labs. In fact, on the medical school application there is a separate space for the grades from these courses apart from the rest of the college grades.

A particular college major may not matter, but these pre-med courses are the equalizer. Most successful applicants will get (or nearly get) straight A’s on these courses. The overall grade point average for those applying to medical school is pretty high. Most admissions officers are looking for GPAs above 3.75. Can you get into med school with a lower GPA? Of course you can. However, the better you do in your classes and in the pre-med classes, the better your chances of being accepted.

The other equalizing factor is the Medical College Admissions Test or MCAT. Unfortunately, this score may be used to “thin the herd” so you will need to achieve the highest score you can. The MCAT has three main sections: Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Biological Sciences. The Physical Sciences section contains questions covering college general chemistry and physics courses. Likewise, the Biological Sciences section contains questions from biology and organic chemistry. Verbal Reasoning follows a format similar but not identical to the Verbal sections on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). There is also a Writing Sample section on the MCAT, but this score is not as important as the other three sections since it does not factor into your overall numerical MCAT score. Each of the three sections is scored from 1 to 15, making the maximum MCAT score a 45. While there is no magic cutoff number applied by all medical school admissions departments, a good rule of thumb is a score of at least 30.

Grades in classes and exams are important because they are an easy numerical way to sort through hundreds of applications from qualified candidates. Getting into medical school is not only a matter of grades and scores, but these scores can get your foot in the door so that that the rest of your medical school application is considered.

Premedical Preparation – Outside of the Classroom

Grades and standardized exams are only one part of the medical school application. You are essentially putting your entire academic life into a single application package—a package that will be heavily scrutinized. While good grades and scores will require a huge amount of time and energy to achieve, they really only get you in the door. It is the rest of your medical school application will set you apart from the competition. Once you are in the door, an important part of your medical school application package is what you did outside of the classroom.

Extracurricular Activities

There are two big mistakes that premedical students seem to make when it comes to extracurricular activities: either they load up on a number of relatively meaningless extracurricular activities just so that they can list them on an application or they feel that extracurricular activities are a time-waster that could be better spent studying. Both of these mistakes can be enough to get you rejected from medical school. The far better option is to pick one or two extracurricular activities that you believe in and work to make a real difference in that organization.

The concept of extracurricular activities can be foreign to study-frenzied pre-med students, but the reason that medical school admissions officers look at meaningful participation in extracurricular activities is because it gives them a good idea of the nature and dedication of the applicant just by seeing it on paper. From the applicant’s perspective, it is always good to work outside of yourself—depending on the extracurricular activity that you choose, you may get personal rewards that go beyond a line on an application.

Choose a cause you can really get behind. Just like the choice of a major, it is the strength of your conviction and dedication that will carry you rather than the name or type of organization. It will not seem like a time-waster if you are making a difference. Find an extracurricular organization and run for office. This level of responsibility will help ensure that you are giving your all and will also look better on an application than a simple membership. When you do list your extracurricular activity, make sure to highlight your accomplishments during that time.

Volunteer Work

You should be volunteering in some capacity from the time you enter college, if not earlier. A good rule of thumb is to volunteer at least three hours a week for each year you are in college. The people that review your application will look for your volunteer work and expect to see it. If it is not there, it could count against you in the admissions process.

Unless you go to college in an extremely rural area, your local hospital will have a well-organized volunteer services office. You simply go to this office and look over a list of volunteering options and pick one that interests you. These options are usually for a few hours a week and include anything from greeting friends and family in the emergency department to helping anesthesiology technicians in the surgical center. Finding volunteer opportunities in this way is easy and the jobs really do help patients and healthcare workers.

For more motivated students, you can try to find less well-established volunteer opportunities. Perhaps a position at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter is right for you. There are countless ways that a person can help. Just like with extracurricular activities, choose a volunteer activity that you truly believe in so that volunteering is a pleasure and not simply an obligation.


Most medical schools are looking for some sort of research experience on your application. Your premedical laboratory coursework does not count. Admissions officers are looking for time that you spent in a real lab. The biological sciences departments of most colleges will have faculty doing basic research. If your college is affiliated with a teaching hospital, there may be some faculty participating in clinical research as well. Colleges and universities are proud of their researchers. They will have literature and Web pages that describe each researcher’s work. Start by reading about the work that is being done on your campus.

There are some rules that apply to essentially all research faculty: 1) They are passionate about their research, 2) They love telling people about their work, 3) Their research is less well-funded than they would like it to be, 4) They would welcome a pair of hands to help them conduct research. Taken together, this means that any motivated premedical student should have no trouble finding an unpaid position in a laboratory on campus. Approach one or two faculty about the possibility of working in the lab and tell them you are interested in learning techniques and performing research. Also let them know you would ideally like to work on your own project. Mention, too, that you will work for free. If you do well, there may be some grant money around to provide you with a small stipend later. Part of your payment may even be co-authorship on a scientific journal article!

By understanding the preparation required for applying to medical school, you will be better positioned to be successful in the application process.  This was just a brief summary outlining the preparation required to obtain successful admission to medical school.  I wish you luck on your health professional school application and good luck if you are on to your to health professional school!

Dr. Lisabetta Divita is a physician, medical writer/editor and premedical student mentor.

This article was originally published on on May 2, 2010.

How to Survive and Thrive in Your Special Masters Program

By Igor Irvin Bussel

“Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”
– J.Q. Adams

I am absolutely fortunate that I have realized life’s biggest secret: there is no point in stressing out; one day you will be dead and none of this will matter. This is easier said than done when you are trying to get into medical school. Somehow your entire life and the decisions within are viewed in light of you being in medical school.

Is there a reason that you weren’t accepted into medical school or that you don’t have the record to even apply? Perhaps, but this is not the topic of this discussion. We can’t change what has happened, but we can change how we respond. If you are reading this, I will assume that you have decided to pursue your goal of becoming a physician despite the barriers you have already faced.

Many will attempt to breakthrough this proverbial brick wall via a Special Master’s Program (SMP); a one-year intensive study graduate program designed to strengthen a student’s credentials for application to U.S. medical schools. People end up in SMPs for a variety of reasons: some from fear, most from lack of options, and none for fun. You can view this as the worst thing to ever happen or merely a speed bump on your journey into medicine.

Before starting my SMP, I wanted to make sure that I develop the right type of mindset for success. A stoic and adaptable approach allowed me to gather relevant information about the challenges I would face as well as the environment in which I would be operating. I dove into the literature of medical school success, examined the message boards, and had countless discussions with anyone I could reach that went through an SMP or was in medical school. I wanted to know what I was up against so that I could survive, thrive, and stay sane enough to enjoy the process.

I successfully completed my SMP and am currently a first year medical student. Throughout this year, I have spent time mentoring SMP students by sharing my strategies from the past year as well as the additional realizations that developed. I hope that you can benefit from my experience and that these nuggets of wisdom help you develop the perspective to really achieve your dreams.

1.            Medical School is not rocket science.

You are not inventing Silent Velcro or the Space Pen, but you do have to put the hours in… a lot of them.

2.            Budget and prioritize everything so you can focus on the big wins.

What is more fun? Messing around all week and achieving little and then having to waste your weekend studying? Or, working diligently all week and having an awesome yet productive weekend?

What is more rewarding? Throwing away money on awful unhealthy junk food at the expense of your waistline or shopping and cooking for a week in advance? The latter saves your health and gives you the option of actually enjoying a delicious meal.

3.            Ignore everybody.

Avoid the LBS Gang – Library Bull S***ters Gang. These are the individuals that approach you to do nothing more than complain about the very situation you are in.

“That quiz was stupid!…I hate biochem!…Why do we need to learn that!…What a waste!”

Besides avoiding these toxic parasites, be determined to not waste useful time – mornings, breaks between class, etc.

4.            You are responsible for your own experience.

Fail or succeed, you have no one to blame but yourself. But in regards to the mundane life: there is no such thing as boring places, only boring people. You can always find good people and have fun if you make an effort. Spontaneous and exciting things don’t randomly happen. Place yourself in a scenario that can facilitate strange, eccentric, and exciting events.

5.             It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing.

Graduate students are drawn to the illusion of work almost as much as they are to grand claims of how little or how much they study. The fact that someone spent 12 hours at the library can be reassessed when you realize much of that time was spent on web indulgences like Facebook. What’s urgent and important is that you realize where and how you are most productive. Experiment with approaches and do not keep doing the same thing if it isn’t working.

6.            If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.

Your SMP year will suck. You will work harder than you ever have. You will push your limits to breaking points. Your social life will suffer. You will doubt yourself constantly. It may be detrimental to your mental health.

You will never go back to where you have once been….and this will be the best thing to happen to you. Now that you know the emotional events that lie ahead, you can act accordingly and not be caught off guard.

7.            Nobody cares. We are all suffering on some level.

Do not waste your or your classmate’s time incessantly complaining and moaning about your circumstances. If you are frustrated, go get it out – gym, gun range, shopping, whatever.  Everyone has their existential angst, the “why am I here” paradox, or bouts of uselessness to struggle with.  Deal with it but remember that if you’re going to sleep and you’re not tired from doing or working on something you love, why keep doing anything?

8.            Learning is not a linear positive progression.

Do not get demoralized or lose steam when a day’s work seems to not have had any results – this is a universal human experience. We would like to think that with every hour we work our conscious knowledge builds respectively. However, you are actually building unconscious thought patterns and exclusion criteria that will eventually come together into conscious information recall and reasoning. Trust your mind’s abilities and just keep on trucking.

9.            Avoid the need to build a narrative about admissions.

Too many people tell stories – often times for themselves. We are a rationalizing species that has a need to explain the unknown. Don’t listen and definitely don’t add to the theorizing. Avoid the need to rationalize or pontificate ad nauseam the nuances and minutiae of admissions. You are not in control of life’s events but you do control how you perceive and respond. Time spent discussing getting into medical school is time wasted doing something to get into medical school. Want an insider tip from admissions? Be so good they can’t ignore you.

10.            Assume anything you’re told is wrong.

Admissions rules and criteria change every year. Professors adjust what they focus and test on. Interviewers are rotated and questions are modified. This is not always true because one should never underestimate the extent of human laziness to make changes. For the most part, you can use past events as a basis for what to do in the future. However, do not follow anyone’s advice to the letter. Inquire about past events and ask for guidance and suggestions, but proceed according to a strategy you have developed in light of new evidence.


If experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted, then you can consider yourself an experienced individual when you start your Special Masters Program. The aforementioned advice is not a silver bullet to success nor is it a strict recipe for achievement. It is intended to provide the fundamental concepts to develop an outlook for achieving your goals.

Irvin Bussel completed his undergraduate studies at University of California, Irvine. Currently a student at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University, he is also concurrently earning a Masters in Healthcare Administration and Management.

This article was originally published on on June 6, 2010.

Climbing the Medical Ladder

By Dr. S. Fitzgibbons MD, FACP

“That poor youngster has such a long way to go.”

You probably heard that when you got accepted to med school: the common idea that you are starting a long struggle up a steep ladder before you arrive at where you want. As you take classes and start interacting with actual patients, though, you are starting to realize that this is not always a struggle.  In fact, it’s often fun. The subject is fascinating. Making sick people better is a thrill. Even in the tragedies there’s a chance to do some good.

But still there’s that ladder. How are you going to fit in? Which parts are the hardest? Don’t you have to worry about falling off?

Looking back over the years since I started med school in 1977, let me describe the stages you’ll go through, with some ideas on how to handle the adjustment.

Out on the Wards

Well, we don’t have many actual wards anymore, but your first clinical rotation is still a milestone. Most of your teaching will come not from faculty but from the residents and nurses who teach you the rules of the hospital, from hygiene to etiquette. Try to learn from everybody: the guy who mops your patient’s floor may have had an aunt with a similar illness and be able to explain what the family is going through better than the attending oncologist. And every doctor I know learned how to scrub for the OR from a nurse who was more interested in doing it right than in our lofty ideas about the “big picture” or our differential diagnosis.

You’ve spent most of your life on the honor roll or dean’s list and been pretty sure that if you work hard enough, you’ll get the A. Your first patient tragedy will hit you hard, whether it’s a death, a late miscarriage or a young person with permanent disability. As a med student I found that it helped more to talk about it with residents, for whom it was still a relatively new experience, than with older teachers. Sharing our memories of what happened over a cup of hospital coffee and knowing that somebody else had recently gone through the same thing didn’t change what had happened, but at least we felt less alone.

Residency and Fellowship

If the first year out of med school doesn’t scare you, maybe you should be in a different line of work. Having people call you “doctor” and mean it reaches into childhood memories—usually of Mom telling you that the doctor was there to keep you healthy and fix all the bad things. It makes you wonder if anybody realizes that you’re just you, not some miracle worker. Even the top member of your class gets a little sweaty at having to make actual decisions and write orders that nobody has to cosign, and if your internship is in a new place it’s even harder.

Carry that therapeutics manual or download with you everywhere. Ask for help when you need it. Remember that you have backup: nurses who will question orders with an extra zero, senior residents you can call for advice, and in private hospitals the attending physician who checks what you do even when you don’t realize it. The attending was an intern once too, and probably carries the memory of blunders as bad as any of your nightmares.

Thanks to limits on residency hours and patient loads, sleep deprivation won’t be the problem it once was. Follow the old rule anyway: eat when you can, sleep when you can…and for the love of sanity, spend time with your family when you can. Residency is the period when your life is most likely to be swallowed up by the practice of medicine, and spending time with normal people will help to keep your humanity intact.

Respect your teachers, but don’t be intimidated by them—even senior professors put their socks on one at a time. Talk to older doctors who are not academics about what their practices are like, and look ahead to where you want to be when you get out of residency or fellowship. If your attending takes you to lunch in the doctors’ lounge, eavesdrop shamelessly and ask questions about the relationships among medical staff members. It will help you understand the ecology you’ll be living in a few years from now.

Stepping into the senior resident role is an easier adjustment, since you’ve had plenty of role models and by then you will probably already have some ideas as to how to handle the job. Start looking ahead your next to last year, to actual practice, when you won’t have limits on how many patients you can see or the number of hours you work. Develop good time-management skills, because you won’t have nearly as much time per patient once you join a busy group. Learning to prioritize and be efficient will save you sleep, time and frustration in the years ahead.

“Hey! Where’d My Ladder Go?”

After being a trainee all your life it’s a shock to realize that you are now a “staff physician”, regardless of the practice setting. And even more of one when a doctor twenty years older than you asks your opinion on something.

If you’re in an academic setting you still have a ladder with instructors on the bottom and full professors on top. But when you’re taking care of patients you can no longer look to somebody else to handle tough situations: you are the person in charge of care, and while consultants may advise you they don’t make final decisions.

As a very junior attending at a Houston teaching hospital I ran into one of those situations, in which the patient had both bleeding and clotting problems. If we gave anticoagulants she might bleed to death, but if we stopped them she would have a pulmonary embolus or stroke.

I turned to the senior (and very wise) critical care specialist who ruled the MICU and asked him what our next step was.

“Wrong question,” he answered. “What is YOUR next step? Your name is on the chart, you are the attending physician, and I can make suggestions but I’m not the one making decisions here.”

This is two lessons in one: not only are you the primary doctor on the case, other doctors are not, no matter how senior they are or what comments they may make. The ladder disappears when it’s your patient and your responsibility.

Gray Hair Isn’t All Bad

Keep your resume up to date, and all your paperwork where you can assemble it for job hunting. Odds are you won’t settle into a single medical practice and stay there your entire career: the group that looks like a good setting when you’re fresh out of training may change, or it may no longer be a fit once you’ve had more experience and looked at other options. In signing your first contract, watch for clauses that mean you’ll have to leave town to find a second practice or pay the “tail” on malpractice insurance yourself.

Whatever you do, don’t get too comfortable. The best practice for you is one that allows you not only to keep learning but to keep meeting challenges, and the confidence you gain from those will gain the respect of whatever medical community you enter. And by the time you have enough gray hairs to notice, you (and others) will feel that you earned them.

This article was originally published on on July 9, 2011.

A Comprehensive Approach to Preparing for the MCAT Verbal

By Andrew Nguyen, Christine Nguyen, and Steven Strother

Beginning in April 2015, the Verbal Reasoning section of the MCAT will become the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section.

While  interviewing students for our last article, “Conquering the MCAT: A Student Perspective,” we met many pre-meds who shared the difficulty they experienced with the verbal section. For some students, it was the sole reason they had to retake the exam.

As with the  last article, we have relied on student interviews and research in addition to our own perspectives and experiences to help develop this article. We hope that this article helps you get ready for the verbal section of the MCAT.  We believe we have gone  the extra mile to gather comprehensive information from multiple sources to help you crack the most difficult section of the MCAT.

One of the hardest things about the verbal section is  that you can’t really study for it as you normally would for an exam. There are no chapters to read and no facts to memorize; you’ll likely never see a familiar passage on the real exam even if you’ve spent years of your life reading book after book.

In our opinion, the MCAT verbal section  is a good test of thinking on your feet. Emily from the University of Southern California recounts, “I was so lost when I started prepping for the verbal. I didn’t know where to begin and the prep books I bought only gave an overview of the section and some practice passages.” Many students feel the same way Emily does and, as a result, choose to delay practicing for verbal. However, this may not be the best thing to do!

The verbal section’s difficulty is apparent once you look at the national average scores for the sections of the MCAT; according to the AAMC, the 2011 average scores on the three major sections were: 8.4 (Physical Sciences), 7.9 (Verbal) and 8.8 (Biological Sciences). In addition, the average verbal score for matriculating allopathic students has consistently remained lower than the BS and PS sections for at least the past decade, as reported by the AAMC.

If the verbal section is truly your weakest, this information should encourage you to spend a little more time preparing for it.  Now that we have discussed  how challenging this section is, let’s go over some tips and techniques and see how some top-scoring students prepared for it.

There are certain skills that we feel are beneficial for anyone taking a highly verbose exam, MCAT verbal or anything else:

First, we believe in the power of skimming. For science majors, you are likely to take issue with this as it falls out of your comfort zone. Science students, especially first year undergraduates, are often taught to read for content, taking in a large amount of material to be recited on an exam. MCAT verbal doesn’t test you on your ability to memorize anything! In fact, it is essentially an open-book exam as you have the passage in front of you. Therefore, it is not necessary to read it; skimming the passage so that you are aware of where pieces of information can be found should be sufficient. Skimming is something we highly recommend for you to practice unless you’re already good at it. Try skimming through online news articles and see if you can grab the main point of the article quickly.

As we mentioned in our last article, we think interactive test-taking is a great way to approach the verbal section. It is not easy to maintain your focus for the entire 60 minutes and 7 passages, given potential distractions and general nervousness. If you take the test interactively, you are less likely to lose focus. To take a test interactively, we suggest using your scratch paper. Jotting down notes such as where certain pieces of information are located, what the main point of the paragraph/passage is, and where vocabulary words are found can be very useful. Many students, such as Alex from California State University, Long Beach, have said that it also helps to calm the nerves. “So much of the MCAT was mental. When I used my scratch paper and knocked off wrong answer choices, I immediately felt the test was more manageable.” In addition, taking a test interactively allows you to make use of tools such as process of elimination. This can increase chances for a high score.

Timing is the next important factor. The way the section is structured, with 7 passages and 40 questions over a time period of 60 minutes, makes it very clear that there is little time to waste. You must be prepared to make difficult decisions, such as guessing on a question and not looking back, doing passages out of order, and guessing on entire passages if necessary. Sam, from University of California, Irvine, told us that he only focused on 6 passages and guessed on all questions for the 7th one. This is an unusual technique, but it is a calculated risk. “It allows you to focus and get more time on the 6 passages you are sure to do well. Even if you don’t get all the questions for the 7th passage, you have a good chance of still ending up with a double digit score.” This strategy is not for the faint of heart, but it is something to consider.

We will now turn to in-depth interviews of three students who scored 12 or above on their verbal section.

Student Interviews
Name: Kimberly
Major: Chemistry BS
Prep Course: No
University: California State University, Long Beach

Authors: What was your biggest obstacle when you started preparing for your MCAT Verbal?
Kimberly: Without a doubt, overcoming my study habits was the most challenging. I didn’t even realize it when I started out, but I tend to focus on memorizing all the information presented to me. In order to do so, I had a horrendously slow pace for reading, about 10 minutes for a standard textbook page. This habit works well for college biology exams, but on the verbal, you just can’t do this; you don’t have enough time. The first thing I did was to try and break out of my slow reading habit. It definitely wasn’t easy and I was frustrated very often as my first 20 practice passages showed little to no improvement from my diagnostic exam.

Authors: Since the majority of pre-meds are science majors and/or have taken content-based exams throughout college, many are possibly in your position. How did you address your study habits issue?
Kimberly: Well, first, it’s important to realize that you don’t have to abandon your entire approach to studying, because you still need to study like a science major for the science sections and presumably for everything else in your career. But, temporary modifications specific to the verbal section have to be made. I needed to immediately address my reading pace and the cheapest way to do this was to read online articles. My friends who are in medical school recommend sources such as the New Yorker or the Economist. I recommend them too, but I started with less sophisticated sources. I selected articles which were similar in length to typical verbal passages. Normally, I would time myself reading them; try and highlight main ideas while you read too. Afterwards, I would try to summarize the article and identify the main point. Over time, my pace got much faster and I became better at not retaining irrelevant information.

Authors: Reading newspaper and online articles is great, but how did you get your skills to translate to the passage itself? The format is obviously different.
Kimberly: I definitely had to do practice passages; there’s no substitute for actual practice. I’d normally do a practice passage or two daily after spending a good two hours reading online articles. At the end of each week, I’d do seven passages in one, hour-long sitting to simulate the exam. With practice, I became comfortable with the passages.

Authors: Do you have any other tips you want to share with your fellow pre-meds?
Kimberly: Absolutely! I am one of those people who prefer to preview the questions. My memory is pretty good, so I can remember what to look for. Since I am now a better reader, I was able to locate potential answers to those questions pretty quickly. During practice, if you find that you have a pretty decent memory, enough to remember what the questions are asking for, you might want to preview the questions first.

Authors: How much time did you devote to the verbal section? Did you spend more time on it than the science and writing sections?
Kimberly: I spent a good 300 hours on it whereas I spent 200 hours on BS and 200 hours on PS. I am getting a lot better at reading now because of it. It’s a tremendous investment to prepare for the verbal as it does force you to become a better analytic reader, which I hear is very useful in medical school.

Name: Jessica
Major: English MA
Prep Course: None
University: University of Southern California

Authors: Being an English major, did you have much trouble with the verbal section?
Jessica: Yes, I still did. I didn’t have trouble with reading the passages or my timing for the section, though. The biggest problem I had was making too many outside assumptions. Being a humanities student, I have read my fair share of wonderful novels, short-stories and other written works. So, I like to often relate to outside experiences, perspectives, and thoughts as I am doing the exam. Unfortunately, that is a bad thing to do on the MCAT verbal. The MCAT only tests you on the information provided in the passage, so drawing from outside sources is a dangerous thing to do. The frustrating part, if you’re like me, is that some of the “correct” answers may not seem obvious. This is especially true if you have a strong literature background and know of outside examples which may contradict the answer choice. However, remember that you’re taking the exam within the context of the passage, in which case the “correct” answer would, indeed, be the best choice possible.

Authors: That’s an interesting concept and it’s a fantastic word of caution. How did you recognize this and how did you get past it?
Jessica: Well, I didn’t really see it until I talked to a friend who did well on the verbal. Once he told me why I was getting the wrong answers, it all made sense. If you do this, the only way to get past it is to practice. First, I decided to read a bunch of different material online, including news articles, reports, blogs, etc. My goal was to focus and think critically about the piece I was reading within its own contexts. With enough practice, I was able to clear my mind of irrelevant ideas. Second, anyone with this problem should definitely take as many practice passages as possible. There is a big difference between reading an article or a blog and taking a practice passage. The mentality you have when you do a passage is very different in my opinion.

Authors: How much time did you devote to preparing for the exam?
Kimberly: I devoted about 1000 hours to the entire exam. For the verbal, I’m guessing about 200 hours was how much time I committed to it. Being a humanities major, I wasn’t as strong with science, so it made sense for me to devote a little more time to the two other major sections.

Name: James
Major: Ecology BS
Prep Course: None
University: UCLA

Authors: What about the verbal section did you find particularly challenging?
James: I would say the preparation for it. Being a college student, in general, doesn’t prepare you well for taking many tests that require “thinking on your feet.” Most, if not all, students I have met, myself included, are too used to having everything planned out by the instructor. From having power point lectures to study guides, I became too used to having everything structured for me. The MCAT verbal isn’t like that at all and my preparation was relatively unstructured when I started out. As I went along, I had to develop my own structure through trial and error.

Authors: Was timing an issue for you at all?
James: Actually, no. I think I have my ecology major to thank for that. My ecology courses were very text heavy and having to read a bulk amount of text every week really helped my reading speed. In addition, since ecology is a “hard science,” I also got used to reading very technical excerpts which helped on both the PS and the BS.

Authors: Please outline for us what your preparation was like.
James: Sure. Well, like I mentioned before, my start was pretty unstructured. My first thought was to just dive into practice passages and see if I can do enough passages to improve. Let me just say, don’t ever do this! You end up not using your limited source of passages to your best benefit. My advice is to address any weaknesses (e.g.: slow reading pace) using non-practice materials first. For example, many of my friends read articles from The Economist to improve their general reading ability. Once they were comfortable with the aspects of speed reading (vocabulary, tone, etc), they began doing timed practice passages. I did almost the same thing; since I didn’t have much of a problem with the actual readings, I didn’t have to practice as much before jumping into timed passages. I did around 5 individual passages a day and a full-length practice verbal section on the weekends.

Authors: How much time did you devote to verbal preparation?
James: My best estimate would be around 200 hours. I am not entirely sure because I had to change my prep strategy so often. That’s another frustrating aspect of this section. You may feel that you’ve got a winning plan until you actually do some practice passages and you end up missing 4 out of 5 questions. Don’t feel discouraged if you have to change your approach; this happened to me about a dozen times. You aren’t exactly starting over since you now know which approach doesn’t work.

As you may have already noticed, the intensity of your preparation may depend on your background. Science majors are more likely to experience initial difficulty with the verbal section and its format (Kimberly), but not all will (James). Even students who major in literature-heavy subjects may have some difficulties while preparing for MCAT verbal (Jessica). In general, however, we feel that humanities majors will have a slightly easier time adapting to the verbal section since most humanities courses emphasize analysis of tone, main ideas, etc. over content knowledge.

We would like to leave you with one more test-taking tip and a word of encouragement. The verbal section examines a candidate’s reasoning ability after he or she has taken into account the various pieces of information from the passage. One thing to keep in mind is the passage’s tone. Many passages carry an obvious tone (positive, negative, and critical are some examples). Most questions that ask you to evaluate the passage’s meaning (i.e.: main idea or something similar) or to apply the knowledge to new situations should have a correct answer with a tone that reflects the tone of the overall passage. Knowing this, you could eliminate some answer choices; sometimes, you can even eliminate all three, giving you the correct answer. Evaluating tone is a rather advanced concept and many students may not have been taught this helpful technique. We suggest that you should give it a try if you have some time.

We hope that this information has been helpful to you and will act as a guide for you to start or continue your preparation. We’d also like to remind you that preparing for the verbal section is hard work and our article only touches the surface of your prep work. If you need additional help, we would encourage you to use whichever resource is within your reach. We wish you happy trails as you start or continue your preparation for this exam and to your future in medical school. As pre-meds, you have already learned that many aspects of our educational preparation are difficult, but none of them are insurmountable with enough effort.

Get more advice from high scoring students in the SDN MCAT Forum. Check out: 30+ MCAT Study Habits and MCAT Study Question Q & A

This article was originally published on on April 4, 2012.

Conquering the MCAT: A Student Perspective

By Andrew Nguyen, Quinn Le, and David Nguyen

The MCAT is a major hurdle for many medical school applicants. The exam can be one of the most trying experiences for pre-med students and can make or break an application. For many students, their dreams of a medical career end with an unexpectedly low score on the MCAT. Jordan, a former pre-med student at California State University (Long Beach), abandoned his medical school ambitions after scoring a 24Q on his exam; a score that many students believe is a “virtual cut-off.” Despite committing more than the average amount of time to studying, Jordan could not crack the exam.

“I came out of the testing center with confidence, but when I got the score, I was completely discouraged; I never expected it to be THAT low!”

Unfortunately, Jordan’s experience is not uncommon. Many students anticipate higher scores than they actually receive. This doesn’t mean that students like Jordan aren’t intelligent or don’t prepare enough for medical school; in fact, Jordan graduated with a perfect 4.0 GPA in both the sciences and non-sciences coursework. What sets high scorers and low scorers apart may not be content knowledge, but differences in test taking ability, test taking mentality, and confidence in their knowledge and ability.

There are numerous self-directed programs available free for students online. In fact, a popular one is available right here on SDN: The three-month study schedule. But, many students find themselves unable to follow a self-directed schedule. If you are one of those students who find available programs restrictive or not sufficient for your preparation, don’t fret! Many students who have scored well on the MCAT did not follow any pre-determined path. Instead, they made their own study schedule by using a blend of the techniques and programs available while adding in their own preferences.

In this article, we share how three high-scoring students (35 and up) prepared for their big day. We hope to demonstrate how important it is to take all the tools at your disposal and personalize them for yourself. We feel that this aspect of test preparation is particularly important as the MCAT is scheduled to undergo a major reconstruction by 2015. With this change, some current study techniques may become obsolete. It will be critical for you to figure out which study techniques will no longer work in your favor should you have to take the new version.

Student Interviews:

Name: Peter
Major: General Biology
Strengths: Sciences
Weaknesses: Verbal
Prep Course: No

Authors: How did you prepare for the MCAT?
Peter: I started looking at the verbal section first, since it was my weak point. I read newspaper articles and articles from well-written sources such as The Economist. I’m a slow reader, so I worked to pick up the pace and learned to skim better, leaving behind unnecessary information. Being a science major, I developed a tendency to read everything thoroughly for understanding, but there is just no time for this on the MCAT. I supplemented everything by doing verbal passages regularly from practice books to apply my skills under timed conditions. I’m a terrible test taker and often blank out on test day. The practice I did also helped with using techniques such as process of elimination, which needs to be ingrained or you’ll forget to use it.

For Biological Science and Physical Sciences, I bought review books, but the most important piece of advice would be to do practice passages and questions, lots of them. If you’re a science major, chances are you’re already acquainted with the material. I felt that I just needed to be quicker and more efficient since 70 minutes is not a lot of time. In my opinion, practice is the only way to become faster at the science sections. At the end, I became so fast that I practically did each section twice.

Authors: Did you consult any of the available free programs online?
Peter: I found several free practice exams from test preparation companies and some practice problems, but other than those, I relied mainly on the practice books and exams I bought. The older versions of the actual MCAT that are available for purchase online were especially helpful. I become familiar with the actual testing system and it help got me in the test-taking mentality.

Authors: In all, how many hours and how many months did you invest in this exam?
Peter: I spent 2 hours a day on the weekdays and 6 hours a day on the weekends for 6 months. I wanted to do it in 3 months, but I had work and classroom exams to study for. Also, I didn’t want to take the MCAT in the fall since that’s when everything gets hectic. I spent January through June preparing for a July exam. Studying for a major test during undergraduate is difficult, but if you give yourself that large of a time frame, you’ll feel less overwhelmed. To me, this particularly was important. If I feel overwhelmed, my grades start to suffer along with everything else.

Authors: Is there any other advice you want to leave with us?
Peter: Sure. The MCAT is a serious exam, so don’t procrastinate and don’t waste time. Several of my friends set aside 3 months to study, but they weren’t serious about it until one month before their test date. During the first two months, they studied with the TV on or while chatting with people online. Needless to say, all of those guys had to re-take the MCAT.

Name: Lauren
Major: Psychology
Strength: Verbal
Weaknesses: Physical Sciences
Prep Course: No

Authors: How did you approach preparing for the MCAT?
Lauren: I am very comfortable with reading passages, so I knew I would be okay with the time limit for practically every section. What I focused on was reviewing my physics. I knew that if I’d get a low score for PS, it’d be because of physics. When I started reviewing, I found out I didn’t remember anything! I was tempted to re-read chapters from my textbook, but a friend told me this was a terrible idea. I ended up buying review books which summarized the subject much more succinctly. A note to this: I recommend buying single-subject review books since my experience has told me that they cover material more comprehensively.

My main focus was to understand where the MCAT could trick me. For example, I would go over a standard physics problem. After doing it myself, I would look at the solution. While looking at each step, I’d try to anticipate how a trick could be placed in. Regularly, I’d do practice passages and problem sets to see if I can solve these problems in a timely manner and if I was able to catch these tricks if any. The scores on practice material are very telling of how well you’d do on the real thing. For my verbal strategy, I look at the questions first. I don’t try to memorize the question, but I do look for keywords that I should search for in the passage.

Authors: Did you take advantage of any free material online?
Lauren: Oh yeah, of course! I’m college student after all. Like most people, I took advantage of the free practice exams offered by prep companies on campus and online. Additionally, I used the three-month study schedule on SDN. I had graduated already when I started preparing for the MCAT, so I had a lot more free time. Even though I followed the schedule pretty well, I did place more emphasis on physics and general chemistry than I did on other topics. It’s my way of tweaking things around a bit.

Authors: In all, how much time did you spend preparing for this exam?
Lauren: Well, I followed the 3-month schedule, so I’d say around 600 hours for the 3 months, which I must say is pretty darn standard and I was very happy with my score (35S). I must also add that I did the entire thing over the summer (some post-graduate friends did the same thing over a different 3-month section). One summer with very little fun was a small price to pay.

Authors: Do you have any additional advice for future test-takers?
Lauren: Yes, don’t let people tell you how to prepare for a certain section. It’s good to have people’s opinions, but in the end, you are the best person to evaluate your own weaknesses and strengths.

Name: Andrew Nguyen
Major: Physiology
Strengths: Writing
Weaknesses: N/A
Prep Course: No

Authors: How did I prepare for the MCAT?
Andrew: My preparation was slightly lengthier since I did not have a real particular strength or weakness in the major sections. My first practice exam score was dead even for all sections. For me, this meant that I had to focus on all three sections equally (excluding the writing). My approach was to review my science materials. When you start out, it’s a good idea to review materials that you enjoy first. I find that this builds momentum that you can use throughout the rest of your preparation, especially through sections you don’t like. Biological sciences required that I review the contents of each topic and know the intricate relationships of the many biological systems (biology) and of chemical groups and how to interconvert compounds via the various major reactions (Organic Chemistry).

For physical sciences, I had to review basic principles and perform calculations. If you’re like me, you’ll make small errors that lead you to the wrong answer. The MCAT can anticipate common errors and will put that wrong answer as a choice on the exam! Be wary of this and practice your calculations. For verbal, I spent a lot of time reading passages from books, novels and articles from The Economist. Try to pick selections which are similar in length and practice your highlighting skills on these passages too. It’s generally a good idea to take an exam interactively; it helps you stay focus. Use process of elimination when you can. Look for extreme wording and eliminate answer choices with words like “never” or “always.” A more advanced technique involves using tone; if the tone of the passage does not match the tone of an answer choice, you should suspect that the answer may be wrong. However, this technique is often taught to humanities majors; if you’re a science major, this one may not be in your repertoire. In which case, leave it out unless you have time to develop it.

Authors: Did I take advantage of free material?
Andrew: Of course! I used many free practice exams. Your health professions adviser may also have copies of test prep books in their offices as reference material. If you cannot afford one, look for ones there. I have found that local libraries often carry outdated books. However, you could still borrow those for a source of extra practice problems. Just be on the look-out of any glaring differences; for instance, old books will say that cell respiration produces 36-38 ATPs per glucose. However, newly updated books will report a value of 30-32 ATPs per glucose.

Authors: How much time did I spend?
Andrew: I spent around 1,000 hours over a span of one year. I have a very unforgiving schedule, with on-campus activities, extracurricular activities, research and work. If you’re in my situation, make good use of your summers and winters. You’ll find the most free time during these breaks. Plus, my preparation had a rocky beginning and didn’t smooth out until after the first month or so.

Authors: Final piece of advice?
Andrew: Don’t get frustrated if you have to change your strategy, your approach or your overall schedule. Most likely, you won’t get it right the first time. I had to change my schedule around 5 times before I finally found what works. In this regard, give yourself plenty of time to prepare. Many students end up delaying their test date back at least a month so that they can have more time. There’s no shame in this at all; it’s much better to delay instead of explaining why you didn’t do well the first time. Finally, do what works for you. I have had plenty of people ask me to write down step-by-step what they should do to score well. It doesn’t quite work that way. There is no cook-book recipe for a high score, at least for a fair amount of people. For instance, some people like reading the questions of a verbal passage before they read the passage. While others, like me, don’t prefer this because we end forgetting what we just read in the questions anyway. Even if you take a course to prepare for the exam, you’ll find yourself tweaking “proven” techniques around. Find what’s good for you and work with it. “Proven” doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t get a good score.

In Closing
What should you take from all this? Well, we hope that we’ve cleared up some issues for you and gave you more options. Taking the MCAT and applying to medical school are two big (and scary, but exciting) moments in your life. It is very tempting to try and emulate a successful person in hopes of obtaining his or her results. While you will benefit from some of his or her advice, there’s still too much that relies on you specifically.

Furthermore, if you are taking the new MCAT in 2015, we encourage you to pay special attention to your strengths and weaknesses. Certain test-taking skills are almost always valuable, such as process of elimination and interactive test-taking. You’ll need to identify what your preferences are and develop skills which help you exploit your strengths and bolster your weaknesses. We hope future MCAT takers (and other test takers) find this information useful. Good luck and happy trails.

Get more advice from high scoring students in the SDN MCAT Forum. Check out: 30+ MCAT Study Habits and MCAT Study Question Q & A

This article was originally published on on February 22, 2012.

Reflections on the Medical Admissions Process

By Alex Cole

Each year on the SDN forums as the summer rolls around, there is always a flurry of threads asking for advice on the various aspects of the application cycle. For the first-time applicant the application process is at once exciting and nerve-wracking, caused by uncertainty in what to expect and the inherently unguided nature of the process combined with the much-anticipated arrival of this moment.

The application to medical school is perhaps the first time that applicants are given a more or less blank slate on which to express themselves and told to go at it with very few guidelines. I will leave it to the reader to peruse SDN, particularly the forums, and find information on the particulars and mechanics of the application process (check out the 2014-2015 Applicant Sticky for links to relevant threads, some of which are included below). Instead, I want to offer here a few tidbits of general advice to applicants that are embarking on this year’s application cycle.

Last year I had the great fortune to interview at a wide gamut of institutions – from state schools to the world’s most reputable institutions – and I did a lot of reflecting on my experiences as a medical school applicant both while the process was in full swing and after I made my final decision. My goal is to provide insight into the process to quell some of the fears that arise from uncertainty about what to expect and offer some pointers that, I hope, will help you throughout the upcoming year.

Before You Submit Your Application

Reread, reread, and reread your AMCAS application some more

Make sure all of the information is entered correctly and check for spelling and grammar mistakes multiple times. I developed the habit of reading my entire application at the end of every day I worked on it; I read my application in its entirety more than ten times before I submitted it. In addition to minimizing writing mistakes, this will also make you very familiar with what you wrote in your application, which will be important for interviews.  Ideally, you should also have someone who knows you well, and someone who does not, review your application.

Relevant thread: 

Completing the AMCAS application is a thought-intensive process

I’m skeptical of anyone that is able to complete the application in a day or two. Every question is an opportunity to reveal more about yourself, and considering that the AMCAS application and any secondary applications will be all that the admissions committee bases interview decisions on, both (but especially the primary) should be treated extremely seriously. Don’t write your personal statement or complete the activities and experiences sections haphazardly – make sure you take advantage of the opportunities to share your personal motivations and interests and why medicine is the field for you.

Don’t rush any part of the application

Contrary to most SDN advice, you don’t need to submit the application within the first few days of June in order to be “on time.” While the time required for applications to be verified does get much longer quickly, you won’t be receiving any secondaries until mid-to-late July unless AMCAS and schools change how they do things significantly. Don’t compromise the integrity of your application for the sake of submitting on the first day possible. Taking a few days to intensively review your application and make necessary changes will yield many more benefits than submitting the application on the first day possible without reviewing and editing.

Make sure to fully explain activities and experiences on the application

Unless it’s patently obvious what was involved in a particular activity (shadowing experiences probably don’t need to be elaborated, for example), the admissions committee members reading your application may or may not know what you did or what was involved even though it might be obvious to you. Remember that the people reading your application have no idea who you are; you have to make sure you review your application with that mindset. The only things they’re going to know about you are what you disclose in your application. Everything from your personal statement to your activity descriptions should speak to your character and your motivation to become a physician. This is, in my opinion, the most important purpose of the AMCAS application and is a goal you should strive for when answering each question or completing each section.

Be deliberate about the applications you submit

Every year I hear stories about an applicant being forced to matriculate at a school he/she really doesn’t want to because he/she wasn’t accepted to any other institutions. Why even apply to that school to begin with? Worse, many applicants are left without an acceptance because they didn’t create a realistic list of schools based on the quality of their application.

An applicant’s final list of schools should not be a random selection of institutions. Instead, the final list should be carefully chosen to reflect the overall strength of the applicant’s application and his/her personal preferences. An applicant with a 3.3 GPA and 30 MCAT, for example, likely shouldn’t be applying only to the Harvard/Yale/Hopkins tier of schools. On the other hand, an applicant with a 4.0 GPA and 39+ MCAT should feel comfortable going with a few reach schools unless he/she absolutely wouldn’t want to attend them.  I’d recommend that you set up a three-tier classification scheme: schools which you have a good chance of getting into (“safeties”), schools where you have a shot (“competitive”), and “reach” schools where an acceptance is possible but unlikely.

Use the AAMC’s Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) to compose your list. This is the selection process I used and I was left with a list of schools at which I was fairly competitive (as evidenced by being invited to interview at 13 of the 16 schools at which I fully completed applications).

  1. Flag all schools in the MSAR at which your numbers are competitive. I would define “competitive” as being within two standard deviations of the mean or above using the GPA/MCAT ranges provided for each school. This, of course, is assuming that the rest of your application has no glaring weaknesses.
  2. If you feel comfortable doing so, flag a few reach schools. I would define “reach” schools as either schools that are notoriously competitive, which includes most of the top 20 schools in popular rankings schemes, or schools at which your numbers are well below the mean.
  3. Eliminate any schools that aren’t out-of-state friendly if you’re classified as an out-of-state applicant for that school.
  4. Eliminate any schools in locations that you absolutely wouldn’t want to be.
  5. If you need to cut your list down further, do research on the schools using their websites. I would recommend looking at information on dual-degree programs (if that is a route you might be interested in pursuing), the curriculum, the grading system, and any unique programs/opportunities they might have for their students.

While the final number of schools an applicant chooses to apply to should be based on a variety of factors, including the overall strength of their application, I would aim to apply to no more than twenty schools if possible. Even with that many schools the application process begins to become prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

Relevant forum: What are my chances?

Get ready for a long year with lots and lots of waiting

I submitted my application on June 2nd, 2010 and didn’t finalize my school decision until April 18th, 2011. I started working on my application in May, so it took almost a complete year from when I started the cycle to when it was finally done. There is no other way to describe this process other than to say that it can be miserable. That said, it can also be an exciting and fun time of your life. When else will you be able to travel the country and meet some of the best students, clinicians, and scientists in the world? Though I know that it’s much more easily said than done, try and be patient and enjoy the experience. To use a cliché, “stop and smell the roses.”

Be humble

The most important piece of advice I can give is to be humble.  Don’t go into this process with any expectations. Again, there are a myriad of people who come to the SDN forums and are angry because they didn’t get into their first choice school and they don’t know why, they didn’t get into any school and they don’t know why, they didn’t get a scholarship and they don’t know why, and so on.

One glance at the number of applicants, number of interviews granted, and ultimate number of acceptances awarded should provide a reality check. Most schools accept less than 10% of their applicants each year; the most competitive institutions have acceptance rates less than 5%. Even the interviewing numbers are daunting: most schools only interview about 20% of their applicants and then only accept 10-50% of that group!

The unfortunate truth is that you aren’t guaranteed a medical school acceptance, even for those applicants that have particularly strong applications. Overall, about half of all applicants are accepted somewhere, but if you go into this process expecting to get into a top institution with a full tuition scholarship, you’re more than likely going to be in for a rude awakening and will be very disappointed. This process will humble you like no other. Once you get that initial acceptance, anything else is just icing to make the cake sweeter. Midway through the process your ego will be beat up, you will feel unaccomplished and subpar, and you will feel unworthy of getting into medical school. I think this is a feeling most people have, so don’t worry if you feel that way. It’s better to feel like that than like you’re unstoppable and will get into every school you apply to. The latter will certainly leave you disappointed; the former will leave you excited and grateful for what you accomplish.

Completing Secondary Applications

Secondary applications that contain essays must be treated seriously

I’ve met many applicants that discount the importance of secondaries, and while that might be fine at some schools that simply require a rehash of your AMCAS information, be particularly careful about applications that ask some form of the question, “why us?” This question is extremely important, and a well-crafted answer might very well be the difference between getting and not getting an interview. It’s fine to reuse essays in applications, but make sure the essay you’re reusing directly answers the question being asked. Don’t try and shortcut the essay by using an answer that tangentially addresses the question. I was never able to recycle essays without any sort of editing, and if nothing else different length requirements will cause you to cut parts of your essays.

Once secondaries start arriving, you can find the secondary prompts for many schools on the forums, which will enable you to prepare to complete your secondaries.

Be prompt but don’t rush

Be prompt with your secondaries, but as was said with the AMCAS application, quality should not be sacrificed for a quick turnaround.  As an example, it took me a month to turn in my Pritzker secondary – significantly longer than what I took for any other school and breaking the “two-week” rule – and I was still accepted and will ultimately be attending school in Chicago. While some schools might gauge interest by how quickly you return the secondary, a poorly completed but quickly returned secondary will get the applicant nowhere. Secondaries that simply require a payment or confirmation of demographic information, however, should be completed immediately if possible.

Be particularly kind to the admissions staff when calling about the status of your application

In fact, as a courtesy I wouldn’t even call about the status of your application before being invited to interview. If every applicant to a school called the office and spent 30 seconds asking what the status of his/her application was, the office would literally spend full days in the aggregate responding to those inane calls. Call if you have something legitimate to ask about, but calling and asking about your application in an attempt to express interest is just silly. Also keep in mind that admissions offices are sorely understaffed for the amount of work they do. If they don’t get back to you right away or are terse with you on the phone, be gracious and thankful and try not to be bothered by it. If you dealt with thousands of neurotic pre-meds year after year, I’m sure you would be a bit frayed, too.

Attending Interviews


I remember getting my first interview invite, and though it was to a school that ended up being my last choice, I was still extremely excited. Your first interview invite serves as validation that your work has paid off and that your application was successfully completed and well done.

Book Your Interview

After you’re done celebrating, make sure you book your interview date (if the school allows you to choose dates) as soon as possible, especially at rolling schools. Those dates will fill up quickly early on in the cycle. If you’re still in school, you’re going to have to miss class. Class, in my opinion, isn’t an excuse for choosing a later interview date over an earlier one, especially if the difference in interview dates is several weeks. As long as you’re accepted by the end of the cycle and don’t fail any courses, you’re going to be the only person that cares about your senior grades. This is obviously professor-dependent, but I found that all of my professors were more than willing to reschedule exams, assignments, etc. for my interviews. As long as you keep the lines of communication open you shouldn’t have any problems.

I highly recommend taking advantage of student hosting programs if they’re available at the institutions you’re interviewing at. Staying with students significantly reduces the cost of attending an interview and gives you the opportunity to talk with a student about the institution, which will give you plenty of ammunition for questions and a unique “in the field” view of the school. If a school doesn’t provide you with any information about a hosting program in the interview invitation or on its admissions website, send the admissions office an e-mail asking for information on student hosts. For whatever reason, some schools don’t provide information about student hosts unless asked. Don’t expect your host to show you around the school or the surrounding area; like you, they are students and are likely very busy.

Relevant thread: Etiquette when staying with student hosts

Get Prepped

Check out the SDN Interview Feedback database for the institution, particularly paying attention to questions that previous students were asked and what the interview day is like.

Men, make sure you have a decent suit. Buy one if you need to – it’s worth the investment to have a quality suit that fits well. Take the time to get measured and make sure you get a suit that you feel comfortable in. While a suit alone won’t get you accepted or rejected, you absolutely must look professional. Your personal appearance comprises a significant portion of what an interviewer will think about you when he/she first sees you.

Relevant thread: Men’s Interview Clothing #2

Women, the key word for you is “professional.” Before I started attending interviews I thought this would go without saying, but try and keep the cleavage and extremely short skirts at home. You would be surprised at what some people consider to be “professional.” I’d also recommend bringing a pair of flats for the walking tours; most schools are fine with you leaving the professional façade for the sake of comfort, but if you’re concerned about whether or not this would be acceptable I would call or e-mail the admissions office prior to your interview.

Relevant thread: Women’s Interview Clothing #2

Re-read your application the night before

One thing that I didn’t do but wish that I did was reread my application, especially secondaries, the night before each interview. Your overall application – of which your interview is a part – should tell a story, and rereading what you wrote in your applications can help keep that story cohesive. In a majority of my interviews, I – rather than the interviewer – directed the conversation, so you are usually able to tell your “story” throughout the interview. Answer all questions directly and honestly, but highlight your strong points while minimizing or not mentioning your weak points (unless, of course, you’re directly asked about them). If an interviewer doesn’t ask about something and you don’t mention something, no one will know unless you have otherwise listed it on your application. Offering up negative or dubious aspects about yourself is an definite no-no. Keep things positive and try to keep the interview under your control without being too assertive.

Be positive and excited

Be positive and excited about an institution you are truly interested in attending.  Be engaging in your interview and make it clear that you’re happy and want to be there. Making an effort to express this disposition will make you memorable and can make the interviewer more positive and excited to talk to you. Remember, interviews are exchanges: the demeanor you portray will be returned to you by the interviewer.

Relevant thread: Pre-Allo FAQ Series: Interview Survival

Your interviewer is out of your control

You can’t predict what kind of interviewer you’re going to get. If you get a combative, weird, quiet, etc. interviewer, you can’t do anything but try and adapt and make the experience as positive as possible. Stay calm, answer their questions, and be upbeat.

Don’t memorize your answers

While you should be prepared for the most common questions (why this school, why do you want to be a physician, etc.), I wouldn’t rehearse an exact wording of your answers under any circumstances. You’ll risk coming across as stiff, boring, and uncomfortable if you simply recite a memorized answer. Try and remember key ideas but improvise how you’re exactly going to express them – if you’re a decent speaker, your response will sound fresh and unrehearsed.  A great way to do this is by participating in mock interviews.

The end of cycle interview

What does it mean to have an end of cycle interview?  At some institutions, nothing, as they hold slots to accomodate end-of-cycle interviewees.  However, at schools that offer rolling admissions, the later your interview, the fewer the number of available slots.

When I was interviewing, my experience was that an end of the cycle interview didn’t bode well for my chances at that school.  Think about it: if your file was complete in August but you don’t interview until January or February, what does that say? I wouldn’t say that you’re interviewing for the waitlist per se, but if the school really wanted you, you would get that interview invitation quicker than four to six months after you apply.  I’m not sure what else that can possibly say but “we’re interested in you, but not that interested.”

Have questions ready

Make sure you have a question or two ready to ask your interviewer when you get to the “so, do you have any questions for me?” phase of the interview. I used the exact same two or three questions with every interviewer, so if you struggle to come up with specific questions for each school, simply reuse general questions. I’d recommend taking a look at the school’s website the night before your interview to try and come up with some topics for questions. If the tour and/or meet-and-greet is before the interview, pay attention and try and get some questions from those parts of the day. This approach will make you seem very interested and knowledgeable about the school, which can be a big plus.

Be flexible and be yourself

My best piece of advice for interviews is to be flexible and yourself.  Unfortunately there’s not an easy way to change who you are, which will more than anything dictate how you do in interviews. If you’re quiet, nervous, and not personable, you’ll more than likely portray that to some degree, though some people can mask their personalities better than others. That’s who you are, and there’s not much you can do about it. Be as excited as you can about the school, vary your intonation when talking, be enthusiastic (but not overly so) when you speak, and be genuine. You need to be able to handle anything and everything smoothly and turn your interviews into positive experiences no matter what you’re presented with. This isn’t something that can be taught, really – at least not immediately. It’s more reflective of how you interact with people in social situations. Understand that if you’re entirely honest about your interests, motivations, and career goals, you’re most likely not going to get accepted to a few schools. Each school has a particular goal when building a class and it’s highly improbable that you will fit the criteria of every school you apply to. Try not to be disheartened by a few rejections.

Accepted, Waitlisted, or Rejected

If you’re accepted – CONGRATULATIONS! You’re going to be a physician!

If you’re waitlisted, stay in the game – you were granted an interview for a reason and you weren’t rejected outright for a reason. The school is genuinely interested in you, but they can’t accept everyone. If this is a school you really want to go to, send updates, tell the admissions staff/dean that you want to go there, and hope for the best. I have very minimal experience with being on a waitlist because I chose not to play the waitlist game, but I have been following the school-specific threads on the SDN forums I was waitlisted at to see what people are doing once waitlisted and how things are going.

At the Ivies, it seems that sending the admissions office multiple letters of intent and updates is the best way to go. I don’t understand how people can send in 3-4 update letters with meaningful updates over the course of a cycle, but they do, and it seems that those are the people who get in. If you’re waitlisted at one of these schools, get your pen and paper (or computer) ready and start drafting those letters. It’s a game, and if you want to win you have to play it. Other schools don’t subscribe to this philosophy and would prefer not to receive updates or letters of intent. If you’re unsure whether or not the office will accept additions to your file, simply call and ask.

If you’re accepted/waitlisted, make sure you know what financial aid forms are required for your file to be complete and get them in on time. If you’re accepted earlier in the cycle (any time before January), you probably won’t be able to do much other than get all of your information together and come up with a system to keep track of what you have and haven’t turned in. Make sure you know exactly what you need to turn in and when. I missed out on financial aid deadlines at a couple of schools I was interested in because I was careless; had those been my only acceptances, I would’ve been in a very bad situation. While most schools will usually send out an e-mail reminding you to complete the financial aid process, they likely won’t hound you to make sure you turn everything in. That’s your responsibility.

If you know you’re not going to attend a school, do both the admissions staff and other applicants a favor and withdraw as soon as possible. This is a courtesy more than anything else.

If you’re rejected, don’t take it personally. As I said, there are simply too many qualified applicants to admit to any one class. I used to think that sort of phrasing in rejection letters was disingenuous, but when you look at how many people are applying for admission to a class, it’s certainly possible. How many people with 4.0/40+ numbers and outstanding extracurriculars apply to Harvard, Yale, Penn, or Hopkins each year? That cohort alone is probably enough to fill their classes. At every school the situation is similar: unless you’re applying with an extremely extraordinary application, you’re not going to get into every school you apply to because there are simply too many people that would be excellent additions to a class to admit each year. Keep your chin up and move on to the next school.

Making the Decision

If you’re fortunate enough to hold multiple acceptances, you’re going to ultimately have a decision to make. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what factors are most important in choosing a school; that’s going to be an extremely individualized set of criteria, and what’s most important is going to vary from one person to the next. My general piece of advice is to go to Second Look weekends/revisits at every school that you’re seriously considering. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet potential future classmates, talk with current students about questions/concerns you may have about your education, and get another fresh look at the institution. The final decision will probably be, more than anything, a gut feeling. Every program will have its strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to you to determine whether you can live with those things or not.

If you’re considering a school that is well known to provide scholarship money and/or merit-based financial aid but you’re concerned about costs, I would strongly recommend letting the admissions office know and asking to speak with either the admissions dean or the director of financial aid. Schools generally want to hold on to their accepted students, and you would be surprised at what they’re willing to do to try and convince you to come to their institution. Don’t expect anything, but asking for an increase in scholarship/financial aid awards isn’t inappropriate as long as it’s done tactfully and humbly.

These are some of the questions that I asked (both to students and myself) when ultimately trying to choose a school. As you attend interviews and start to realize what exactly you want in a medical school you’ll come up with your own questions.

  • How much is it going to cost?
  • During the first two years, do the classes generally foster a collaborative atmosphere?
  • Is the grading true pass/fail or a traditional letter system?
  • How many exams are taken during each course? How many courses do students take at a time?
  • What kinds of research opportunities are available to medical students? Is it possible to take a year off for research?
  • What is the role of the medical student on the team during the clinical years?
  • Did I like the current students, faculty, and administrators that I met? Could I see myself as a member of this institution?
  • Do I like the city/community/area the institution is in?

Again, you will need to define the factors that are most important to you and base your decision on your own preferences. Once you’re accepted, schools will usually bend backwards to get you information or get you in touch with students to address any of your questions or concerns. Take advantage of this resource: in almost every case, students are the best people to get information from since they experience the school from the same perspective you will and can speak to the educational as it currently is, not as it was in the past or how the administration would like it to be.

While there are certainly a lot of factors outside of the applicant’s control throughout the application process, make no mistake: the ultimate results are not “random” or a “crapshoot” as seems to be popularly said. You can put yourself in the best position possible by completing a quality primary application, thoughtfully answering any questions on secondary applications and returning them promptly, and making an enthusiastic, confident, and memorable impression on your interviewers.

If you’re able to do those things – and do them well – your chances at success will be much greater and you will more than likely achieve your goals. The upcoming year will be stressful and induce some serious anxiety, but, at the end of it all, hopefully it will also be filled with unique memories and looked back upon as a time of possibility and excitement.

Best of luck, applicants!

This article was originally published on on June 29, 2011. Edited February 3, 2015.

Pirating Test Prep Material Doesn’t Pay

By Helena Bachmann

A question that’s on almost every student’s mind is how and where to get enough money to pay tuition. Kenneth Chou “resolved” that problem by opting for a quick get-rich scam: piracy.

Chou was not an ordinary pirate roaming the high seas and pillaging ships. Instead, the former student at SUNY Upstate Medical University in New York peddled his illicitly obtained loot – Kaplan lecture DVDs copied from his school’s library – in cyberspace.

From about 2006 to 2007, when he was caught, Chou raked in an estimated $100,000 from the sale of the counterfeit materials, money that he was using to pay his tuition.

He was ultimately caught due to the vigilant oversight of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), a trade group for the software and digital content industry of which Kaplan is a member.

But even before Chou was formally identified as the medical student behind the piracy operation, Kaplan was well aware of his activities, says company spokesperson, Carina Wong.

“He blatantly ignored legal notices and mistakenly believed he would not get caught,” Wong tells SDN, adding that Kaplan, a leader in the test prep industry, currently has three other similar piracy cases pending.

In the end, Chou’s dreams of becoming a doctor bit the dust when he was not only expelled from school, but also ordered by a federal judge in New York to pay $400,000 to Kaplan in damages and legal fees.

Some cash-strapped students may argue that stealing test prep material to put oneself through school is no big deal. But Wong says such piracy acts ultimately harm all medical students. “The revenue that would normally go towards investment in program improvement and innovation to help their studies is instead lost to criminals like Chou,” she explains.

A widespread problem

Chou’s case generated a lot of media coverage, but it is far from unique. As a matter of fact, intellectual property violation – the unauthorized and unlawful copying of someone else’s work – is so rampant that even vice president Joe Biden recently spoke out against it.

“Piracy is theft,” he told reporters last month. “It ain’t no different than smashing a window at Tiffany’s and grabbing [merchandise].”

While it is difficult to estimate the global loss of revenue from acts of piracy across all industries, if we look at just illegal movie downloads, the numbers are staggering. According to a study by the Institute for Policy Innovation, motion picture piracy costs the U.S. economy over $20 billion and results in the loss of more than 141,000 jobs for American workers.

And while piracy is especially prevalent in the movie and music sectors, virtually all industries, including health care, are impacted by it.

In January 2010, at about the same time that Chou was fined, the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against a board review course for physicians in internal medicine, alleging copyright infringement and theft of trade secrets by Arora Board Review and its two principal physicians.

ABIM alleged that the doctors and their associates illegally obtained and disseminated copyrighted test questions from ABIM Certifying Examinations for use at “board review courses” conducted for physicians by Arora. Physicians paid between $1,000 and $1,495 for these courses.

SDN members weigh in

The Chou imbroglio reiterates the question that is on the minds of many med and pre-med students: “Given the high cost of test prep materials – a three-month subscription to the Kaplan course can run about $3,400 – is buying pirated material ever justified?

This issue sparked various reactions among the SDN community, and, as in any controversial matter, the views are divided. A poll conducted in April of this year shows a divergence of opinions regarding pirated material – 58 percent say they “don’t see any problem” using it,” while 30 percent think it would be wrong to do so.

SDN forums also reflect different viewpoints about this issue. “Selling stolen merchandise to pay for medical school isn’t justifiable,” says a med student member.

“Attempting to justify theft or profiting from theft to offset the cost of a medical education is breathtakingly shallow,” posts another med student. “It reveals a strange and disjointed entitlement. Why am I owed? Because medical school costs a lot. From whom do I collect? An independent entity, which isn’t responsible.”

However, not all students agree with this stance; in fact, many take the opposing view.

“When I was an undergrad, I did a presentation on the rising costs of textbooks. I encouraged people to explore piracy, among other things, to offset the ludicrous costs of these books we are required to have,” notes a pre-med student. “When I can pick up a digital version of a Calc book for free versus paying $150 for it in the bookstore (used) the choice is rather obvious.”

This view strikes a chord with a another med student member, who says she used quite a bit of pirated material when studying for the MCAT. “I didn’t lose any sleep over it because I know that these companies are thriving on us.”

Adds another SDN member: “If these companies want to stop people from pirating their material, then maybe they should stop charging ungodly amounts of money for it.”

The other side of the coin

What does Wong think about the comments suggesting that the high cost of study courses justifies purchasing pirated material?

“On an hourly basis, our students receive extremely high value for their tuition, as our programs include several weeks of live lecture time by top medical faculty, and/or access to world-class video lectures and premium study resources,” she points out. “However, in order to make our programs as accessible as possible, we work directly with schools to determine appropriate tuition. We also offer promotional pricing opportunities regularly, and our centers work with students on an individual basis to make sure they’re able to take full advantage of these opportunities.”

Wong also says that, by purchasing pirated courses, students can actually cause an increase in the price of study materials. “Kaplan puts significant investment into developing the best test prep materials available to students, and counterfeit operations can damage our brand,” she notes. “More importantly, they can drive up the cost of materials and make it more difficult for us to invest in program improvement and new materials development.”

Cost aside, pirated materials may also mislead and misinform the students by not providing the most accurate and updated data, Wong warns. “While illegal sellers may claim to have Kaplan materials, purchasers often find themselves receiving inferior, incomplete or outdated material.”

And, there are other risks that pre-med and medical students should seriously consider before buying counterfeit courses.

“However tempting it may be to use illegally copied materials, the penalty is not worth the risk,” says Dr. Lee Burnett, SDN’s executive director. “Getting busted for sharing or selling illegally copied materials can mean the end of their chance to go to any professional school.”

This article was originally published on on July 14, 2010.

Not Another Crayon in the Box: Writing a Successful Personal Statement for Medical School Part 2

By Alex M. Jennings

Part two of a two part series. Part one may be found here.

Personal Narratives

The medical school admissions committee members interviewed in the aforementioned studies offer plenty of advice on what they are looking for in a good PS. Mark Stewart, author of Perfect Personal Statements, offers this advice: “Strive for depth, not breadth. An effective personal statement will focus on one or two specific themes, incidents, or points” (Stewart, 2002). Thus, despite there being five rhetorical moves, you need not use as many personal narratives: keep it short, focused, and poignant. Content is the key.

Judy Colwell, Assistant Director. Of Admissions at Stanford Medical School, said that as far as content, they want applicants to show who they are. She continues: “Some personal statements are so wonderfully written that we’ll get goose bumps or be in tears. Most applicants don’t write so beautifully, of course (Stewart, 2002).” With thoughtful consideration, you should be able to find the right stories to tell. Then, maybe your PS will have as deep an effect on your reader as Colwell says.

One way that you can show who you are is by revealing thoughtful, personal insight. For example, J. Freedman, from, says that he has read hundreds of narratives about healthcare experiences. These can get trite and boring, he says, “yet the good ones still stand out and tell me so much about the applicant’s motivation, character, maturity and insight (Freedman, 2010).” His point is that it is not just what you say, but how you choose to convey your insights—that is what makes all the difference.

There are several ways to add color to the picture you are painting of yourself through your PS. The Carnegie Mellon Health Professions Advisement office offers some good ideas, including:
…using sensory details to help set scenes, like mentioning what the sky looks like, what color a child’s dress is, or how the food smells. This is one way to make sure your reader is right there with you. You can also share your personal emotions and indicate how your surroundings affected you. This will give the reader a better idea of your individualism, and make experiences that may be common seem unique (“Tips for Writing Personal Statements”).

By following these suggestions, you will ensure that you “show, rather than tell”, who you are. There are also several style details of which you need to be aware. One of them has to do with length limitations. Since you only have 4500-5300 characters to work with, depending on where you apply, there is not enough space for a full introduction or conclusions. You should also avoid “hackneyed introductions and conclusion clichés” (Stewart, 2002). In addition, Stewart warns against referring to yourself in the third person (“Alex will make a great physician because he…”), trying to impress with vocabulary or technical jargon, and doing anything gimmicky with fonts, formats, or rhyming schemes (p. 16-19). One reviewer recalls receiving a PS where the text was shaped into a large tear-drop and written in rhyming couplets. Although originality is key, don’t be annoying and overbearing! Doing so will hurt, rather than help your chances of getting an interview.


“Show, don’t tell!” –This trite expression is oft repeated to pre-medical students. While it may be a good piece of advice, it’s something that is easier said than done. Hopefully, with this summary of relevant research, you will see the importance of weaving deep, personal insights into a standard rhetorical framework. Although the medical school application essay prompt is designed to let you freely express yourself, research has shown that the most successful PSs follow these highlighted suggestions.

The biggest task left to you now, as an aspiring future physician, is to think deeply about which experiences have shaped your life the most. You need to dig deep to uncover that poignant experience which fuels your drive to medicine. It’s a hard path you’ve chosen, but only you know why this is right for you. As you consider which stories to tell, make sure not to just tell the reader what you think they want to hear. If you’re wondering about how to tie in your experience as a missionary in Guatemala, your difficulties in overcoming challenges as a minority, or whatever it may be, first ask yourself the following: Is this a part of my identity and reason for pursuing medicine? Remember that what an experience means to you is more important than how impressive it looks to others.

According to Bekins et al. (2004), your audience wants to see “a clear statement of what the applicant had learned from his or her life experiences” (p.60). Introspection and reflection, showing how “life lessons” shaped your thinking or behavior, count more than technical preparation. Even blemishes on your record can help you, if you show what you learned from them (p. 67).

Life is about to become complicated for those of you who are preparing for medical school. You’re studying for the MCAT, securing your letters of recommendation, and filling out your applications—all time consuming, tedious tasks. When you feel overwhelmed, or when you get to work on your PS and can’t think of what to mention, simply pretend you are just writing to a friend about why you want to go into medicine (Harvard University, 2011). If you get stuck or frustrated, just think about how deeply your essay could affect your readers. How much relief will you feel when you get an interview, and you find out it was because of your thoughtful PS? Writing well can be difficult, but with these tips, the keys are now in your hands.

This article was originally published on on September 26, 2012.

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Stewart, M. (2002). Perfect personal statements: law, business, medical, graduate school. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s. In order of reference, the following pages were consulted: 112, 8, 111, 105, 16-19
Tips for Writing Personal Statements. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Health Professions Program. Retrieved from