Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 2

 

By Joseph Love

This is the conclusion of a two part series.

Using Your Words
The technical aspects of writing an application essay are no different than writing any other essay. Unfortunately, confidence can wane when applying to your top-choice school. If you have an outline and know how to convey your personal information, it’s time to work on finding your voice through the correct use of words. Nervous essayists rely on cliché, generalizations, passivity, and hyperbole or humor. These are the occasional-writer’s default settings because they are easy to hide behind. Continue reading Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 2

Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 1

By Joseph Love

Part one of a two part series about how to write a winning personal statement. Come back next week for the second part and more information about how to use your words to sell yourself!

The Doom
Students typically have strong aversions to the personal essay because we’re told to avoid using personal pronouns throughout our entire academic career. Subconsciously, we’ve learned “I”, “My”, “We”, and “Our” are telltale signs of bias, unreliability, and inaccuracy. The aversion isn’t that we actually fear expressing our opinions, but that we simply aren’t comfortable writing about ourselves in memoir form. That’s it. I say this with certainty because most poorly written student essays suffer from the same recurring errors, and when I address students about the issue, the response is overwhelmingly the same: “I didn’t know how else to write it.” Continue reading Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 1

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

First, CELEBRATE!

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 StudentDoctor.net on June 29, 2011. Edited February 3, 2015.

Mastering The Medical School Personal Statement, Part 1

By Joseph Love

Part one of a two part series about how to write a winning personal statement. Come back next week for the second part and more information about how to use your words to sell yourself!

The Doom
Students typically have strong aversions to the personal essay because we’re told to avoid using personal pronouns throughout our entire academic career. Subconsciously, we’ve learned “I”, “My”, “We”, and “Our” are telltale signs of bias, unreliability, and inaccuracy. The aversion isn’t that we actually fear expressing our opinions, but that we simply aren’t comfortable writing about ourselves in memoir form. That’s it. I say this with certainty because most poorly written student essays suffer from the same recurring errors, and when I address students about the issue, the response is overwhelmingly the same: “I didn’t know how else to write it.”

The Outline
Some schools are polite enough to give strict requirements on essays. They want x-number of words on why this school, x-number on your academic career, and x-number on autobiographical information. These are blessings in disguise, but they must be approached logically. Instead of sitting down and pounding out 200 words and moving on to the next section, consider that every other applicant is doing the same thing, and that the pound-it-out method doesn’t necessarily produce coherent thoughts. You need to know exactly how those words will be allocated. If you have to write 200 words on “Why this school,” divide up that section accordingly. For example, in 200 words, you might spend 50 words on research opportunities provided by a university, 100 words on the specific course of study you plan to pursue, and 50 words on the advantage of their alumni networks. By outlining each section before you write, you will avoid rambling and be able to move on to the next section.

Maybe your school only provides you with an overall word maximum, but still gives you specific areas to talk about. A good rule of thumb is to divide up the total word count between each section, allotting equal space for each topic. If you feel more passionately about one section, feel free to write more, but don’t do it at the total expense of another. To solve this, you can also create a mandatory word-minimum per topic. By breaking these sections down as discussed above, you’ll be able to give a sense of coherence and completion to the essay.

While the essay is an opportunity for you to tell a school all about yourself, it’s also an opportunity for the school to evaluate how you think (not necessarily judge who you are). Doctors are smart people, but they are organized, methodical people who can address subjects directly, logically, and completely. Some smart people simply don’t come across as observably organized or methodical, and their writing reflects this. When deciding between two candidates for a program spot, a medical college’s best investment in resources is the candidate who promises the most in return. This person is disciplined, conscientious, organized, and clear-thinking. If the structure of you essay doesn’t say this about you, it’s a good bet you won’t be considered the better-qualified candidate. Taking the time to map out your essay is a major step in standing out amongst your competition.

It’s All About You
The application essay is not the time to be humble. Medical schools want qualified applicants, for sure, but they also want confident applicants. Your transcript will show your academic proficiency (and if it doesn’t, the essay is the perfect opportunity to explain why), so your essay needs to be about your ambition, your philosophy, and your talents. That said, show maturity in your self-image. Acknowledge your accomplishments and shortcomings, your advantages and disadvantages, but keep it in perspective. For example, if you conduct undergraduate research in a lab setting, by all means say so, explaining briefly what your research is (in lay terms), how often you do it, and why you decided to do it. Your audience will determine if your time investment and the research is impressive and meaningful.

Relaying personal information in a useful way is the most difficult part of writing an essay. The way this information is written will tell your audience how you deal with stress, how you view yourself, and how you identify with others. If you come from a disadvantaged background or are a minority, the most important information that a reader should take away from your personal story is that you are strong-willed and determined to overcome your particular challenges. Bitterness, self-pity, self-loathing, or casting blame are turn-offs regardless of background. If your life has been absolute hell, explain how you got to where you are. The story of overcoming, of doing in spite of, tells the audience exactly how mentally tough you are. However, don’t play up a disadvantage if it hasn’t actually caused you hardship. If you’re invited for an interview, it is much easier to back up a truthful claim than attempt to elaborate a false one on the spot.

If you’re a student with good grades and a relatively unburdened life, you may think your personal story isn’t all that interesting, or worse, you may come across as naïve or unaffected by the struggles of others. This is the reason medical schools look for students who volunteer, shadow physicians, and are involved in extra-curricular activities. Being a member of your community means interacting with other members of your community. In other words, you don’t isolate yourself and have the ability to work with people outside of your social group. If you aren’t getting out of the house, you aren’t expanding your worldview, so get out there and gain experience. Then, write about it.

Imagine the work of the admissions committee, reading thousands of essays from all sorts of backgrounds. That said, the background itself is less important than the person that background has created, and medical schools want students who are community centered, world-wise, and driven. You are all these things, and now you know how to get it across.

Remember to return next week for the second part!

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on June 4, 2013.

 

GPA and MCAT

Christian Beckerby Christian Becker
Author of The Official Student Doctor Network Medical School Admissions Guide

The discussion here will focus on the MCAT scores, timing, strategies and other issues.  Discussion about the content of the MCAT and details about the exam itself will be held to a minimum and would extend this already lengthy post too much.

The GPA

Obviously, the higher your GPA, the better. Generally, anything above a 3.5 GPA is considered very good and very competitive. Jumping from a 3.0 to a 3.5 GPA will make a huge difference in someone’s application, whereas jumping from a 3.5 to a 4.0 GPA will not be quite as dramatic (although it is obviously an advantage to have a 4.0 versus a 3.5 GPA).

The GPA really reflects how seriously an applicant has taken his or her undergraduate studies. A high GPA is a reflection of strong study habits and work ethics. Medical schools look at an applicant’s GPA for that reason – to evaluate if the applicant is likely to work hard in medical school. A high GPA has been found to be a very good predictor of success and the likelihood that someone will NOT drop out of medical school.

It is also worth pointing out that a high GPA can compensate somewhat for a lower MCAT score. The GPA usually does carry a lot of weight in the admission decision. If both MCAT and GPA are lower, admission to medical school becomes much harder. However, having said that, there is more to the overall application than the MCAT and GPA alone. An otherwise stellar application can also overcome a lower GPA and MCAT score – to a point.

The 3.0 GPA is a cutoff for most medical schools. However, some applicants are accepted every year that have a lower GPA, so this value is by no means absolute. Again, it all depends on the strength of the overall application…and the MCAT score.

For example, for the 2005 school year, 155 applicants were accepted to allopathic medical schools (out of 17,978 total accepted that year) with a GPA that was lower than a 2.75. (Undergraduate Grade Point Average, Medical School Admission Requirements, 2007-2008, page 29) So, it is possible to gain admission with a low GPA, but you can see from these numbers that this is very rare. Also, these individuals most likely had stellar applications otherwise.

For most of the allopathic (MD) medical schools, an average GPA of 3.0 is the minimum they will consider for extending interview invitations, regardless of what the rest of your application looks like, but there are a few exceptions.

The MCAT

The MCAT (or Medical College Admission Test) is one of the most dreaded parts of medical school preparation and is required by all U.S. medical schools, including all allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) schools. Note that most Caribbean and international medical schools do not require the MCAT.

As of 2007, the test is administered in a computerized format throughout most of the year. Before 2007, it was only given twice a year as a paper test-once in April and once in August.

If possible, you should try to take the MCAT early so you receive your scores back by the time you submit your medical school application (AMCAS for allopathic schools and AACOMAS for DO schools). Before 2007, it took sixty days to grade the MCAT and release your scores, so taking the April MCAT around April 15 gave you the best possible timing for submitting your applications early (around June 15).

The earliest date applications can be submitted is June 1, but you needed to wait for your MCAT scores to submit your application. So, in reality, your earliest day for submitting your application before 2007 was around June 15. With the 2007 changes, scores are now returned within thirty days (and supposedly the eventual goal is a fourteen-day turnaround at some point). To submit your applications on the earliest day possible, you should therefore plan to submit your applications June 1 and take the MCAT no later than thirty days before this date (May 1). Submitting your applications early gives you a huge advantage in the admissions game.

The MCAT score

Each of the three multiple-choice sections (biological sciences, physical sciences, verbal reasoning) is worth 15 points for a total of 45 points, but it is nearly impossible to achieve a perfect score. The average MCAT score each year is somewhere around a 24 (eighty in each section).

A good score that is competitive at most MD schools is around 30 and a stellar score is somewhere above a 34 to 36, which is competitive at the top medical schools in the country. A score of 36 or better would put you in the top 2 percent of the country. The writing sample is scored with a letter system from J (lowest) to T (highest), but is much less important than the number score. You never hear anyone mention the letter score. All you ever hear people talk about is the number, although some people insist that the letter score is also considered in the admissions process somehow.

To give you an extreme example that the MCAT is not the only measurement that is important, 60 applicants were admitted to allopathic medical schools in 2005 who had an MCAT score that was less than 17 (Performance on the MCAT, Medical School Admission Requirements, 2007-2008, page 27). Keep in mind that there are a few allopathic medical schools in Puerto Rico, for example, that have very low MCAT averages (20.1, 21.3, and 23). These schools could be responsible for many of these numbers. Again, this sort of low score is a rare exception. Essentially, an MCAT score below 25 will make it almost impossible for you to gain admission to allopathic (MD) medical schools. You will still be competitive for osteopathic (DO) medical schools, podiatry schools, and Caribbean medical schools.

For most of the allopathic (MD) medical schools, an MCAT score of 21 is the minimum they will consider for extending interview invitations, regardless of what the rest of your application looks like. For some of the more prestigious medical schools in the country, the minimum MCAT score is around 30 to 32, below which you will not make it past any screening for interviews, regardless of how strong the rest of your application is.

The more applications a medical school receives every year, the more the school tends to eliminate applicants by MCAT scores and GPA alone when screening applicants. It is the easiest and most cost-effective way to limit the search for competitive applicants – and especially the more popular and prestigious medical schools use these criteria more heavily.

Medical schools like to use the MCAT as a way of screening and comparing applicants since it is the most objective measurement. Your GPA varies with the difficulty of the courses you take and the type of college or university you attend for undergrad. The MCAT provides one way to compare everyone at the same level.

The MCAT score is a reflection of your ability to reason, think, and interpret charts and data. It has less to do with your work ethic or your ability to memorize, which are two factors reflected more by your GPA.

MCAT Preparation

The MCAT test is intended to test material presented in general biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and general physics. For review, it is important to stress the most important concepts and information in each of these areas. Generally, it is better to know the basic concepts very well than to know a lot of information superficially. Having said that, most of the questions on the MCAT are very difficult, and often it feels like they are testing concepts you have never heard of. Some additional course work can be helpful, but is not required. Although it is not necessary to memorize every formula in physics, chemistry, and the other courses covered, you should know the bread-and-butter formulas of each subject, particularly in physics. Don’t focus on all the derivative formulas. Memorize the main ones – you will need them.

They may ask a question like “If I throw a ball out of a window 25 m above the ground, at an initial velocity of 15 m/s, how long will it take until it hits the ground? How far does it travel vertically until it hits the ground?” So, you will need to know your formulas to figure out these questions. However, most questions are not this straight forward.

You will need to decide what type of person you are and what you will need for preparation. Some students swear by commercially available review courses such as offered by Kaplan, Princeton Review, Columbia Review, Cambridge, and Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. They are rather expensive, with a price tag up to $1,500, but many physicians and other successful applicants strongly suggest you take a review course.

Review courses often provide a classroom type setting with lecture format to review pertinent topics in all the MCAT prerequisites. You still have to study the extensive review material that comes with the course as you would in any class.  Other programs just provide the materials and the plan without classroom lectures. In either case, they provide the structure and the plan to get you through all the pertinent material in an orderly fashion.

You still have to put effort into the prep course like any other class you have taken before. Just attending the prep course may not help you out much, although they do cover a lot of test-taking strategies, which are helpful for test taking in general and not dependant on how much material you learned. Also note that these courses work only for review. If you have not had physics or organic chemistry before, you cannot learn the material in the prep course. These are review courses.

They also offer practice tests throughout the course and provide hints and tricks, do all kinds of analysis of what was on previous tests, and help you with time management techniques and other topics. This type of review may be very well worth it if you are the type of person who is a procrastinator or needs a structured program that is already set up and scheduled.

For those who are able and willing to work through self-study, there are many good review books and book series from the same MCAT review companies.  The Student Doctor Network has also published its own MCAT review book. The books contain the same basic material used in the courses, but you are on your own. So, you have to set aside a certain number of hours per week for a few months to review and work through the materials on your own. Expect to prepare for three to four months before the test.

I would highly recommend purchasing the Web practice MCATs online. They are the real deal, made available by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), the makers of the MCAT and not some version made up by Kaplan, Princeton Review, or other test-prep companies. These practice tests are well worth the money and you can take them under real testing conditions. Set aside a few Saturdays at your library in a quiet corner, or at home – undisturbed. You can grade yourself at the end to see how you did. One of the practice tests is available free of charge. You can purchase additional practice tests online for $35 each.

The MCAT is really a thinking test. You will need to know the sciences to do well, but many of the questions do not directly test knowledge. They may ask you to interpret some data or extract some answers from a passage. It has been said that you cannot really cram for the MCAT.

Average GPA and MCAT scores

Note that the two following tables give average GPA and MCAT scores for both allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) school matriculants for a few years.

Data for allopathic (MD) schools

Entering Year Overall GPA MCAT (Verbal) MCAT (Phys) MCAT (Bio) MCAT (Essay) MCAT Total
2005 3.63 9.7 10.1 10.4 P 30.2 P
2004 3.62 9.7 9.9 10.3 P 29.9 P
2003 3.62 9.5 9.9 10.2 P 29.6 P
2002 3.61 9.5 10.0 10.2 P 29.7 P
2001 3.60 9.5 10.0 10.1 P 29.6 P
2000 3.60 9.5 10.0 10.2 P 29.7 P

Mean Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) Scores and Grade Point Averages of U.S. Medical School Applicants and Matriculants, AAMC Data Book, 2006, page 38

Data for osteopathic (DO) schools

Entering Year Science GPA MCAT (Verbal) MCAT (Phys) MCAT (Bio) MCAT (Essay) MCAT Total
2004 3.36 8.24 7.89 8.53 24.66
2003 3.45 8.07 7.99 8.51 24.57
2002 3.44 8.06 7.97 8.50 24.53
2001 3.43 8.10 8.08 8.54 24.72
2000 3.43 8.11 8.18 8.69 24.98

Grade Point Averages and Mean Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) Scores for Entering Students, Osteopathic Medical College Information Book, 2007 Entering Class, page 80

Note that it is easier to get into osteopathic (DO) schools than allopathic schools (MD) by roughly 5 points on the MCAT and something like 0.15 points on the GPA.

Regarding GPA calculation, MD schools count every course grade earned even if you have retaken a course. If you earned a “C” in organic chemistry the first time, retook the course and earned an “A” later, they will count both grades for calculating your GPA. DO schools only count the retake grade (“A” in this example) and not the lower grade you earned the first time.

The average MCAT score for MD schools is around 30 and GPA is around 3.6. For DO schools, the average MCAT score is around 25 and GPA around 3.4. Especially if your MCAT score and GPA are below these values, your extracurricular activities weigh heavier in the admissions decision and can make the difference between getting an interview and no interview.

Caribbean medical schools typically do not have any MCAT requirements with few exceptions. If they do, they will accept lower GPA and MCAT scores than MD and DO medical schools.

Retaking the MCAT

If you score low on the MCAT, it may be a good idea to retake it. However, you absolutely have to show improvement. I know some students who increased their scores a good three to five points and it made all the difference. If you score the same or lower than your original MCAT score, retaking the MCAT only hurts you because you have just demonstrated that you really cannot do well, even if you have another chance.

Often, it is advisable to take a prep course, if you haven’t already done so, to prepare for retaking the MCAT, especially if you didn’t take the exam seriously enough the first time. You have to be willing to put a lot of hard work into preparation before retaking the exam again; just retaking it will buy you nothing.

Sometimes, if the MCAT score is not very high but still acceptable, it might be better to work on extracurricular activities to increase the overall strength of the application to compensate. However, a lower MCAT can limit some of your medical school choices. Certain medical schools may not consider you at all. Generally, osteopathic (DO) and Caribbean medical schools have lower MCAT requirements than allopathic (MD) schools. There is also quite a bit of variation between various MD schools.

The decision to retake the MCAT may depend on your goals overall and not necessarily on the score you received the first time. Also, keep in mind that it is very hard to increase your MCAT score, especially if you were prepared for the test the first time and there is not much else you can do to prepare. Increasing a score from a 24 to a 28 is probably much easier than raising a score from a 30 to a 34.

Important Note: A premedical advisor should be consulted to help you decide whether you should retake the MCAT and what strategies are appropriate for you to maximize the effectiveness of additional preparation. Only an experienced premed advisor who knows you personally and knows something about the MCAT can tailor advice to fit your specific circumstances. This is a big and important decision.

You may retake the MCAT up to three times, which can be all in the same year if you wish. However, retaking the MCAT for the fourth time, and every time thereafter, you have to jump through some hoops to be able to take the MCAT again. The AAMC requires a letter proving that you are really applying to medical school and not just taking the MCAT for other reasons (maybe you are teaching MCAT prep courses on the side and you can teach it better by taking the MCAT yourself every year).

 

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on April 6, 2009.

Your Medical School Application: More than just a personal statement

By Jessica Freedman MD

MedEdits

When I initially start speaking with applicants applying to medical school, their primary concern is what they will write in their personal statement. While the personal statement is an extremely important part of how you will be evaluated, you also have the opportunity to express what is important to you and why in your activities entries. The key word here is “opportunities.” When I used to review applications, I viewed the candidate who didn’t use this activity description space wisely as misguided or unwise. Regardless of how many objective measures are instituted to screen applications, a tremendous degree of subjectivity influences a reviewer’s decision making during every part of the application process. Thus, it works in your favor to use every opportunity to illustrate why you are a great candidate; you never know what one of the several individuals reviewing your application might find interesting.

If you are applying through the Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service, the limit for each activity description is a mere 300 characters, which forces applicants to write about only the “nuts and bolts” of their experience. However, the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine and the American Medical College Application Service have more generous activity description limits, and you should take advantage of them.

“But wait, I read on a forum on SDN that I should keep these descriptions as brief as possible.” I hear this every year. Long ago, the limits on character counts for activity descriptions were more stringent, but this advice is now antiquated. I can tell you from experience that applicants who write fully about their experiences do extremely well in the process. Consider the person reviewing your application; do you think they would rather read bullet points or a descriptive and interesting narrative about your experiences? Indeed, you may have a reviewer who is rushed and might simply skim your application, but let him make the choice if he wants to read less. More often, reviewers are looking for compelling evidence that you are worthy of an interview invitation, and activities descriptions, especially for an applicant who doesn’t have “over the top stats,” can make or break this decision. In fact, a few schools openly state that they now place greater emphasis on the activities than on the personal statement.

What titles do I write? What if I don’t have a contact name? What do I put down for the hours? Don’t become overly focused on these decisions. Give the activity a descriptive title and a logical category. You won’t necessarily have a contact for every activity. Your hours worked may have varied over the course of your involvement in any given activity. As with everything in your application, be as honest and accurate as possible. If you participated in one activity every other week for five hours over the course of two years, then state that. Only in extreme cases does anyone actually call a contact or verify your involvement. This is medicine, and to some degree, it is assumed that you are honest and professional. That said, never lie or write something that isn’t true and don’t over-embellish. If you worked in a lab, for example, and only spent your summer pipetting and entering data in a computer, then state that. But, to enhance the entry, you could also write that this experience provided the foundation for a laboratory experience you had later on in which you did have greater responsibility.

As you write your activities, think not only about what you did during that activity but what it meant to you, what you learned and how it influenced your path and choices. As I always tell clients, the best applications demonstrate passion, enthusiasm, insight and introspection. Admissions committee members want to see your commitment to and understanding of the practice of medicine, but they also want to know that you are passionate about what you do. They don’t want your participation to be superficial, which gives the impression that you take on activities just for the sake of doing so. Demonstrate that your involvement is deep and that you actually learn something from everything in which you participate.

You cannot influence the order in which your activities are listed; the system automatically lists them in chronological order. The most recent activities are listed first and the more distant last. Consider this as you write your activities since this is the order in which the vast majority of reviewers will read your experience descriptions. For example, let’s say that your last shadowing or clinically relevant experience was two years ago, and you have seven other more recent experiences that the system will place ahead of that clinical experience.  In this situation, it would behoove you to “get some experience” that involves clinical exposure or revisit the doctor you shadowed two years ago so the dates for this experience can be entered as 20XX – present and be at the head of the list. In the description narrative, you would explain that you have shadowed this doctor off and on for two years.

You should devote as much time to composing your activity descriptions as you do to writing your personal statement. And, keep in mind that reviewers typically read your activities descriptions before your personal statement since this is the predetermined order of the application. You want them to read your statement with a “good impression” of who you are based on what they have already read in your activity descriptions. This “halo effect” will then influence the way they interpret your personal statement and will more likely lead to an interview invitation.

Jessica Freedman, MD, a former medical admissions officer, is president of MedEdits, a medical school, residency and fellowship admissions consulting firm. She is also the author of the MedEdits blog, and The Medical School Interview: From preparation to thank you notes