How to Prepare for Multiple Mini-Interviews, Part 2

By Jeremiah Fleenor, MD, MBA

In part 1 of this two part series we looked at some of the reasons why ADCOMs (admissions committes) are searching for a new way to assess an applicant’s personality. The correlation between an applicant’s GPA and their future success in the didactical components of medical school is well established. The new frontier is a more fair and predictive way to evaluate an applicant’s character, ethics, and communication skills. That evaluation tool seems to be found in the multiple mini-interview (MMI). Continue reading How to Prepare for Multiple Mini-Interviews, Part 2

The Application as a Story

By Eric Rafla-Yuan

All medical schools in the United States are looking for students who display six basic core competencies. The competencies numbered one through four are nearly always required for admission, while competencies five and six are more heavily preferred by schools which place high emphasis on research and leadership. These can be roughly approximated by utilizing the US News & World Report Medical School Research rankings. Continue reading The Application as a Story

Getting into Medical School

By David Steinhardt

Now that my medical school application process has come to an end, I feel a personal responsibility to share some of the knowledge I’ve gained during the process. Throughout this difficult and humbling year, perhaps the most inspiring aspect of applying to medical school was that I began to feel a connection with everyone else who’s completed or is currently completing the same process. I sent countless emails and had numerous conversations about how to gain an acceptance into a school, and am indebted to the doctors and medical students who took the time to help me. Medicine is not the easiest field to be accepted into, it’s also not the highest paying or the best lifestyle – these characteristics bring doctors together, as is the natural human tendency to come together, mentally and emotionally, when marching through trenches.

Continue reading Getting into Medical School

Tales from an Insider: Personal Statement Failures

by Michelle A. Finkel, MD

Imagine this: It’s fifteen years from now, late at night. You’ve completed a long clinical day, had a quick dinner, and now you are ready to relax…

Unfortunately, you can’t: You have twenty personal statements to read by tomorrow. You sit down on the couch, eyeing the documents that will keep you from getting eight hours of sleep, and get to reading. Continue reading Tales from an Insider: Personal Statement Failures

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.

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.

Research

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 StudentDoctor.net 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 StudentDoctor.net on June 6, 2010.

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.

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 StudentDoctor.net, 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.

Conclusion

“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 StudentDoctor.net on September 26, 2012.

References
American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service. (2011). AACOMAS Application Instructions 2012, 13. Retrieved from http://www.aacom.org/Documents/AACOMASInstructions.pdf

American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). (2011). How to apply. Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/how_to_apply/.

Barton, E., Ariail, J., & Smith, T. (2004). The professional in the personal: The genre of personal statements in residency applications. Issues in Writing, 15(1), 76-124.

Bekins, L. K., Huckin, T. N., & Kijak, L. (2004). The personal statement in medical school applications: Rhetorical structure in a diverse and unstable context.Issues in Writing,15(1), 56-75.

Corbett, E. P. J. (1990). Classical rhetoric for the modern student. New York: Oxford University Press, 1.
Farmer, J. (2007). Before you write your personal statement, read this. StudentDoctor.net. Retrieved from http://studentdoctor.net/2007/06/before-you-write-your-personal-statement-read-this/

Freedman, J. (2010). Personal statement myths. StudentDoctor.net. Retrieved from http://studentdoctor.net/2010/04/personal-statement-myths/.

Harvard Medical School (HMS). (2011). Class Statistics. Retrieved from http://hms.harvard.edu/admissions/default.asp?page=statistics

Harvard University. (2011). The Medical School Personal Statement. [Powerpoint Presentation]. Retrieved from http://www.ocs.fas.harvard.edu/students/careers/medicine/applicationprocess/ personal_statement_2011.pdf

Huiling D. (2007). Genre analysis of personal statements: Analysis of moves in application essays to medical and dental schools. English for Specific Purposes, 26(3): 368-392.
Jones, S., & Baer, E. A. (2003). Essays that worked for medical school. Westminster, MD: Ballantine Books, 32-34, 40.

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 http://www.cmu.edu/hpp/achieve/pstips.html

Evidence, Subjectivity, and Medical School Admissions

By Jessica Freedman, MD

To better understand how medical school admissions committees make decisions, think about how you make choices; it is likely that you seek out evidence and data, but subjectivity often plays a role in the process. When you considered which college to attend, for example, you researched curriculums and academic departments, visited campuses and evaluated facilities, considered average SAT scores, and sought out information about what students went on to do after graduation. You also probably tried to remain objective without letting subjective factors influence your choice – such as current students’ opinions, the weather, and your mood and disposition on the day you visited campus — or any other factors that were out of your control. In all likelihood, the more concrete evidence you had that the college was the right fit for you, the less likely that subjective factors influenced your decisions.

In the same way, medical school admissions officers (and admissions officers from other disciplines) are seeking concrete evidence and data that you are an excellent applicant through every step of the admissions process. The more tangible evidence you offer to illustrate the strength of your candidacy, the more likely you are to overcome subjective influences on those officers and the more comfortable admissions committee members will be in deciding to interview or accept you.

Consider Ronald*, a medical school applicant: Ronald offers a Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) cumulative score of 29, an undergraduate grade point average (UGPA) of 3.4 with an upward trend, one year of basic science research experience (no publications), extensive physician shadowing experience, two years of tutoring underserved middle school students, and one full summer spent in India working in rural villages with a group of US physicians. As you can see, Ronald is, by many medical schools’ standards, a “borderline” applicant; he seems to have great experiences but less than stellar academics. Ronald must therefore provide as much evidence as possible that he has the qualities and characteristics that medical school admissions committees are seeking. He must prove that his MCAT and UGPA numbers are not a reflection of his excellence and that he is worthy of an interview and acceptance. But how can he do this?

Ronald must compose effective and thoughtful written documents. To enable admissions committees to consider more than his MCAT scores, UGPA, and letters of reference, Ronald’s written documents must distinguish his candidacy. More medical schools are evaluating applicants holistically, trying to look “beyond the numbers” when considering which applicants to interview and accept. This is why, in the personal statement and application entries, it is essential to write about the evolution of your interest in medicine, the significance of each experience to you, and what insights and lessons resulted from your experiences. Assuming your UGPA and MCAT scores make it past any initial “screens,” your documents must convince application readers that they would want to meet you! If you don’t provide that evidence, a reviewer’s bad mood the day he or she reviews your materials might determine your fate.

If Ronald, for example, wrote about his experiences and path to medical school in a compelling, compassionate, and insightful way, he would provide strong evidence that he was motivated to be a physician and that he was compassionate and empathetic, which are the personal characteristics medical school admissions committees value most highly. By providing evidence beyond the standard “numbers” that he was an excellent candidate, Ronald made his eventual acceptance more likely. In contrast, if Ronald, wrote matter-of-fact documents that didn’t showcase his maturity, insight, compassion, and understanding of what a medical career entails, he would offer less convincing evidence that he was a great candidate and would be more likely to be put “on hold” or “rejected” rather than “interviewed.”

Assuming Ronald reached the interview stage, he would, once again, need to offer evidence for his interest in and understanding of medicine, his empathy, compassion, maturity, and communication skills, all of which are, among other qualities and characteristics, considered essential in medical school applicants. To do this, Ronald would need to have insightful dialogue with his interviewers that shows the depth of what he learned from each experience and illustrates that his personal characteristics match those that medical school admissions committees seek. If, instead, Ronald’s descriptions of his experiences and reasons for wanting to become a doctor are superficial or if his answers to the reviewer’s questions lack reflection the interviewer would more likely think that his MCAT and UGPA are clear reflections of his abilities and that he simply “went through the motions” during his experiences rather than gaining any valuable insights.

Regardless of all your preparations, you cannot control every factor that will influence your interviewer. For example, there is research that shows that the weather can impact how your interviewer reviews your application. Since you cannot control Mother Nature or other subjective influences on admissions outcomes, be sure to provide convincing evidence throughout the process that you are an exceptional applicant by distinguishing your candidacy in whatever way you can. It may help to assume that your application reviewer or interviewer is tired because she was called in to the hospital for an emergency the night before or stepped in a puddle on her way to work and that she is in a really bad mood. So you need to provide her with compelling and interesting documents and fascinating conversations, ideas, and insights, which will make her forget all about the water in her shoe.

Jessica Freedman, M.D., is president of MedEdits Medical Admissions (www.MedEdits.com) and author of the MedEdits Guide to Medical Admissions and The Medical School Interview.

Follow Dr. Freedman and MedEdits on Facebook and Twitter.

*Note: Ronald is a fictitious applicant but his biography is based on many of the applicants with whom I have worked who gained admission to medical school!

References:
AAMC Analysis in Brief, Volume 11, Number 7, September, 2011
New York Times, Think the Answer’s Clear? Look Again, August 30th, 2010, by Katie Hafner.

This article was originally published on StudentDoctor.net on November 30, 2011.