Tips for Surviving Medical School

By Dr. Lisabetta Divita

If you are considering medical school, it is important to realize the commitment of time, energy, and money this represents. While being a physician has countless personal and financial rewards, the path to achieving that goal is fraught with trials of different sorts.

The decision to become a doctor should not be made without significant thought and personal reflection—you should be honest with yourself when you arrive at this decision. Also, you should be fully aware of what is involved in medical education, particularly medical school.

If after careful thought you still strongly desire to wear the long white coat, you should steel yourself for a bumpy ride. You should also acquire as many tips and tricks that you can—and implement them—starting on the very first day of classes.

MS-1 and MS-2

The first realization that needs to be made, essentially from day one, is the sheer quantity of facts that will need to be committed to memory. While you certainly had challenging classes as a premedical student, most college classes pale in comparison to the enormity of material presented in preclinical courses.

Take a good, hard look at the way you studied in college. What worked? What did not? Do you study best alone or in a group? Could you benefit from studying a little alone and in a group? Do you get more from a lecturer or from reading notes/books? You need to know what works for you and then do it religiously starting on the first day of classes. If you did not need to study too much during college to get great grades, good luck to you. There will be little time to experiment with different study styles once classes start.

The best approach is to assume that the volume of material conveyed in medical school will far exceed your experiences in college. Therefore you will need to develop new and reliable study habits within the first few weeks. Organization is a top priority. Make sure that you have a copy of any material that could be asked on an exam. This could be slides, notes, lectures, and required reading. These things do not need to be purchased in all cases, but if you are going to rely on community or free resources, you must be able to guarantee that they will be there when you need to study them.

How will you know what could be asked on an exam? Obtaining exams from previous years is perhaps the most important investment you could make. Get copies of previous exams. Old exams give you the best idea of the style and scope of questions that will be asked. There is simply too much information not to focus; the best way to focus is to get a feel for how previous classes were tested.

Remember, too, that each preclinical course will be taught by dozens of faculty. Each faculty member may lecture as little as one hour to several hours, but the material will be presented by several. Therefore the questions that faculty submits for the exam will be of different styles and degrees of difficulty. Individual faculty lecturers are mostly the same from year to year (as are their lectures) so their questions will be similar from year to year as well.

Everything that was uttered during lecture and contained in the syllabus or notes is fair game for the exam. The lecture and notes should be the starting points for each course and then work your way out from there. If the notes are thin or the lecture was a bit rushed, make sure you consult a book or study guide to fill in the material. Often a lecturer will provide the primary literature from which the lecture was drawn. If you can manage it, take at least one look at this material. Many times, this is what the lecturer would have said if there was more time. This material is also likely to be the source of exam questions. It takes legwork on your part but it can be very worthwhile.

There will be plenty of resources at your disposal; too many, really. For instance, many MS I students buy a copy of Harrison’s during first year. This is a very, very dense book and not a very efficient way to spend your limited study time. Likewise, most first year students will diligently buy all of the required textbooks without delay. You will learn that this is not always necessary or a good idea.

Realize that your primary goal during years I and II is to get A/Honors/Pass on your medical school courses. Preparation for Step I of the USMLE or COMLEX will come later. In the first two years, it is all about the grades. Study time should be about the exam and learning the content that will be tested. Sure, the interesting stuff may beckon you to read further, but make sure not to substitute depth for sufficient breadth. Read it all once (or thrice) and come back for the interesting stuff if there is time.

Even if you are a “solo study” type, it is best to have a core group of classmates that you can count on for notes/study materials/borrowing books/crying fits. This relationship is a give and take, so be there for the group when needed and they will be there for you. Organize your studying such that you are a valuable resource to them as well. Being aloof with your peers can really cost you at test time. Reach out to your classmates early so you have a network in place when you need it.

Recommended Books for the first two years of medical school

Note, these are just suggestions and not something you have to rush out to the bookstore and buy.

  • Atlas of Human Anatomy by Sharon Colacino
  • ŸGross Anatomy, Board Review Series by Kyung Won Chung
  • Lippincott’s Illustrated Reviews, Biochemistry by Denise R. Ferrier
  • ŸTextbook of Medical Physiology by John E. Hall
  • ŸRapid Interpretation of EKGs by Dale Dubin

MS-3 and MS-4

Preparation starts before the first clinical rotation. Ask students transitioning from third to fourth year what is required on the wards. Learn about a SOAP note and how to write one. Learn about a third year’s place on a medical or surgical service. If you can, find out which attendings like to teach, which attendings are “good” and which attendings are “malignant.” Some attending physicians are very particular—learning about their quirks ahead of time can save you when you present patients.

Also, get the practical things in order before the first day of third year to the extent that you can. If your hospital uses paper charts, know where they are and what they look like. Open one up and see how it is organized. If the charts are computerized, make sure you have adequate access (usernames and passwords). You will be running to the clinical lab and radiology a lot during third year, know how to get there quickly and where the respective staff members usually hang out. Get a handle on the nursing station and key staff on the floor/unit. You should have a vague sense of the different job titles and functions.

Your goals during third and fourth year expand a bit. Grades are still important, but learning how to take care of patients is really the top priority. If your focus is to always provide the best care of your assigned patient, the learning and grades should fall into place (with hard work and effort, of course).

You will probably have one or perhaps two patients at a time while on the wards. Those patients are also cared for by an intern, primarily. You should try to take ownership for your assigned patients as much as possible without stepping on the intern’s toes. You should know darn near everything there is to know about your patients, which can be a challenge when you are “sharing” with an intern. The intern will be writing orders, getting study results, doing procedures, and making calls of behalf of the patient at lightning speed. Many things will be happening that you never know about until they are old news. The intern will move faster than you (get used to it), especially when you are new to the clinical years.

  • DO NOT slow the interns/residents down
  • DO care for your patient whenever possible
  • DO assist/perform as many procedures as possible (IVs, central lines, arthrocenteses, paracenteses, etc.)
  • DO get all labs/study results as soon as they are ready
  • DO personally experience all interesting physical findings (your patient or not)
  • DO ask the senior resident/fellow general questions
  • DO ask the intern questions about your patient (that you cannot find out yourself)
  • DO NOT switch these last two items. In other words, DO NOT pimp the intern and DO NOT ask the resident/fellow about lab results

Also make sure that you know how to present patients. This skill will serve you for the rest of your career and it will be used to determine your clinical grade. Medical students like to include everything in the H&P during the presentation. This is painful for the attending and the team. Alternatively, if you do not mention the pertinent negatives along with pertinent positives, your attending will wonder what was omitted. Perfect patient presentation is not something you can do right away—however you can certainly practice it. Listen carefully to everyone that presents patients. What causes the attending to interrupt? What causes the attending to zone out or look exasperated? What questions does the attending ask and when? Adjust and improve your presentation accordingly.

Some attendings are impossible to please and are maliciously rude—the so-called malignant attendings. These unique individuals need to be taken with a respectful grain of salt. It is the (bad) luck of the draw if you find yourself with one of these attendings. If you do, keep in mind that 1) your rotation will be over in a few days/weeks 2) what the attending wants, the attending gets 3) your performance in the clinical years and in your career will be based on the input and training of hundreds of doctors (and patients). Do not let a few malignant attendings spoil your clinical experience. Simply cater to their capricious whims for a few weeks and write an appropriate review once the grades are submitted. Malignant attendings are a sad fact of life, but over time they seem to get relieved of most teaching responsibilities, which was probably their goal anyway.

Recommended Books for third and fourth years

  • First Aid for the USMLE Step 1 and 2 by Tao Le and Vikas Bhushan
  • Maxwell Quick Medical Reference by Robert W. Maxwell
  • Tarascon Pocket Pharmocopeia by Steven M. Green
  • Blueprints Obstetrics and Gynecology by Aaron B. Caughey
  • Step up to Medicine by Elizabeth A. Darby
  • Surgical Recall by Lorne Blackbourne

These are just some tips to use during your journey in medical school. Don’t be discouraged throughout your first two years of medical school and patiently wade through the massive amounts of material. Learn as much as you can in during your third and fourth years and do not become discouraged if you encounter a malignant attending. Best of luck on your medical school journey!

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

This article was originally published on on February 21, 2010.

The Art of Obtaining a Stellar Letter of Recommendation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Letter of Recommendation 

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

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

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

Stellar Letter of Recommendation 

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Logistics: Self-addressed stamped envelopes.

4) A good attitude and a smile!

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

Dual Degree Medical Programs

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

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

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

MD/PhD: The physician-scientist

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

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

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

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

MD/MPH: The global physician

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

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

MD/MBA: The physician-executive

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

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

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

MD/JD: The physician-attorney

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

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

Questions to Consider

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

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

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

2. Can I afford it?

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

3. Is now the best time?

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

4. Am I compromising my education by combining degrees?

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


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

About the Author

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


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

A Comprehensive Approach to Preparing for the MCAT Verbal

By Andrew Nguyen, Christine Nguyen, and Steven Strother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex M. Jennings

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

Personal Narratives

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service. (2011). AACOMAS Application Instructions 2012, 13. Retrieved from

American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). (2011). How to apply. Retrieved from

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. Retrieved from

Freedman, J. (2010). Personal statement myths. Retrieved from

Harvard Medical School (HMS). (2011). Class Statistics. Retrieved from

Harvard University. (2011). The Medical School Personal Statement. [Powerpoint Presentation]. Retrieved from 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

Not Another Crayon in the Box: Writing a Successful Personal Statement for Medical School Part 1

By Alex M. Jennings

Although there are numerous options for writing a personal statement (PS), successful ones incorporate insightful personal narratives into standard rhetorical moves, captivating medical school admissions committees while relaying pertinent information. Every year, competition to get into medical school gets fiercer. As a result, successful applicants have increasingly higher MCAT scores and GPAs, making it harder for individuals to stand out. The application’s PS section is what provides this opportunity. Though it cannot substitute for low scores, it can be a deciding factor in whether or not students are accepted. It is a personal essay, which presents applicants as individuals, future-physicians, and ideal candidates for their medical schools of choice. The most compelling studies and expert opinions indicate that successful PSs tend to follow five major rhetorical steps as they incorporate personal narratives. Following these suggestions will help medical school applicants to secure that much-coveted interview.

You’ve worked hard as an undergraduate, earning a respectable GPA and competitive MCAT scores. Experiences in leadership, community service, research, and physician-shadowing line your resume. Your favorite professors, boss, and director of the local hospital volunteer program have all written you glowing letters of recommendation. Now you want to apply to medical school, and you think you have a good chance of making it into your top choices. Does this sound like you?

Unfortunately, this generic profile describes almost every one of the thousands of applicants to medical school each year. According to their “Class Statistics” webpage, Harvard Medical School’s entering class this year (2011) has an average GPA of 3.8 and composite MCAT score of 36, not to mention a wealth of diverse backgrounds and pre-medical experiences. For a class size of 165, they received over 5,400 applications—a 3% acceptance rate (HMS, 2011). Yet Harvard is hardly alone among the nation’s one hundred and sixty-one MD/DO programs in statistics like these. This begs the question: When standing shoulder to shoulder with the nation’s best and brightest, how do you stand tall enough to be seen? The answer lies within one of the most overlooked areas of the medical school application—the personal statement. This is what makes you stick out, so applications committees can tell you’re “not just another crayon in the box.” Although there are numerous options for writing a PS, successful ones incorporate insightful personal narratives into five standard rhetorical moves, captivating medical school admissions committees while relaying pertinent information.

The Role of the Personal Statement

The PS is unique within professional writing. Though it is a crucial part of medical education, professionals in the field do not write it—only novices do (Bekins et al., 2004). As a result, successful writing instruction is often overlooked by pre-medical courses, so applicants are often lacking in formal instruction on how to write a good PS. Years of science-heavy instruction (the most common background for pre-meds) only exacerbates this problem by limiting writing to research reports and academic analyses.

Unfortunately, the prompt given in the AMCAS application doesn’t offer much more clarification. It reads: “The Essay(s) section is where you will compose your personal comments explaining any pertinent information not included elsewhere in the application.” Other than this vague instruction, the only other criteria given by the application is. “The available space for this essay is 5300 characters (spaces are counted as characters), or approximately one page” (AMCAS, 2011). For the osteopathic (DO) schools application, the character restriction is limited to 4500, including spaces (AACOMAS, 2011). So what kind of “pertinent information” you should share?

The personal statement is your opportunity to show the most “pertinent information” of all: the genuine, diligent, driven, future physician behind all the numbers. “What we can’t tell from grades and scores,” says one admissions committee member, “is whether the applicant will thrive in a medical career. That’s where the PS comes in (Bekins et al., 2004).” This is your chance to show that you are the kind of person who will “thrive in a medical career.” But how?

According to Pat Fero, the director of admissions at the University of Washington, one mistake many applicants make is “discussing their intellectual capabilities as a major factor in being a good candidate for medicine” (Stewart, 2002). The reason why, she gives, is because it is redundant. Your application already contains sections for coursework, test scores, research, community service, etc.—lists that show what you have accomplished. While these experiences may seem unique to you, they demonstrate intellectual capacities shared by the majority of applicants. In contrast, the PS is what brings these somewhat generic statistics to life, giving the evaluators a glimpse into your mind and heart. This is your first chance to show, rather than tell, who you are.

To write a successful PS, follow the style moves suggested by experts, but tailor them to your own experience. Despite following a similar format, PSs reveal individuality by sharing thoughtful, personal insights.The most successful PSs do two things: they follow a standard rhetorical format and use authentic personal narratives.

Standard Rhetorical Format

In order to succeed in any professional career, you must first have a good understanding of rhetoric. This is defined as “the art of discourse…that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations” (Corbett, 1990). In the case of the PS, you are the writer, your audience is the applications committee, and your intent is to get them to extend you an interview. This is where the “rhetorical steps” come in.

The most successful PSs follow five rhetorical steps. These have been observed by several independent researchers, in collaboration with admissions committee evaluators, who analyzed hundreds of PSs looking for rhetorical trends (Jones & Baer, 2003). The five steps are the “hook”, program, background, self-promotion, and projection (Bekins et al., 2004).

As a word of caution, these steps should not form separate paragraphs; rather, they are tools to help you to “inform, persuade, or motivate” your audience (Corbett, 1990). As such, they should be worked into the fabric of your PS without overtly drawing attention to themselves. These five rhetorical moves are the wooden frame supporting the fascinating self-portrait you are painting into the personal essay section.

The first step is called the “hook,” because it is what immediately catches your reader’s attention. “The best essays,” writes expert Juliet Farmer from, “grab the reader’s attention on the first read, and hold it even if it’s the last essay of the day for the reader.” This could be achieved with a quote, story, or anecdote, as long as it is directly applicable to the scope of your essay.

Next comes the “program.” This is where you briefly answer the question, “Why do you want to go to medical school (i.e. this ‘program’)?” In regards to this topic, Fero states: “At [the University of Washington], when the committee members read the AMCAS personal statements they look for motivation–why the individual really wants to go into medicine; what really gave him or her the ‘call’, so to speak” (Stewart, 2002). They know how difficult medical school is, and therefore need assurance that applicants are dedicated in their decision to pursue medicine.

Move three, “background,” is your chance to explain what in your background qualifies you for medical school. Often, writers combine this with other moves, choosing to tell a story which shows their preparation for and drive toward medicine. This is not just a resume listing your achievements; rather, it describes what you gained from your most important life experiences. According to Barton et al. (2004), this typically includes personal narratives of experiences relating to illness, injury, death, medicine, work, sports, hobbies, or travel.

Due to short face time with the applications committee reader, the PS needs to “function as both an essay and an advertisement” (Farmer, 2007). So, after hooking your audience, explaining why you want to join the program, and presenting your background, it is now your time to “advertise”. Self-promotion, in this sense, is where you mention your volunteer work at the homeless shelter, your participation in a vaccination program in India, or other relevant experience with work, school, volunteering, extracurricular activities, or hobbies. Be careful, though, to only briefly include those details which are relevant, and not to waste time or space mentioning interesting but irrelevant experiences. This needs to be meaningful and help your audience connect to you, not just a list of impressive details.

The last of the rhetorical moves is the “projection” move. This is the stage where you outline your career goals, your life aspirations. Where do you see yourself in twenty years? Whether you see yourself pioneering new techniques in heart surgery or making home visits in rural America, you should share this vision. Doing so will reveal to your audience that you have carefully considered your options, and that you have a real goal to become a physician.

These five rhetorical moves give you a framework with which to structure your essay. But yet again, if the most successful PSs use this format, what will make yours stand out? This is where authentic personal narrative come into play.

Come back next week for the second part of the series where the author discusses personal narratives and offers final thoughts about how to write a winning personal statement.

This article was originally published on on September 19, 2012.

American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine Application Service. (2011). AACOMAS Application Instructions 2012, 13. Retrieved from
American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). (2011). How to apply. Retrieved from
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. Retrieved from
Freedman, J. (2010). Personal statement myths. Retrieved from
Harvard Medical School (HMS). (2011). Class Statistics. Retrieved from
Harvard University. (2011). The Medical School Personal Statement. [Powerpoint Presentation]. Retrieved from 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

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 ( 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!

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 on November 30, 2011.

How to Survive Medical School Without Becoming a Patient

By Anthony Youn, MD, FACS

The road to becoming a doctor is long and hard. Your four years in medical school will be some of the most difficult, sleep-deprived, stressful, exhausting, humbling, yet ultimately rewarding of your life. Not everyone can survive the grueling process of becoming a physician.

I completed medical school at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. I did pretty well, but at times worried that I was going to flunk out and become a lab rat for the rest of my life.

Looking back, most physicians have certain words of advice they wished they heard prior to or during medical school. Some of the advice may be practical, some tongue-in-cheek, and others profound. I’ve compiled eleven tips that can help you survive medical school without ending up as a patient.

Pre-Medical School

Have Fun Before You Start – The day your medical school orientation begins, life as you know it is over. For the next four years you will be dedicated to learning everything it takes to become a doctor. This means that you will never again have a real summer vacation. So the summer before medical school is a key time for you to HAVE FUN. Do some travelling, hang out at the beach, read trashy vampire novels, and see some old friends and family. Just don’t study. Plenty of time for that later.

Minimize Distractions – When preparing for medical school life, it’s best to minimize any distractions from your prime objective: studying. Overall, medical school means study. And then study some more. And when you finish all that studying, you will definitely feel the need to study. That means you should cancel your Netflix subscription, since your days of watching an entire season of Dexter in one sitting are over. You will not have time to play Angry Birds. Don’t spend a ton of dough on a brand new 3-D television. Either you’ll feel obligated to watch it instead of studying, causing your test scores to drop, or you will neglect it and waste your money.

Live Off Campus – One of the biggest mistakes I made was signing up to live in the graduate dorm. Living in a dorm room comes with distractions. The walls are thin, people are awake and talking at all hours, and my room was the size of a veal pen with comparable aesthetics. I spent my first evening as a med student wide awake listening to my neighbor flushing the toilet. All night. This is not the way to start life as a doctor-in-training. You are no longer a college student. Get an apartment.

Relax – You’ve made it. The weeding out process is over. Once you receive the golden ticket of admission to medical school, you are almost certainly going to be a doctor. This is not like undergrad, where the professor tells you, “Look to your left. Look to your right. Only one of you will become a doctor.” On the contrary, it’s more like, “Look to your left. Look to your right. All of you will become doctors… except that shifty-looking guy in the corner.” So relax. The next four years will be tough, but you will survive and get your M.D. or D.O. like the majority of other medical students.

During Medical School

Balance – Don’t neglect sleep, eating a balanced diet, and regular exercise. I took up running in medical school. Now, don’t get me wrong. I hate running. But as a medical student I began running because it was the most efficient and quickest way to burn a bunch of calories and get back to studying as soon as possible. Most importantly, keep in contact with the ones you love, especially your parents, your spouse, and (if you have any) children. You will need these relationships to help support you during the trying times of med school. Plus, you will need people to practice your physical exams and blood draws on.

Run Away – Every so often get away from campus and visit some old friends. Get perspective on life. Sometimes it’s therapeutic to chat with someone over dinner about something other than disgusting parasitic diseases or the Kreb’s Cycle. Spend time talking with people in other fields and remind yourself that there is life outside of medical school.

Look Professional – This is not the Hard Rock Café. You may want to consider getting rid of your chin or lip piercings, gauge earrings, funky hair, Justin Beiber concert T’s, and jeggings. Patients expect their doctors to look mature and professional. Doctors expect the same out of their medical students. Look the part, and others will believe you in the role.

Wear Plastic Shoes – Take a tip from the nurses and buy a pair of plastic shoes, such as Crocs. Your shoes are going to come into contact with a variety of colored bodily fluids, just like your blindingly white short lab coat. Crocs and other plastic/rubber slip-on shoes are comfortable, perfect for a night on call, and easy to hose off after a direct hit from afterbirth on your OB rotation.

Network – Take some time during your few weeks off in medical school to network. Meet doctors in your specialty of interest by shadowing them in their offices and volunteering in clinics. At the beginning of your fourth year you will need at least one doctor to write you a letter of recommendation. In medicine, who you know and what they say about you counts a ton.

Be Realistic – Hard work and desire aren’t always enough. If you fail a bunch of exams and have mediocre board scores you may need to reassess your specialty of choice. Sure, the last student in the graduating class is called “Doctor” – but they probably won’t be called “ophthalmologist,” “orthopedic surgeon,” or “dermatologist.”

Don’t Take It Personally – There is a definite hierarchy in the hospital. As a medical student you’ve got sixteen years of schooling under your belt and were probably at the top of your high school and college classes. So where do you lie on the hospital food chain? The BOTTOM. You will undoubtedly encounter physicians and nurses who treat you like dirt. In my book I described a nurse who threatened to cut off my scrub pants in the middle of an operation, leaving me with only my smiley face Joe Boxers. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Do not take it personally. Embrace the fact that you are a student and use your four years of medical school to learn as much as possible. You owe it to yourself, your teachers, and especially, your future patients.

Good luck!

Anthony Youn, MD, FACS is a board-certified plastic surgeon in Metro Detroit. He is an Assistant Professor of Surgery at the Oakland University / William Beaumont School of Medicine. He is the author of In Stitches, a critically-acclaimed, humorous memoir about medical school. For more information, visit

This article was originally published on on May 30, 2012.

What Will You Do If You Don’t Get Into Medical School?

The end of another interview season is upon us. I hope this was your year to get the big envelope that said, “Congratulations. You’ve been accepted into medical school!”

For those who didn’t get in this round, I’m sorry. In hopes of helping next year’s campaign, I want to give you some information that may aid in answering a commonly asked interview question, as well as give you some ideas for your summer plans.

What Will You Do If You Don’t Get In?

No doubt you’ve been asked “What will you do if you don’t get into medical school?” at every interview you’ve gone through. It seemed to be a classic during my interviews.

I used to think the question was a little bit odd and wasn’t too sure what the interviewer was looking for. Was the interviewer asking this because things weren’t looking good for my application? Was it designed to see how I would react under pressure? It’s not necessarily any of the above. I think this question focuses on one thing: commitment. It also provides an opportunity for you to discuss a few other areas of your application that can make you shine.

A good approach to the question is summed up in the four following points:

  • Tell them that you will reapply
  • Try to learn what areas the committee felt were weak in your application
  • Work on correcting those weaknesses
  • Continue to better yourself with the things that you love.

Reapply = Commitment

One of the major factors the admissions committee is trying to assess during the interview is your level of commitment to becoming a physician. There’s good reason for this. The process is challenging to say the least and a career as a physician remains a difficult, yet rewarding, labor of love. Some might say that it’s even more difficult in light of the current tumultuous health care environment. Why would anyone commit to such an endeavor? That’s a very good question and one that the admissions committee is trying to get you to answer.

A committed person understands the good and bad of a situation and still wants to pursue the desired end: in your case, becoming a physician. However, how can you demonstrate that you really are committed to a career in medicine? One main way is to reapply if you don’t get accepted.

I would be preaching to the choir if I belabored the painstaking details and challenges that go into applying to medical school. It’s an enormous undertaking. It’s hard to do once, let alone several times. However, admissions committees weigh the number of times an applicant has applied to medical school quite heavily in their assessment. To a certain extent their view is “the more the merrier.” In other words, you can definitively demonstrate your level of commitment to becoming a physician by continuing to reapply to medical school. This is all the more true if you make your application stronger each cycle. You’re demonstrating commitment and steady improvement. Those are two key characteristics admissions committees are looking for.

What Went Wrong?

Many medical schools will offer explanations to rejected applicants who interviewed with them as to why they were not accepted. Some of these explanations are more detailed than others. Nevertheless, this information is invaluable, especially if you notice a pattern across a number of schools. If you consistently hear back from schools that your MCAT score was too low or that you interview poorly, then you will have the best target on which to focus your future efforts for improvement.

The bottom line is that there is probably no greater information that will help you to improve your application than a consistent theme from schools that did not accept you. Your ability to understand this fact and communicate it to your interviewer goes a long way in reassuring her that you’re committed to strengthening any weaknesses and are serious about becoming a physician.

Work In Progress

The great thing about the question, “What will you do if you don’t get into medical school?” is that it’s totally hypothetical. It’s something that may or may not be a reality for you in the future. Anything having to do with the future involves speculation, so be sure to speculate in your favor. Meaning, don’t be afraid to throw out some bold plans. Furthermore, the plans should address any weak areas of your application.

For example, if you know that you lack a lot of research on your application, then tell them that you’d join a research project and explore this area of medicine. Or tell them that you’ve had research ideas of your own that you’d like to put to the test. Perhaps you’re lacking clinical experience. This is the perfect time to tell them that you’d shadow a doctor in the ER for the next year or volunteer at a local clinic. The situation provides a nice canvas for you to paint a great picture of a new and improved you!

Summer Plans

If you find yourself on the outside looking in with regards to medical school, then take the next couple of months to find out what areas are weakest in your application and use this summer to specifically work on them. That may mean retaking a class to improve a low grade or studying for the next MCAT or giving 20 hours a week to a clinical venue. Whatever it is, use this summer to improve your application so that next summer you’ll only have to focus on preparing for your first year as a medical student.

Focus On Your Passions

I think it’s wise to take the opportunity to show the interviewer a bit more about some of your unique attributes and passions. For some, this is their senior year of college, and if they don’t get into medical school they’ll have a great deal of time on their hands. Remembering that this question is hypothetical, tell them that you’d take a class or do something off the wall.

Perhaps you’ve always wanted to learn more about the government’s affects on healthcare or study a new language or dedicate a significant amount of time to volunteer work. Choose something that you like and that shows some of your depth and non-medical interests. These activities and passions go a long way in showing you to be a real person who is dynamic and has a life outside of the confines of medicine. Admissions committees are looking for people who possess a broad range of talents and interests.

Bringing It All Together

A sample answer might sound something like this:

Well, if I don’t get accepted into medical school, I think the first thing I’d do is try to figure out what the committee felt were the weaknesses in my application. I’d focus my time addressing those areas specifically. I would then reapply. My heart is set on becoming a great physician and I’m going to keep at this endeavor until I succeed.

I would also like to increase my clinical exposure. I’ve had some good shadowing opportunities but I think it would be better for me to start to make some clinical decisions on my own. That’s why I would complete my EMT training so I can get some high quality, hands-on experience. 

Lastly, I’ve always wanted to learn to speak Spanish. I think it would be really useful in my day-to-day interactions so I would probably do an online course or something like that. I’d certainly be busy but I really think these goals would make me an even stronger applicant next year.


“What will you do if you don’t get into medical school?” is a common question that provides an amazing opportunity to discuss your commitment to the field of medicine, your future self-improvement plans and provide a further glimpse into your unique characteristics and passions. The hypothetical nature of this question gives you ample room for creative answers and provides the opportunity to put a positive spin on potentially weak areas of your application.

Good luck with your summer plans and future interviews. I hope you rock them both.

This article was originally published on on June 8, 2011.

Medical School Interviews: 6 Common Mistakes That Admissions Officers Hate

By Joel Butterly

Medical school interviews come in all different shapes and sizes. Some schools interview one-on-one, some have multiple interviewers, some have multiple-mini-interviews (MMI). Some schools use students, others use faculty, and some use alumni.

In preparing this article, I interviewed admissions officers from the top medical schools – Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Penn, UCSF, and others. What I found was that their advice on med school interviews varied tremendously.

However, nearly every person I interviewed commented on several common mistakes that applicants are constantly making. These aren’t always deal-breaking mistakes, but for an applicant who is right on the cusp of admission, avoiding these mistakes can be the difference between a fat envelope and a thin rejection letter.

1. Don’t assume that the interviewer knows how serious you are about becoming a doctor.
In your interview, you must demonstrate that you are fully committed to this field, and convey a clear sense of purpose in your professional goals. Never assume that applying and showing up for an interview is sufficient evidence of your commitment. Here’s why:

Admissions officers have a job. For medical school admissions officers, that job includes vetting and selecting the best possible students for their program. One of the most important criteria by which these admissions officers are judged is the dropout rate. If 20% of the students that they admit end up dropping out midway through medical school, it reflects terribly on the admissions officers who selected them.

Moreover, medical students are extremely expensive. Medical schools pour hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of dollars into training their students. Every time a student drops out, that money is wasted. Even the wealthiest medical schools cannot afford too many dropouts.

Long story short, admissions committees are extremely sensitive to indications that an applicant will “go the distance.” You would do well to convey this to your interviewer. Similarly, admissions committees are extremely sensitive to indications that an applicant is not 100% sure that medical school is right for them.

The most common example cited by admissions officers was that applicants, when asked why they wanted to attend medical school, would routinely respond that their parents are doctors. This is never a good strategy. To an admissions officer, this is like saying that you are going to move to Bhutan because your friend did it and seemed to enjoy it. Of course, you can mention that your parents are physicians, but leading with this fact is a surefire way of indicating that you haven’t thought your decision through.

Moreover, when asked why you wish to become a doctor, make your answer specific. Don’t say, “I’ve always wanted to help people.” Say how you want to help people. Better yet, give a short story that is representative of what you want to do, and why. The more specific and concrete, the more likely you are to seem like a safe bet to admissions officers.

2. Understand how difficult medical school and practicing medicine can be – and be able to explain why this isn’t a problem for you
Admissions officers want to make absolutely certain that applicants know what they are getting themselves into. The reality is that very few, if any applicants truly understand the commitment it takes to see themselves through medical school and residency.

Nonetheless, you might consider talking with some current residents or recent residency graduates to figure out what the absolute worst parts about becoming a doctor are. You should probably know this for your own sake, but for the purposes of the interview, being well-informed about the downsides of medical school and practicing medicine is a huge asset.

If your interviewer doesn’t think you know what you are getting yourself into, they may reject you because they don’t think you’ll be able to stomach the challenges. It is crucial that you show them otherwise.

Spend some time thinking about how to address these “downsides” in an interview. You could rephrase them as a positive feature: “I love intense working environments, and I think working late-nights in the hospital when there are a million things to do, and not enough people to do them, would be really exhilarating.” Obviously, you don’t want to be too over-the-top, or the interviewer will know you’re full of it.

You might also explain why these downsides don’t matter, in light of other considerations. Maybe you are so determined and passionate about a certain aspect of medicine, that these things are a small price to pay.

Bottom line: make sure that you take a moment in your interview – if at all possible – to show that you know something about the challenges you will face, and that you are fully committed to facing them head-on.

3. Compassion is key – don’t forget to show that you’re human 
Shockingly, many students go into the interview too scared or too hyped-up to demonstrate a critical characteristic: compassion. Without compassion – and a lot of it – practicing medicine is nearly impossible.

Make sure that you don’t ignore the human element of your candidacy. Interviewers know your test scores, your GPA, they’ve seen your resume…now show them that there is a compassionate, amiable human being behind it all.

Admissions committees (at least for many of the top-ranked schools) sit and debate whether an applicant should be admitted. Your interviewer will probably speak or write on your behalf during these deliberations. If you have failed to convey your compassion and amiability during your interview, chances are good that your interviewer will not fight too hard if other members of the committee decide to pass on your application. Thus, you cannot give the impression that you lack compassion; if you do, your allies on the admissions committee will be dramatically reduced.

4. A Student Interviewer is not an excuse to relax
Most applicants breathe a small sigh of relief when they find out that they are being interviewed by a medical student. This is a mistake for two reasons.

First, these student interviewers are more likely to be an “interviewer-from-hell” than their senior counterparts. They are eager to prove how rigorous and devoted they are, and that might translate to a much more aggressive and rigorous interview style.

Second, admissions committees do not send in student interviewers with the expectation that they will perform a different job than any other interviewer. They are assessing the same things as the more seasoned interviewers, and so you should maintain the same level of composure and professionalism as you would for any other interview.

A number of admissions officers and student interviewers have told me that many applicants seem to think that they can be more casual when a student is interviewing them. The truth is that while this is sometimes the case, most applicants go way too far. This is an interview, not a social interaction, and trying to act like you’re talking with a friend on the street will only make you seem unprofessional and unqualified.

Bottom line: keep it professional.

5. Know your application
Many interviewers will have your application right in front of them. Sometimes, they will start the interview asking you questions about different parts of your application. You need to know your application(s) by heart. If you put something in the activities/experiences section of the AMCAS application, and can’t remember what you wrote when your interviewer asks about it, you are going to look foolish, if not dishonest. This happens surprisingly often.

Bottom line: You should be able to recall every part of your application, so that you can talk about it fluently if and when you are asked.

6. Be honest about your weaknesses 
Many interviewers ask applicants about their weaknesses. When discussing your weaknesses, honesty and candor can make the difference between a great response and one which will, at best, do nothing for your chances of admission.

Your biggest weakness is not that you work too hard, care too much, take on too many challenges, are too hard on yourself, or any other strength-disguised-as-a-weakness. As soon as you give one of these self-serving responses, you have grouped yourself into the roughly 50% of applicants (according to one source) who believe that offering one of their positive characteristics as their “biggest weakness” is an effective strategy. It isn’t. Admissions officers see right through this, and are likely to feel that you are either too immature to be self-reflective, or too dishonest to give a straightforward answer.

This doesn’t mean that you should go nuts criticizing yourself. Don’t say that you are a heavy drinker, a drug addict, a criminal, or a psychopath; you’re right to keep those thing to yourself. However, you can and should talk about things that you really do struggle with, and how you’re working to improve on those things (this latter component is very important).

For example, maybe you are easily frustrated, have difficulty taking orders, or struggle to memorize long lists of details. What is important is that you recognize these things, and explain that (and how) you are working on improving them. This shows honesty, integrity, and maturity – all things which medical schools want to see in their students.

Bottom line: you have weaknesses which are undesirable. Pick one of them, work on it, and then tell your interviewer about it with a straight face.

Joel Butterly is a JD Student at Yale University and received his AB in Government & International Studies from Dartmouth University.

This article was originally published on on December 22, 2013.