Tips on medical school admissions
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To increase the likelihood of being accepted into medical schools, it is wise to be familiar with the application process and the interview. Since you are asked for more than your GPA and MCAT/DAT scores, it is important to understand how each item you are asked to submit or participate in contributes to achieving your ultimate goal: an acceptance letter.
When to take the MCAT/DAT
The best time to take the MCAT/DAT is right after completing the core courses emphasized on these exams. General Chemistry, Introductory Biology, Introductory Physics, and Organic Chemistry are the most fundamental of all of the disciplines that you should be prepared for, but inclusion of Cell Biology, Biochemistry and/or Genetics coursework would be helpful. Of the two times the exam is offered, the summer date allows you to update your knowledge of these disciplines in the event that you are not taking summer courses. Beyond that, there is no substitute to learning the material as you take the course as though you will have to retain that information forever. This means that a common practice of studying for exams within the forty-eight- to seventy-two-hour period before exams in those courses won't utilize your long-term memory, but the fleeting short-term memory instead.
Pumping up an application
A lot of people ask, "What looks good on my application?" This is like asking what color of paper the application should be printed on. A more productive question for a pre-med/pre-dent student is "How can I become a practitioner of the discipline and an effective servant to my community?" Members of review committees see thousands of applications and eventually notice trends. For example, if a lot of applicants take a challenging course, such as Physics, at a school other than the school granting them a degree, then it looks like people are dodging a course with an eye towards their GPA instead of rising to meet the challenge directly. While admission committees may not scrutinize your transcripts to that degree, it is usually better not to take those chances. The following are some common supplements to your resume that need careful consideration.
Volunteering: This is an opportunity for you to discover if you really want to become a doctor. Many people want to become doctors because they are attracted by the portrayal of physicians on television or the movies. Furthermore, there is a perception that becoming a doctor translates to financial wealth. The truth is that the days of making giant sums of money as a physician are gone. Managed healthcare and increasing malpractice claims/insurance have transformed the landscape for physicians. This is why it is important for you to develop an unvarnished image of what it is really like to be a doctor. If you do not like your experience volunteering, then you won't like practicing medicine.
Volunteering is recommended in one hospital that is considered a county hospital and once in a hospital that is considered fairly affluent. What you will see is that the county hospital has a lower budget for everything from employees to supplies. These hospitals often have to contend with indigent patients, meaning that you will see more domestic violence, drug abuse/overdoses, injuries from shootings and stabbings, as well as the health crises associated with poor education (i.e. obesity, smoking, uncontrolled diabetes, non-compliance with antibiotic therapy, etc...). Contrasting your experience at a county hospital with those of a wealthy clientele in the affluent hospital should define the range of possibilities you may encounter as a practicing physician. This experience could provide interesting topics of conversation during interviews.
How long should you volunteer at a hospital? This question addresses your own reasons for volunteering. Are you doing it to put it on your application, or are you doing it because that is the environment you wish to immerse yourself in? Volunteering for several months is obviously more meaningful than doing it for a couple of weeks.
Minors: This is another way that is commonly used to increase the appeal of a pre-med/dent application, but it is likely to have a marginal impact. Sure, minors in chemistry are an indication of a more challenging curriculum, but there are a zillion people who also have them. Earning a second major is an accomplishment that often stands out, but this does not compensate for having a mediocre GPA or MCAT/DAT score. Majoring in Biology (or a related science field), with a minor in business, anthropology, or Spanish may be more meaningful because it demonstrates scholarship in very different disciplines and that you are not a "science nerd". Med/Dent schools do not want to train people who are not well-rounded human beings.
Shadowing: Also known to admissions committees as "volunteering late", this is an opportunity to interact more closely with a physician without having to commit to anything consistently and avoiding having to do grunge jobs in county hospitals. The upside of this is that you can probably secure a letter of recommendation from the physician.
Probably the most common mistake is the use of negative language. Instead of saying that you "struggled with (something)," people often write that they "overcame a challenge." Sometimes the obvious is the most often overlooked. And, failing to proofread your statement for typos, grammar and unfinished sentences will cost you dearly. If you want to maximize your admission chances, be meticulous about polishing your personal statement.
Your personal statement, despite its name, is not an invitation for you to write a novella about your life, a personal crisis, or your great grandmother's cancer. For some schools, the personal statement needs to be brief and direct, often 250 words or less, but almost never more than one page. Typically, it has three sections or paragraphs. The first should be about why you want to be a doctor, the second is about what you are doing to achieve this goal, and the third is about what you intend do once you become a doctor. Do you write about how much you want to help people? Sure, but a specific example of what you actually did when you volunteered, or went on a mission trip, or pulled a family from a burning minivan will be more significant and memorable. Remember, the phrase "wanting to help people" typically falls flat and does nothing to distinguish you from the crowd. If you really wanted to help people, why not become a social worker, or a teacher, or a psychologist? Is there anyone applying to medical school because they want to harm people? "Wanting to help people" is a goal that is a cliché, so you will be well served by developing a more compelling explanation of your motivation.
In that first paragraph, be certain to mention whatever sentimental motive you have for attempting to pursue this career path. Passages which are long (two or more pages) cathartic tales of every crisis a person endured on their way to deciding to enter med school do not hold a reader's attention. There may be 200 other personal statements on a reviewer's desk and your long biography will only engender resentment. While certain details may be important for the telling of a story, most could be left out. However, do not leave out the content with the greatest gravity. While you don't need to include every agonizing detail of a particularly inspirational event, it is just as unwise to leave out the drama. Deciding what to include and what to omit is often the hardest part. Give it plenty of thought.
The second paragraph is easy; it is just a list of things you would like somebody else to say about you as a student and citizen. The committee will have seen your transcripts already and if they read your personal statement, it means you made the first cut. Don't waste words rehashing your schoolwork, but you could explain why your GPA is borderline competitive. It is well known that some people are late-bloomers, matured the hard way, or just didn't get it the first time and have lower GPAs. If your grades improved with time as the classes got harder, then you may wish to point out that this shows steadily improving scholarship and maturation. Do not be afraid to direct the reader's attention to this trend since few reviewers closely examine transcripts unless there is a reason to do so.
The third paragraph is an opportunity to say what you see yourself doing in the future with a medical degree. It will give the reviewers a chance to measure your knowledge of the field as it exists today and shows them if you have thought about contemporary issues in medicine. A personal statement where a student says that the field of dentistry is "a lucrative business opportunity where by helping others one can help oneself" is a tremendous mistake, despite its honesty.
If you wish to write a biography that is more free form, then make sure that you incorporate each of the three aforementioned categories into your essay. Many people have compelling tales about the influences that lead to their pursuit of a healthcare profession, but it is not wise to emphasize only that.
This is something that can make-or-break an applicant's chances, yet the most that some people invest in it is finding out where the interview will be held. This is an area where you may find explanations to why one student with a high GPA and respectable, competitive MCAT/DAT score did not get into a school but a student with less impressive numbers did. Following are three important tips for interviewing:
1. It is recommended to begin with reading the pertinent literature for your field. For example, read in your university's library the New England Journal of Medicine or JAMA for any articles that discuss controversial issues or subjects that will shape the way medicine is practiced. During the interview, you should expect to be asked about these things and provide them with a balanced, comprehensive answer. The admissions committee will be looking for an answer that shows you have a depth of knowledge and can present both sides of a controversial issue objectively, not necessarily if you have a preference for one side of the issue. Controversial issues are controversial because there are good arguments to be made on both sides, and an interview committee would like evidence that you appreciate both sides of them even if you actually give your opinion along with your answer.
For example, if asked, "How do you feel about disclosure of a healthcare provider's HIV status?" you may want to reply: "A healthcare worker that is forced to inform their patients that they are HIV positive has lost their right to privacy and may have provided their patients with a motive for looking for a different doctor. At the same time, the patient has a right to know if their doctor is potentially putting the patient's health at risk particularly if they will be performing a procedure on them which will expose mucus membrane or blood to the virus." This answer has not necessarily divulged exactly what you think about HIV disclosure, but has clearly demonstrated that you have a comprehensive understanding of the controversy presented to you.
2. Know who is on the committee. If you can, call the coordinator of the interviews or the same person for the program and find out who will be interviewing you. Sometimes it is a panel, and sometimes consecutive individuals throughout the day. Know who they are so that you might predict what things are important to them. For example, if you were asked the aforementioned question by a panel member, and didn't have a thoughtful and balanced answer, your day may get significantly worse if you discovered that the person asking it has written letters or papers on the subject. Had you known that in advance, perhaps you might have prepared for it better? Knowing what types of physicians the members of your committee are will possibly increase the likelihood of predicting the types of questions they may ask you.
3. When they ask if you have any questions, be ready with a question that is not about you, but one that is about them professionally. Like 1 and 2, you must do your homework. Cruising around a school's Web site, you will undoubtedly discover that they run stories about current events relating to the medical/dental college. If you see an article about the school getting a new dean, do homework on them and ask how your interviewers feel about the school's new directions and the dean's vision of the school. Don't ask something mind-crushingly mundane like, "Is it hard here?" or "Do students get breaks?" or "What are your exams like?" Don't advertise that you are not focused on the care of patients, but just getting through the program.
Letters of recommendation
Securing a letter of recommendation is a big deal, especially to the people you are asking. This process begins on the first day you meet any of your professors. Some students approach their instructors in the beginning of the semester to introduce themselves, and then never communicate with them again until they ask for a letter of recommendation.
Get in the habit of distinguishing yourself to your instructors. Go to office hours and ask questions about the material, ask their advice about courses, contribute to discussions in lecture, basically show that you care about the material of the course and not only about the grade. We know you want an A, but we know that there are two ways of getting them: 1) studying the forty-eight hours before an exam and forgetting the material soon after; and 2) studying the material so you can do all of the items that will get you noticed by a professor. Take a good look at the things that are on a standard evaluation form (leadership, critical thinking, motivation); if the evaluator never learns anything about you, then they can say nothing beneficial on your behalf with respect to these characteristics.
Plan B: What if you don't get into medical school?
Consider entering a Master's Degree program such as Public Health or Epidemiology. These may seem like holding patterns to be stuck in if you do not want to do them, and I would never encourage anyone to pursue degrees they wouldn't really want because there is no guarantee that it will get you into med/dent school. However, these programs are almost unfailingly associated with medical schools and you will increase your visibility among the med school faculty, possibly leading to more charitable evaluations when you apply to their medical school again. Oftentimes, schools are more likely to compare their own graduates more favorably than those of other schools.
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