As promised, here is the second part of the Q and A session I held with other successful medical student applicants. Part one featured some pretty amazing medical students with a lot to say about the admissions process, and this post promises to be just as insightful for premeds. Answering questions today are my good buddy from The Hero Complex, Theresa from Albany Medical College, and Kristina from an East Coast Osteopathic medical school.
The Round Table Members
Deciding to Apply
When did you decide you were going to apply in your cycle? Was there a tipping point that pushed you, or was applying in that cycle always the plan?
Kristina: March 2011, realizing that I need to throw my hat in the ring at some point, why not now?
Theresa: I applied in 2009, and decided I was going to about a year before that.
When did you start preparing materials for your application?
A: I am not the best writer when it comes to talking about myself, so I started fleshing out ideas for my personal statement during the Winter Break before the cycle started. I didn’t start working on my AMCAS Work/Activities section until the application was released sometime in early May.
Theresa: I had already taken the MCAT a year earlier, by the time I graduated college in 2008 I had already asked for the bulk of my letters, including a composite letter writer. I just had to ask for one more letter from my employer and my materials were pretty much ready.
When did you submit your application? Why on that date?
Kristina: June 1, 2011 because that was the first day it opened. Some schools give more priority on secondaries and interviews based on the timeliness of your primary application.
A: I knew I wanted to get my application turned in really early, and I ended up submitting on June 3rd. Even after starting my personal statement in December it still wasn’t completely ready to submit on the first possible day. I took my time and triple checked each and any every word in the application until I was 100% comfortable clicking that “submit” button.
Theresa: Primary was submitted early in July. My personal statement was the last part I wanted to polish before I submitted everything.
How did you decide on your list of schools to apply to?
Kristina: I started off with schools I knew I had a chance at getting into (ie. not Harvard). It is so expensive to apply and why waste the $ and heartache on schools you know you will not get into.
A: At the end of the day, you have to go to a school that you can see yourself being happy at. I chose my list based upon location (being close to family and my girlfriend), cost, and my general impressions about each school. To be honest I also picked a few schools to see if I had what it took (see Harvard and Johns Hopkins). However, I think being realistic about your chances at each school is really important.
Theresa: It was mostly about location, I applied to schools on the east coast and California (being a resident there). I applied to all private schools on the east coast.
How many letters of recommendation did you get? Why those letters?
Kristina: 10; I used only people that I knew and worked with very well with. You don’t want someone who will agree to write a letter of recommendation and then find out one day that it was 2 sentences long. You need well-written, high quality letters that cite specific examples of your qualifications, especially from professors and/or academic advisors.
A: I had 4 letters of recommendation. I chose letter writers that knew me on a personal, professional, and academic level. I used a science professor (who was also my boss for the campus tutoring service), a non-science professor, the PI from my research lab, and an Emergency Medicine physician that I shadowed for over 100 hours. Everyone has letters of recommendation, and most of them will talk about academic prowess, making the letters personal is the key.
Did you use a letter writing service (interfolio, virutalevals) vs. the regular AMCAS service? Would you recommend that service to other applicants?
Kristina: I used both. I recommend having a copy of the letter sent to interfolio because as long as you pay the yearly fee, then you have that letter of recommendation on file forever. If you don’t get in the first round, at least you have all of those letters of rec on file for the next year.
How did you craft your personal statement?
Kristina: I have a MBA, which REALLY helped with my personal statement (all I did for two years was write lengthy papers, many of which were argumentative-based, which helped). Write a list of personal struggles that you have overcome and then write different drafts of different versions. Make sure that the stories aren’t too heavy (ie. have some sort of light at the end of the tunnel). Mine had some “strife” but was very positive and uplifting for the most part. Ask your educated friends and colleagues to proofread and give feedback. Asking family is a last resort because they will probably think that everything you do is great, even when it is not.
A: I wouldn’t call my personal statement a work of art…I don’t have a defining moment or singular reason for choosing medicine so it was hard to write a cohesive story. Mostly I was just honest and described some of my clinical experiences and reasons why I thought medicine was a good fit for my personality and interests.
Theresa: A friend of mine suggested unifying my application by weaving it into a theme. Your activities and personal statement should support a central theme that will make you memorable to the admissions committee. My theme was “serving vulnerable populations such as children and low-literacy adults with a health quality perspective”. With this in mind, I talked about my internship at the Children’s Hospital with children with disabilities, my research in decision quality and shared decision making possibly affecting policies, and a study with low-literacy populations that stuck an interested in working with these disadvantaged patients. Having a central thread helped me create a coherent application and storyline for my personal statement. I got comments from interviewers about how they liked my personal statement and how it stuck out so it is really worth spending some extra time here fine tuning it to make it something very true to you and that you are proud of.
How did you pick out your extracurricular list?
A: I just chose the organizations and activities I was most involved with: research, supplemental instruction, my various part-time jobs, two organizations I participated in, etc. I made sure to highlight a diverse set of extracurriculars, as I wanted to show that I was more than just a good GPA and MCAT score.
Theresa: I picked the activities for which I had been involved the longest and meant the most to me. You want to be able to talk sincerely about the experience if an interviewer asks you.
What was your strategy to deal with the sheer volume of secondaries, due dates, and other little details after you submitted your primary?
Kristina: Pace yourself and put them as your number 1 priority over everything else. I mean EVERYTHING else. You want to get them in ASAP… not by the date they give you. The longer you wait, the more chances for other people who submitted them before you get.
A: The key is to not fall behind. I worked in a research lab all summer (aka lots of down time while experiments are running). I would work on the secondaries the same day I received them, and try to get them back to the school in 2-3 days at the most. This way I was never overwhelmed. It probably helped that I only ended up completing 7 secondaries.
Theresa: I printed out a calendar and as the secondaries came in, wrote in deadlines. I gave myself up to a week for each secondary but you could probably turn that around even faster.
Were you able to use any of the same essays between different schools?
Kristina: Yes, but honestly you end up having to re-write them to fit their questions and character limit.
A: Yes, it is not hard to modify and tailor an essay to fit a variety of different questions. This is a valuable and time saving tool for the medical school application process.
Theresa: Yes, since there’s definitely overlap. There were no long essays as far as I can remember; most of them were short answers that you could get your point across in a paragraph or so. For the questions about why the school would be a good match, try to find specifics to mention. For example, if there’s a specific program at the school that fits in with your interests, make sure to do some research and mention that.
What was the most interesting secondary question you answered?
Kristina: USC’s by far!
A: I wish I had something to add here, but they were all mostly the same. The questions were mostly some variation of “What are your future goals?” or “Where do you see yourself in 15 years?”
Theresa: None were really that crazy, the most interesting is probably one that asked what the biggest downside to going into medicine was
How did you prepare for interviews?
Kristina: Because I was almost finished with my MBA by the time I submitted my applications, I honestly had tons of practice. Also, I have had many job interviews, which also was great practice. One thing I did in particular was I did research on the schools, the demographics of the area and tried to find out in which ways the schools were integrated with the local community as well as academic research.
A: My pre-med advisor at my University did a mock interview with me before my first interview. After that it was a combination of studying the medical school’s website and using the Student-Doctor Network to research previously used questions by each medical school.
Theresa: I suck at talking about myself, so I had to practice doing that. I practiced in front of friends, having conversations that sounded natural but where I would get across what I wanted to say about myself without rambling. You don’t need to memorize answers to questions but know how you would approach answering a few questions so that you are not caught off guard. Know where to begin answering vague questions such as “tell me about yourself” (I got asked that twice!)
Describe your first interview day (nervousness, interacting with other interviewees, the actual interview, tours, etc).
Kristina: The other students were awesome! We all just clicked like we had known each other for years and even exchanged contact information. Although some schools the students were really quiet and to themselves. I was only nervous when I was sitting in the “holding area” right before they called me in. My interviews went well, I mean I was asked some pretty crazy stuff, like my views on Obama Care and other types of hot-button issues.
Theresa: I wasn’t particularly nervous, but I also tend not to be super chatty with others right before interviews. I had my tour before my interview so it gave me a chance to get into the mood, get focused, and learn a bit about the school so I could come up with some questions beforehand.
What was your most interesting or difficult interview moment/question?
Kristina: Definitely the Obama Care question about what I felt about it and how is it going to pave the future of providers in health care.
A: My student interview at Johns Hopkins was probably my most difficult moment. The interviewer wasn’t particular nice and we had completely conflicting personalities. I knew I wasn’t going to get a good review from her when she asked: “With your background, how can you possibly hope to relate to our patient population?”
Theresa: I was very fortunate to have two great interviewers and I could not have had more casual interviews. The only interesting question was one on how I felt about research on animals. The point with those questions is not what your opinion is but how you came to formulate it so just explain as logically and concisely as you can.
Was there any interview moment where you felt you struggled?
A: I think hypothetical questions are the worst as they kind of put you on the spot. They didn’t come up often, but when they did it always made for an interesting time.
Theresa: My first interviewer was pretty talkative so I felt like I had to interject to say something at times.
Was there anything you felt you handled very well in your interviews?
A: Because the extracurriculars and activities I put in my application were legitimate and not just fluff, I could easily expand upon and talk about them enthusiastically. I was also confident throughout all my interviews and I think that is pretty important. Finally, I am a huge sports fan and know a lot about the major college and professional sports. This was a huge asset. I can’t tell you how many times during interviews we ended up talking about sports (including one entire interview).
Theresa: I think my interviewers were glad to know that I was a consistent person who matched what my paper file said. Make sure there are not discrepancies that come up and be sure you can talk about everything in your application.
Update Letters/Letters of Intent
Did you send any update letters? If so, were you able to get any positive results from them?
Kristina: Yes. I don’t know if it made a difference. It’s really hard to tell, to be honest.
A: No I didn’t send in any kind of update letters.
Theresa: I did send in a letter once I was waitlisted at Albany, but honestly I’m not sure how much it helped. Schools have a systematic way for taking people off the waitlist (either a cut-off score or you have to be similar to another applicant to diversify the class, whatever) and it’s hard to tell whether sending in letters will do anything or if they will even get read. They might just put them in you file. However, if you are waitlisted and there is nothing else you can do, I don’t see the harm in sending an update or intent letter.
Did you send a letters of intent to your top choice school? If so, how was this received?
Kristina: Absolutely. I got in.
What did you include in your update letter/letter of intent?
Kristina: I stressed the reasons why I wanted to be there and why the school would benefit from having me there.
Were you wait-listed? Describe the process.
Theresa: I was waitlisted for four months and it felt like a freaking eternity. It was the hardest part for me of the application cycle, being in the position where I could not actively do anything. And then I was torn between keeping my hopes up and just giving up and moving on. The hardest part is to stay sane and realize that life goes on and that no news is good news and if it falls through you can always reapply. I was fortunate to have great friends, family and mentors around who believed in me even when I felt hopeless. My boss wrote an update letter that I sent to Albany, I wrote a letter, and through some connections I even met with a former alum who knew my interviewer. Not sure if any of these things made a difference, but it’s being able to DO something that can help during these times, like, “at least I did everything possible.” It is not a bad idea to have a plan B around either. While I was waitlisted I took on some new projects at work that I was excited about, looked into some classes I could take to strengthen future applications, and generally was planning on a year to rebuild and explore. Then when those plans were finally laid out I found out I was accepted! Life sure works in crazy ways.
Acceptance and Choosing Schools
Describe the moment when you received your first acceptance and realized you were going to be a doctor.
Kristina: I cried. It was a very VERY long and hard road full of sacrifice, ridicule and let-downs.
A: I was home on Fall break when I got a call from one of my interviewers at UNC Chapel-Hill and he told me that I had been accepted. It was a culmination of years of hard-work and sacrifice and it reaffirmed that it had been well worth it. My mom cried, and we went out to dinner to celebrate.
Theresa: Awesome. I called my parents even though it was 5 a.m. west coast time.
If accepted to multiple schools, how did you end up choosing one school?
Kristina: The school in which I felt the most comfortable with the teaching style and area
A: After interviews I had a first choice in mind, along with a close second. After it was narrowed down to those two schools, it became all about the cost. I chose the school that gave me a merit scholarship and never looked back.
Did you negotiate financial aid/scholarships between schools?
Kristina: No. Face it; you will be in major debt either way. An extra $50,000 won’t make much of a difference on your loan repayments. Finances were the least of my concern. Go where you will be happy and where you know you will excel.
A: Yes. If you have multiple acceptances, you have leverage. A couple of months ago, I wrote a letter to the dean and also to the director of admissions at the medical school I will be attending and discussed my financial situation. I also gently reminded them of my various accomplishments and desire to attend their school. Luckily, it worked!
How did you deal with waiting for schools to get back to you?
Kristina: Very stressful… lot’s of sleepless nights. Tried to stay busy, but it didn’t help.
A: This is just a part of the application process. There is no getting around the waiting. I just went about my normal life of school, work, and play. The waiting can drive you nuts if you let it, and I am still waiting on paperwork and other logistics from my school this late in the game!
How did you deal with others around you always asking about your medical school application process?
Kristina: I just answered then openly and honestly. What others think of you should be the LAST thing on your priority list. If it bothers you that much, then good luck in life. Especially in this field.
A: I was pretty private about the whole thing. I didn’t post Facebook status updates or tell a whole lot of people about specifics. However, when asked I gladly talked about my experiences (hence my anonymous blog).
Theresa: For those who didn’t have a deep interest and were just asking to find out, I just gave a concise answer like “oh I’m still waiting to hear back but either way I will just apply again if I don’t get in”. You don’t really need to expound if you don’t want to, and generally people are fairly understanding.
Is there anything you wish you knew before you applied?
Kristina: How important going to a top 20/ivy league school is for undergrad if you want an easy acceptance into medical school. I have been around the block and personally know hundreds of people who have gone to professional schools (law, dental, medical, etc.) and the ones who went to top schools, even with shit GPAs and entrance exam scores, got in effortlessly compared to people like me who went to a no-name state school. It DOES matter where you went to undergrad. Think about it, medical schools want to have in their rosters Harvard alums… it makes them look more desirable and credible.
A: There are no guarantees with this process. You may get an interview at Johns Hopkins but get rejected at your state school. Different schools look for different things in an applicant and it probably won’t always make sense to you. Be patient, and enjoy the application process as it comes.
Theresa: You know, I probably would have applied to more schools. 20 sounds like a lot but it was not that many considering a bunch of them were UCs, which are known to be hard to get into. But at the end, all it takes is one acceptance to become a doctor so I wouldn’t go overboard.
Were you rejected from any of your top choices? How did you deal with the let down?
Kristina: Yes. I just let it go because I got in somewhere else! I was very grateful and felt it was all meant to be.
A: The Johns Hopkins rejection sucked, but you just have to roll with the punches. At the end of this process I know I am going to the school that was meant for me.
Theresa: Just like you deal with other things in life. By moving on. I always tell myself that everything happens for a reason. And getting in is just the beginning! It is a lot of hard work, dedication, know what you are getting yourself into, own it and love it.
Have a question for the roundtable members? Post a question in the comments section!