A few medical school applicants and I recently got together to answer some questions about the admissions process. Having spent countless hours pouring over essays, flying to interviews, and waiting for emails, we all had a lot to share about the process. Be warned, this post makes for a hefty read at 3500 words, but should but worth every minute for current and future applicants. If you have any more questions for any of the panel members, feel free to ask away in the comments.
The Panel Members
On to the questions and answers!
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?
Emily: I waffled for a while but officially decided to apply in mid-June. The tipping point was when I decided the worst case scenario would be a loss of money and time, but no matter what, a gain in valuable experience.
S: I decided a year in advance. I graduated college and took two years off before applying and worked in several research labs. Applying that cycle was always the plan.
Ryan: I was on the fence about applying during the April and May leading up to the application cycle, but sitting down and having a conversation with family and close mentors pushed me to go for it.
When did you start preparing materials for your application?
Emily: Took the MCAT in April. Asked for letters in late June. I should have asked for letters earlier- the letters ultimately caused the longest delay in finalizing my application. The sooner you ask for letters, the better.
S: I started preparing my materials in early April of the cycle so I had everything ready to go when application cycle opened up.
When did you submit your primary application? Why on that date?
Emily: Aug. 1st, I wanted to be able to include the volunteering I’d been doing up through July. And editing the primary essay took a long time.
Ryan: I submitted both AMCAS and AACOMAS in late June. My school’s academic year doesn’t end until mid-June, so I waited for my spring quarter grades to come in before submitting. I was able to make-up on the “lost” time by searching for secondary prompts on SDN and pre-writing them before I officially received them.
How did you decide on your list of schools?
Emily: #1: Location. It had to be somewhere near family-for me, this meant either near Portland, OR or near New York. #2: Nurturing/positive. I wanted a compassionate school where cooperation was truly encouraged and where there is meaningful access to mentors. I wanted a school that would provide me with impressive, smart, motivated and fun peers. #3 Lots of opportunities. I wanted a school with well-rounded excellence in bench/translational/clinical research, specialty care, primary care. #4 Prestige doesn’t hurt…
S: I looked at locations of MSTP programs as well as their PhD program departments and their funding.
Ryan: I went through the MSAR and picked out the schools where both my numbers and my application theme (service/humanitarian work-oriented) would be a good “fit.” I applied to a lot of CA schools and a good number of private schools all along the coasts.
How many letters of recommendation did you get? Why those letters?
Emily: Six letters. I sent five letters to most schools. I chose professors who seemed like they actually cared about students and wouldn’t resent me for asking for some of their time. One of these professors I almost didn’t ask because I thought he didn’t like me very much. He ended up writing me a glowing recommendation–I’m so glad I took the risk and asked him! I tried to pick varied writers: I had three former bosses (from a law firm and a hospital), three professors (bio, neuropsych, humanities) including the prof in charge of the lab I’ve been working for.
S: Why did you choose certain letter writers? I had 5 letters of recommendation. I chose to get them from individuals who personally knew me or had some interaction with me. I felt these letters would be much more valuable than a letter from a professor I received an A from but who never knew me very well. I got 2 from undergrad professors, one from a PI in my lab, one from a doctor I worked closely with in research, and one from a previous lab I worked in.
Ryan: 6; 2 science professors, one English professor, one MD, one DO (important if you plan to apply DO), and one clinical supervisor.
How did you craft your personal statement?
Emily: Very, very slowly… It must have gone through over 30 drafts. I should have had more people besides my parents and a few friends read/edit it. I’d definitely recommend getting at least one teacher or advisor to edit it for you.
S: I honestly just started writing and got a rough draft and sent it to my friend. He absolutely tore it apart and gave me suggestions on a different angle to approach. Having a good friend who is excellent at writing ( I definitely am NOT) really helped.
Ryan: My personal statement opened up with a story about an experience I had during a free clinic I volunteer at, and I connected it to a lesson I learned earlier in the classroom that day. I tried to convey that I was already in the “medical school mindset” of applying what I learned in class to clinical situations.
How did you pick out your extracurricular list?
Emily: All the usual stuff, plus a couple weird ones. One activity I entered was “member of three honors societies” (including the honors college I’m in). I described some of the activities they required. I thought this was a lame “activity” to include, but one interviewer specifically told me he was impressed by this entry. You never know what little thing in your application will stand out. I also included some hobbies as an activity (hiking, kickboxing, synagogue, reading). I hoped this would show that I recognized the importance of a personal life and balance, and allow interviewers to throw me some easy questions.
S: I made a list of absolutely everything I could think of and then started narrowing it down. I got several people to look it over to help me decide what to include.
Ryan: I wrote down everything I did during college and compiled a list. The most significant experiences were easy to pick out, as they were the ECs that I had dedicated the most time and effort towards.
Did you have a theme or strategy in mind when you were crafting your primary application?
Emily: I emphasized that I was well-rounded. I had taken many non-science classes freshman year and had done some non-medicine activities. I emphasized that I would enter medicine with a broader perspective, and was aware of the important non-science aspects of medicine. I also emphasized my role in being a caregiver for a sick family member, which will help me to empathize with the stress from the patient’s side and to appreciate the importance of translational research.\
Ryan: I really tried to push personal creativity as one of my strengths, I even mentioned starting Practicalpremed.com as one of the highlights of my college experience.
What was your strategy to deal with the sheer volume of secondaries, due dates, and other little details after you submitted your primary?
Emily: I made a spreadsheet in excel tracking everything which was very helpful.
S: Once I started getting secondaries back, I narrowed down my schools as I couldn’t handle all of the secondaries physically or financially! I had a calendar on my wall that I had all of the due dates and such listed on in bright markers to keep me aware of upcoming deadlines although I always wrote the deadline about 5 days prior to the actual one so I was sure it would be done
Ryan: I put together a spreadsheet on Google docs that tracked all these details. The most useful part was keeping all the links, usernames, and passwords stored in one place.
Were you able to use any of the same essays between different schools?
Emily: Almost. I had to change every essay a little bit, but there was definitely some (quite satisfying) copying and pasting going on.
S: I was not. Some of my secondaries were similar between schools but none were close enough to use the same essay without it being obvious.
Ryan: I was able to use the same concepts or stories for commonly asked questions like “what kind of diversity do you add to our school?” Also, for questions like “why our school” I would try to show how my EC’s were a good fit for their mission statement.
How did you prepare for interviews?
Emily: For the multiple mini-interviews, I researched medical issues, made sure I was up on the latest science news, and practiced answering ethics questions (such as those from mmiqd.wordpress.com) in front of a mirror and in front of my parents. I did mediocrely at my first interview. I should have spent more time planning several major points I would want the interviewer to remember about me. I did this for the Mount Sinai interview, and it went very well.
S: I went shopping and got nice clothes and did mock interviews with some friends and tried to relax.
Ryan: In this post, I laid out my pre-interview plan. Basically, I went to the interview feedback section of SDN where I found some old questions that were asked in interviews. I would print out the most common questions, and have my friends do mock interviews with me using those questions. It was great practice, and on more than one occasion I would get the exact question that was in the feedback section.
Describe your first interview day.
Emily: I was pretty nervous, especially because the other people interviewing were extremely impressive. And there was a several hour delay from the start until the interviews actually began. For me, the first interview was hands-down the hardest and taught me the most about what I needed to improve. This may be terrible advice, but I might recommend applying to a school you aren’t interested in, but think you could get an interview at, for the sake of gaining practice for other schools. I did practice interviews with great counselors, but it’s just not the same as the real thing.
S: My first interview I flew in for and stayed with a current student. If it hadn’t been for her, I would have been an absolute mess. She told me about the campus and campus life pros/cons and made me feel more at ease. The other interviewees were great to hang out with during the tour and lunch time. I didn’t end up at the school my first interview was at but it was definitely a good experience!
Ryan: I was pretty nervous throughout the day, but the student tour guides there did a fantastic job of calming our group down. The worst part was sitting in the waiting area before my interview, watching everyone else interview before me was nerve wrecking. However, when my interviewer called my name, I flipped a switch in my mind and I actually had a huge smile on my face. I knew that all the hard work had been done already, and the interview was really just the easy part. When you think of all the time and effort you’ve put in for the last 3 to 4 years, how can the next 30 minutes really be that bad?
What was your most interesting or difficult interview moment/question?
Emily: A classic but difficult question: Why not nursing? I gave a few reasons, one of which was essentially that I wanted more control over my cases and career choices than an RN degree would provide. It’s hard to say that without feeling a bit like a jerk. My most interesting question may have been when I was asked if any other schools had accepted me yet. I was surprised they asked that!
S: Because I applied MSTP, I usually had interviews with the committee and then I would either have interviews or a small presentation with some of the PhD faculty. During one interview I was discussing my research with one of the faculty members and he kept questioning the methods used. It definitely shook me up a bit but I tried to remain calm and afterward he told me I handled myself very well.
Ryan: The most challenging ethical question was, “You are a physician 10 years from now, a 10yo boy comes in with severe blood loss from a car accident. His parents oppose to any blood transfusion for religious reasons, but you know that the boy will die unless he receives the blood. What do you do?” I had to pause for a few moments to think about the situation, but I sputtered out an answer that involved trying to reason with the parents. The interviewer then pressed me for a final decision (given that the parents were still opposed). I replied that I would give the blood transfusion against parental consent. I was accepted to the school a week later, but I still have no idea how much my answer affected that decision.
Was there any interview moment where you felt you struggled?
Ryan: One of the schools I interviewed at used MMI’s, which are almost impossible to prepare for. I can’t give away the scenarios I had due to confidentiality reasons, but they definitely tested my ability to think on my feet. It’s one thing to say what you would do in a scenario; the MMI’s test what you would actually do in that scenario. In a way, it’s a BS test for premeds that are all talk.
Was there anything you felt you handled very well in your interviews?
Emily: When I went in with clear goals on what I wanted to discuss, I stayed on point and came off well. For the most part, I made a conscious effort to speak slowly, clearly and enthusiastically. I am also very glad I picked comfortable low heels and a comfortable suit to wear. Some people were wearing shoes/outfits they were clearly uncomfortable in, and I can’t imagine that helped them perform.
S: Having questions prepared for them. There’s nothing worse than not having questions when they ask if you have any. I always had a few ready to go in the back of my head.
Ryan: I was fortunate to have an internship in communications for the non-profit I volunteer for, which gave me tons of practice talking about street medicine. Hearing medical leaders speak about something I was passionate about gave me talking points that sometimes I could just parrot word for word. Backing those statements up with personal stories about working in free clinics gave me an effective two-sided approach for talking about my extracurriculars.
Was there any interview question or moment that you wish you had responded to differently?
Emily: In my first interview, I talked too much about only one experience with medicine that I’ve had and hardly talked about other volunteer and research experiences.
Ryan: Ethical questions were tough because “there is no right answer.” I tried my best to think about a sound answer and explain my reasoning.
How long did you wait to hear back from schools after your interviews?
Emily: Foreverrrrr. (About six weeks after the interviews.)
S: At least a couple of weeks
Ryan: What Emily said.
Update Letters/Letters of Intent
Did you send any update letters? If so, were you able to get any positive results from them?
Emily: Yes: I sent an update letter to one school and got an interview invite within the week. The update letter may have had something to do with that! I strongly recommend sending update letters to your favorite schools.
Ryan: Yes, I sent an update letter in late November and received an interview invite roughly 2-3 weeks after. Different schools have different policies on update letters so it’s best to call/email the admissions office and ask them beforehand.
What did you include in your update letter/letter of intent?
Emily: I briefly described some more extracurriculars I had done and included an image of my transcript grades from the last term, which weren’t on AMCAS.
Ryan: Updated grades, recent accomplishments, and specific reasons why I was a great fit for that program.
What did you do once you found out you were wait-listed?
Emily: I am so grateful to have avoided the wait-list process.
S: I was wait-listed at one of my top schools but was admitted to one of my other top schools so it didn’t end up mattering.
Ryan: I was pretty disappointed, but I had already been pretty fortunate throughout the application process so I couldn’t be to despondent over the (non) decision.
If accepted to multiple schools, how did you end up choosing one school?
Emily: Second Look visits are fantastic! If you can go, you absolutely should.
S: I chose based on research opportunities and funding.
Ryan: I compared locations, clinical rotation sites, and the last two year’s match lists.
How did you deal with waiting for schools to get back to you?
Emily: Checking my email and status pages every 5 minutes or so. There are probably better ways to deal with waiting… Be careful about using Student Doctor Network as a resource. Though often helpful, SDN can sometimes create unnecessary anxiety.
S: I tried to keep busy and not let it stress me out.
Ryan: Waiting was the hardest part, I kept busy with school/volunteering/work, but it was the huge elephant in the back of my head that was impossible to ignore. Looking back, it was pretty comical how anxious I was during the weeks following interviews, but those were some pretty high-strung weeks for everyone around me.
How did you deal with others around you always asking about your medical school application process?
Emily: I didn’t mind people asking, because it felt like it was almost always on my mind. Sometimes it was harder for me to not talk about it!
S: My friends knew that I would tell them once I knew and didn’t ask because they realized it just stressed me out to start thinking about it.
Ryan: I was pretty open about the process (I run this whole blog where I share my experience) so it wasn’t too hard to talk to others about it. It’s a delicate balancing act though because sharing details means being prepared to deal sharing both successes and failures.
Is there anything you wish you knew before you applied?
Emily: I wish I could have known how wonderfully it would turn out. I didn’t need to stress as much as I did!
S: I wish I had known more about some of the schools I originally picked. I didn’t do enough research up front.
Describe the moment when you received your first acceptance and realized you were going to be a doctor.
Emily: Pure joy. I could hardly process it, the news took several days to really sink in. Months later, it still doesn’t feel totally real.
S: I got a call letting me know I was accepted and I freaked out. I went out with a giant group of friends that night and celebrated. I also made sure to send a thank you note to all the people who helped me get in.
Ryan: I wrote an entire post about it, but in a nutshell: a rush of emotion. One of the happiest moments of my life.
Were you rejected from any of your top choices? How did you deal with the let down?
Emily: Yes, but these were top five schools that I didn’t really expect to be accepted to, so the let down wasn’t too bad.
S: I was and it was upsetting but I am extremely happy with my school I chose.
Ryan: Yes, it sucked but it helps to put things into perspective. Some schools receive literally thousands upon thousand of applications for class sizes ranging from 70-200 people. Receiving just one or two acceptances is a huge honor.
Do you have any questions for our panel members? Sound away in the comments.