Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How to Get into Medical School: Part 3

In the most recent post in this series (which can be found here), I talked about writing your personal statement, getting LORs, and creating your AMCAS application. In this last part of the series, we’ll discuss the rest of this *cough* fun *cough* process.

Secondaries (or, Giving Away Your Savings)

Secondaries are medical schools’ way of holding you upside down on the playground and shaking your milk money out of your pockets.  Secondary applications are medical schools’ way of getting to know you a little bit better as an applicant by asking questions that they, as a school, care about. It essentially amounts to more essay writing, and oftentimes many of the essays you write will be interchangeable among schools. The catch (there’s always a catch) is that you have to pay to submit them. In fact, most schools won’t even review your application until you do. And then, they might just reject you outright anyway within a period of time that makes it highly unlikely that a real person even read them (I’m not bitter at all….). Some schools don’t have secondaries…but they often still make you pay. Just because they can. They can run anywhere from around $25-$125 a pop, so plan ahead financially for these.

The key here is just staying on top of them. It’s not a bad idea to create a list of schools you’ve applied to, which ones have sent you secondaries, which secondaries you’ve returned, etc. You can update this later with interview invites, acceptances, waitlists, withdrawals, etc.  If you can find last year’s secondaries (like on the school-specific threads on SDN), then if you have time it usually pays off to pre-write them. They generally don’t change too much, but even if they do, you can often re-use the prewritten ones for other schools. Regardless, try to have them submitted within about two weeks of receiving them. Again, spend some time on these and try to have other people review them, if possible.


After a ton of writing, wringing your hands, and nervously checking your email, you’ve finally got your first interview. First off, congrats! Somebody wants to get to know you a little more. Once you’ve made it to this stage (generally, anyway), your odds of getting accepted by that school can go up quite a bit. But now you’ve got a whole host of problems to worry about.

First off, what to wear? I’m no fashion expert, by any means, so I’ll defer this topic to any one of the threads that pop up on SDN this time of the year regarding interview attire. I will say this, however: be fairly conservative. Now is not the time to express yourself via fashion – let your application do the talking. Unless you really know what you are doing (and you probably don’t), your goal is to not stand out in a crowd, at least in terms of fashion. Usually, it just ends up being a bad thing. Stand out in your interview and in your application – not your fashion choices. For guys, this means buying a suit. Charcoal is recommended, and some people like navy blue. Black can be done, but seems to generally be recommended against. Wear appropriate dress socks, and get some nice (but again, not loud) shoes. Women….you’re on your own. Sorry. Again, the threads over on SDN, as well as countless interview attire articles online, are likely to be of more service to you here. Just play it safe, watch your necklines/hemlines and perfume (it’s ok to smell nice, but don’t be overpowering), do some research, and you’ll be fine. Regardless of your gender, DO NOT wear jeans. That should be a given, but, sadly, that doesn’t always seem to be the case.

So you’ve picked out your attire. Now what? Well, you’ve got to get there. This is where it can get really expensive (as if buying a new suit wasn’t enough…). Drive if you can, but oftentimes you’ll need to fly. Shop around, try and find good deals, and lump your interviews together if you can to reduce the number of trips you’ll need to make. Take advantage of student hosts – it’s cheaper than a hotel and often a great way to really get some great info about the school (just be sure to maybe take them to dinner, or at least leave behind a nice card). Get a decent travel bag, preferably something you can carry on to the plane. Avoid checking a bag if you can. Get travel-sized toiletries. And use the public transportation systems when possible – avoid taxis and rental cars, as these can get really expensive really fast. Get a travel folder to carry your itinerary and any lodging plans, boarding passes, or public transportation info in.

With regards to preparing for the interview: Know your application by heart. Come up with a good answer to the questions, “Tell me about yourself,” “Why do you want to be a doctor?” “What are your greatest strengths/weaknesses?” (think of at least three for each category),  “Why this school?”  and “Do you have any questions for me?” Don’t memorize a rote answer, but remember some high points that you’ll hit when you address each question. If you do all of that, you’ll probably be fine. It’s also a good idea to peruse the interview questions section for each specific school on SDN.

At the end of the day, just remember that your interviewer is your friend. It’s his or her job to present you to the admissions committee and sell you to them. While the questions might seem difficult or your interviewer might seem mean, s/he is just trying to get to know you. So give him/her something to sell. S/he’s on your side.

Aaaand the Waiting….

 Once you’ve finished your interview, you’ve pretty much done all that you can. So relax. More than likely, it’ll be a few weeks before the school can even get back you with a decision. Hopefully, they’ll give you a timeframe. If not, you’ll probably be constantly checking your email and mailbox (Ok, let’s be honest…you’ll be doing that anyway). But seriously…relax. You’ve done what you can.

If all goes well, sometime in the fall or spring after your interview, you’ll get a notification of acceptance. Congrats! You’ve made it. You’re going to be a doctor. If you are put on a waitlist, don’t give up hope – consider sending in occasional updates with new information about activities, why you love the school and would be a good fit, updated transcripts, etc. If you’re rejected, write it off and move on. There are more interviews to come. Hopefully. If not, consider what you can do to buff up your application for next year.

Springtime Glory

Hopefully, once spring rolls around, you’re sitting on at least one (maybe more?) acceptance. By May 15th, you have to withdraw from all but one school. By that time, schools should have sent you financial aid packages, which will assist you in making your final decision. My only recommendation here is, when at all possible, go with the cheapest one. Cheap school is good school. The “prestige” of the school (unless it’s literally a top 10 school, or whatever, and your goal is definitely something in academics) really doesn’t matter. You can do well wherever you go – your school’s name won’t give you a free ride. And money may not be able to buy happiness, but the quicker you can pay back your loans, the quicker you’ll be financially free – and freedom is pretty darn good.

The summer before school starts is generally pretty much up to you. You can work, relax, travel, etc. Do NOT prestudy for school. You won’t be able to study efficiently, and more than likely you’ll regret it later. It’s tempting, I know, but don’t do it. If you absolutely must do something, then start thinking about HOW you’ll study. Will you read books? Make outlines? Use flashcards? Group study? Solo study? Some combination of the above? For example: I, for one, am considering using the spaced-repitition flashcard program Anki to retain material – not as a primary learning tool, mind you, but something to help me remember the bits of info I need AFTER I already understand them from reading a textbook, listening to lecture, etc.  I’ll probably post more about this later. You can read more about it here and here (I highly recommend these sources if you’re interested in Anki). I also plan on using OneNote to take notes during school. So I’ve spent some time familiarizing myself with these programs.

Also, spend some time doing things you won’t have much time to do later. Hang out with loved ones and friends. Read some books. Watch some TV. Relax. For example, I’m really interested in personal finance, investing, retirement planning, and have been thinking a lot about paying off loans and whatnot down the road. I figure it’s better to know these things ahead of time so that I can get the jump on them as soon as I am able – and some things, like personal finance, are just things you should know anyway. If you want, spend some time perusing the Boglehead’sWiki and over at White Coat Investor’s blog for more information.

So that’s it. Sorry about the written vomit. Good luck on your path to medical school, and I hope what you read here proves helpful to you in your journey.

How to Get into Medical School: Part 2

In the first post of this series (which can be found here), I rambled on about some of the basics of your medical school application, such as volunteering, research, the MCAT, and your GPA. Now, we’ll talk about the next phase of the application process – and all of the stress that comes with it. Lucky you.

Your Personal Statement

Ah, the personal statement. Your opportunity to communicate to admissions committees across the country why in the world you would want to be a doctor, and why you would be a good candidate for admission to their school. This portion of the application is perhaps the most frustrating, if only because you need to communicate so much while only being given about 5,300 characters (including spaces. Yay...).  That’s a little over a page to sell yourself.

There are countless articles online about writing your personal statement, and ideally, you’ll have a writing service at your school and other knowledgeable individuals who can help you fine tune it. My primary piece of advice is START EARLY. While some people can hammer out a workable product in a relatively short amount of time, this is not something you want to rush. Plan on this taking a few months to write, review, rewrite, rinse, and repeat – about one bazillion times. Keep a journal about meaningful experiences while you are volunteering or working in a clinical position or shadowing. You can tie these stories into your statement later. As with all other parts of your app, and perhaps more so, have lots of trusted people review this before you submit. Ideally, you want this done at least a few weeks before you can even submit your application, because in the weeks leading up to submission you’ll have plenty of other stuff to worry about.

For those who are interested, you can read my personal statement here

Obtaining Letters of Recommendation

This part of your application can perhaps be the most awkward, but it is nevertheless important, if only to play the application game well. Letters of recommendation (or LORs, as the cool pre-meds call them) are essentially a venue through which admissions committees can obtain a perspective of you as a person that is different from that which is presented in your application. Therefore, you only want to ask individuals who can paint a very strong positive picture of you. Ideally, you’ll find writers who can honestly say, using real-life examples, that you are not just a good applicant, but a great one.

You typically need at least three letters – two from science professors and one from a non-science professor (think history, English, etc.). If you’ve done research in a lab, many schools will require one from your PI. If you are employed, consider getting one from your boss. I was a scribe who worked closely with a few doctors, and was able to get a few from them. Each school might vary a bit in their requirements, so be sure to check out their website for more information. Don’t get any more than six – that’s just annoying.

Writing letters takes time. So ask your writers well in advance of when your application is due – generally, about three months of notice is a good rule of thumb. When you ask them, be sure to bring along a little packet with your resume, a draft of your personal statement, a letter with instructions on how they should submit their letter (more on this in a bit), a due date, and perhaps what medical schools are looking for, and maybe a sample of your academic work. All of this should be in a clean-looking, professional folder. Ask your potential writer if they would be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for medical school. If they hesitate, or give any response other than a confident positive answer, walk away – politely. You do not want a wishy-washy letter. After they have said yes and you’ve given them a packet, make sure they know how to contact you (this should be in the packet) and let them be for a bit. About half way through their three months, shoot them an email thanking them for their willingness to help you and reminding them about the upcoming due date. Send similar emails a week or two out from the due date if you haven’t heard from them, but don’t be annoying.

Typically, you aren’t supposed to see the letters – or, at the very least, you are supposed to waive your right to see them. Some writers may opt to give you a copy, and that’s fine. But they don’t have to. So how do you collect them? Perhaps one of the easier ways to do this is use a letter storage service, such as Interfolio. This site will allow you, for a small fee, to store your letters electronically and then send them safely to AMCAS. Your letter writers can submit directly to Interfolio via snail mail or by scanning them in. Give them a choice – usually, the former is easier. Just be sure to include a pre-addressed manila envelope with postage in your packet.

So, in summary – ask early, ask only people who can write strong letters, give them a packet, and check on them once and a while. Make it as easy for them as possible.

Creating Your AMCAS Application (or, Where Crap Starts to Get Real)

AMCAS (the American Medical College Application Service) provides a centralized application service for most U.S. MD schools (for a fee, of course). In the past, applicants had to obtain applications for each school they wanted to apply to, fill it out, and send in a hardcopy of their application to as many schools as they needed to. Now, thankfully, applicants can just fill out a universal online application that can then be sent to any participating schools (except most Texas schools – as might be expected, they do their own thing and use TMDSAS, a similar application service specific to the great nation of Texas).

The application itself can be found at the AMCAS website. Generally, it is made available to applicants in early May, but can’t actually be submitted until early June. I strongly recommend creating an account, opening the application, and beginning to fill it out as soon as you can. It’s a time-consuming process, and must be picture-perfect. Medical school admissions can, at times, be an arbitrary process, and you don’t want a poorly-written application filled with typos to be the thing that keeps you out of your dream school.

Before beginning the application, I highly recommend taking the time to read through the AMCAS Instruction Manual (which can be found on this page). It’ll save you time and possibly heartache later if you just do everything right the first time.

As far as general tips for filling out the application: start early. Spend some time reviewing your work/activities sections – these are like mini-personal statements for that activity. Some people prefer to write these in a bullet-point format, while others prefer a narrative format. I chose the latter, but that’s just me. Be sure to describe the activity, but don’t forget to mention how it affected you or guided to toward medicine or whatever. You can create fifteen work/activity sections, and pick a few of them (it was three, I think, when I applied) as your “Most Meaningful” – in other words, the activities that really changed you or drove you in this direction or taught you something important. You then get a little extra space to write about each activity. Don’t worry about trying to game the system (e.g. picking one research activity, one volunteering activity, and one leadership activity, or what have you) – just pick the three that were really the most important to your personal development. It’ll pay off later when your true passion for whatever the activity was comes through. Have people review your application. DO NOT miss typos – it’s just bad form. If you write your personal statement, work/activity descriptions, etc., in something like Microsoft Word, then be sure to paste it into a program like Notepad and then paste that into the AMCAS application – it avoids any potential formatting issues from directly importing Word’s rich-text into the comparatively low-tech application.

Ideally, if you started it early, you’ll have your application up and ready to go when it comes time to submit in June. Be sure that you and other people have reviewed it multiple times and that there are no errors. Once you submit it, it then goes to AMCAS for verification of your grades, classes, and whatnot. The earlier you submit, the less time this takes. If you submit in the first few days, this might just take a day or two. Any longer than that, it can take a few weeks – and your application will not be received by medical schools until after it is verified. So start it as soon as you can, stay on top of things, and submit early. 

And that wraps up this post. Next, we'll talk about secondaries, interviewing, financial aid, and the rest of the process.