Wednesday, May 8, 2013

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.

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