GUEST BLOGGER PART 2: Applying to Medical School: What to Expect When You’re Expecting…An Acceptance by Dan

Applying to Medical School: What to Expect When You’re Expecting…An Acceptance by Dan (the Man)

So you want to be a doctor? If you answered yes, then congratulations on passing the first step to being a doctor. Was that easy? If you answered yes, then congratulations on lying to yourself. But in all seriousness, if you’ve reached this point in your medical career, you should feel proud of yourself because you’ve achieved a great deal. Only a small percentage of freshman pre-med students get to this point. Now all you have to do is find a way to brag about all of that without sounding too full of yourself.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: don’t listen to people on the internet. Not even me. Everyone has different experiences and some sources out there only serve to bring you down (I’m talking to you, Student-Doctor Network. Bunch of trolls over there). I’ve applied once to one school (ya know, for shiggles) and twice to many schools, so I would say I’m experienced but not an expert. These are just my stories. Ultimately if you want to be a physician, it will happen.

Aspects of the AMCAS application:
The AMCAS is the primary application that gets sent to all medical schools with all of your credentials and qualifications. It’s analogous to the Common App from your high school days. It allows you to apply to all of the schools in the US except schools in Texas. I can imagine they weren’t too happy about that episode of SpongeBob so this was their retaliation. The AMCAS stands for American Medical College Application Service in case you cared. I envy the person whose biggest concern about the application is what the acronym means.
  • Beyond the basic background information on home and age, the application begins with delving into your family education and income.
  • Grades. You get to enter them yourselves, but if you try to lie, the Association will hunt you down and delay your application until the end of days. Don’t worry about credit conversions, though. They’ll take care of all that for you if you’re on the trimester system or if your school has unusual credit values. From this they also recalculate your GPA, which in some cases will be slightly different than what your institution tells you. The GPA will be considered based on both your cumulative GPA and on factoring in just the science courses. Attached is a helpful document on how to calculate GPA. Don’t forget to ask your school’s registrar to send your transcript.
  • MCAT score(s). Heh.
  • Experiences. This is where they give you 15 slots to write about anything and everything you’ve done in a quick 1-paragraph blurb. For some people, this is not enough space, but if you’re like me, less is more. You’ll be asked starting and ending dates for each and cumulative hours contributed. You’re also asked to elaborate further on three of your experiences. Use this space wisely.
  • The personal statement. Can you cram your entire life story into 1-2 pages? I want to stress that this is very important. It doesn’t need to be a tearjerker (both my parents are still alive and so are most of my grandparents), but it does need to articulate why you want to go into medicine. This is your opportunity to talk about things that don’t appear anywhere else on your application, so avoid repeating the summaries of your experiences and accomplishments.
  •  Letters of Recommendation. Generally schools will ask for 3-4, but you can send additional letters if you feel they speak about your character from a unique perspective. The main rule of thumb is 2 science professors and 1 non-science professor/work advisor. These don’t need to be in before submitting your application, but need to be in before schools will consider you for interviews.
  • Finally, schools you’re applying to. My personal recommendation is to try to float this number around 10-12 with 2-3 reach schools and 2-3 safe schools. A reach school is defined as a school that you wouldn’t associate with the word “swag.” For some, 10-12 schools seems a little low, but the theory is that being qualified at one school means you’re qualified at many schools. Likewise, if you’re not qualified anywhere, increasing school numbers will not make you more qualified. Applying to fewer schools is good too if you know what you want. You don’t have to take this advice. It’s ok; I literally cannot take it personally if you don’t.

Photo of me and a pizza because every hipster blog needs pizza

Timing: Seriously, this is really important
The AMCAS opens in early May, which allows you a month to start putting together your credentials. When it comes to personal statements, you might want to start sooner and use the time to have a bunch of people read it over and criticize your use of “then” and “than.” For letters of rec, you should give your letter writers a month or so to say something nice about you. Preferably, you want to ask your writers before finals rolls around and The Defenders premieres on Netflix. June 1st is the first official day you can submit your application and it’s highly recommended you submit within the first day of opening. The confirmation process can take a while and is done on a rolling basis. If you submit early, your application can be turned around in a day or two compared to the weeks you may be waiting if you submit a month later. Because schools review applications on a rolling basis, the earlier your application is reviewed the fewer people you’ll be competing with. I’ve made a graph to illustrate my point. The X-axis is on a log scale and the bar graph resembles a middle finger being pointed at you. You want to be more towards the thumb-end of the applications to avoid delays.

After successfully submitting your application, the AMCAS will distribute secondaries in July or August, which should be turned around in 2 weeks or less. Interviews will roll in hopefully between August and March if all goes well. If you applied early and have a good application, you’re looking at interviews before November and acceptance within 8 weeks after. Later interviews generally have a lower chance of acceptance, but it’s not a death sentence. In April, applicants who have multiple acceptances have to commit to just one school. This is theoretically when people get moved off the wait-list. Hopefully by this point the schools will guide you towards the door for the first day of classes.

Money: Hitting you where it hurts
Let’s talk money. Unless you qualify for FAP (Fee Assistance Program. I am not making this up), you will be expected to pay a lot of money just to be given the opportunity to pay more money. The MCAT test is $310, which makes it worthwhile to take only once. The actual application will cost $160 and comes with one school. Each additional school you want to send an application to will cost you $38, which makes applying to a lot of schools an expensive endeavor. After the primary comes the secondaries, which will come in like a barrage of arrows. Each secondary will cost anywhere from $0 to $150 in addition to requiring essays on why you like each school. Applying to a lot of schools gets very expensive. If you do qualify for FAP, the AAMC will reduce the MCAT fee, give you access to the MSAR (more on that later), and comp your application and first 16 school applications. That’s a lot of money.

How to decide where to apply: Stats and the MSAR
Let’s start by defining the MSAR, the Medical School Admissions Requirement. This is an online resource that compiles the GPA and MCAT ranges of all schools in the US. This allows you to sort by your desired scores as well as look into each school’s mission statement, student body size, gender distribution, etc. The question is what score is good enough? Do you apply to schools where your scores are just below the median, at the median, or above the median? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Rejection is common from schools where your score is more than competitive and sometimes you’ll find someone whose scores were less than competitive get into a school. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good personal statement and activity summary. Final note: it’s worth your time to look into the legitimacy of the schools you want to attend. Is that school accredited by the AAMC? Has it lost that accreditation recently? How low of a GPA/MCAT combo are they willing to take? What do the school’s residency match rates look like for the specialties you’re interested in? Is tuition going to be expensive? What percentage of applicants do they accept? Anyone of these factors alone shouldn’t deter you from wanting to attend a school, but if the answers to these questions would also describe a Kardashian, you should be skeptical.

MD or DO?
While the two degrees differ in philosophy in minor ways, in most functional capacities the two function exactly the same. Both allow you to pursue any specialty and match with MD residencies and will require you to pass the same boards.
I sit in the camp of students who believes a good DO school is better than a bad MD school. The judgment comes from the idea that MD degrees have been longer established and that DO schools have more lax requirements. If your goal is to become a physician and serve your community, it’s important to keep an open mind to the possibilities. I also wanted to add a note to be wary of the MD schools that send you unsolicited emails to get you to apply. Caribbean weather sounds nice and all, but for-profit institutions seem to have an agenda for accepting anyone willing to go an additional $250,000 in debt. (For comparison purposes, the average non-Caribbean graduate has about $153,000 of debt.)

Activities and experiences
Breakdown time! No, not an emotional breakdown. Let’s breakdown what experiences to talk about and how to highlight what you’ve learned. For those lucky enough to still have time to pursue new experiences, listen up. There are a few major experience categories: volunteering (medical and non-medical), paid work (medical and non-medical), research, awards, artistic endeavors, clinical shadowing, extra curricular, leadership, teaching, etc. You don’t have to have something in every category, but try to think of something for most of them and try to pursue other ones if you have time. Each school ranks the importance of each experience differently, so a Jesuit school may put a greater focus on non-medical volunteering while a large public institution might like research a lot more. The mission statement of each school will give you an idea.

You’ll be given space to write in detail about three significant experiences and I would say to avoid having all three of them highlight the same thing. If you have three important medical experiences, for example, you may want to only highlight one and use one for a leadership experience and one for a hobby. The idea is that you talk about how each experience, no matter how unrelated, has contributed to your success as a medical applicant. Take my example for how to write about being a concert violinist, which you could argue has nothing to do with medicine:

Learning the violin has given me the opportunity to work alongside a group of talented individuals to create something larger than myself. Being a part of an ensemble helps me understand how each part, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can contribute to something beautiful. Succeeding in an orchestra ensemble requires discipline in daily practice, but also requires versatility as a musician. The required musical repertoire spans many time periods and often requires quickly learning on the spot. The violin has taught me not only how to lead others, but how to take directions and criticism. This has been an important part in my growth as a musician and as a scholar.
Working in large orchestras has also allowed me to travel the world and gain important cultural perspectives, some of which were vastly different than my own. I have played a series of concerts in Oahu, Hawaii where I learned Polynesian culture, and I have also toured South Africa, which broadened my global perspective immensely. In preparation for our tour of South Africa, I studied Apartheid extensively, the effects of which I was later able to observe during my travels.

Secondaries: Essays for dayz
Secondaries are additional essays or questions schools want you to answer about their specific programs. Some schools make it mandatory to turn those around within two weeks of offering while others only heavily imply the two-week deadline. There will be a lot of secondaries, so prioritize which schools you’re most invested in. It used to be you needed a minimum GPA and MCAT to be offered a secondary, but almost all schools have since taken to offering secondaries to all applicants. Some secondaries will only ask for your money and no essays. That sounds great now, but when the time comes you’ll feel cheated by the fact that you’ve added nothing to your application and have to bribe your way into just being considered an applicant. Anyways, do your research on the programs and get really invested. Read the mission statement, look into what type of groups or programs you’d take advantage of. If you can’t imagine what it would be like living in snowy, frigid Minnesota in the middle of winter, it’s ok to not respond to that secondary. Depending on your life and Pokemon Go event schedule, you may not even have time to complete them all.

What’s it like to be a reapplicant?
Good. I’m a little hungry, but no complaints.

But in all seriousness, the first thing I did after ordering a Crave Case from White Castle was call the schools and ask what they wanted to see improved in my next application. The biggest advice I heard was to be a resident of the state school I wanted to attend. (Nice try, Iowa. I’m not falling for that one.) GPA can’t be fixed easily, but the MCAT can be retaken if you think you can do significantly better (maybe 3 or 4 points better). As far as experiences go, I would say diversify as much as possible. If your clinical experience was weak, shadow physicians for a few weeks or become a scribe. If you like research and not making minimum wage, try to get a job as a lab tech. Ultimately though, I would say to just do you. If you’re a musician, take the time to join a community orchestra. If you want to teach English in Japan, do it. If you want to teach high school kids how to fight ninjas, watch Iron Fist. If you’re a marathon runner, sit down once in a while. Take the chance to live life as if you were given a second chance. The schools will be measuring your reapplication status on personal growth as well. If you spend the year spinning your tires, they may not look at that too favorably. Would I have liked to have gotten into school the first time? Yes. Do I think time off has prepared me for medical school? Eh, who’s to say? Have I enjoyed my time away from school? You bet.

Interviews: blabbering with eye contact
There are a few different styles of interviews, but generally the schedule goes like this: you arrive to the school early in the morning looking super fly. (Guys, get a nice looking suit and tie with no bells and whistles. Ladies, keep doing you. I don’t know. I’ve never seen a woman look poorly dressed at these things.) There will be the dean there to greet you and introduce the school. You’ll be shuffled off to other rooms for your interviews with both students and physicians. After lunch, the admissions department will tell you about various programs and resources on campus. They will then take you on a tour and send on your way. Out of my 10 applications in the first round, I had two interviews. The next time around, I had one interview before gaining an acceptance and shutting down my applications to avoid the rejections. These numbers are hardly statistical and may be totally different for you.

Types of Interviews
This is not an exhaustive list, but these are some of the more common types. My experiences were very laid-back and the conversation was casual. If you’ve gotten to this point, hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two about managing pressure.
  • One of the more common types is the traditional one-on-one interview. These are generally 15-30 minutes long and vary in amount of interviewers. These can be blinded or unblinded, meaning the interviewer may or may not have your scores and personal statement in front of them. These are the easiest to prepare for because so many questions are recycled and can be found online. Always have an answer to “So tell me about yourself."
  • There’s also the panel interview where a group of physicians and students ask you questions and judge you individually. I can’t say I’ve seen this or would know what to do in this situation. The idea is to remove biases between raters by having every rater judge you at once.
  • There’s the MMI or Multiple Mini Interviews. Think speed dating except with medical professionals and the date always ends with a handshake. These types are supposed to be unexpected and hard to prepare for with topics ranging from ethical/moral dilemmas, problem solving, self-reflection/beating yourself up, acting, and team objectives. As with all interviews, be yourself and try to have a good time. In my MMI, I cracked a lot of jokes and I knew everyone else was being true to themselves because nobody laughed. Under any other circumstances, I would’ve thought this was fun.

Applying to medical school can be stressful and the waiting can be unbearable, but I’m hoping my tips and perspective put you a little more at ease. You may not get in your first application. That’s becoming very common. Take your time and have fun along the way.