What I Should Have Done & Why: Part 1

In recent months, a few friends and friends-of-friends of mine have asked if I had any advice about this whole applying-to-med-school process. Uh, yes. Lots. So, I thought I’d share. My apologies in advance for what is sure to be a long, long post.

Let me preface this post with this: Failure is good for the soul. It keeps you humble, keeps you hungry. Certainly, I wouldn’t have fought so hard if I didn’t have to.

High School

Yes, starting with high school. I didn’t find out until well into my first semester of college that I had the grades and SAT/ACT scores to get me into combined MD/BS programs at several universities across the nation. I have no idea how on earth those programs escaped my research, but they did. If there is anything that I can count as a pet peeve, it’s not knowing about something until it’s too late–it aggravates me so much. That’s probably why I plan well in advance for every little thing.

I started volunteering in hospitals while I was in high school. If I could do it all over again, what I should have done was to get my CNA while I was still this young. It would have been a tremendous help, gaining experience in health care settings of all sorts while stashing away a little extra cash over the summers.

College

College is so much more than just a degree and toga parties. There is so much outside of that that is worth going to college and earning that degree. I met most of my best friends there; it’s surprising how close you can get to new friends while in college, it’s definitely more accelerated than in high school (in my experience, anyway). There were friends to be made, opportunities for leadership, research, and just figuring out who I was, after all. Not to mention the time management skills that were honed. I would definitely do it all over again, at my school. Although, if I could go back and do anything, I would have done two other things: studied abroad and picked up a double major in nursing.

Why? Many reasons. As far as study abroad goes, when else would I have had the ability to travel, learn new languages, made friends across the globe at such a young age? I love learning languages and learning to communicate with other people. It would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I never pursued it because my mindset was to graduate “on time”–and study abroad would have pushed back my graduation a semester or two, which at the time wasn’t worth it to me. (If I had only known!) I had let myself think that study abroad was not possible–big mistake. Now, for the double major… having that extra degree in nursing would have opened doors for employment after college once I didn’t get into med school the first time I applied. There have been so many jobs I didn’t qualify for because I didn’t have the necessary time spent with patients, that could have been obtained with a nursing degree; aside from that, think of all the practical stuff I would have learned that would have been a great help in medical school… but oh well. Can’t change it now.

Now, back to my pre-med advice for college:
First and foremost, be your own advocate and advisor. Search out information and do not, I repeat DO NOT just follow information you got from one sole source. Bad, bad idea. I highly recommend starting off with a copy of a medical school strategy book (my personal favorites are Kaplan’s Get into Medical School: A Strategic Approach, and Medical School Confidential. I do not have any financial conflicts of interest to address; but out of all the books I’ve read, these two are probably two of the most helpful.) just to give you the basic ins-and-outs of how it all works and what it will take to get you to where you want to be. (Especially if you haven’t done so yet in high school. I did, but only because that’s my neuroticism showing.) Personally, I am an information junkie. If I’m interested in something, I will track down every thing about it so that I know I am well-informed. This is a great way to start. Also, seek out your campus pre-med (or pre-vet/pharm/nursing/PA/podiatry, whatever) advisor as soon as possible and see what information they have for you. [*Caveat: I do not, DO NOT recommend taking what this advisor says as the end-all and be-all of information, and here’s why: all someone has to do to be a pre-med advisor is to volunteer. There is no training, no seminars, no nothing. He or she may have incorrect or outdated information. This is why I always recommend having multiple sources for this type of information. Do not be blindsided by something you did not know.

Also check out the free information available from the American Association of Medical Colleges, aamc.org. They’re the guys that put together the lovely MCAT and who you’ll use later for your medical school application, AMCAS, and rotation/residency applications later on. You’re going to have a lot of fun with these guys, so you might as well get used to them now.

Extra Classes
If you are not a biology major (I wasn’t), it is definitely in your best interests to pursue classes in biology that are above and beyond your degree requirements, especially: Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, Anatomy, Human Physiology… etc. etc. Because, having seen some of it before medical school would be a big help. If you only have room for one of them, I recommend Anatomy. It is well worth your time to take it in advance.

STAY OFF OF SDN.
SDN is the Student Doctor Network. It’s an online forum, where you can have an anonymous username, read forum threads, create them, find answers to your questions about anything related about health professions from start to finish. Sounds great, right? In theory, yes. But my advice is to stay away from the Pre-Med Allopathic/Osteopathic sections. Why? Think about it. Those who are “gunning” for medical school know that it is obscenely competitive, and by nature they’re strong Type-A personalities to begin with. These are the kids that think they’ll have an edge by telling you the test is on the wrong day, or boast that the never study but make A’s, etc. etc…. just to psych out the competition, and they derive much sadistic pleasure from seeing others fail, or squirm. Now put a bunch of those strong Type-A personalities behind an anonymous username and give them the ‘power’ to post their opinions on an online forum… and you have disaster. Misinformation, wrong information, hateful opinions on every single question that is posed… and let’s not forget they all boast 4.5 GPA’s, 45T MCAT scores, and “above average” extracurriculars. There are a lot of opinions about what medicine is, how it works, how it is changing–all by people who are not even accepted to or enrolled in medical school yet. If you want to feel inferior or discouraged, or if you need someone to ruin your day and your outlook on a career in healthcare fields, by all means read those forums. Be prepared to sift through a mountain of BS for a few gold nuggets of information.

CAVEAT: Just like in chemistry class, as soon as you learn a hard-and-fast rule…. you learn all of the exceptions to that rule. So with that being said, I will say that there is a goldmine of great resources on SDN. Personally, I read the Pediatrics and Neonatology forums, and the moderators/med students/residents/fellows are all super helpful and encouraging. Also, there are separate forums for every single medical school for your particular application cycle, so you can ask questions about personal statements, supplemental applications, due dates, interview prep (this was pure, unadulterated GOLD during my interview cycle), etc that is definitely worth your time and attention. Those are the areas I used the forums for the most, and yes it helped me tremendously.

Get Involved
…but only if you want to. Grades will always be the most important, but you need to have fun too… if only to keep your sanity. You do not have to be the guy that basically lives on campus (guilty as charged). Medical schools will want to see that you have a passion for something and a strong commitment to it. It does not have to be medicine-related. Just find something you are passionate about and go after it. Maybe it’s hiking/rock climbing/mountaineering/running marathons. Awesome. Maybe it is starting a Frisbee golf group on campus. Cool. Just go do it, and do it with all of your heart. That is where the meat of your Personal Statement can come from, or it can be fodder for questions during your interview. The ADCOMs will want to see that you have a way of dealing with stress, that you have outside interests from medicine, because that is going to save your sanity when you matriculate and proceed through this battlefield. It makes you interesting. Be able to talk about it.

Volunteering/Shadowing
This is pretty much expected of you, if you want to be a medical student (of any sort). Doctors need to be compassionate, help people from all ages and stages of life, and have some hands-on experience. It doesn’t have to be in a hospital or in any certain field. It can be seen as just “checking the box”, but if you really get something out of it, it can be a powerful ace up your sleeve. Not to mention some of your supervisors may write you glowing letters of recommendation for your application(s).

Work on that CV
Having a CV, and a well-organized one at that, can open doors. I don’t remember exactly when I first heard of a CV (curriculum vitae), but basically it’s a more detailed resume. Develop one, have several people read over it, and keep adding to it. I have had so many compliments on my CV, and it’s definitely helped me land jobs since college. Another plus, keeping all of this information in one place will be handy when you start filling out your applications.

Other Opportunities
If you find out about some sort of opportunity that you would LOVE to do, by all means go for it! You won’t know if you don’t try. The first time I applied for summer research positions, I didn’t have the first day of research experience, and the one program that I wanted, I thought was well out of my grasp. I only applied to five or six programs, but the only one I secured was this one I thought was beyond my reach. This one program has opened countless doors for me afterward, including getting published and having a mutual acquaintaince with an interviewer at my future medical school.

The Dreaded MCAT
Do not underestimate this exam. It’s a bear. No, more like a monster. Yeah, that’s a better descriptor. I bought a copy of Kaplan’s MCAT Review as a freshman, and used it as a guide to study from my first two years of college. Looking back, I wish I had taken the actual Kaplan (or Princeton Review, pick your poison) class way back then. The strategies help, and practice, practice, practice. At the time, I didn’t want to spend the money for it, and finding time to go to another campus to take the class are the things that deterred me from it. You do NOT want to have to take this thing more than once, so prep early, be dedicated, and if you don’t feel that you are ready yet, push your test date back. Be sure to note that the MCAT is currently changing and will make BIG changes in 2015. I’ve heard it’s going to gradually grow into an eight-hour exam. Check with the AAMC for the most recently updated information.

Plan B, C, D….
Have backup plans. Several. At one point, I had even made a flowchart. If A doesn’t work, go to B… but if C comes along, drop B…. It may sound a little crazy, but it kept me motivated (and for the most part, employed) during my “gap-years”. If Plan A doesn’t work, there are 25 other letters in the alphabet; I kept that in mind as I figured out what I would do if my application cycle(s) didn’t work out, and it saved me a lot of stress since I knew that no matter what happened, I had options and I was going to be okay.

In speaking of backup plans…

Graduate School/Employment

Graduate School. Oh, grad school. It’s wonderful, it’s awful, it’s a mess. I found a program that interested me that would accept my MCAT scores (because I did NOT want to have to study for, pay for, and sit for the GRE). There are so many programs to choose from. Most pre-meds that go to grad school opt for MS degrees in some sort of field of biology; some of these programs are tied to medical schools and can be known as ‘feeder’* programs to the MD/DO degree… and are sometimes referred to as SMPs, or Special Masters Programs. *Be careful with these though; more often than not, these DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT guarantee your entrance into medical school, so don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Read the fine print, ask questions, be proactive.

Here I would also like to note that an MS Bio-related program may not be the best choice. From my experience, I would say that if you do not eat-breathe-sleep whatever thing it is that you would study in grad school, DO NOT DO IT. Grad school requires you to be utterly consumed with whatever-it-is that you are studying. So if you do not love it enough to marry it, don’t go to grad school for it. Of special note, I will also add that in my interviews, my interviewers were majorly impressed that I wasn’t like everyone else and got a different degree than an MS Bio-whatever. If you’re wanting to set yourself apart and gain some hands-on experience with medicine/healthcare, I highly encourage you to purse a Masters of Public Health or Masters of Bioethics/Medical Humanities. Sure, Social Inequality in Healthcare didn’t help my background knowledge in biochemistry to make med school biochem any easier, but I know more about helping people in the community… which has translated into some very engaging interviews and ultimately, several acceptances.

I will add this caveat though: it would have helped my earning potential in the interim if I’d have gotten the MS Bio-whatever anyway. As a lab tech, all of my interviews for jobs were interested in the MA, but since it wasn’t an MS, I couldn’t negotiate for higher pay based on my education. Which sucks. But I was able to use my lab skills to land a good job that has afforded my husband and I to live quite well, I think. So take that with a grain of salt if you’re considering grad school, employment, then med school and beyond. (Remember that flowchart I mentioned? Yep, that was all on there.)

Just don’t give up. The door will open. I may have had to kick it open, but it did finally open.

The Application Season
This process is awful. Soul-crushing awful. My best advice is to be totally, completely prepared. I started gathering information for my application a year in advance. I downloaded the instruction manual from AAMC.org, so I knew every exact thing I would need, and when. Doing that saved me SO MUCH TIME. I knew the application would open in May to submit in June, and the entire process could take until August of the following year if I happened to get waitlisted. I knew how many activities I could enter and that each would need a description. I knew how long my essay, or Personal Statement, was supposed to be. So I started early, and kept a binder (I keep a binder for everything). I wrote my essays early and had several friends read it and give me feedback. I asked for all of my letters of recommendation early. I sent off for my transcripts so they’d get there well before I submitted, so I’d be first in line for verifcation. I knew which schools I wanted to apply to, which ones gave out secondary applications to all students, which ones had a ton of essays. I also knew how crazy expensive all of this was going to be, from fees to send transcripts, to the MCAT, to the application processing fee, to the secondary fees, to the interview attire/travel/hotel costs. I took the time to get organized. It was so much less stressful this way! Start early, get organized, and you’ll be less stressed. (And actually, the first time I applied, I had never even heard of/bothered to check out (the useful parts of) SDN. Sometimes I wonder if maybe that could have hurt me, no matter how prepared I was.)

Also: find something to preoccupy your time that summer/fall. If I had nothing to do that summer, I would have driven myself crazy. It’s even worse now that I have my email on my phone. Every little “ding!” from my phone would make me jump, thinking that it was a secondary application/interview invite/acceptance email. Have something to keep you occupied.

My advice to anyone, doing anything under the sun: Be polite. Be nice to people–everyone from the professor to the secretary to the Chair of the ADCOM is going to be watching your demeanor and how you treat others. Someone is always watching. Find a way to go out of your way to make someone else’s day better. People will remember you by your actions and how you treat them, not by what is on your resume/CV or what your grades/scores were. Having a positive attitude and being willing to lend a hand will take you far, no matter what your goals are.

So there you have it. Eight years of trial and error have now graced this blog in my longest post ever–which is why Part 2 is on its way. I hope someone finds it useful and learns from my… errors. 😉

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