I think an appropriate place to start would be the beginning. Or at least as far back as we feel our memory can adequately serve us.
We wanted to give a primer for any premeds out there who stumble across our blog. I’m sure there are thousands of personal statements floating around each application cycle touting a lifelong commitment to the pursuit of a career in medicine, but the truth is that the rubber really meets the road during the undergraduate years. In the spirit of full disclosure, we do not consider ourselves to be the authority when it comes to getting into medical school. I personally was lucky to land at UW and didn’t exactly have a plethora of options. It was my top choice however, so I was still immensely proud of that acceptance. In this post I will outline some (but not all) of the things a pre-med may want to consider as they begin their journey to medical school. Kevin and I had very different premedical experiences, so I hope you are able to derive at least some benefit from our stories.
If you find yourself in the early days of undergrad with white coat aspirations, then the first piece of advice I would offer is to try and see yourself through the eyes of a medical school admission committee (or ADCOM as the kids call them these days). The overarching goal of undergrad is to build a case for your eventual acceptance into medical school. The earlier you figure this out, the better off you will be. The obvious next question to ask is “what do admissions committees care about?”. Forgive me if what I say next feels like an oversimplification, but I am nearly 4.5 years removed from my AMCAS application.
ADCOMs generally want to see:
- Commitment to the medical field with ample exposure (shadowing, medical field employment)
- Interesting people who don’t only study for the MCAT (unique hobbies, interests, talents, passion projects)
- Evidence of empathy, humility, and people skills (community volunteerism, working in team settings, humanitarian efforts)
- Curious, driven, diligent, and resilient learners (good grades, good MCAT score, evidence of overcoming adversity, research experience)
- Someone who is an effective communicator and emotionally intelligent (leadership experiences, teaching experiences) – Often assessed in the interview through various methods, some can be very…..odd
- Letters of recommendation corroborating all the above
There are a variety of ways to demonstrate these qualities. There’s no all-encompassing checklist here. Things like choice of major may be strategic as well, but it’s debatable. You simply look for opportunities to collect evidence that you are the med student of their dreams. If you can look at yourself and your application with this lens in place, you will be able to put together a complete and impressive package.
Getting from A to MD
I know how intimidating trying to be the perfect applicant can be. The truth is that you don’t have to be perfect. Programs want diversity of experience and backgrounds. You can also get creative. There isn’t just one road to a medical school acceptance. Kevin knew he wanted to be a doctor from the start. I sort of stumbled my way into medicine in my senior year. Regardless of where you are starting, I think the following will help.
Your time is so precious. You are embarking on a noble journey, but it is also stupidly long and arduous. You must be able to have fun along the way. Maximize your time. Be as efficient as possible. When Kevin first arrived at BYU, he knew he needed to get started building his application. He knew he needed leadership experience, a research project, medical experience, and about a dozen other things. He also needed to pay for his housing and tuition, so he had to find a job. He headed down to the exercise science lab and inquired about any ongoing research projects. It turned out there were several. He figured out which projects had paid researcher positions available and he applied. Now he had his job and his research experience. He also really enjoyed one of his physiology classes, so he signed up to be a TA for the course. He had to be available for office hours a few times a week and he generally completed research tasks in between working with students. He was being paid for two jobs as well as racking up valuable leadership experience as a teacher all at once.
I used a similar approach. I was trash at physics and chemistry. I needed to review but because I was starting late in the game, I also had to play catchup and get as much bang for my buck as possible. I had to get some volunteer hours, leadership experience, and study for the MCAT. I decided to sign up for the “drop-in tutor lab” for all the physics and chemistry courses tested on the MCAT. I would hang out in the evenings 3 times a week and tutor my fellow pre-meds so I could get practice reviewing high-yield topics and work on my knowledge gaps. I ended up absolutely smoking the biochem and physics portions of the MCAT, checked off a leadership experience, and stacked up volunteer hours. Try and combine as many activities as you can. This might mitigate the feeling that you are totally sacrificing your 20’s to the medical school gods.
Honestly, the best way to get started tracking down extracurricular activities, research projects, and volunteer experiences is to head over to your university’s pre-med club and get to know people and learn what they are doing. You should also meet up with your school’s pre-med advisor as they likely have ideas of where to get these experiences. Take advantage of opportunities that land in your email inbox for random events at your school or in the community. Just ask yourself “Is this something a well-rounded applicant would do?”. If it is, then just do it and eventually you will be that well-rounded applicant. A few low impact activities that allow you to contribute a few hours a week can add up to be an impressive accomplishment come application time. Kevin helped coordinate blood drives at BYU which took maybe an hour per week. Over the course of two years, he planned over 50 blood drives with >100 hours of service in this one activity.
Both Kevin and I feel that we benefited greatly from the relationships we forged with friends, roommates, professors, and even random acquaintances. Often the best experiences fall into your lap without much effort at all if you just ask the people around you. A perfect example of this is when Kevin tore his ACL during undergrad. After undergoing surgery and following up with his doctor, he started chatting with him about research. The surgeon mentioned a few projects he had that were stalled out at various stages. Kevin asked if he needed help getting them wrapped up. Everyone needs a chart digging monkey (his words, not mine) so he got Kevin involved. He ended up with some publications, a solid letter writer, and orthopedics exposure. I once overheard my organic chemistry professor talking about a project he had started with another pre-med student. It hadn’t gone anywhere after the student got into medical school and lost interest. I popped my head in his office later and asked if he could use any help with his project. I was able to learn a ton about running stats and writing research papers. Opportunities like this are around all the time, you just need to speak up and take advantage of them.
Like the line from the Pet Shop Boys’ song Opportunities, “…there’s a lot of opportunities, if there aren’t, you can make them…”. There’s no rule about only participating in established or traditionally “medical schoolish” activities. Maybe you haven’t found something you’re passionate about or interested in. Maybe there’s too much competition among students in your area. Maybe you have specific gaps in your application that you need to fill. You can absolutely be the master of your own destiny.
I needed to get some shadowing hours as well as more healthcare volunteer hours. I attempted to go to the local hospital near my university but there weren’t any open shifts for volunteers. I had the 7 weeks over summer session to get as many volunteer and shadowing hours as possible, so I didn’t have time to chill on a wait list for a 2 hour shift every week. I reached out to a community hospital near my wife’s hometown about the possibility of volunteering. The volunteer coordinator was so excited by my interest that she circulated the hospital and asked physicians if any of them would be willing to have me also shadow while I was there. I ended up getting to split time shadowing physicians and volunteering in physical therapy. Because of my time there, I secured an internship with the PT department and later a paid position during my gap year as well as several very strong letters of recommendation. During the application cycle, Kevin was waitlisted for a program and their reasoning was “you have lots of medical volunteer hours, but we wished you had more community service experience.” First of all, what? Kevin’s response was to gather a few of his friends, organize a coat drive, and donate over 1000 coats to a local homeless shelter. He called the program with the update. They responded with an acceptance.
Reach out for help
I’m sorry I can’t give detailed all-encompassing advice, but the guiding principle is this: if you combine your interests, passions, and some form of value or service to your community, then it will be a very strong activity. Be yourself and highlight your uniqueness. Looking at yourself through the lens of the ADCOM you see how the various activities you create or participate in will demonstrate your resourcefulness, dedication to service, and leadership. Keep a journal about some of these activities and the things you experience. This will be valuable fodder for your personal statement.
I would encourage you to reach out to others from your school about what they did or are doing. Particularly those ahead of you. They may be more willing to share their secrets because they won’t feel that they are in direct competition with you. Also, don’t withhold advice from others. That’s silly. That’s not at all how medicine works. Med school is much less cutthroat feeling than undergrad felt. Feel free to reach out to us if you have specific questions or need help brainstorming as well. You get what you pay for in our case, but we really do love helping if we can. Have patience if it takes us a while to get back to you. Kevin is very busy putting people back together in the OR after they break their shiz. I’m mostly hiding from nurses so I don’t have to look at butt pus or tell my patients to refrain from throwing their feces. But those are stories for another day. Best of luck.