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Moving Beyond Self-Doubt: Hannah's Journey

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"Please don't become disheartened when the first, or the twentieth, rejection comes. Keep trying until you find your school because you are going to love what comes next. Getting into medical school made the painstaking process of applying , and applying again, worth it."

Anatomy of an Applicant, Hannah W, Core Competencies
Hannah Winters

Medical School: Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, 2021
Undergrad: Gonzaga University, 2011

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Background

  • Was interested in science as a child but did not want to be a doctor
  • Worked for a pharmaceutical company after college
  • Decided she wanted to be a doctor after reading a Boston Marathon survivor article in May 2014
  • Spent a summer shadowing a primary care doctor and studying for the MCAT
  • Applied to 13 schools, but was not invited to interview
  • Spent a year volunteering in a hospital and shadowing
  • Applied again in 2016 and was initially waitlisted at Washington State University, and then accepted!

Academics

Hannah took the MCAT exam three years after graduation and she believed her score demonstrated her ability to learn and teach herself what she needed to know; however, she also knew they might not make her stand out in the crowd. Hannah largely earned A’s in her non-science classes, and her transcript and GPA demonstrated her diverse interests and her drive. Her admissions dean, Leila Harrison, said, “We establish threshold combinations of MCAT and GPA which Hannah met in order to receive a secondary application. We blind further review of these measures. However, we were able to see her transcript which was very strong and she received numerous awards and honors during her time at Gonzaga University.”

Experiences

After graduation, Hannah found a job in a pharmaceutical company. She thought this would be a good way to hone her skills, pay off student loans and prepare for graduate school, but as time went by, she grew more and more discontented with her work. She took two trips to Africa with community development agencies that exposed her to the incomprehensible disparity in quality of life for people around the world and she became all the more and more uncertain of what she wanted in her own life, but then, in May 2014, she had a moment of clarity.

“I will never forget the moment, the very second, that I realized there was nothing else I could ever do but become a doctor. I was reading an article about a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing and what his life was like now one year later. He had lost both of his lower legs, but was learning to live with prosthetics. All of a sudden I was crying, weeping really, how was it that we could live in a world where people lost limbs? I knew I had to be a doctor and I had to give people their mobility and dexterity back.”

Anatomy of an Applicant, Hannah W, Core Competencies
Hannah's first trip to Africa, at a grain distribution for widows and orphans.

Hannah eagerly completed 13 medical school applications. She didn’t receive an interview offer at any of the schools she applied to, but she didn’t give up. “I wish I had reached out to some of the schools to see if they could give me specific feedback about what I could improve, I figured none of them would get back to me, but I could have tried!” Instead, she took the next application cycle off, and spent some time volunteering in a hospital and reworking her application. “I was concerned I didn’t have enough medically related experiences the first time I applied, so I switched from shadowing at a doctor's office to volunteering at a hospital.”

The admission team at WSU noted her motivation for medicine through her long commitment to hospital volunteering and they could tell that she developed resilience through these experiences. It was through her reflection in describing these experiences that demonstrated that she is someone who can be placed in difficult circumstances and work with a variety of people whom themselves are not in the easiest situations and responds with empathy, patience, and compassion. She allowed these experiences to challenge and grow her which continually built her resilience. Medical school applicants have the option to list up to 15 activities on their AMCAS application. Even though Hannah did not include 15, it was clear that she was dedicated to the activities that she did list. Her admissions dean, Ms. Harrison, noticed that in all of her activities, there was not one in which she dedicated no less than a year working, participating, or volunteering. Her admissions dean explained that “This reveals someone who is engaging in these activities with a genuine spirit rather than checking the boxes for admission.”

Personal Statement

In her personal statement Hannah wrote about what she had learned and how she had grown in the year and half since her first application. She also highlighted that the passing time had not diminished her desire to become a doctor in any way but had actually made it stronger.  She believed her statement was an accurate and powerful reflection of herself. Hannah said, “I knew I didn’t have the strongest grades or MCAT scores, but I believed that I would really shine more in an interview than I ever would on paper. I tried to put as much of myself into the statement to give readers a strong impression of the person they would be inviting to interview.”

Anatomy of an Applicant, Hannah W, Core Competencies
Hannah and her friend Katherine, a rower at Notre Dame, at a crew regatta in Indiana.

The admissions committee was able to glean information about Hannah’s character through her insightful essays, both in the AMCAS application and in the secondary application as well as the descriptions of her activities, which provided lessons she learned, reflection on her activities and growth. According to her admission officer, it was apparent when reading Hannah’s application that she was someone with a “good level of grit.” She was a re-applicant to medical school, a student athlete, and she participated in several activities throughout her journey which were wide-reaching. Her essays and activity descriptions showed someone who uses reflection in growth and picks herself up when things get tough. She has perseverance and dedication to her goals.” Ms. Harrison described Hannah as someone who has done a lot of reflecting when making decisions; therefore, it’s obvious that her choices are not made lightly. She presented herself as both upfront and vulnerable, and her genuine motivation for medicine was clearly evident. 

Letters of Evaluation

Hannah chose the pre-med committee at her undergraduate school to write her letter because she knew that she had made a significant impression in her department as a whole and that many professors would be able to speak well of her. In addition to that committee letter, she also chose the director at her pharmaceutical job to write a letter of evaluation because she thought his title would be impactful given that he oversaw many departments, and she knew he would be able to write a detailed and glowing recommendation because of how well she had performed at her job. Finally, Hannah chose a high school teacher who also worked in the career center at her undergraduate school because she knew she could speak about Hannah as a person. Hannah said, “I wanted someone to describe my passion and presence, things I wasn’t sure the committee letter or my director’s letter would address.”

According to her admissions team, these letters presented evaluators with someone who was genuine, compassionate, happy, and knowledgeable. The letter writers also mentioned similar attributes and experiences which allowed the admissions team to triangulate her experiences. Based on her letters, Hannah came across as someone who had natural curiosity, maintained excitement as she pursued new endeavors, and someone who could make decisions intentionally. Her letters also conveyed a certain level of maturity.   

Interview

To prepare for her interview, Hannah talked to a few friends who had interviewed at medical schools before and did some online research. When she learned that WSU used the Multiple Mini Interview MMI format, she reviewed the types of questions asked and what’s assessed beyond an interviewee’s actual answers.

During the MMI interview at WSU, Hannah felt like she was able to present her whole self. “In my other interview, which was 30 minutes with three interviewers, I do not feel like I was able to truly show them everything about myself that I would have wanted them to know.”

Anatomy of an Applicant, Hannah W, Core Competencies
Hannah and her family at her White Coat Ceremony

Interviewers saw Hannah as compassionate, insightful, logical, working well in teams, and having a strong commitment to Washington. One thing to consider is that Hannah was enrolled in the inaugural year of her medical school program which meant the application and interview process was truncated as compared to a regular season. The admissions team conducted the whole interview season (interviewing 332 applicants) in only three months; a regular timeframe for this would be six months! WSU is proud to be very mission-driven when selecting applicants to join their team, thus, Hannah’s experiences, attributes, and personal reflection about these and her goals were made clear in her application packet and interviews.

Waitlist

Volunteering in the hospital was painful during the application cycle because every time she saw a doctor, all Hannah could think about was how much she wanted to be one. “I remember one day in particular I simply saw someone hand a test result to a doctor and I was immediately overwhelmed at how amazing it is to work in medicine. Here was a plain piece of paper that became knowledge and help for the patient when placed in the hands of a doctor. I wanted that experience so badly.” Hannah was initially placed on a waiting list. “It wasn’t a no,” Hannah said, “but it’s definitely not a 50-50 feeling. More like 25% yes, 75% no. Waiting to hear was exhausting because I jumped every time my phone went off thinking it might be them calling ” Exactly three weeks later, she received a call from Washington State University, and the Dean offered her a seat in the inaugural class.

“I felt a lifetime in that moment. The new lifetime that I would get to have because of this opportunity. And it became all worth it.”

Hannah’s application year was Washington State’s inaugural year, and they made 91 offers to fill 60 seats. Leila Harrison said, “Even though Hannah was offered a seat from the waitlist, she was still among the top group of applicants we were considering that year. We formed our waitlist immediately after our interview season concluded in the middle of March. The bulk of our waitlist offers were made in May, and Hannah was accepted on May 3.” Making only 91 offers for 60 seats demonstrates a very competitive process of acceptance revealing how much of a fit Hannah was deemed to be.

Anatomy of an Applicant, Hannah W, Core Competencies
Hannah shakes hands with her founding Dean, Dr. Tomkowiak

One thing to keep in mind is that applicants should not be wary about reaching out to admissions deans with questions or request for feedback if they did receive an interview or acceptance. If an applicant is in the position to have to reapply and would like feedback about how to improve, Ms. Harrison explained that the appropriate way to approach this is to call or email the admissions office and offered these points:

  • First, ask if feedback is offered by the school. The staffing, resources, number of applications received, policy, and/or additional responsibilities of the admissions office and admissions dean could impact whether this is possible, therefore asking to begin with is appropriate.
  • If feedback is offered, the applicant would then follow the process provided. Applicants should avoid going into these feedback sessions with expectations of receiving an answer to why they did not get accepted or were not interviewed. The admissions process is highly complex with many factors at play. The point of the feedback session is to provide insight about how to improve on a reapplication. Furthermore, feedback and following through with improving the application should not be seen as a guarantee that one will be interviewed or accepted in a subsequent application.
  • Finally, timing is important. Requesting feedback early spring is preferable to late spring or summer. If an applicant is anticipating submitting another application in the next season, late spring or early summer may not provide enough time to take the necessary steps to improve the application.

Hannah on Why She Chose Washington State University

“It’s hard to come up with anything about the school that made me not want to go there. I had originally thought it would be a good experience to live in a new place for school, but I quickly realized what a blessing it was to be able to go to medical school in my home town. ” Hannah also says, “From the moment I stepped on campus and the presentations started, I wanted to go there…I felt like they wanted passionate, curious and driven individuals, no matter their background and these were the kinds of people I wanted to go to school with.” Hannah could feel how passionate faculty and staff were about not only the mission, but the students, and could tell that they weren’t after a certain score, but a certain type of person.

Washington State University on Why They Chose Hannah

“When reviewing applicants, we are looking for someone dedicated to the state of Washington, who is from Washington, and who has demonstrated a heart to serve others, particularly rural and underserved communities and populations.” Hannah was all of these. “Further, Hannah is someone who is going to push toward a goal because she has thought long and hard about it. She doesn’t seem to be someone who makes decisions lightly or without really reflecting on their meaning. She also seems to be someone who will push through tough times. Finally, she seems to be someone who is pursuing medicine because she truly cares about serving others.”

Hannah self-identified her strongest competencies to be Critical Thinking, Resilience & Adaptability, and Human Behavior. According to her admission officer, the competencies that were most obvious in Hannah’s application were resilience and adaptability. “Hannah’s ethical responsibility to others stood out through her community development trips to Kenya and Ethiopia. She also spent 400 hours over seven years volunteering as a Special Olympics Softball Coach. Her motivation to continue applying despite the disappointment of not getting accepted as well as being a student athlete displayed grit, determination, and resilience.”

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Competencies Demonstrated

Note: This section helps to illustrate how multiple competencies can be demonstrated across many experiences, activities, and parts of your application.

Service Orientation Service Orientation Service Orientation

Demonstrates a desire to help others and sensitivity to others’ needs and feelings; demonstrates a desire to alleviate others’ distress; recognizes and acts on his/her responsibilities to society; locally, nationally, and globally.

Community development trips to Kenya and Ethiopia, Special Olympics softball coach, Hospital volunteer

Critical Thinking Critical Thinking Critical Thinking

Uses logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions, or approaches to problems.

Above average MCAT scores, Strong transcripts

Human Behavior Human Behavior Human Behavior

Applies knowledge of the self, others, and social systems to solve problems related to the psychological, socio-cultural, and biological factors that influence health and well-being.

Volunteer experience

Resilience and Adaptability Resilience and Adaptability Resilience and Adaptability

Demonstrates tolerance of stressful or changing environments or situations and adapts effectively to them; is persistent, even under difficult situations; recovers from setbacks.

Reapplied to medical school, experienced being waitlisted and kept optimistic outlook

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Strongest Competencies

The student self-identified the following competencies as the strongest:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Human Behavior
  • Resilience and Adaptability
Hannah's Tips
  • "Describe how your non-medical experiences, jobs, or volunteering pushed you to medicine or grew you in some particular way. I listed out what I actually did, but when you’re one among thousands, explicitly laying out what you learned from the experiences is very important."
  • "Don’t doubt yourself. A 'no' for a secondary or interview doesn’t mean you’re not meant to be a doctor. In two application cycles, I received a total of 25 painful, expensive and crushing 'no’s', but the one 'yes' was the right 'yes'. My school is the perfect school for me."
  • "If you have options, don’t pick the big name or the cheapest school, know the kind of doctor you want to be and pick the school you believe will encourage and grow that doctor."
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