Dealing with Application Anxiety

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Applying to medical school can feel overwhelming at times, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. While it’s normal to feel anxious about the process, there are resources to help you manage stress and keep yourself on track.

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How will the committee view certain things on my application?

If you’re concerned about how an aspect of your application may be interpreted, it’s okay to ask. First, share your concerns with a pre-health advisor to get their impressions and, if appropriate, contact the admissions office directly. Remember that many people have imperfections on their academic record. For example, if you have a grade in a science course that you wish were higher, remember that doing well in upper-level science course work will show that you overcame your challenges with the material and proved your proficiency in this area.

Rather than focusing on the weaker parts of your application, admissions officers are more interested in how you’ve grown or learned from these experiences and improved upon them. Be prepared to speak about this “distance travelled” during your interviews to show your awareness of the issue and how you surmounted it.

If you’re worried about how an admissions committee will interpret your personal statement or essays, make sure you share your writing with your advisor and a few trusted individuals of varied backgrounds to gain their different perspectives. If your university has a writing center, you also might consider making an appointment to share your essay with them to ensure there are no grammatical or syntactical errors. Of course, it’s always wise to be aware of 
AMCAS® policies regarding essay writing and completing your application, so be sure to read them over and comply with the rules.

What if I don’t have enough research, shadowing, or volunteer experience?

It’s true that the majority of successful applicants have some research, shadowing, and/or volunteering experience, but it’s important that you focus on the value of your experiences rather than taking a checklist approach. A single day spent volunteering does not carry the same weight as a year-long volunteering commitment where you have an opportunity to learn about yourself and a particular community. Admissions officers pay attention to the length and quality of the experience, however, the amount and kinds of activities expected of applicants varies significantly between programs depending on the mission of the medical school. Research your potential schools to see if they are a good fit for your interests by reviewing their websites and/or their profiles on the Medical School Admission Requirements website, which includes each medical school’s mission statement as well their premedical shadowing requirements and the percentage of first year students who applied with relevant research, shadowing, and volunteer experiences. You and your pre-health advisor can decide together if you’re ready to apply or if taking a gap year to gain more experience could be a good option for you. More than half of accepted applicants take at least one gap year, so it's okay if you need to take more time and apply later than you anticipated.

What if my family or other people are not supportive?

Sometimes, other people may have concerns and hesitations when someone they care about decides to pursue a career in medicine. Whether the concerns are based on cultural, financial, or personal reasons, it’s important to create a respectful environment where you listen to each other. Work with a pre-health advisor, mentor, or spiritual advisor to strategize the best way to start the conversation. Remember to be courteous and logical. Using words like, “I researched” or “I evaluated the options” can go a long way in helping you present yourself as a well-reasoned adult. And ultimately, realize that this is your career, your passion, and a pathway that you have decided to follow.

How do I handle the pressure?

Academic pressure comes in many forms and from different people, including yourself. When a particular moment feels overwhelming, it’s helpful to remind yourself how much you’ve already accomplished. Create a timeline with manageable deadlines and handle everything one step at a time. And most important, make sure to take mental and physical breaks to recharge and do things you enjoy. Even a 15 minute walk can bring peace and clarity to a seemingly impossible day. It’s important for you to maintain relationships with friends and family and schedule time for activities and events outside of school to help diffuse the pressure and revitalize you.

Establishing healthy stress management practices now also will benefit you in the long run. There will be times throughout your years in medical school, in residency, and as a practicing physician that are likely to be stressful and taxing. Learning skills and coping mechanisms now will help you in the future.

What if I’m stressed about the cost of financing medical school?

The costs of financing a medical education and concerns about repaying your education debt can be stressful; however, arming yourself with knowledge about paying for medical school and learning about repayment plans can help alleviate some of that stress. There are federal loan programs that allow you to borrow for the costs of your medical education and there are various repayment plans and loan forgiveness options that can make repayment manageable. The AAMC’s FIRST program  provides information about these programs and plans and can guide you.  With the help of your medical school’s financial aid office and the AAMC’s FIRST program, you can create a plan to finance your education and plan for loan repayment.

What if I feel like I’m in over my head?

It’s okay to admit that you need help managing the pressure. In fact, it’s completely normal to reach out to your pre-health advisor, mentor, mental health professional, or spiritual advisor to let them know when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Many college campuses offer confidential counseling services that can help you work through challenges and develop healthy stress management techniques. Remember, developing strategies now to help you manage a challenging course load is important. Many medical students point to a famous analogy about learning in medical school being like trying to drink from a fire hose. It sounds intense, but these students also speak about learning new study techniques along the way that help them better manage their time, integrate this new knowledge, and excel as a med student. Admitting that something is difficult, but doable, can really improve your outlook. Even just bonding with a fellow student who is going through the same pressure and stress can help you finish strong. You may also want to speak with medical students to discuss the methods they’ve used to manage their coursework and stress.

Rest assured that, yes, as a medical school applicant you are entering a demanding and competitive process, but every successful doctor was in your place at some point. Those anxious feelings are normal, temporary, and manageable.

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