Ask the Experts: Create a Winning Application

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"If you want to stand out, think about what is in your application that isn't likely to be in anyone else's application," says one expert.

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Brenda D. Lee

Brenda D. Lee is the assistant dean for medical education and student affairs at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. She has more than 30 years of experience in medical education, in the areas of medical school admissions and the recruitment and retention of medical students. In addition to Rochester, she has held administrative positions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical School and Harvard Medical School.

Sunny Gibson

Sunny Gibson is the director of the office of diversity and community partnership at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. She has worked with premedical students for over six years and has read and critiqued more than 1,000 admissions essays. Helping students tell their stories in personal statements is one of her favorite aspects of her job. Ms. Gibson is also working on diversity at the national level as a member of the AAMC Minority Affairs Section Coordinating Committee.

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Ask the Experts

Sunny Gibson

Medical schools vary in the characteristics and experiences they are looking for in students. Many of these aspects are driven by the mission of the institution, which you can usually find on their website or brochure. What stands out is slightly different at each school.

Keep in mind that applicants generally have some flavor of the following in their applications: community service, research experience and/or publications, leadership experiences, medical exposure (shadowing or work-related), and extracurricular activities. Most applicants have a strong academic profile as well, which also varies by school as well in terms of what they require, with significant coursework in the sciences (regardless of major).

So if you want to stand out, think about what is in your application that isn't likely to be in anyone else's application. If your entire application is focused on the aforementioned experiences and doesn't include anything that is unique to you, it is less likely to stand out.

For example, I worked with a non-traditional woman student who played professional women's basketball in Denmark for four years. Less global, but also interesting and unique was a student who had volunteered for two years on a political action committee to elect a senator. Of course, these experiences came with insight and reflection that gave them depth and helped them stand out further.

Brenda Lee

Over and above academic credentials that bode well for success at a given institution, admissions committees look with enthusiasm at candidates who bring a unique perspective to the school. The unique perspective can be related to achievement against significant odds, distinguished achievement or service, outstanding talents (athletic, artistic, research, etc), and a well-articulated vision and history of making a difference in the lives of marginalized and/or underserved populations.

Sunny Gibson

The first rule of re-applying is to make sure that you have done something different than the time before. It would be silly to do the same thing and expect a different result, right? Here are a few tips for re-applying that might help.

Ask the schools for feedback. Many admissions deans or counselors will give you feedback about your application if you ask. This can be done in person, by email, or by phone. Look at your rejection letters and use the contact information on them as a place to start. Even if only a few respond, it is worth the time to get feedback directly from schools.

Cross check your credentials against those sought by the schools to which you have applied. Objectively look at the typical accepted-applicant profile for the school to determine if you have met enough of the criteria. For example, if they say that 89 percent of the students have done research and 75 percent are heavily involved in community activities, your application should show that you have those things to give you better odds. Schools have many variations on characteristics and experiences they are seeking.

A good resource to get a sense of what schools are looking for is the Medical School Admission Requirements™ (MSAR®).

Critically examine where you applied. If you only applied to high-profile, well-known schools and did not do your homework about which schools are most interested in students with credentials like yours, you may have neglected schools where you had better odds of getting in.

For example, some state schools have criteria that allow you to apply as a non-resident if you are from a minority group they have designated as underrepresented, have ties to that state (such as an immediate family member living there), or apply to a special program such as MD-MBA or MD-PhD. Do some homework on schools to really find the ones where you will be most competitive.

Mentally evaluate your interviews. How did they go? Did you feel relaxed and able to share your strengths? How were you received? If you need more practice, work with a career center or friend to help you get more comfortable with your interviewing skills. I knew of one student who actually went on several job interviews just to hone their skills!

Evaluate your letters of recommendation. I realize that applicants waive their right to see letters. What you can evaluate are the elements you know: Were they sent in on time? Were they current (dated within the past six to eight months)? Were they relevant to medicine and specifically targeted to entry to medical school?

If you sent a generic letter about your strengths and credentials but it wasn't specifically speaking to your entry to medical school, that is something you should remedy. Another thing to ask yourself is whether or not your letter writers agreed to write you a strong letter. If there was hesitancy, or they responded that they didn't really know you well, those were cues you might have missed telling you that they were not able write you a very strong, specific recommendation.

Consider timing. Although schools have many admissions processes that follow different timelines, it never hurts to be early. Some schools use a rolling system that slightly penalizes later applications. If you applied later in the process, it could have kept you from consideration because the school ran out of seats.

Address any deficits you find. If you feel you need more exposure to medicine based on your own assessment or feedback from others, be proactive and get it! Think about the things you have the ability to change and do them. More community involvement in areas of your personal passion is always a plus.

Articulate what you have done differently. As a re-applicant schools will want to know what you have changed or done differently. Reflect on what re-applying has taught you and meant for you. If there are lessons or new experiences, share those things in your application.

Brenda Lee

Since there are many factors that contribute to rejections, there is limited value in giving a generic response to your question. For example, there are candidates who are rejected who have competitive credentials, who limit their applications to several dream schools, and end the admissions cycle without an admission. If they had applied to a broader range of schools, they would have been offered admission. There are candidates who are rejected because of poor interviews. Capable candidates are rejected because they have not succeeded in distinguishing their candidacy from the other candidates. Rejections also result from credential gaps.

The missed opportunity, knowing your continued interest in gaining admission to medical school, is not discussing strategies for enhancing your competitiveness at the time of the rejection.

At this point, work with your health professions advisors and enlist their support in gathering feedback from the medical schools on ways to enhance you candidacy. In addition, you might contact the schools where you interviewed and request feedback about your former application and the likelihood of success in the upcoming admissions cycle.

Sunny Gibson

Yes! The American Medical College Application Service® (AMCAS®) application has space for 15 experiences (of 1,325 characters each) for you to share non-numeric academic, personal and extracurricular experiences. The categories are pre-defined such as leadership, publications, research, work (medical), work (non-medical), volunteer, extracurricular, other, etc. You should definitely spend time actively describing a diverse array of experiences. Utilize that space to share all the things you did to prepare.

Check out the AMCAS website in advance. You can download a worksheet or simply initiate an application to see what it's like. You don't actually pay a fee unless you submit the application with transcripts, etc. It's a good idea to get familiar with it early. You can keep a journal of your experiences and their accompanying contact information and date ranges throughout your undergraduate years so you will have the information easily on hand when it comes time to fill out your AMCAS application.

Brenda Lee

This is an important part of the application. Schools are particularly interested in activities that have had a transformative impact on a candidate, as well as those that demonstrate, if offered admission, that a candidate will take advantage of the vast resources of the institution and make a profound impact.

In addition to using a portion of the personal statement to discuss one's voluntary experiences and service activities, there is an "Experience" section on the AMCAS application for this purpose.

Sunny Gibson

I have to give the "lawyer answer" on this one-- it depends. As with any major, you should be able to clearly articulate why you chose it; nursing is no different. Why did that major appeal to you and what did you gain from it? I think it is a misconception to think that medical schools don't like to accept nursing students. One issue is that sometimes the premedical classes and nursing classes don't always align. Check with your advisors very carefully about your coursework to make sure you are fulfilling both premed and nursing requirements. Some considerations with regard to evaluating any major would be: the academic rigor of coursework (i.e., Did the student choose the path of least resistance or were they challenged by the courses chosen?) and a clear explanation of major choice. Many of the nursing students and nurses who were career-changers into medicine that I have worked with were excellent and successful applicants. They had insight about medicine that other students did not have and that insight was clearly an asset moving forward into a different role on the medical team. Admissions committees usually consider that a strength if it is presented as such.

Brenda Lee

While there may be individuals participating in the admissions selection process who will look with greater scrutiny on candidates seeking admission from other health professions, they are the exception as opposed to the rule. Having selected another health profession as the pathway to medicine, it is important to discuss why this pathway was selected (for example, initial interest but desired broader patient care responsibility, back up plan if not admitted to medical school, opportunity to earn money to help defray the cost of medical school, etc.) and how it has enhanced your competitiveness for medical school and a career in medicine.

Sunny Gibson

It depends! There is a very elite school where more than 70 percent of the student body takes a year or more off in between undergrad and medical school. The questions you have to answer are "why" and "what." Why did you take the time off? What did you gain or accomplish during that time? Whether you worked a job, learned a new skill, traveled, or spent time with family, you will need to explain what you gained from this time and that you are ready to take on the challenges of medical school when you do apply.

Schools will want to know that you will be able to step back into a classroom learning environment without missing a beat, so anything you can do to explain how you have remained academically engaged will be crucial. Consider taking at least one class a year through a continuing education or community education entity-- even art or languages show that you are engaged in learning and showcase your curiosity as a learner.

So overall, time off doesn't hurt you, but be very deliberate and conscientious about your plans and how you use that time. I had one student who was just plain burned out, so she wrote about that and what she did to take care of herself after undergrad. She took a total of three years off. She detailed all the insights she gained about her own wellbeing and how to maintain it under extreme stress. She related these to modern environments and working with others. Talking about the community work she did during those three years made her really stand out in positive ways. Clearly these were assets gained that would aid her in success in medical school and a medical career. Just one example of answering the "what" in an effective way.

Schools want you to apply to and start medical school with 100% of your focus and passion. If you are burned out, unsure about medicine, or just want to explore the world, schools are generally okay with you getting it out of your system before you come knocking on the door. They would rather you deal with it before school than during, right? That said, the "what" and "why" are very critical aspects you must cover when you apply.

Brenda Lee

Recent graduates who delay entering medical school should be prepared to discuss in their applications the factors that influenced their decisions to delay applying.

Delaying one's application to pursue career-enriching experiences (for example a Fulbright Fellowship), internships in competitive environments (for example the National Institutes of Health), unique opportunities associated with artistic or athletic skills (train for the Olympics, participate in a symphony, traveling theatre, etc.) can enhance the competitiveness of one's candidacy. Candidates who feel a need to rest and to take time away from intense academic settings before beginning medical school are not put at a disadvantage at most schools.

Candidates who anticipate taking a year off before beginning medical school should explore opportunities to defer admission. One would then be able to apply during the senior year and, if offered admission, defer and be free of the work associated with the admissions process during the deferred year.

Sunny Gibson

The best piece of advice I can offer is to make sure you address the fears and uncertainty that any selection committee might have. Schools have to weigh risks and rewards with every student. They have a limited number of seats and want to make sure that the students they select are the ones likely to succeed based on predictive factors such as academics and personal characteristics.

I would spend time explaining your situation and then talking about what you have gained from this "detour." You will want to highlight your strengths and resilience and your commitment to medicine and medical research. Focus on where you are now and what you have gained from where you have been.

Letters of recommendation will be crucial for you. Committees will need objective reassurance from those who know you well that you are good to go this time around. Try to have at least one letter from someone who has known you over the course of all of these challenges, so the committee will have another longitudinal perspective besides yours.

Make sure your application is competitive overall. Remember that you are competing against students coming straight out of undergrad with myriad leadership, service, and research experiences. Cover all your bases so you are competitive against your peers, and then use your experiences to help you stand out and give you an edge.

Do your homework about MD-PhD programs and what each one is looking for academically and personally. Be prepared to compete in that applicant pool, because it is separate from the MD-only pool at most schools. Be aware of timelines, it is even more crucial to apply early for MD-PhD programs.

Brenda Lee

Because opportunities for readmission to medical school are even more competitive than first admissions, I would suggest that you begin the process by having a candid conversation with the medical school you attended. If the leave was related to health and family issues (as opposed to academic failure and a pending dismissal recommendation), your best and most logical prospect would be readmission at the same school. As a part of this process you will need to provide clear evidence of having resolved, or at least developed a better capacity, to manage the issues that contributed to your leave. Critical components of such are the academic and work-related activities you have participated in since leaving medical school.

If this option does not work, then I would recommend initiating a conversation with affiliated institutions where you have studied and worked that have medical schools. Faculty who are familiar with and/or who have observed your performance since medical school can play an invaluable role in advocating for your readmission at institutions where they have contacts. Given your interest in completing a PhD, you might seek admission to a doctoral program at an institution that has a medical school. By doing so, you have the potential to gain favorable visibility and advocates who will support your admission to the medical school.

Your readmission to medical school will be an uphill challenge. In all that you do or say, you need to be honest and forthright about your prior admission, the factors that have resulted in your leave and how and why you are better prepared to succeed, if given another opportunity to attend medical school.

Sunny Gibson

If you made mistakes early on and finished strong, schools will see that. A 3.5 GPA is good! My follow up questions would be:

  1. What is your science GPA (biology, chemistry, physics and math)?
  2. Did you calculate your GPA using the AMCAS method?
  3. What is your MCAT® score?
  4. What are your non-cognitive strengths?

Most admissions processes are holistic in nature and will look at the overall picture. Committees will consider your life experiences and extracurricular activities such as research, service, leadership, etc. to determine your candidacy at their schools.

Brenda Lee

When reviewing candidates for admission, most schools take into consideration the trend of one's academic record along with the overall GPA. It is important for candidates with uneven academic records to discuss in the personal statement choices that resulted in the uneven record and that allowed the candidate to get back on track. Confirmation from the health professions committee or individuals writing the letters of support can be of value in the review.

Sunny Gibson

This is a tough one. I would say that you should take as much responsibility as you can for the choices you have made. If you mention the situation, each reader will deduce what they believe was the effect and what is a fair determination for your application. In other words, put it out there and take responsibility for it, and each evaluator will decide how much slack they will give you.

Be sure to mention the hindsight you have gained from that experience too. Would you have done anything differently if you had known then what you know now? What did you learn about your personal limitations from the experience? Can we be sure that you won't make the same mistakes as a medical student?

Brenda Lee

As a starting point, you will need to provide an explanation for your need to work full-time. If your overall grades and MCAT exam performance are in a competitive range for admission, you will need to assuage concerns admissions committees may have about repeating this pattern if admitted to medical school. The personal statement and the health professions committee or individuals writing the letters of support should address the constraints you faced.

Sunny Gibson

The technical effect of a "W" is minimal. It isn't averaged into your GPA as far as the AMCAS application is concerned. So, if we are just talking GPA, a "W" is always better than an "F."

The interpretation of "W's" varies by school. Committees usually assess the following things:

  1. How many "W's" are there?
  2. What is the pattern?
  3. What might these things predict about the applicant's potential performance in medical school?

If there are more than a few "W's," usually committees will scrutinize a little more to see what was going on.

If most of the "W's" are in science classes, that can be interpreted differently than if they are in non-science, to an extent. The pattern also matters. Think about the meaning admissions folks are drawing from Ws and why. They are looking at your transcript to determine whether or not you can handle the first two years of medical school. Once you start, there isn't time or space to start over or retake things very easily. If you have a consistent pattern of many attempts at a class, some committee members would see that as a risk for you being able to do medical school versus if you had one semester where you dropped everything because of a personal or family crisis. "W's" could simply indicate that you were a poor planner, received poor advising, or didn't understand how to gauge your performance very well in your early college years. They might indicate a low level of "stick-to-it-ness," or they could mean you are indecisive.

So my advice is to think about the "W's" that you have. Were they insignificant, or were they tied to bigger issues for you? Are they numerous or few? What conclusions might a committee draw from looking at them? How can you alleviate those concerns in your application? If there is an extensive pattern, it is important to explain why.

Brenda Lee

One "W" (withdraw) will not have a significant impact on your candidacy. A series of "W" grades throughout your academic record will raise a red flag for review committees. If the "W" grades are a result of a specific reason (family emergency, health concern, etc.), an explanation should be provided in the personal statement and documented by the health professions committee or individuals writing the letters of support.

Sunny Gibson

The number one ingredient in choosing any extracurricular activity is (drum roll please) passion! The first guideline is that you choose things that you care about, that you will enjoy, and that are personally meaningful to you. If you follow this advice, you will enjoy your life more, excel at your chosen activities more, and likely be able to build stronger relationships with others with whom you work (which potentially will lead to more opportunities and/or better letters of recommendation down the road).

I once advised a student who was volunteering at a nursing home for the elderly. She didn't seem enthusiastic about it at all. When I asked her why she was doing it and what she got out of it, she said, "Well, I need some patient exposure for med school, so that's why I am there."
That is not an answer that she could give on a med school interview right? So why not follow your passions and do the things you love now? It's more fun and easier all the way around. It will bring authenticity to your being that will shine through when you apply.

The second consideration is to make sure that you strategize to cover your bases for the ways you will be evaluated in the future. The trick is finding the balance between the typical premed requirements (such as research, service, medical exposure, leadership, etc.) and your passion.

For example, I worked with a student who loved dance. She needed medical exposure to round out her application. So during her junior year, she taught a dance class at a children's orthopedic hospital, adapting many of the moves for the physical impairments the children had.

This is a great example of starting with passion and finding a way to cover your bases on typical premed requirements/experiences. Because she started with her passion, she was able to serve others in a unique way, showcase her talent and creativity, and demonstrate her personal initiative. Plus she had fun and everyone who shared the experience with her could see her passion for others and speak to that in her letter of recommendation.

For freshman students, the best thing to do is get involved on your campus. Start doing service in anything you love and don't worry about how it relates to medicine just yet. As you grow and get connected on campus, more opportunities will come and you will be able to fulfill your premed duties more easily. Getting involved also helps you find supportive peers, which is something we all need to succeed!

Brenda Lee

First and foremost, you should participate in extracurricular activities that are of interest to you and that you can participate in with passion. The number of activities is not as important as the quality of your involvement and the difference your participation makes.

You would be well served by planning to have sustained hands-on exposure to clinical medicine, at least one summer of an in-depth research experience, and involvement in other school-related and service-oriented activities.

Sunny Gibson

Okay, this is not as bad as you think it is. There are a few things you should know about C's. They are not as bad as everyone thinks they are. Obviously schools want you to perform your best and achieve high grades, but a C or two will not keep you out of medical school. It might actually indicate that you pushed yourself and really challenged yourself during your undergraduate years, which is a good thing! My saying about the GPA is this: It will not get you into medical school, but it can keep you out. If you don't monitor your performance and you let things slip, it can mean trouble. You are quite obviously monitoring yourself carefully and very aware of the consequences of your grades. I'm guessing you still have a year of college, so resolve to do better for the rest of your classes and put it behind you.

Consider the cost and benefits of retaking a class. If you learned a great deal in the class, but your grade doesn't reflect that, take the C+ and move on. If you really felt that you didn't learn what you were supposed to, it might be personally beneficial to retake it. If you can afford the tuition and the time, that is. Notice I said personally beneficial right? That's because the AMCAS application calculates your GPA differently than your university probably does. So when you retake a class, the AMCAS system adds both grades in rather than replacing your grade. So if you earned a C and an A in a four credit class, four credits of A and four credits of C go into your GPA for AMCAS, but at your university they probably only add in four credits of A and erase or replace the C. Retaking classes isn't an effective way of raising your GPA. Another option, if you don't want to retake but still feel there were things you missed, is to talk to the professor and ask to audit the class if you have time. This is a no pressure way to pick up some things you missed.

Damage control. Consider taking another class in the same or a similar area to show that you have challenged yourself and mastered the knowledge and skills in that area, if you feel it is important to do so. If your C+ is an anomaly, which your GPA suggests, harvest the lessons (whatever they may be) from this experience and save your tuition money.

If you still have another year of school, be sure to finish the year strong so the C+ will seem rare. It is important to finish undergrad strong because you anticipate starting another four years of medical school, so committees will want to be sure you are up for it.

Brenda Lee

If you are well prepared otherwise, one C+ grade should not limit your competitiveness for admission or pull a 3.56 cumulative GPA down to a 3.25. Rather than repeat the course, take an upper division biochemistry or science course in the fall and focus on achieving an honors-level grade.

Sunny Gibson

I've broken down your question into parts:

Should I still apply...?

I cannot advise you specifically without seeing your entire application and meeting you. It is very difficult to ascertain all your strengths, assets and limitations in this limited format. Let me try and do my best to dissect the question.

Having a GPA on the low side and a low MCAT exam score will make it harder for you to receive consideration. The MCAT and GPA tend to counter-balance each other, but if they are both low, you will have to work extra hard to stand out and showcase your strengths. The pool in which you are competing is rigorous, and most of your competitors have higher marks, on average. That said, it is not impossible.

Applying early ensures you have every possible advantage in the process. If you have limited resources, are not prepared to take the MCAT exam, and haven't started on the other crucial aspects of your application, like the personal statement, it may be wise to wait a year.
Having an advanced degree and significant research experience is an advantage. Most committees are very conscious not to discriminate based on age, so don't worry about that. Use your age and experience as a strength in your application.

"I have two jobs."

This is a really difficult issue. The life situations we all face are tough, but I would advise you, if at all possible, to cut back on work and focus on school more. Time is limited, and something has to give. You are human, and you can only do so much. You might be shortchanging your performance on the test because you are not 100% focused.
Hopefully your situation is temporary, because you cannot sustain that pace in medical school. If you are committed to your goal of becoming a doctor, take some risks for it.

As for the application fees, check out the Fee Assistance Program to see if you qualify for reduced/waived MCAT and AMCAS fees. 

If you have limited resources, all the more reason why you should make sure that your application is the absolute best it can be when you apply. If you feel that you will be late, or that you will sacrifice quality for speed in the process, don't apply this year. Hurrying through doesn't usually pay off. The small advantage to early applications usually doesn't make up the ground if quality is lacking. Consider that you will also need to make sure your letters of recommendation are ready to go as well. You don't want to be requesting them when schools notify you to send them.

Brenda Lee

While review committees will note your distinguished accomplishments in biomedical research, you will still need to apply with academic credentials that show you are able to handle the rigor of medical school and the credentialing process.

You should try to schedule an advisory interview with a medical school admissions representative for an assessment of your competitiveness for admission.

You may be a competitive candidate for post-baccalaureate enrichment programs that are designed to work with candidates who need to improve their test-taking skills and academic credentials. The additional year will give you time to work with a financial aid resource person to devise a plan to defray the cost of the medical school admissions process, which also includes travel and lodging costs associated with admissions interviews.

As a part of this process, you can gain information regarding individual schools' fee waiver policies and assistance of interviewees (e.g., student hosting programs to reduce the expenses associated with the admissions interview).

Sunny Gibson

I am glad that you have not given up on your goal of becoming a doctor. If it is your dream, keep working toward it! It sounds like it's time to regroup and find a new strategy.

Have you thought about a postbaccalaureate program or master's program? Have you taken any classes in the four years you have been out of school? Have you sought feedback from the schools you've applied to about what you should do to improve your application?

Take a look at the AAMC database of postbaccalaureate premedical programs. If none of those are viable options, one solution is to create your own postbaccalaureate where you take some upper division science courses to show recent, strong performance. You can also take up to 12 credit hours of graduate-level courses as a non-matriculated graduate student (meaning you have not been admitted to their program; you are just taking classes as a registered student and paying tuition). Most likely you will need to remedy your science and overall GPA so that you will be considered by more schools.

About the MCAT exam: Schools see every score you have posted, even outdated ones. Do not keep retaking the exam without doing something different in your preparation! Your score has a shelf life of about three years on average. Many schools would be fine with a 24 if you could show recent strong performance in the sciences and the rest of your application (extracurricular activities, service, medical experience, etc.) is stellar.

Most schools are very holistic in their review, and my guess is that your being out of the classroom for that long, coupled with lower numbers and what they might indicate about performance over time, are the main concerns.

Even if your numbers were higher, being out of the learning environment for three years and then starting medical school would be tough on anybody. Think about it: if I am a professional golfer and I don't touch a club for three years, what are my chances of winning my first tournament back? Would you bet on me against others who have been practicing and playing all year?

Brenda Lee

You may be a competitive candidate for postbaccalaureate programs that are designed to work with candidates who need to improve their test-taking skills and academic credentials. I would recommend postbaccalaureate programs that have affiliations with medical schools that actively recruit and admit students from these programs.

Sunny Gibson

It sounds like you have a good plan. Schools view community college work differently, and there isn't really consensus regarding how to evaluate it because it varies so much. To err on the cautious side, I would do exactly as you've planned. If you do the majority of your premedical coursework at a four-year school, you will be fine.

That said, some institutions have strong relationships with "feeder" community colleges and won't see that coursework any differently. It all comes down to your resources. Always do the best you can with what you have and admissions committees will usually give you credit for that.

Another note on community colleges: If you have your eye on a particular school—say you really want to get into your state's medical school—talk to their admissions office and find out how they see community college work. It never hurts to ask and get the facts, rather than rely on the "premed rumor mill," which I know is alive and well!

Brenda Lee

Your plan to take chemistry and math courses at a community college will not have an adverse impact on your competitiveness for admission as long as you achieve honors-level grades at both institutions.

Sunny Gibson

If you have good reasons for why you re-took courses there, I don't see a problem with it. You may want to explain it somewhere in your application, depending on the types of schools to which you are applying.

It also depends on how you performed in those classes the first time around at a four-year school. If you are a career-changer, it makes sense to take advantage of community college courses, and committees get that. Your MCAT exam score will be an important indicator for selection committees regarding your knowledge of the sciences and whether you learned the material.

If you are re-taking classes to refresh yourself, that is one thing, but you should also know that not all schools have a "shelf life" on premed classes. Some require that you go back and take them if they are, say for example, more than 10 years prior, and some don't.

Before you spend the time and money, evaluate your reasons and do your homework and find out exactly what the schools you are applying to require. 

Brenda Lee

The answer is best addressed to specific scenarios and may differ depending on a candidate's situation.

If you have an otherwise strong academic record, but you have been out of school for a number of years and need to review the basic prerequisite coursework before taking the MCAT exam, then repeating coursework at a community college is fine.

If the repeated coursework is the result of needing to improve your competitiveness for admission, admissions committees will pay close attention to the rigor of the coursework, how well you have done, and how your fund of knowledge is reflected in your MCAT exam performance.

Sunny Gibson

To answer this question, I've broken it down into segments:

"What are the most important things I should write about in my personal statement?"

A personal statement should clearly answer the question, "Why do I want to be a doctor?" It should be personal in that it contains elements that only apply to you. The most important thing to write about will vary because each person's journey into medicine is different. If your personal statement could also be your best friend's or some woman's off the street, than it is not a good one.

Writing a personal statement is a process. You should go through a process of reflecting on your experiences and really doing some soul-searching about why you want to be a physician. Going through this process will aid you later, like in the interview when someone asks you, "Why do you want to be a physician?" You will have given it some serious thought!

It should be passionate and interesting to read. Don't underestimate the edge that a good statement can give you. Students often ask, "Is it really that important?" My answer is, having an excellent personal statement will never hurt your application, but submitting a marginal one might. Are you willing to take that chance?

It should have good descriptive words, and clear explanations not just of the "what," but the "why" and "how" of your experiences. Don't simply tell me that you volunteered at the soup kitchen, because I probably can read that in your AMCAS application elsewhere. Tell me why you did that, what you learned, how that experience has affected you, and how it will affect the way you intend to practice medicine in the future.

For example, don't just write, "I learned patience and compassion volunteering for hospice." That leaves me wondering how you learned it, what that learning process was like, and what experiences you had related to it. Be specific! Example: "Taking an hour to help Mrs. Rodriguez get dressed taught me patience. I had to learn to be present and stop fretting about how long it was taking. She could sense when I was watching the clock and getting antsy. For her, being able to button her shirt was vital to her sense of well-being and empowerment in the aging process. It was a small thing, but it meant a lot to her. As I developed my patience, my compassion also grew."

"I have not had one single experience that made me interested in medicine but rather a culmination of events. Do admissions committees prefer to hear about a defining experience or moment?"

It's up to you. I have seen students incorporate many elements of their motivation for medicine under a larger theme and make it work. Some students have a defining moment that made their goal and desire clear. Like I said, it's an individual journey.

Use a theme that ties your ideas together, and your experiences will be communicated in a more cohesive way. Is there something central about your experiences that ties them together? For example, I had a student write about her experience of navigating a canoe using only the stars. Great analogy for her journey to medicine. She threaded this through her essay incorporating her various influences and experiences.

"More generally, what are admissions committees looking for in applications? What do they prefer not to see?"

In personal statements committees are looking for insight, reflection, analysis, depth of experience, and uniqueness. They understand that there are really common reasons why folks choose medicine, but they would really like you to focus on what your journey has been like and what medicine means for you. Like I said, make it passionate and interesting to read and you are halfway there. Committees read so many applications that when they find one that is passionate and refreshing, it gets some bonus love!

They do not want to read an elongated version of your résumé that details what you did. They do not want a summary of your experiences because they already have that in your 15 experiences of the AMCAS application. They also usually don't take too well to hearing you talk about how great you are either. Share your experiences and let those experiences tell us the kind of person you are, the qualities you possess, and your passion for medicine.

"Are there elements that all personal statements should contain?"

All statements should answer the question, "Why me, why medicine?" I know this sounds simple, but it's harder than it seems. Most students write all about what they did, and then they end with a loop: "I did all these things because I want to be a doctor, and now I want to be a doctor because I did all these things." The reader is left frustrated because you never really told us why.

All statements should be grammatically correct.

All statements should be interesting to read, which means you should get some objective feedback about your writing. Ask someone who will give it to you straight and let you know if your essay is boring, too self-centered, disorganized, etc. One good method is to tell your reader that if they get bored and start to tune out while reading, just draw a line across the page at that point and give the essay back to you. They can also put question marks by anything that is confusing or doesn't flow well.

All statements should answer the prompts given. On secondary applications, many schools ask something specific like "Who is your hero?" If you don't answer the question, it will be a problem. Even if you write beautifully and you write something really poignant and elegant-some committee members will focus on the fact that you didn't answer the question.

Brenda Lee

A well-written statement with a compelling message can distinguish your application and result in an invitation for an interview. Since your interest in medicine is a result of a culmination of events rather than one single experience, your statement should provide an overview of the events.

In general, if candidates discuss the following questions, they will compose an appropriate personal statement:

  • Who you are.
  • What your career plans include.
  • Where you hope to have an impact.
  • When your interest in medicine developed.
  • How you have demonstrated your interest and commitment to a career in medicine.
  • What makes you a unique candidate.

Sunny Gibson

Find someone with experience evaluating essays that will help you craft a good essay. Also, be really wary of online services or people that charge you money for help. There are a lot of seedy operations out there that will take your money and offer guarantees. There are plenty of folks like me who will help you for free because we believe in what we do and the strengths you bring to medicine!

See if you can contact a few first-year medical students—through Student National Medical AssociationLatino Medical Student AssociationAsian Pacific American Medical Student AssociationAssociation of Native American Medical Students—and ask them to share their essays with you. That will at least give you an idea of what successful applicants wrote in the last year.

Standing out is an important element of the essay. The AMCAS application sort of puts you in boxes in terms of grades and experiences, so students start looking fairly uniform. An essay can really get you noticed; it's the one place where you can shine in your own way! A student once asked me if he should write about taking care of his sick father growing up or working on an Amish farm every summer. Which one is more unique to students entering medicine? I'm not advising to write about strange things that aren't grounded in medicine at all but working on the farm this student found common values (hard work, dedication, unconditional acceptance of others, etc.) that he related to medicine in his essay. He found that he could bring in the experiences of his dad during the secondary phase and interview.

If you have extensive medical experience, one caution is to make sure you frame it in a way that doesn't seem pretentious. That is, showcase the insight and analysis of your experience in a humble way. If you state just knowledge of things in an I-centered way, it can seem arrogant and offensive to a committee. For example, it can come across as a "I've been in medicine for ten years and I know more than you." type thing. Share your insights and analysis of your experiences-- don't just state that you have it.

Brenda Lee

Your personal statement should be a well-written account of your interest in, demonstrated commitment to, and vision for a career in medicine. As a re-applicant, you should provide an overview of how your competitiveness for admission (for example, additional course work, hands-on exposure to clinical medicine, biomedical research and publications, service to others, etc.) has changed since your former application. Have someone familiar with the medical school admissions process read and edit your statement before it is submitted.

Sunny Gibson

If you truly are a committed member of your community and care about diversity, then your application will usually speak for itself. The experiences you list will probably include activities, endeavors, or organizations that have to do with diversity and social justice issues. If not, perhaps you should seek experiences that will bring new learning in those areas for you.

You can also choose an essay topic about one of your experiences related to diversity as well. Some students write about their families' experiences with illness and the limited options they felt they had in health care. I've read essays about cultural views on health and wellness, health disparities, etc. They are all firmly grounded in the identity and experiences of the applicant. That is absolutely key.

Don't write outside yourself or try to drop buzzwords such as "diversity" or "underserved" to impress committees. They are usually pretty savvy at deducing the "fertilizer factor" when it comes to stuff like that. Think about your own experience and where you come from. Use your experiences to show how you will contribute.

Also, remember that the definition of diversity (operative and stated) differs by institution.

Brenda Lee

The interest in admitting a diverse medical school student body goes well beyond simply checking a self-description and providing a list of activities that show how one might contribute to diversity.

The institutional commitment to diversity is a part of a vision to train future physicians who have a vision for making a difference in the lives of underserved patients via patient care, teaching, research, and/or service. Schools seek to admit students who have demonstrated histories of engagement in activities that have allowed them to understand the worldview of marginalized populations and underserved communities. Schools desire to admit students who are prepared to provide diverse perspectives to classroom conversations and in clinical settings.

The ultimate goal is to increase the number of physicians who are committed to educating peers and playing a role in reducing health disparities for the most underserved patients in this country and world.

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