Andy Chen

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Andy took the MCAT exam seven times and applied to medical school twice before getting one interview and acceptance. He reminds premeds to have faith in themselves and that perseverance and grit are important for a career in medicine.

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Andy Chen200x250.jpg

Undergraduate: University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), 2012
Major: Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics, BS
Medical school: Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, 2020

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I think I knew I wanted to be a doctor from a very young age. I remember accompanying my parents to a doctor visit for my little sister who had flu-like symptoms many years ago. She had been crying a lot and nothing my parents did would help, so we took her to our family doctor to have her checked out. I’m not sure what the doctor did that day, but my sister’s crying seemed to resolve immediately, and I thought to myself, “Wow, I wish I had that kind of power over my little sister.” Certainly, my motivations to practice medicine have changed over the years, but that was probably the first time I considered a future career in medicine for myself.

What led to your interest in medicine?

My parents are both teachers, so I think it’s rather appropriate that both my sister and I went to medical school to pursue our careers as doctors, or “teachers of medicine”. Educating and talking to patients is one of my favorite parts of what I do, and in combination with the interests I developed in science, math, and communications as I went through school, I felt medicine was the career that brought together all of my professional interests.

What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?

As a pre-medical student at UCLA, I shadowed many doctors in clinics and operating rooms and did basic science and clinical research. I spent a week abroad in Nicaragua as a student-doctor working with Global Medical Training, and spent the year prior to medical school matriculation working as a 911 Emergency Medical Technician in Los Angeles County. It was all the direct contacts I had with patients and physicians and the realization of the impact I could have in the improvement of a person’s life that confirmed that medicine might be the right career for me.       

Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?

I wouldn’t call it “discouragement” per se, but my mother was certainly concerned with my chances at matriculating to medical school after my first application cycle where I did not earn a single interview despite applying to 61 schools (the average number students apply to is 16). She insisted I have a backup plan in place just in case medicine didn’t work out, so I wound up taking the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) during my first medical school application cycle. I did well on the LSAT, but I also was not ready to give up on medicine just yet, so I decided to submit applications for a second cycle the following year after significant self-reflection and enhancement of my credentials. This cycle included another 69 applications, resulting in one interview and one acceptance. Today, I am a third-year medical student, and my classmates and I are a little over 18 months away from graduation. I graduated college at age 22, and matriculated to medical school at age 26, with four gap years where I worked hard to improve myself and my candidacy to practice medicine. My entering class at Loyola had an age range of 20 to 36, so I offer to future applicants that the journey to becoming a doctor is not a race. Everyone progresses at their own pace, and the right time to start medical school is different for everyone.

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?

The MCAT was probably the most frustrating aspect of my medical school application process. I took the MCAT seven times (the lifetime maximum number of attempts), which means I studied for the MCAT seven times, and my results were disappointing six of those times. I graduated UCLA with a GPA slightly above 3.40, and after a year of post-baccalaureate classes, my AMCAS GPA was slightly above 3.50, and so I felt I really needed to prove myself on the MCAT with a “home run” test score. The MCAT was frustrating because I was scoring well during practice questions and practice tests at home, but for whatever reason, I was scoring significantly lower on test day. I hypothesized that my struggles were probably partly due to some testing anxiety, and my MCAT instructor was instrumental in helping me calm my nerves and tying up some loose ends with my content knowledge, and with his help and the support of my family, I was able to achieve a 515 on my seventh and final MCAT attempt.

What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?

My best advice for applicants when it comes to taking the MCAT is to really wait and make sure you are ready before sitting for the exam. Content review and practice problems are a great way to self-assess your readiness for the exam, but preparation should also include some full-length practice exams to simulate the real test day. This advice is really geared towards helping future applicants avoid the route I took to medical school (namely, the seven MCAT attempts), but for those who ultimately wind up disappointed and frustrated with the MCAT and having to repeat their testing experience like I did, I would ask them to keep on pushing forward. There are hurdles in the journey to becoming a doctor, and I would offer the fact that persistence and resilience are traits that will set an applicant apart from the highest test score. I had the honor of serving on our school’s admissions committee last year as a student interviewer, and I assure you that the MCAT is only one component of an applicant’s overall candidacy. At Loyola, we practice the holistic approach in both the application cycle and the treatment of our patients; we treat the “whole person”, not just their physical medical complaint, just like we evaluate the “whole applicant”, and not just their numerical academic credentials.

What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?

Medical school is a team sport and I am fortunate to have fantastic teammates (my classmates), and coaches (our school’s faculty and administration) who support us in our academic and personal endeavors. My classmates and I rally around each other with the understanding that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. My classmates go out of their way to share their notes, summary tables, and advice because we are all invested in each other’s success. We collaborate with one another and support our colleagues, because we each share the same goal of graduating as doctors in a little over one year’s time.

In addition, my family is instrumental for helping me manage my stress and motivation. My little sister is two years younger than me, but now one year ahead of me in medical school. She will graduate next year as a part of the University of Central Florida’s Class of 2019 and she is applying for Internal Medicine residencies now. My sister and I have always been extremely competitive with each other, and like normal siblings, we will tease and make fun of each other mercilessly, but we always push each other in times of difficulty, of which there are many in medical school. We are children of immigrants who came to the United States so we could have opportunities that our parents were not afforded, and that serves as ample motivation for my sister and me.

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

Yes, there is a lot of reading and studying in medical school, and the clerkships in the third year can be time-intensive as well. I think the key to balancing medical school and personal commitments is time allocation and specifically dedicating time for extracurricular activities. Certainly, there needs to be time devoted to studying as a medical student, but just as importantly, there should be time for rest, relaxation, and de-stressing. My classmates who do this the best are the ones who create a to-do list and plan out their study and their personal time. They know exactly when they will stop studying the night before an exam, and when they will catch up on their favorite television shows, and I aspire one day to achieve their level of organization and planning.

I think it’s also really important to keep in touch with family and loved ones as a student in medical school for the invaluable emotional and mental support, along with the much-needed breaks away from the constant studying.

What do you enjoy most about medical school?

My favorite part of medical school is the people—my classmates, our faculty and mentors, and the patients we are privileged to work with. I have met some of my closest friends in medical school. We pride ourselves in supporting each other through our shared journey to all becoming physicians. I am humbled to stand alongside my classmates—former teachers, college athletes, classically trained singers and dancers, and business owners who are all impressively accomplished, talented, and compassionate people. Our faculty advisors are immensely gifted in their profession and specialty and they are gracious with their time and knowledge, always willing to re-teach and re-explain something if we are not able to grasp a concept the first time. It certainly goes without saying that working with patients is one of the most gratifying aspects of medical school. In providing patient care, educating patients is one of my responsibilities as the doctor-in-training, but the transfer of information and education here is definitely a two-way street:  my patients serve as an avenue of knowledge for me as well; they teach us about the signs, symptoms, and pathophysiology of their diseases and illnesses, along with the people skills and professionalism that a future doctor should possess. They have taught me, among other things, that in situations where I do not have an answer or do not know the appropriate treatment, sometimes listening to their stories and just having a conversation with a patient can be therapeutic in and of itself.

What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?

My advice to prospective applicants is to keep on fighting. As someone who took the MCAT seven times, whose medical school application was rejected 129 times before finally earning an acceptance, I know firsthand how hard the road is to becoming a doctor. But through the difficult and frustrating times, I ask candidates to have faith in themselves. Perseverance and grit speak to an applicant’s suitability to practice medicine just as much as a high MCAT score and GPA, and in the end, with hard work and dedication, procuring an acceptance to medical school will be just a matter of time.

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