Advisor Corner: Your Application Questions Answered

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AAMC staff teamed up with three prehealth advisors to answer frequently asked questions from our recent virtual medical school fair. Check out the questions and advice below.

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college students

I have a question about the personal statement. I've heard wildly different things about whether to express interest in a specific area of medicine or keep the interest more general and open-minded. For example, I'm very interested in rural medicine and psychiatry, and I want to reflect that, but I'm also very open-minded and want to express that. Thoughts?

Scott Calvin (prehealth program director at Lehman College): Personal statements are partially about letting medical schools know what perspectives you will bring to them that can complement those of other students so that you can all benefit from each other. For that reason, if you already have a specialty in mind that excites you, it’s good to discuss it. On the other hand, you will learn more about different specialties and get direct exposure to them once you matriculate to medical school. After that exposure, many students change their mind about what specialty they want to pursue. So, in your essay, you want to allow for the possibility that further exposure might lead you in new directions.

Kathryn Lipp (director of prehealth programs at Mount Holyoke College): Most applicants feel drawn toward certain medical specialties or populations more than others; that doesn’t mean that those interests cannot shift, but it is the reality of who someone is at the point of applying. A personal statement should allow medical schools to get to know you as an individual and should present an honest look at your prior experiences and motivations for medicine, so in that sense, the sharing of these specific interests can be an important aspect of your essay. What will not serve you well is a focus so rigid as to make you appear inflexible as opposed to passionate and curious. Always have others read your essay to check for tone to ensure that the information you share in your writing is understood by readers in the way that you intend.

Due to the pandemic, I was not able to find shadowing/scribing opportunities where I live. How are colleges addressing this?

Kathryn Lipp: Medical schools look for evidence that applicants have explored the field of medicine to confirm their interest in the profession and to ensure that they accurately understand the role of a physician in the health care system. The COVID-19 pandemic has not changed their need to assess candidates in these areas, but schools have been adapting their understanding of how to interpret and assess applicants’ more recent experiences. Less traditional experiences, such as virtual shadowing or informational interviews, may be given greater consideration than in the past. It is critical to look at the information shared on individual schools’ websites about how they are assessing applicants’ qualifications, since not every school will do things in the same way. As a starting point, check out the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions’ crowdsourced list of virtual opportunities to consider during the pandemic. The AAMC webinar “Demonstrating Competence in an Unconventional Application Year” also features additional activity ideas.

Because of the pandemic, some applicants simply have not been able to gain enough relevant experience. In such cases, it might be prudent to postpone applying for at least a year in order to strengthen qualifications. A prehealth advisor can help assess your readiness to apply and recommend experiences that could help bolster your candidacy, if needed. 

I am preparing to reapply this upcoming cycle. Should I completely change my personal statement and a few of my experiences? I am not sure what I should focus on updating. Thank you!

Jessica Matzko (director of prehealth advising at Colby College): We strongly recommend working with a prehealth advisor to evaluate your application’s strengths and identify areas that may have been barriers to acceptance. If your first application is unsuccessful, we recommend you pause and reflect on what areas of your application need to improve before you reapply; common weaknesses include a low MCAT score, a low science GPA, too few clinical experiences, late primary or secondary applications, tepid letters of recommendation, an ill-fitting school list, and more. It’s important to show how you’ve grown since your last application cycle and articulate how you’ve addressed your weaknesses before you submit an application. You may want to check out this article on reapplying for tips.

Kathryn Lipp: Personal statements and other written aspects of the application should always reflect who you are as an applicant at the time that you apply, not who you were when you first applied and did not gain admission. For most people, that means that some aspects of the application change significantly, others may change only slightly, and some things — perhaps older, past experiences — are written in the same way that they were originally. Personal statements do not need to be completely rewritten simply for the sake of rewriting. However, a wholly unchanged essay generally will not serve you well. 

What specifically is considered clinical experience? Would working in the hospital as a pharmacy technician be considered clinical experience even though the job lacked patient interaction?

Scott Calvin: In general, when considering whether an experience counts as clinical exposure, consider two questions:

  • Does it take place in a clinical setting (that is, in a room where medical services are provided)? A waiting room in a doctor’s office is not a clinical setting, but an emergency room (ER), a hospital room, or an examining room is. 
  • Do you directly provide medical or allied care to a patient? This is the case for some paid positions such as an EMT or a certified nursing assistant, even though the care may take place somewhere which would otherwise not be considered a clinical setting (e.g., in a patient’s home). 

If the answer to either of those questions is yes, then typically it would be considered a clinical experience. So, for example, handing out water bottles in an ER is generally considered to be clinical experience, but scheduling appointments at a front desk for a doctor’s office is not.

Jessica Matzko: Becoming a pharmacy technician can help you demonstrate competencies — like critical thinking skills, oral communication, and adaptability — that are valuable to your future career. The medical team that works to organize and deliver health care is diverse; becoming part of that team helps you speak to the structural challenges that patients and providers navigate, as well as the care and collaboration that make a patient’s journey a success. Working as a technician without patient contact probably won’t challenge you to develop your bedside manner and build relationships with patients in the way that other roles might. If you accept this position, you should pursue other roles that involve direct patient interaction. This experience will strengthen your communication and empathy skills in the clinical settings where you may someday work as a physician.

I have a question regarding the required courses for medical school. Do medical schools give preference to students who take all their courses in university rather than community colleges?

Each medical school makes decisions individually about what type of premedical coursework they will accept. Please read through the free MSAR® report Premedical Coursework Chart for more information. 

Scott Calvin: In general, one important aspect to consider is whether you appear to be running away from difficult courses or otherwise trying to game the system. There is usually no problem with starting in a community college, taking some required courses for medical school while earning an associate degree, and then transferring to a four-year college to complete a bachelor’s degree and the remaining prerequisites. But if you are already at a four-year college and then withdraw from a difficult course at your four-year school in order to take it over the summer at a community college, that can look like you’re trying to take the easy way out.

Thank you to the following contributors: 

Scott Calvin, prehealth program director at Lehman College

Kathryn Lipp, director of prehealth programs at Mount Holyoke College 

Jessica Matzko, director of prehealth advising at Colby College 

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