We sat down with Dr. Kaveri Korgavkar, a dermatologist in New York and MedSchoolCoach advisor about what a medical school interviewer looks for in an applicant. Her advice is extremely useful to those who are interviewing for medical schools at any point!
As a medical school interviewer, what are you looking for in a prospective student?
Two major things, the first one is just passion, and I know that is something that gets tossed around a lot. By passion I mean- to be really able to tell that you really care; and not necessarily about Biology or Science in general, but passion for anything you have undertaken. That becomes clear based on the type of activities that you have chosen, and if there is any common trend between them. The discussion one is able to bring up about it, tells how much you really care about what you say you care about; and not just have submitted a check list of activities, that someone said that you were supposed to do. I think that long term involvement in significant activities (research and volunteering, shadowing) allows you to get exposure to what medicine is about. I think some sort of significant involvement is necessary. Too often I see students who rely on experiences that are subjective, like a family member being a patient, or personal experiences or even their individual experiences they had with patients; while that is useful, its more complimentary to the more significant long term activities that students have done that allows them to really understand what they are getting themselves into.
Significant activities could manifest in many ways. It can be traditional shadowing, research activities, and volunteering. But I also think it could be ancillary but medicine related, so like a sports activity that you might have been involved with and showed you the body-mind connection or something in mental health; that can draw interest in medicine over a period of time.
One of the best ways to set yourself up for success with regards to BS/MD programs is by planning ahead. People who know from early on (sometimes even as early as middle school!) that medicine is a potential field of interest are the ones who end up sending the most convincing applications to BS/MD committees.
Below, I’ve outlined the best way to structure your high school career in order to maximize your chances at BS/MD success.
What to do in 8th grade: Explore both current and potentially long-term interests.
At this point in time, it’s far too early to decide whether or not medicine is your calling; it’s never, however, too early to start exploring the field of science. Most students who end up applying to BS/MD programs (myself included!) know from quite early on that science is a subject that sparks curiosity within them. Specifically, students who gravitate towards subjects such as biology and chemistry are likely to develop aspirations of becoming doctors. There are, however, plenty of exceptions; in fact, some of the most in-demand skills in today’s field of medicine have to do with computer science and engineering.
So even if you’re a student who tends to lean more strongly towards math and computer science-related fields, don’t completely rule out medicine as a possible career option, especially if you have even the slightest interest in learning more about the human body.
But how exactly do you decide which subjects interest you? The most foolproof way is to get out and try everything! By the time kids hit middle school, they’ve usually tried out a number of extra-curricular activities and have narrowed it down to two or three that they really enjoy (whether that be dance, music, sports, etc.). But what most students haven’t had the chance to do is test out their academic interests via a trial-and-error method. Of course, most students get a general idea of what subjects they enjoy by simply going to class, but that isn’t usually enough to determine whether you can maintain those same academic interest long-term. The best way to really put it to the test is by participating in extra-curricular activities that are related to those subject areas. For example, a student who likes biology could submit a biology-based project into their local science fair. Or a student who likes math could get involved with Math Olympiad competitions outside of school. The only obstacle you may face is accessibility; it’s slightly difficult to acknowledge your potential interest in a topic that you’ve never experienced (or maybe haven’t even heard of) before. For example, a student may not know whether or not they enjoy computer science if they’ve never taken a class on it (likely because most middle schools don’t offer CS courses). Because of such limitations, try to exhaust all possible options while in middle school, but don’t shut yourself off from subjects you haven’t yet experienced. Ninth grade will provide you with more opportunity to broaden your interests, so stay open-minded!
What to do in 9th grade: Narrow down your interests (both academic & non-academic) and develop a strong work ethic.
Academic Interests: If you’ve already entered high school and are still somewhat scatter-minded about your academic interests, don’t worry – you’ve still got time! In fact, in some ways, it’s actually advantageous to be uncertain of your interests in high school as opposed to middle school. As mentioned above, the biggest obstacle middle school students face when trying to increase their exposure to different subject areas is accessibility. In high school, though, that’s not the case. There’s a plethora of elective courses to choose from that will help you better narrow down your academic interests.
But what if there’s a subject you want to further explore and your high school doesn’t offer any classes on it? Try checking out your local community college! The benefit of being a high school student is that, given the proper permission, you can usually take classes at your local community college (often times for free!). And just like high school has more course diversity than middle school, college so too has more course diversity than high school. So the likelihood of you not finding a course related to your interests is rather unlikely. If you do choose to go down this route, there may be some applications and forms needed to be filled out, so the best way to get started is simply by approaching your guidance counselor and asking about the process. (Also, keep in mind that 3 years down the road, your counselors will be filling out some of your recommendation letters, so the earlier you go talk to them and try to build a relationship, the better your chances are at avoiding the cliché, impersonal letters that colleges hate!)
Below, I’ve noted some courses I suggest you at least try out when looking to narrow down your academic interests (not all of them will be offered at your high school, so check your local community college as suggested above!). Some of these might seem completely unrelated to medicine, but remember that there is no problem with wanting to combine two academic interests into one interdisciplinary subject. In fact, that’s extremely appealing to some BS/MD programs because medicine itself is inherently an interdisciplinary field.
Suggested Additional Courses:
Non-academic Interests: In addition to identifying your academic interests, it is equally important to use freshman year to narrow down your extra-curricular interests. The first few months of the year might seem a bit overwhelming, with every club trying to shove a flyer in your face and trying oh-so-hard to get you to come to their new member meeting.
Don’t let that pressure get to you; in fact, embrace it!
The best way to deal with this situation is, in my opinion, to welcome it with open arms. When each club stops you and asks you to sign up for their email list, go ahead and do it. This is the time for you to exhaust all your potential extra-curricular options and to really figure out which activities you want to fully commit to. So go to all those introductory meetings and, better yet, stick with the club for at least one semester. Staying with the cub even when all the new-member excitement dies down will allow you to get a real feel for what the club is like. You’ll see that some clubs aren’t as exciting, structured, or worth your time as you’d thought they’d be, while others that you had expected to be boring are surprisingly quite thought-provoking. But the only way to really weed out which clubs are well-suited for you and which ones aren’t is by maintaining a certain level of commitment to all of them throughout your first semester. After that, you’ll have the personal experience needed to make a knowledgeable decision.
Students who have already been dedicated to certain activities (such as sports or music) for their entire life may ask what is the point of joining clubs at all. If you love what you do and are ready to commit another four years to it, then by all means, go ahead! There will likely be some way for you to continue your passions in high school (ex: join band or playing for your high school sports teams). If, however, you are somewhat hesitant about whether or not you can see yourself continuing that same activity for another number of years, then perhaps consider joining some clubs. Just because you’ve been involved with something for so long doesn’t mean you have to continue it, especially if you’re only going to be a passive participant. In fact, that holds true for just about anything you decide to pursue in high school. One of the most common misconceptions student have about being a competitive college applicant is having a to join every single possible club on campus. But in reality, colleges are looking for quality over quantity. If you’ve got 2 or 3 main activities that you’re heavily involved with and have the experiences, awards, and leadership positions to back that up, then you’re in a much better position than another student who simply has a laundry list of activities written down on their resume. Students who take note of this early on and decide to fully commit their passion and energy into a few, selective activities are really the ones who find the most success with colleges.
Grades: The final, but perhaps the most important, note to make about freshmen year is about your GPA: do not let your grades slip! Your grades are going to be one of most important factors of consideration by BS/MD selection committees, so do everything in your power to maintain a high GPA. Classes are only going to get tougher and your schedule is only going to get more hectic, so the best way to set yourself up for academic success in the future is by laying down a strong foundation in freshmen year with a high GPA.
But why does your GPA even matter that much? Most students know that colleges place a lot of importance on grade point averages, but not all of them really know why. It’s not because your GPA displays your intelligence, but rather because it displays your work ethic. No student will ever tell you that a 4.0 comes easily. Sure, some classes might be an easy A, but on the flip side, some classes will require you to put in endless hours of work to just barely scrape that A. No matter what, every student will at some point face a subject that they really struggle with. But what differentiates a high GPA student from a low GPA student is their willingness to work hard and improve on their weaknesses. Colleges are looking for students who’ve got the intrinsic motivation to overcome challenges, and your GPA is a perfect representation of that.
Lastly, make sure to enjoy 9th grade! It may seem like a whole new, scary world, but you’ll look back and reminisce about those easier times. Ninth grade is a time for exploration and discovery, so don’t let the stresses of a heavy workload make you miss out on all the social experiences. Sure, there will be some sacrifices you have to make, but in the end, it’s all about balance. If you take the necessary actions at the right time, then by all means it is possible to be a competitive applicant and still have fun. Tenth grade is going to get tougher (about which there will be a blog post next!) so enjoy the freedoms of 9th grade while they last!
Dr. Katzen is a oncologist and MedSchoolCoach advisor. He is also a professor at George Washington University Medical School where he sat on the admissions committee. We sat down with Dr. Katzen to ask him some questions about his work as an oncologist and also what premedical students should know about shadowing a physician. We wanted to understand how a premedical student can get the most out of shadowing a physician and learning about the various specialties. Here is an admissions committee members take on shadowing and applying to medical school!
Dr. Katzen, you tell us about a typical day at work in your speciality?
Sure, I’m a haematologist oncologist, and I happen to be the president managing partner of my practice for many years. So my day starts very early and I usually spend about an hour every morning before 7 o‘clock doing administrative functions. I usually will meet most days with my office manager at about 6:30 to either go over items that are on her list or items that are on my list. Anything ranging from personnel, to equipment purchases, reviewing the financials, you know I have a regular schedule of how often I do that and where the accounts receivable are, and so forth. I usually start seeing patients by seven most days and my days are pretty packed until five. I finish scheduling at 4:30 and I schedule my new patients for hour visits and I try to utilize that time to not only meet the patients but I invite their families to come. As an oncologist, I spend a lot of time educating patients who may be getting chemotherapy. In my follow up visits, I usually spend anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, either determining continuation or alteration of the therapeutic regimen and it goes on through the day like that in a very regimented way. In my practice we sometimes do bone marrows, sometimes we do intravenous chemotherapy, intravenous iron, and what not so we oversee part of our practice in the infusion centre and part of my responsibilities throughout the day are to deal with any problems that may arise, either a patient having a reaction or a patient that is ill in the infusion centre. We sort of have a rotation of the physicians that have that as an additional responsibility on a daily basis. We have a rotating evening and rotating weekend call schedule and then we also have a rotating office and hospital rotation schedule, so if you have hospital rotations, your office day is shortened and by several hours usually for hospital rounds.
Alright, that is quite interesting. So then, if there was a pre-med student shadowing you, what would you say are the key aspects that they should keep in mind while observing a doctor? I think there are several things that they should do whether it’s my specialty or another specialty. First of all, I think that they should look at how the patients are brought into the room, whether it is or is not by the physician himself. They should spend some time with either the medical assistant or the nurse and get some understanding on the preparation before the physician goes into the room. It could be something as simple as weighing and taking vital signs. Usually the patient is asked by whoever puts them in the room, if they have any new problems or specific problems they want to discuss today. Have they had any recent scans, surgery, hospitalizations or biopsies, so that if the information is not already there, ideally the information becomes available before the physician goes into the room. I think as an observant student I would also want them to see how the physician enters the room and how he or she conducts themselves in the room. Do they walk in the room and formally address the patient or formally introduce themselves? Do they question the patient, do they question them in a head to toe review system, or is it a system oriented and that varies obviously from specialty to specialty. When they ask questions do they listen, or do they cut the patient off? Do they allow them to talk? What is their method of questioning? What is their method of obtaining information, that is very important. Then I think of course when you examine the patient, it’s very important to think number one, observe how to do a proper physical exam, but I also think it’s important how you respect whether it’s a male to male or male to female, female to female or female to male examination. They have appropriate chaperone and do they make proper allowances to respect the patients’ modesty and so forth. I think that is not getting too specific diagnosis and procedural knowledge but I think those are significant basic courtesies and manners that one should conduct themselves in, as a physician. I once heard an introduction given for first year medical students by actually a surgeon general, who very much captured his audience attention by telling these young students (that were to be given a ceremonial event, a white coat), reminding them that they will ask questions that no one else will ask them, you will ask them questions that their family won’t ask them, you will touch them in areas that no one else won’t touch them and you need to be respectful when you do that. I think that is very good advice that you can give to young physicians or people aspiring to be a physician.
I think there are significant basic courtesies and manners that one should conduct themselves in as a physician. I once heard a general surgeon say to medical students- ‘you will ask (patients) questions that no one else will ask them, you will ask them questions that their family won’t ask them, you will touch them in areas that no one else will touch them and you need to be respectful when you do that.’
That anecdote definitely makes you think about how you’re supposed to be with a patient when you are training to be a doctor or when you do become a doctor. Can you also give us any one main piece of advice or what you think is extremely important for any pre-med to know?
Number one, I think it’s important to develop as soon possible good study habits and be devoted to the facts that if they are interested in being a physician there is a significant work load and they have to be willing to make that commitment. I also think it’s important that they realise the process of application is not an overnighter, a one semester process and by that I mean if they are going to do events such as shadowing or volunteering or something, I personally don’t think they should all be done in the last year of college. Instead, it should represent more of a long term and on-going commitment. You like to see somebody who has long term experience, over a number of semesters as compared to seeing somebody in the second half of their junior year just starting to do those types of events. That to me doesn’t exhibit the same conviction as somebody who has done that on a longer period. But obviously I think a commitment to their studies is exceedingly important as well as trying to excel as much as possible. I think that getting advice from people that are senior, trying to get the proper courses in and doing well but spacing them properly so that they are not overstressed with the multitude of courses at one time.
If you are going to do shadowing or volunteering or something, I personally don’t think they should all be done in the last year of college. Instead, it should represent more of a long term and on-going commitment
On that note, is there anything else you would like to share with us? I think the main theme for me is to show a long term commitment. Very rarely do I feel that it is very effective for somebody who all of a sudden woke up and felt life this is a field they want to pursue. I personally got more confidence in the commitment that the the rigours of training and of practice. When I see that somebody has multiple experiences and number one, I think it exhibits the commitment but the other and I think just as important is, they’ve exposed themselves to different aspects. I don’t really think it’s appropriate when you hear a fourth year college student say I am going to be an orthopaedic surgeon, I think that shows a very narrow minded approach and that is not the type of student you want entering. You want someone who has an open mind to learn and may see something that piques his interest once he or she sees it in more depth. So to me I think that anyone entering medical school, should be entering it with an open mind and not with a preconceived notion as to what their final destination will be.
We sat down with Dr. Harvey Katzen, a clinical oncologist and former admissions committee member at George Washington University School of Medicine where he interviewed hundreds of applicants for admission. He shared with us some secrets of what an admissions committee member is looking for in a candidate!
Since you’ve been a part of many medical school interviews, could you tell us what is the biggest thing you look for in a prospective student?
When I interview a student, I like them to be able to act in a way that I think they are mature, to be able to answer questions in a way that is thoughtful. I like them to present themselves, and present their answers in an intelligent and mature manner. I usually will like to occasionally give them a question that I don’t really expect them to know the answer to, just to see how they will react under some potential stressful situation.
I expect them to be able to present their qualifications in a fashion that doesn’t appear to be that they are bragging, but instead are portrayed in a mature and thoughtful way.
As I said, when I am doing an in-person interview, I want to see that their appearance is important, I want to see that they are neat and I want to see that they are attentive to the interview and not letting their thoughts wander during that period. Also, they should occasionally engage me, in other words, ask questions in addition to just answering questions.
I think as much as possible they should come into the interview and introduce themselves, shake hands and maintain eye contact. Try to utilize appropriate body language, again be able to thoughtfully answer questions and not get distracted by anything that’s extraneous. They should exhibit their ability to concentrate and show that they are taking the interview as a very serious event.
Are there any hard or soft skill that you think pre-med students should know or that would be beneficial for them to know?
I think one thing that I had mentioned is that they as much as possible maintain good eye contact, but I also think one thing that they can do in preparation is be prepared and by that I mean if they are going to one school or another they should have evaluated it via their website so if asked questions about what they think about the curriculum or what their goals are at that school, they should be able to answer and also ask questions. Such as if it is a school in the District of Columbia, maybe they would indicate that it is a nice setting for somebody who is interested in health care policy because it is in the nation’s capital. The other thing that I usually advise them is to write a list of about four or five things about themselves that they want to bring into the interview. They may have participated in research, been a professional/skilled athlete, or been on some mission, for example. They should rehearse in their own mind those three, four or five very important topics about themselves, that the candidate feels distinguishes himself or herself. So if the opportunity arises, and I think that it does in an interview, even with the open ended questions such as ‘tell me something about yourself’, that they are certain to get those qualities out.
The pressure of walking into the interview is significant enough so even if it’s something that’s basic to the individual applicant, I think it’s very good to just have that list at their fingertips.
They can literally look at it right as they are called to go into the room or right before they go into the interview room, so the points are fresh on their mind and they won’t forget to bring those points forward.
We sat down with Dr. Marinelli, MedSchoolCoach advisor and former admissions committee member at University of California Irvine School of Medicine. She shared with us some secrets about doing well on the USMLE exams!
Could you tell us a little about the different USMLEs (Step 1, Step 2 and Step 3) and you would recommend a student approach Step 2 specifically
Sure, so Step 1 is taken after your second year of medical school. I think that is probably the hardest step test that most students will take, just because the material and the volume of information on that test is very large and it is weighted heavily on the residency program. So kind of like the MCAT is for medical school admissions, the USMLE step one is similar for residency admission. It’s very heavily based and depending on your score really reflects what type of residency program you will get in, in a large majority of residencies. USMLE Step Two, also is a lot of information, but since it’s more about clinical skills and about clinical practice, most people find this one a little bit easier to take and this is usually taken in your fourth year of medical school. Then finally USMLE step 3 is the last step thankfully and that is most often taken in the first year after medical school. That one is, I would say from my experience and talking with most of my peers, usually the easiest. It’s a very lengthy test, it’s actually two days long, but since that one is the easiest, people don’t normally prepare much for that. That’s because again- in clinical practice- you are really using your skills that you are using every day in practice; you are using those on the test, so it’s a little bit less stressful and then you’re done at that time. USMLE Step 2 consists of two parts, so there is the CK which is the written part where you are actually being tested on clinical knowledge and it’s more question- answer multiple choice based, that most medical students are used to. The CS part or the clinical skills, is a test that does exactly as it sounds. It tests your clinical skills, so it is a test that’s based on using twelve standardized patients and you are graded on several different things including your ability to communicate with patients, ability to think through a differential diagnosis and then also your ability to write patient encounter notes after the visit with the standardized patient.
In terms of diagnosing patients in the USMLE Step 2 CS test, is there any specific material or any specific preparation students should do when they begin to study for the step two?
I was thinking of kind of three strategies on how you should really best prepare for this exam, so I broke it down into three parts. First, you want to plan for the exam. So when you plan it of course you are scheduling the exam, there are only certain test centres throughout the United States that offer the test, so students have to fly to certain test centres, to take the exam. When you do plan out your test, make sure you check out the USMLE website where they have information on hotels and they also have information on updates on the test site, if there are any changes or anything that you should know. Then also, I think that since a lot of people have to go to different cities and different areas to take these exams, make sure when you arrive there the day before, or the day of, make sure you know where you are going, you know where parking is, you know exactly what time you are going to arrive. It’s going to really really remove a lot of stress on the day and on the day of exam you don’t want to show up late too, so just make sure you just really plan your exam day and that’s going to help you really prepare. I think another big huge part in preparing for this test is going to be practice. So all through medical school, your first two years of medical school, you are going to be seeing standardized patients, where you have people that come into the medical school and are actors and they act out having certain symptoms or certain diseases and you as a medical student have to treat them and pretend that they are actual patients presented with actual diseases and symptoms. So this is very similar to what the USMLE Step two CS is going to consist of, so practice using those scenarios. Definitely take advantage of your medical school standardized patient testing, because most medical schools have what they call OSCEs, where they use standardized patients to test you. So take advantage of those, take those seriously because those will be preparing you for the CS. If you have the chance, have your friends help you and have them be standardized patients, it’s very easy to have somebody pretend that they are a patient and most people actually enjoy pretending that they are a patient. I also recommend practice doing limited physical exams on a time limit. On the real exam day, you are allowed 15 minutes to perform a history and physical exam on the patient. So you should have somebody pretend that maybe they are presented with stomach pain and you have to perform a history that is completely related to stomach pain and an exam that is related to stomach pain and limited at that. You are not going to perform a full neurological exam or a full muscular skeletal exam, only unless it is applicable and practice that in that constrained time limit so you make sure you have that down on the actual test day. Finally, I think practice writing timed notes, the USMLE website for Step Two CS, has a great page that has a sample note that they expect you to put in their format. They give you ten minutes on the actual test day, to write a patient encounter note, so practice writing the note in that time limit. Make sure you are writing thorough notes, you are writing all pertinent positive and negative findings that you have discovered on your physical and history exam. Also, make sure that you are being able to discuss thorough differential diagnosis and what tests and treatments to order. Finally, I think the last thing and I will be brief on this, I want to just say on the actually day after you have prepped and you’ve practiced the last thing is actually to perform. You are really an actor, a player, because you are walking in on this test day and you are acting like you are a doctor. That’s what you are doing, you are seeing people that are actors and you are supposed to act like you are their doctor. You should really walk into the room and be confident that you have had the last three or so years of training, to know how to evaluate patients and know how to perform a thorough and comprehensive history, physical and obtain relevant information. Then also, make sure that you are empathetic, and that you are patient and kind to all the people, to all the patients. If they are frustrated, if they are angry with you, make sure that you are constantly compassionate and understanding, because that is something that you are going to be graded on during the exam as well.
That’s very useful, thank you. Can you share with us a little bit about how the exam is scored?
Yes, luckily the exam is a pass or fail, so you are not going to be graded specifically with a scoring system like the CK or Step One, you are going to receive a pass or fail. That does relieve a lot of anxiety for most people. But the breakdown of the scoring system is in three different parts so, you are going to be graded by qualified examiners selected form the USMLE on Communication and Interpersonal Skills, so that’s pretty self-explanatory there. It’s how well you are able to talk with patients and communicate ideas with them and respond to their needs or their questions. The next area that you are graded on is Spoken English Proficiency, so this test was somewhat designed to measure the students ability to speak English clearly, so that is going to be assessed here. Then finally you are going to be graded on what they call ICE or Integrated Clinical Encounters. This is really where you are going to be graded on how well you interpret the patients’ history, physical, in order to parade a knowledge of differential diagnosis, also your ability to write notes and make relevant clinical decisions.
Alright. Is there anything else that you think will be important for students to know while they either prepare for the exam, or advance towards their journey of becoming a doctor?
I think in terms of the Step 2 CS, I think take it seriously, a lot of people don’t take it seriously, and I have heard of people that don’t pass. I think it’s rare that most people in the US medical schools don’t pass. There is a very good pass rate for students in MD schools here in the United States, but it is something to be taken very seriously, because you don’t want to fail this exam. It’s expensive, you don’t want to have to take it again, it’s a long day, something you want to take once and put it behind you. Make sure you do take it seriously.
Dr. Marinelli is an advisor at MedSchoolCoach and former admissions committee member at UC Irvine School of Medicine. Her insight into the application process is second to none! We sat down with Dr. Marinelli to ask her a few questions about her clinical residency at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii!
Could you tell us a little bit about your specialty, what you do and then a little bit about what your typical day entails?
Sure. I went to medical school at the University of California Irvine and I graduated from there in 2013. Then I went to Tripler Army Medical Centre in Honolulu Hawaii, where I went to a family medicine residency program with my husband (who was an army physician there) which is why we went to the army residency program. However, about half way through my residency program I had a baby. After talking to many different people on what to do, and after a lot of contemplation, I decided to take a kind of prolonged leave of absence from my residency and stay home with my son. Right now, I’m actually not practicing medicine, I have my medical license to practise, but at this time I am just being a stay at home mom and working with MedSchoolCoach as a consultant.
When you were practicing, what kind of work did that include?
I was doing primary care medicine, so it was kind of a unique training because I was at an army hospital so I primarily saw active duty soldiers and then their family members. I actually saw new born babies all the way up to elderly patients in their 90’s. I took care of pregnant women and all types of patients. So I did enjoy that practice and probably when my son is a little older and maybe school age, I plan on returning back into practice, but for right now while he is still really young, I am just enjoying this time with him and this is kind of where I need to be right now.
Do you have any general advice for medical school applicants?
Then, just some general advice as far as on your road to becoming a doctor, I would just say enjoy it. For me, the undergraduate years weren’t the most fun time in my life, but medical school was absolutely great and it was probably some of the best four years of my life. It was difficult and challenging and each day was a new challenge and every test I couldn’t believe, they seemed like they kept getting harder. But somehow when you are with one hundred or so like-minded individuals, you come together as a group and you really just succeed together. I think that it was just one of the best times and I enjoyed it during the time I was there, and I can reminisce with my friends from medical school. I met my husband in medical school, I remark with him all the time about how much we loved that time and we do miss it; we are happy where we are right now, but it does go by pretty fast although it may
“If you’re on your road to becoming a doctor, my advice would be to enjoy it.”
seem like a long time while you are there. Just enjoy that time, because it is really special and it is a great time and something that is pretty invaluable.
Dr. Alice Zheng is a entrepreneur, physician, public health activist and MBA! She received her MBA from Harvard University and MD from University of Michigan. She is an incredible person who is an inspiration for all who want to become a physician, and maybe even more. We sat down and talked with her about her journey through medical school.
Q: What kept you going throughout your medical school application process, was there any specific motivation or any factor that constantly kept motivating you?
A: I think remembering the end goal, there are definitely many challenges along the way but I think it’s very important for all pre-med students to remember that this is a very long journey; so you start out very early, picking your course work and looking for research advisors. The application process is tiring but it’s just another part of the journey because when you get into medical school, you do a lot of soul searching; you are going to think a lot about what you want to do in your future life. I think sometimes pre-meds feel like medicine is an end to itself but it’s actually an entry way to a bigger path because medicine is not just one type, one path; once you are in medicine, there are so many choices and so many options.
Medicine is not an end to itself but actually an entry way to a bigger path; it is not just one type, one path, there are so many choices and so many options.”
You choose a speciality or choose what kind of practice setting you want to be in. Even beyond that, some people end up in jobs in medicine where they might do some journalism on the side, they might do some policy work. So there are just endless options.
Q: Along those lines, can you tell us a few surprises that you found out about when you went to med school? Was there anything that you feel you should have known about or anything you feel like you could have been better prepared for?
A: I think a lot of teamwork and leadership is needed in the career of medicine and it can be a difficult adjustment for some students because they spend their whole undergraduate career excelling in science or their chosen major, but mostly its individual work. So you study for your exam, you write your essay and it’s more or less individual, maybe some of the research is collaborative but you still have your own piece of work cut out. Even in the first two years of medical school there is individual work, so you are sitting in a lecture, you are in the anatomy lab and you are studying for an exam and you know the output you get is based on individual work. But you are in a team, with other medical students, other residents, attending doctors and nurses. So I think that can be an adjustment to some pre-meds who have never worked in the real world. You can’t do your job without the nurse doing his or her job. Make sure you understand dynamics and how to work well in a team and ultimately, one day you will lead the team and you will be the attending doctor. I think that is something that is overlooked when you are a pre-med because you are just focused on your individual achievement, because that’s how you get in. More and more medical schools now have essays on team work and questions about leadership; they do MMI interviews to assess how you deal with difficult situations because it’s no longer about how well you do in exams, It’s about using your skills in medicine but more importantly it’s about working in a team and being a leader.
Q: Great! That’s the perfect segway into my next question. What do you think are three skills that pre-med students should develop early on in their education? Are there any soft or hard skills you think they should definitely have?
A: Sure, one thing I would say is resilience. Medicine is very hard, the application process is very hard, so once you get in there you are constantly being tested, you are memorizing things and then you have to give the board exams. You have to literally study for twelve hours a day for six weeks to get through that and then when you are on the ward it is very challenging because you are learning medicine, getting graded, you are getting self-examined. So a common thing in all of this is the need for resilience in a way to deal with failures, because there are moments where you will feel like you have failed when you are studying for medicine. So you don’t want to drive yourself to a point where you are very unhappy or you are not succeeding because you are overwhelmed. There will be someone who is going to give you a bad evaluation that you will feel is unfair, or there will be that one exam that you studied so hard for but didn’t do well on but it’s important to bounce back and recover. You have excelled your whole life, but now you are going to be among other people who excel, so you will no longer be the best. Having the emotional capacity to handle that I think is really really important.
A key skill to develop is resilience. There will be someone who is going to give you a bad evaluation that you will feel is unfair, or there will be that one exam that you studied so hard for but didn’t do well on but it’s important to bounce back and recover.
The other category of skill is related to how medicine is changing, it’s not just about myopically being a doctor and caring about the treatments and diagnosis, but trying to understand how the world fits together, because in the future people will be asking you your thoughts about policies around the world and inequalities and things. It’s that ability as a doctor I feel that has expanded beyond the clinical. Doctors can be advocates for their patients, doctors also play a big role in health economics, because they are the one prescribing treatments so being kind of aware of how the different parts society fits together I think is really important. One can get that by being well read on current affairs and health care, taking some time off before medicine and getting some work experience. I think those are all great things that develop maturity as well as a broader understanding of the world.
Q: So when you actually get down to the process of applying and writing your personal statements, is there anything that you suggest students not do when they are applying or when you are in the process of application?
A: Sure, so one thing you should never do, is never talk about academic failures or not getting into medical school. For questions about adversities, overcoming your failures, or challenge, you should never write about those things. Although those are often sometimes very formative experiences that were very difficult, I completely understand that can be very top of mind, but that should not be the topic of these questions. Now, if that does happen to you where you had academic problems or difficulties, you didn’t get into medical school in the past, that’s totally fine. Many people reapply and they succeed, but there will be a place in the application to write about it separately, where they specifically will ask whether you have had any academic difficulties, you’re a re-applicant and there, that’s where you can be very honest about what happened and you can appear very vulnerable. You can be like that and then write about how you have changed and grown, but you don’t want to write about that unless they ask for it.
Q: Alright. Is there anything else? Maybe that you can think of now at the top of your mind?
A: Yes, so something I tell my students when they write their personal statements is that to think big and be visionary, so when you are writing your personal statement you want to say why medicine, you want to talk a little bit about yourself, your values, your background but what you are really trying to convey is that you will be a leader in healthcare and maybe your interests are in primary care, maybe it’s in global health, maybe it’s in research, whatever it is, when you conclude your essay and throughout your essay, you goal is convince the admission committee that you have this burning passion to change things, to be the best physician possible and that you have a bigger vision that you want to be some sort of leader. This is especially true for the students who want to get into the very top schools, it’s not enough just to do research, just to do volunteering, and then kind of list them methodically, on your application. It’s about why you did those things, and how you grew from them and how that contributed to you being a leader in the future with this expandable world view and this repertoire of experiences.
Q: You put that really well. I think it’s all about commitment towards a certain service or just about how you are dedicated towards serving people in general and what clearly motivates you. So then again, is there anything in particular that you are looking for in prospective students?
A: Yes, similar to what I just mentioned for the essay. When you are interviewing you are also trying to convey your broad vision, your visionary thinking about the future. So when you answer questions about, tell me about yourself, you can start with something meaningful, your prior background but you always want to end it with something about what you hope to accomplish, or what you hope to do. You know again, with the theme of medicine not being the end to itself but a means to something greater.
According to older pre-med students, taking the MCATs is one of the most dreaded parts of being a pre-med. It’s an 8-hour test that requires extensive knowledge and commitment because it cumulatively tests everything you’ve learned since day one of freshmen year. The MCAT, in fact, is one of the biggest roadblocks that prevents pre-med students from pursuing interests such as studying abroad. And that’s exactly why many BS/MD programs allow for their students to opt out of taking it, so that they can use that time they would spend studying on other, more enriching experiences.
Unfortunately, not all programs exempt you from taking the MCAT. Instead, they require that you get a minimum score (usually slightly lower than that medical school’s average MCAT score) to be guaranteed admission into the medical school. Of course, no MCAT is usually preferable to a lower score on the MCAT, but that doesn’t mean you should automatically cross out any program that requires the MCAT off your list. In fact, there can be several benefits to taking the MCAT.
One of the most critiqued aspects of BS/MD programs without the MCAT is that their students will be disadvantaged when it comes time to take their USMLE (another standardized test) in medical school. Though I have several friends who have debunked this theory with their own education, it is still a point of valid concern for many students. In that case, perhaps a program that requires you to only achieve a minimum score is ideal. That way, you get the experience of taking a large, standardized test but get to do so without having to overstress about getting the highest score possible. Alternatively, some students might prefer to avoid the MCAT altogether simply because they do not perform their best under standardized testing conditions, in which case a program without MCAT requirements is optimal. It all comes down to personal preference, but this is definitely a question that should be addressed when deciding which programs to apply to.
How prestigious does the undergraduate school need to be?
Disclaimer: By no means am I trying to talk down to any undergraduate school in this section below. Instead, I am simply trying to shed light on a controversial topic that students entering BS/MD programs deal with all the time.
One of the biggest dilemmas that BS/MD applicants face when it comes time to commit to college is how much weight they should put on the “prestige factor” of their undergraduate university. Even though acceptance rates for several BS/MD programs are much lower than those of even the most competitive ivy-league schools, that doesn’t take away from the fact that most of the undergraduate universities part of these BS/MD programs are ranked lower (sometimes substantially so) than those ivy-league schools. Deciding where to commit to is an extremely personal decision, and with options as great as these, you really can’t go wrong. I have friends who have turned down renowned universities including Stanford, Harvard, and MIT simply for a slot in one of these programs. On the flip side, though, I also have friends that have turned down some of the most competitive BS/MD programs to instead attend ivy-league standard schools including Yale, UC Berkeley, and Princeton.
My strongest piece of advice for students leaning towards accepting a BS/MD offer is to make sure you are truly happy with the undergraduate school, even if it is not as highly ranked as some of your other university options. I can remember back to the fall of my senior year when I was so desperately hoping to get into any BS/MD program, regardless of how good or bad the undergraduate university was. Of course, my aspirations were towards programs like Brown University’s PLME, which combined both an excellent undergraduate school with a well-ranked medical school. But when you’re in that deep into application season and are questioning how you could ever go through this entire process all over again, just about any BS/MD program looks promising.
Now, however, having just completed my freshmen year of college and reflecting back to those days, I can’t imagine what I was thinking. I know for a fact that if I had decided to go to a undergraduate university that I didn’t like simply because of the conditional medical school acceptance it was offering, I would have hated it. So much so that I might have even transferred schools. Your undergraduate career is a time to challenge yourself, both intellectually and socially; it’s an exciting part of your life where you get to grow and push yourself to be better. If, however, you choose to go to an undergraduate school that doesn’t excite you or challenge you in any way, then you will never have the motivation needed to reach your full potential.
Previously, I had categorized BS/MD applicants into two different types: those who had turned down BS/MD programs for ivy-league schools and those who had turned down ivy-league schools for BS/MD programs. But I omitted perhaps the most important category of all: those who had regretted the decision they made. These are the students who’s perspective you should really try to understand and ask yourself if you could possibly see yourself having some of the same regrets in the future. Students who regretted choosing a BS/MD program felt so most likely because either (1) they didn’t feel challenged by their peers and professors or (2) they ended up deciding that medicine wasn’t for them and had wished their resume now had a slightly more prestigious undergraduate university on it. Students who regretted choosing an ivy-league type school over a BS/MD program, on the other hand, likely felt so because (1) they felt the stresses and time commitment required to be a successful pre-med was not worth the extra “prestige” factor, or (2) the competition was so fierce that they eventually had to consider an alternative career route because their GPA and MCAT scores were not high enough for medical school.
It is, of course, impossible to predict what obstacles you are going to face in the future. And no matter what you decide, there will always be some “what if” questions still lingering in your mind. The goal isn’t to avoid those questions, though; instead, it’s to avoid regretting your decision in its entirety. The best way to come to a decision, then, is to make sure you’re committing to a university truly because you believe you will be happy there, not simply because it’ll provide you with an “easier” route to medical school or because it’s a more “prestigious” university. Of course those should be points of consideration, but they should not be the only reason for your decision. If medicine is truly your calling, then one way or another, you will get there. And if somewhere along the way you decide medicine isn’t for you, then you should still be happy with the undergraduate university you chose.
Can you afford it?
The final point to consider when applying to a BS/MD program is financial restrictions. Though most people don’t look into this matter too heavily until they’re strongly considering committing to a university, it is a topic to keep in the back of your mind when applying to BS/MD programs. A good majority of these programs have two stages to their application process: (1) an essay portion that is included in addition to your regular undergraduate application, and (2) an on-campus interview with the medical faculty. Of course it’s always exciting to get an interview offer, but the downside to that is that you often have to spend money buying plane tickets/taking long road-trips and book hotels. Unfortunately, these interviews are a non-negotiable part of the application process, so there is no way you can convince the selection committee to offer you acceptance even though you could not make the interview due to financial restraints. The only way to minimize monetary costs, then, is by being very selective with which schools you travel to for an interview. If you apply to a program that’s perhaps you’re not 100% interested in attending but still end of getting an interview, do not waste your time and money traveling to campus unless you are serious about accepting a potential offer from them.
The other downside to BS/MD programs is that once you have been accepted into the program, not all of them offer great financial assistance to their students. And they do so strategically. These programs know that a conditional acceptance to medical school is of great value, and they try to use that as leverage when determining how much scholarship money to give you. As a result, don’t be too surprised if a university with a BS/MD program doesn’t match scholarship offers you’ve received from other, regular undergraduate universities (no matter how prestigious they may be). And don’t at all be surprised if these schools provide you with no money towards medical school. For people with financial restraints, the best programs to apply to are those at public, instate universities. They often provide a bit more scholarship money, and even if they don’t, their tuition prices are already significantly lower than those of private schools.
So to recap, the six questions you should ask yourself when applying to BS/MD programs are:
How long do you want your undergraduate career to last?
What interests are you planning to pursue in college?
Are you willing to stay in the same location for an extended period of time?
How important is avoiding the MCAT?
How prestigious does the undergraduate school need to be?
Can you afford it?
Applying to BS/MD programs is no joke; it takes a large amount of planning to be successful at it. But if you start early enough and do enough research before sending in your application, then you’ll maximize your chances of finding a program that best fits you.
[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”7481″ img_size=”full”][vc_btn title=”Download Now” style=”flat” shape=”square” color=”theme_style_1″ align=”center” i_icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-file-pdf-o” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fwww.medschoolcoach.com%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2016%2F08%2FUSMLE-Step-1.pdf|||” add_icon=”true”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”2/4″][vc_column_text]If you are interested in finding more admissions advice, check out these links:
[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”7352″ img_size=”full”][vc_btn title=”Download Now” style=”flat” shape=”square” color=”theme_style_1″ align=”center” i_icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-file-pdf-o” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fwww.medschoolcoach.com%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2016%2F07%2FSix-Keys-to-Acing-Your-Interview.pdf|||” add_icon=”true”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”2/4″][vc_column_text]If you are interested in finding more admissions advice, check out these links: