Advice for Writing a Medical School Personal Statement from an Expert

Medical School Personal StatementWe sat down with Dr. Davietta Butty, a Northwestern School of Medicine graduate, avid writer, and pediatrician! She is an amazing MedSchoolCoach advisor who has helped hundreds of students through the admissions process with a focus on the medical school personal statement. Her insights into what an admissions committee member looks for are extremely important, so read on for some great tips!

Could you give us advice for students who want to write a good personal statement but aren’t able to start one or are in general struggling to write a good personal statement?

First of all, it’s really intimidating to look at a blank document and decide “okay this is where I am going to start or this is what I’m going to do” or know how things are going to be organized. I don’t think anyone necessarily goes into their personal statement with everything figured out. I think people get stuck worrying about wanting it to be great and fabulous. It has to be first, before it can be those things. Rather than focusing on how good you want it to be, just start writing. Even if it’s a stream of consciousness or just your ideas but try to get them on the paper because once they are there then you can cut, paste or change the organization so that you have something to work with. You can then decide whether that experience speaks to you or whether you have this other experience that you think might work better; but you can’t actually do that until you are able to let go and start writing. Don’t worry about it being good at first, just worry about getting your thoughts on paper.

Great! From your experience, what are the top three things that you might have seen in great personal statements or what you think comprise a really good personal statement?

I think the best personal statements are the ones that showcase the applicant’s personality. All of the primary applications is all numbers and a lot of data and the personal statement is one of the only places where you can show who you are as a person. I think it’s important to remember that that type of thing to reach medicine but don’t get stuck in trying to be formulaic about it. Remember that this is your story and not anyone else’s story and you get the opportunity to say it how it makes sense to you. I think one of the things a lot of people struggle with is thinking that they don’t have anything unique about them or not knowing what to say in that personal statement because they haven’t lead a mission trip to Africa, won a Nobel prize or created some wonderful medical engineering invention. I think people get hung up on people not noticing them for not doing those things. What people notice is your story, your heart and your ability to show that you made connections with people. Ultimately, you hope that someone is looking at you, sees the things that you have done and say ‘good job’ while giving you an award. Most of the time people are not going to see that. The people who are going to know what kind of job you are doing are your patients. So, if you are able to show the admissions committee and the reader that you are able to in some small way touch someone’s life even in five minutes or less, then I think that’s more important than holding up an award and saying ‘hey, look at what someone else saw me do’ because people aren’t going to be watching or rewarding you for your career. It’s going to be the reward of making contact with your patient and improving their lives even in the short term.

“In personal statements, what people notice is your story, your heart and your ability to show that you made connections with people.”

What is a BS/MD Program?

College application season is no doubt one of the most arduous parts of any high school student’s career. It requires a large amount of time and dedication to be spent on essays, interviews, financial aid applications, and so, so much more. And the worst part? Doing everything you possibly can and still somehow feeling like you haven’t done enough. So why would anyone voluntarily decide to go through such a grueling process all over again? Well unfortunately, for any undergraduate student who’s decided to pursue a career in medicine, there isn’t much of a choice. When it comes to high school seniors interested in medicine, however, there is! And that’s exactly where BS/MD programs come into question.

So what exactly is a BS/MD program? It’s a dual-degree program that has been constructed by undergraduate universities in partnership with some local medical schools to provide high school seniors with conditional acceptance into medical school. The two degrees, Bachelor of Science (BS) and Doctor of Medicine (MD), are offered to students who successfully graduate through both the undergraduate school as well as the medical school. Typically, these programs last anywhere from 6-8 years (in contrast to the traditional 4 years of undergraduate + 4 years of medical school), and they’re specifically targeted towards students who’ve shown a great deal of interest in medicine throughout their entire high school career. These programs are known to be some of the most competitive programs in the country (some of their acceptance rates make Stanford and Harvard’s 5% acceptance rate sound like a joke), and there are a great number of things to know in order to be a competitive applicant. Getting in depth on any point would take an entire post, so below, I’ve outlined the most important points to note when trying to better understand a BS/MD program.

Start Early!

First, and perhaps the most important piece of advice, is to start early. Given that some of the most difficult BS/MD programs have an acceptance rate of near 2%, these universities are looking for students who have known for quite some time that they are interested in medicine and can really show for it. Most students who are serious about getting into these programs don’t just wake up one morning of their senior year and make a spur of the moment decision to apply. On the contrary, many know before they even step foot into high school. Many might ask, “How can you know what you want to do for the rest of your life in just 9th grade?” and they pose a valid point. But even if you don’t know exactly what you want to pursue career-wise at that age, most students will know whether or not they have an interest in science and if they are even open to the possibility of becoming a doctor. It’s okay to not know for sure (that’s what the rest of high school is for!), but it is important to start getting involved with health-related activities so that either (1) you can decide this field isn’t for you after all, or (2) you realize that studying medicine is something you can envision yourself doing and already have the experience to back that statement up. Whether it’s research, volunteering at a hospital, getting EMT certified, or simply shadowing your family physician, it’s never too early to start get involved with the field of medicine.

Get those grades

Secondly, keep your GPA high and study hard for your ACT/SAT/SAT Subject tests. As previously mentioned, some of these programs have single-digit acceptance rates, which means having a strong GPA and high ACT/SAT score is of upmost importance. Some schools (such as Drexel University, Case Western, Penn State/Jefferson) require BS/MD applicants to be in the 10% percent of their graduating class in terms of GPA and to have standardized test scores to be above a certain number. Keep in mind, though, that even if a school doesn’t explicitly state a certain GPA or SAT/ACT score that they’re looking for, they still expect stellar statistics. Take, for example, the BS/MD program at Northwestern University, which had an average application SAT score of 2309 and ACT score of 35 in 2015. By no means will a 2400 SAT score and 4.0 GPA guarantee you acceptance into any BS/MD program, but high academic statistics are an indication of academic maturity and thus will increase the chances of being considered for the program.

Organize yourself

Thirdly, stay organized. If you haven’t already, by the time you get the application season of your senior year, you will quickly realize how easy it can be to get lost in all the submission dates, essay topics, and other requirements being thrown your way. And on top of that, if you’re applying to a multiple of BS/MD programs, you’re going to have even more essays and date requirements. So my greatest piece of advice is to narrow down your list of colleges early (and by early, I mean by the end of the summer before senior year, at latest) and to create an excel sheet noting down all the important pieces of information in separate columns. Though it may be a pain to sit down one day and spend hours researching all the specific submission details for each university you are applying to, it will largely pay off in the long run. Some BS/MD programs require you to submit essays through email, while others require it through the common app. Some have an earlier application date set for BS/MD applicants (sometimes as early as mid-November), while others ask you to submit at the same time as all other students in January. Some may ask for 4 extra essays, while other simply ask you to checkmark a box that indicates your interest in being considered for the program. Each of these little details is unique to each program and can easily get past you. Rather than having to Google it every time you forget one tiny detail, having an easy-access document with all the necessary information is much simpler. Take my word for it; this document will quickly become your holy grail!

Keep calm

Fourthly, don’t take it personally! Of course the hardest part of this entire process isn’t editing your essays long into the night or sitting through hour-long interviews. The hardest part is always rejection. And though there is nothing you can do to change the outcome, you can remember to not take the results personally. Of course it’s easier said than done, but this statement holds true for BS/MD programs even more so than it does with regular college applications. Most of these programs accept only a handful of students (10-15) out of the hundreds or thousands (yes, sometimes even more than a thousand students!) of those that applied. They are looking to maximize their diversity, and as you can imagine, that is quite difficult to do in such a small group of people. So at the end of the day, you might have been the perfect match for that school in every way possible, but somebody else just happened to match their criteria (however ambiguous it may be…) a bit better. Getting through the entire BS/MD process is an accomplishment in itself; it’s something not any and every student can do. It takes a great deal of commitment, maturity, and strong work ethic to get through this process successfully. Those are the very same qualities that differentiate a successful pre-med from an unsuccessful pre-med, so hey, you’re already ahead of the game! Look forward to all the great opportunities that have presented themselves throughout this application process and take advantage of them in your upcoming undergraduate career.

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Webinar: Putting Together a Great Application and Personal Statement

Free Webinar: Putting Together a Great Application and Personal Statement

April 10th at 9 pm EST

Join the experts at MedSchoolCoach for a free webinar focused on putting together a great application and writing an outstanding personal statement. MedSchoolCoach advisors will take you through the elements of a medical school application, how it is evaluated by admissions committees, and how you can stand out!

  • Understand the logistics of the AMCAS/AACOMAS and TMDSAS applications
  • Understand how an application is viewed by the admissions committee
  • Learn what makes a great personal statement (and what makes a bad one)
  • Get insights on how to choose which schools to apply to during the application process
  • Learn from actual physicians who have served on admissions committees!

Register Today for the Free Webinar

USMLE Step 2 CK: How to Ace the Test. Advice from an Expert

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how to ace the USMLE Step 2 CK examWe sat down with Dr. Amy Chen, a MedSchoolCoach tutor and expert on the USMLE Step 1 and 2 exams. We asked her for some advice for students who are currently preparing for the USMLE Step 2, specifically how students could ace the exam! Included below are also very helpful USMLE Step 2 CK references for our students.

How should someone best prepare for the USMLE Step 2 CK exam? Are there any resources that you suggest? Is there any schedule that one should follow?

In terms of resources, I don’t think it’s necessary to have too many resources. There’s a lot out there. You could potentially study from 5-7 different resources. I’d suggest keeping your number of resources down to 3-4 just because it can focus your concentration.  I’d say UWorld is definitely the #1 Resource. That is 100% necessary and definitely key to really learning a lot of information. Another resource I really like is Step Up to Medicine. This has a detailed overview of Step 2 CK for internal medicine topics. I think it does a really great job of breaking down the topics and the key information you need to know for each different disease. It also has a lot of nice diagrams and information. It does go into a little bit of detail but I do think it gives you a comprehensive overview of internal medicine. For the other topics like surgery or pediatrics, I think Master the Boards is a good resource to use. I would use Step Up to Medicine for internal medicine topics. Some people find OB-GYN is not covered very well on Master the Boards. If you’re struggling with OB-GYN and you would like a more detailed overview of the subject, I would recommend Case Files’ OB- GYN for that particular topic.

Alright. Is there any specific way you suggest studying from these resources? Would you suggest looking at the topics first and then answering questions? Or is there another way? 

Yes, I think before you start studying, it’s good to get a sense of your own weaknesses and strengths and to kind of start studying from your weaknesses. You can identify those multiple ways. Some people already have a handle just from their classes and their rotations, about what they maybe strong in or what they don’t do so well in. Or you can take an NBME and kind of get a break down of your score. So I would say, start with your weaknesses and start with kind of reading and learning the material. I actually like to do the questions simultaneously with the material. I don’t think you need to finish reading a chapter before you start doing the questions. I think there’s a lot of learning that occurs just from looking at the question and looking at the explanation and really kind of reading and digesting and trying to remember the explanations; then go back and annotate on your textbook the notes from the UWorld questions.

“I think before you start studying, it’s good to get a sense of your own weaknesses and strengths and to kind of start studying from your weaknesses.”

Is that the same way you studied?

Yes. That’s the same way I studied for them. I would focus on Step Up to Medicine because internal medicine is such a big part of the exam. It’s more than 60% of the questions. So I would start there. Make sure you brush up on all your internal medicine topics. Feel comfortable with that and then you can go on and branch out to other topics like pediatrics, psychiatry and surgery and so on.

Great! Then, are there any other mock tests you suggest taking?

Yes definitely. There are 4 NBMEs available. You can buy them – I think they’re like $50 each to buy them online. That way, you can take them in a timed environment and it gives you a score at the end. Otherwise, if you don’t want to buy them, try googling to see unofficial NBMEs. You can get the questions and the answers but the disadvantage is you don’t really get a score at the end. It doesn’t score automatically. You have to score it yourself. But NBMEs are a must. They’re great at assessing your progress. There’s also the 131 Step 2 Questions booklet. It’s a PDF that can be found online. It’s an official resource put out by the USMLE with 131 sample CK questions. Those are also good to go through for practice and they give you the answers as well.

Is there anything one should keep in mind while scheduling the test? 

I don’t think there is anything in particular you have to keep in mind. I think it depends on when you’re applying for residency. Many residency programs will want to see that CK score back by the time you rank in February; by the time you submit your rank lists. Keep in mind though that it can take a month or two for those results to come back. You want to take it with enough time that your results are back by the time your rank list is due in the year you’re applying to residency. Other than that, there isn’t too much scheduling consideration you need to do. It depends on the individual person and when they’re freest in their schedule. I want to say you want to give yourself at least a month to study, but ideally more than that. But it depends on what your goal score is and how well you did on Step 1. But ideally, you’d have some time where you wouldn’t be studying as well with an intense rotation.  Also, if you’re an international medical student or foreign medical student, you do need to have your Step 2 score by the time you apply; so by the time you submit your application. For that you would need your score back by September 15, instead of February.

That’s good information. Would you suggest any schedule that students should follow? 

I think it really is student-dependent. I think it really depends on how they are already doing and how far they are away from their goal score in terms of studying. But as I said, you need at least a month to prepare for it and ideally more time.

That makes sense. What’s the best advice you got for the USMLE Step 2 CK? After taking it, what do you think you could have done better? And what would your suggestions be based off of that?

I have a couple of ideas of what’s helpful to keep in mind while studying for Step 2. One of the things that’s really challenging for many people is time management. You only have a certain amount of time to answer each block of questions and it’s very easy to get bogged down and then run out of time by the end of each block. The way I encourage people to approach their questions is, when you’re reading the question, you should be actively thinking of differential diagnoses. By the time you reach the end of the question stem, you should already have a most likely diagnosis in your mind before you even look at the answer choices. I don’t think it’s advantageous to look at the answer choices first or read the question and look at the answers and think about the diagnosis. I think you end up using a lot of time in trying to go back and reread the question and so on. Be able to train yourself to have a clear diagnosis by the end of every question because that helps a lot with time management. Also, be very familiar with the lab values. You can lose a lot of time if you always have to go and check if this value is a normal value, if it’s high, or if it’s low. If you can do a good job of learning the normal lab values, that will also save a lot of time. You should know what does it mean when someone has hypernatremia, what are the specific diseases that could cause that? What does it mean when someone has elevated gluten levels? A lot of the times you can get the diagnosis just from the labs. They’re very very helpful. Being sure that you feel comfortable with EKGs and chest X-rays – those are often overlooked but Step 2 will test you on whether you know how to read an EKG and can identify abnormalities in X-Rays. Don’t forget about those as well while you’re studying.

Is there any other advice you’d like to give?

Practice is really important. So just practice as much as possible. Practice with the UWorld Question Bank, practice with your NBME exam. Try to find resources out there that encourage active learning so that you can test yourself with some questions. I think that’s really the key. Get used to the format of the test and used to how the questions are asked; get used to time management and just get used to answering this many questions in 8 hours essentially.