Applying to Med School
June 6, 2011

Choosing the Medical School that’s Right for You

by Sam Asgarian, Kaplan Elite MCAT Instructor

When it comes to the medical school application process, there are generally two types of techniques: the “machine gunner,” and the “sniper”. The former is an applicant who just starts applying to as many schools as possible, hoping to get at least one “hit”; the latter is a student who selects the right schools based on fit and targets them specifically. Although both techniques have their own merits, the sniper is usually more successful - and most often happier - than the machine gunner, because they find the programs that mesh with their personality and goals without a lot of wasted effort.

If you ask your premed friends where they want to go to med school, a common response is “Wherever I can get in!” Between the undergraduate degree, clinical and research obligations, and the MCAT, it’s an unfortunate truth that many premeds don’t spend enough time on the school selection process. This typically sends them down the machine gunner path or, at best, turns them into an ill-informed sniper. There are several ways to avoid this and still not become overwhelmed, however; one key resource is the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR) guidebook. Re-published every year, this book incorporates information directly from the admissions committees of every allopathic medical school in the U.S. and Canada and is often referred to as “the Bible of premed admissions.”

So let’s say that you have a copy of the MSAR. What specifically are you going to look for when choosing the schools you should apply to? Not surprisingly, a great place to start is the “How to choose the right school for you” section; you can then take a closer look at profiles on each school, which include average MCAT scores of accepted students, number of students interviewed, percentage of applicants receiving offers, information on the medical school’s setting and curriculum, and much more. This information will give you an initial idea of whether or not the school is a good fit for you.

Next, you will want to do some old-fashioned networking. Do you know anyone, past or present, who has attended the schools you’re interested in? This can cover many areas: current med students, medical school graduates, current undergrads, friends or family who have interviewed there, and even people who simply live in the area. While it’s great idea to get an insider’s view of the school, you’ll also want some basic information like “what are the winters like?” and “do you have to have a car?” to further narrow down your list. All of this research will give you the information necessary to apply without looking like a machine gunner, which is important; the more specific you can be in an application and interview, the better your chances will be of gaining acceptance.

Next, you need to consider your strengths and weaknesses regarding each school you’ll be applying to. Did you know that some schools won’t even consider out-of-state applicants? You wouldn’t believe the number of students who waste time and money applying to schools that they are not even eligible to attend! Now, let’s say you do your homework and only apply to schools you’re eligible for; you also have to think about your chances of getting in. Do you have any ties to the area like family, friends, or being a former resident? If you do, make sure you make this clear somewhere in your application. Some schools also look for students with backgrounds different from that of a typical premed, so you will want to make sure you mention musical talents, writing skills, and other things that make you unique.

Finally, it is extremely important to remember that medical school is a four-year endeavor. You may not realize it now, but that is a significantly long time. You do not want to be locked-in to living in a city and attending a school that doesn’t suit your personality; if you are not a “cold-weather” person, you will be miserable living in a place where it snows for half the year, while if you need to be in or close to a big city, you will have a hard time going somewhere isolated. The more you think about these things ahead of time, the less you’ll have to worry about mistakes that could come back to haunt you in the future. You spend thousands of hours studying to get your undergraduate degree, and several hundred more hours dedicated to MCAT prep, it would be a shame not to take the time necessary to make sure you are applying to medical schools that are right for you. With the right resources, you will find that it is not too daunting a task, and you’ll snipe your way right into the best school for you.

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Tests & Scores
November 5, 2010

The Medical School Application Process: Why it’s not too soon to start!

You are going to be a doctor.  You’ve studied hard, aced the MCAT, shadowed lots of docs, and now just need to finish the last formality – the application process! Maybe calling it a formality isn’t entirely accurate . . . but if you start working on the application early, the process is much smoother and easier! So what comes first? The American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) opens for submission in June and we want to be all ready to complete it as soon as it opens. To complete the AMCAS application (which is a standard application that most US allopathic medical schools use, often called the “primary” application), we need transcripts, letters of recommendation and a personal statement as well as our MCAT score. Of those pieces, we won’t send the transcripts to AMCAS until June. But the other pieces - the personal statement, the MCAT score, and the letters of recommendation - are things we can work on right now. For personal statements, the earlier you start the more polished it will be – and believe me, it shows. A good place to start is to brainstorm about why you want to go into medicine. This may sound like a simple question, but it’s tougher than it sounds! Many students start their statements with a hook – a story about a patient that drew them to medicine or a personal experience that lets the reader get to know them. Generate a draft and then ask others to look at it and give you feedback. Good choices for readers include strong writers, professors (preferably those who you are asking to write letters of recommendation) and even doctors that you’ve worked with or shadowed. It usually takes several months and countless drafts to create an effective personal statement, so get started now! Another good place to focus is on the MCAT score – we have lots of time between now and June to study and indeed, you want your scores before June – plan to have your scores back by April or early May so that if you choose to retake the exam, you can do so before the applications open. Start studying early, and you can take your time and avoid the stress that so many pre-meds face on this important exam. Now letters of recommendation are an area that is usually particularly stressful for students. Remember that professors and instructors are often flattered that you ask and are eager to help – that is, after all, why they teach! If you know a professor well, they are a good person to ask for a letter; but if you don’t, it’s not too late. Start going to office hours and make a point to ask questions about things that interest you. If you do this once or twice a week, you will get to know the professor, guaranteed. And don’t worry - it won’t feel or look artificial because you’ll be asking about subjects that interest you. If we start on these things now, come the end of May, we will have our all letter writers lined up, a solid draft of our personal statement and a superior MCAT score in hand. We can complete the application as soon as it opens and get ours turned in before everyone else does. The earlier we do this, the earlier we can get our secondary applications in and get scheduled for the all important interviews. The key is start working on it early! Check back regularly for additional information and admissions tips. You can also attend one of our free Kaplan seminars to learn more about medical school admissions. ...read more
Applying to Med School
July 7, 2010

Medical School Secondary Applications – “Describe an obstacle you have overcome.”

By Carleen Eaton, M.D. One common category of secondary application questions are those that ask the applicant to describe an obstacle or hardship he or she has overcome. Some applicants have a background that includes an obvious obstacle: immigrating to the U.S. and learning a new language and culture, growing up in a socioeconomically disadvantaged area, being the first in the family to attend college or having to help out financially at home. However, many applicants can’t easily come up with a topic for this type of secondary questions. Such applicants tell me that, while their lives aren’t perfect, things have gone pretty smoothly for them and without financial disasters, death or serious illness in their past what are they to write about? To formulate a response to this question, you first need to consider what the committee is trying to learn from your response. While they certainly want to know if you have had any serious disadvantage in life, they also want to know how you react to setbacks. Questions of this sort usually ask how you overcame the obstacle. While the obstacle itself constitutes part of the response, equally important was how you reacted to the situation. This is a chance for you to demonstrate the characteristics you possess that will make you a success in medicine. When in a tough spot, do you consider your options, seek help from those around you and confront the situation? Or do you wait out the problem or look for a way around it?  Even a seemingly minor obstacle can be used to illustrate how you handle problems. After all, a physician confronts challenges every day – making difficult diagnoses, performing complex surgeries on minimal sleep or having to break bad news to a patient. The way you address difficulties in your own life will provide insight into the kind of physician you will become. Now that you know the logic behind these questions, you need a topic. If nothing in your background and upbringing immediately comes to mind to use as subject matter, then start thinking about specific events, even brief ones, that presented a challenge for you. Examples include dedication to a sport and then an injury that ends your participation temporarily or permanently, difficulty adjusting to college life and managing your own time, a financial setback in the family necessitating you juggle work and school or an illness or injury that disrupted school and made for a tough semester. Again, these don’t need to be earth shattering events but rather ones that give you an opportunity to describe your personal qualities and characteristics. Once you’ve chosen a topic, describe the situation so that the reader has enough context to understand the scenario. Next, discuss the steps you took to deal with the problem. What did you do first? Gather information? Take some time to contemplate what had happened? Then what? How was the situation eventually resolved? In the course of discussing the situation and your reaction to it, you will give the committee some insight into who you are and how you face adversity.  A great response will show the committee that you are just the type of person who will make an excellent med student and physician. ...read more
Applying to Med School
April 27, 2010

Nontraditional Applicants

By Carleen Eaton, M.D. While the typical premedical path is to go directly from college to med school, it is increasingly common for aspiring physicians to take a year or two off to work or travel before starting medical school. These applicants are still close to their undergraduate years and can approach the application process in much the same way that a straight-to-med-school applicant would. However, for those who wait more than a few years after college to apply, the admissions process can take some extra preparation. Three areas in particular can present pitfalls: premedical coursework, letters of recommendation and gaining clinical experience. Many non-traditional applicants are career changers, with backgrounds in fields as diverse as finance, teaching or law. To make the switch to medicine, a return to school is usually necessary in order to acquire the science prerequisites for medical school. This can be accomplished either through taking classes individually or as part of a post-bac program aimed at career changers (see my Dec. 7 blog for more information on post-bac programs). However, even if you completed the premedical coursework in college, you may still need to take at least a few classes before you apply since some schools only accept prerequisite coursework taken less than five years prior. Recent coursework can also be a source for a faculty letter of recommendation, which is especially helpful since faculty letters may be harder to come by if you graduated some time ago.  However, keep in mind that letters from post-bac classes may not completely replace letters from your undergraduate school as some medical schools require at least one letter from your undergraduate institution.  If you need to ask for a letter from an individual with whom you have not interacted in awhile, then bring them up to date on your accomplishments by providing a resume, a draft of your personal statement and by setting up an appointment to discuss your application in person or via phone. In addition to the required faculty letters, as part of your application package, include a letter or two from your job or volunteer work in recent years. No matter what field you came from, having a supervisor attest to your work ethic, integrity and professionalism will benefit your application. Some schools even allow for a letter from work to substitute for one of academic letters for applicants who have been out of school for several years. If medicine represents a total career switch for you, then convincing the committee that you have thought carefully about the change and the sacrifice it will entail is imperative. Therefore, gain plenty of experience in clinical settings through volunteer work, physician shadowing or a part time job in a hospital or clinic. If you were a premedical student as an undergraduate and have clinical experiences from that time, you still need to update your experiences. Your application will be more convincing if you have recent clinical activities to discuss, rather than relying on what you did “back when.” Now for the good news: by taking the less traveled route, you have set yourself apart from much of the applicant pool. A master’s in art history, a position as a computer programmer or fluency in another language gained during a year abroad are experiences that those who took the fast track to med school likely do not have. Finally, you spent a few years doing something you (hopefully) enjoyed. That in itself is well worth it and will leave you ready to delve back into academia for another four years.
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