Welcome back! In part 1 of our discussion on important factors to consider when choosing where you should apply to medical school, we reviewed some of the most commonly considered ones; location, career aspirations, and cost. Today, we’re going to review two additional factors, curriculum and fit. Curriculum and fit are two aspects of a medical school that most students do begin to consider or perhaps even fully understand before starting the interview process, but they can be just as important as the previous three we discussed.
Curriculum:Medical school basic science curricula, across the board, are a lot more rigid and standardized than undergraduate programs because there are certain concepts that are foundational to the clinical years that students need to learn in their first and second years. Nevertheless, there is some variation amongst schools, with most curricula categorized as traditional or integrated.
In the traditional curriculum, students take one or more classes at a time and what is taught in one class may not be related at all to what’s discussed in another. The first year of medical school is typically focused on the functioning of the healthy body, with the second year devoted to disease (including classes like pathology, pharmacology, etc.).
The integrated curriculum, in contrast, is generally organized by organ system and spans the first two years of school. Professors work together to make sure that what students learn in one class relates to their other classes. For example in a cardiovascular system block, students may study the heart in anatomy and histology, learn about normal and abnormal cardiovascular function, memorize the medicines that are prescribed for heart disease, and practice clinical skills related to assessing heart function with standardized patients.
While some students are fine with either curriculum, if you have a strong preference, consider applying to more schools of that sort.
Additionally, some medical schools vary in terms of their exam schedule, special tracks/certificates offered, length of the class day, and the length of the basic science curriculum. It’s important to apply to schools that will provide the opportunities, schedule, and structure that you desire in your medical education.
Fit is something that can be very challenging to figure out before visiting a medical school on interview day, but by investigating the following questions, you can start to get an idea about whether the school will be right for you, and if it isn’t, then you may not want to apply there.
What is the student lifestyle? Some schools are more party-oriented than others. Other schools are very competitive and stressful. Consider whether you will prefer a collegiate, social atmosphere or a competitive, high stress environment in medical school.
Does your personality get along with that of current students, can you see yourself making friends and fitting in at this medical school?
Are intramurals/campus student-life important to you? If so, does the student body engage in such things?
Do you feel that the administration is friendly and supportive? The Deans and staff in student-focused offices (such as the Offices of Student Affairs and Medical Education), will be like your parents in medical school. Can you see yourself going to them for help if you are having a personal or professional crisis?
How is life in the town/city the medical school is located in? There are tremendous cultural differences across the country, and even within a single state, so consider if you’re applying to schools in places that you feel comfortable and accepted. The last thing you want to do is get used to a startlingly different environment while adjusting to medical school.
Finally: What would it take for you to go to this school? Would you be happy to go if it was your only option? If the answer to the second question is ‘No’ then it’s probably not a school you want to apply to!
A great way to figure out if a school is a good fit for you is to spend the night with a student host during your interview visit. They will be the most honest and candid sources of information about the medical school, the student body, the surrounding town/city, and more, so act friendly and polite and ask questions! Keep these questions in mind as you go on interviews, and they will help you narrow your list of preferred schools when acceptances start coming in.
Let us know what other factors you’re considering as you decide which medical schools to apply to!
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.
By Carleen Eaton, M.D.
You thrive on deadlines. Fueled by coffee, with just hours remaining until your 20 page paper on “Medieval Jousts as a Foreshadowing Device in Early 17th Century French Literature” is due, you are intensely focused, pounding away full speed at the keyboard. While you can pull this off with a paper in school, this last minute approach is definitely not recommended for med school applications. The reason: rolling admissions.
With rolling admissions, the schools do not wait until all of the applications are in to review them; they review them as they come in. Following committee review, competitive applicants are offered interviews. Acceptances are offered as early as October 15. As slots fill up in the class, the process becomes increasingly competitive for the remaining applicants. By spring, some schools are interviewing for the wait list only. Therefore, applying late in the cycle can have a detrimental effect on your chances of admission.
So how early is early enough? AAMCAS begins accepting applications on, or very close to, June 1. Ideally, you will have your primary application submitted by July 1. Once it gets to late August, or especially September, some schools are already interviewing.
Now that you know when to apply, the question is how do you get your application submitted early? With some organization and discipline, you can get this done while still maintaining your grades and an outside life. Just watch out for these pitfalls:
1. Waiting too long to ask for letters of recommendation - LOR are the part of the process over which you have the least amount of control. You can volunteer in five hospitals, study non-stop for the MCAT and achieve a GPA worthy of summa cum laude, all through your own initiative and effort, but you can’t make a very busy professor write a LOR at the last minute. To avoid being stuck waiting for a needed letter, request your letters at least four weeks in advance.
2. Not reviewing copies of your transcripts - Request a copy of your transcript from your each college you have attended and read every word of them. I have encountered situations where applicants found errors on their transcripts that needed to be corrected before they could submit them. This can cause a delay of weeks or longer, depending on the error and the school.
3. Giving yourself too little time to write the personal statement - Writing about oneself is hard. It is even harder when you only have 5300 characters in which to do so, while also trying to explain exactly why you want to be a doctor. Plan to spend a month on this. That way, you can work on it, and then set it aside for a few days between drafts in order to generate ideas.
4. Not realizing that it takes many hours to fill out the application - The fact that the instruction book for the AMCAS application is over 100 pages says it all.
So, while getting into the flow state with your espresso and your laptop might work to crank out that history paper, don’t try it with the application. Start early, finish early and leave the adrenaline rush of hitting “submit” one minute before the deadline to someone else.
By Carleen Eaton, M.D.
After months of chasing down transcripts, filling out applications and checking to make sure that your letters of recommendation were finally sent, you are ready to hear something – anything, back from the schools. News could arrive as early as the coming weeks since some schools begin notifying applicants about invitations to interview in early to mid-August. If you submitted your primary and secondary applications early in the cycle, you could be hearing some news within the next month. If you don’t, don’t panic; it is still just the start of the season and schools can take months to review applications, with the pace of interviews picking up in the fall and on into winter. The good news can come in the form of an e-mail or regular mail and will either state a specific date for the interview, offer you a choice of dates or instruct you to contact the school to schedule your interview.
This part of the application process is actually pretty enjoyable. You will have the chance to visit the school, possibly see a new city and to imagine what it would be like to attend the school as a med student in the fall of 2011. Even before you have that first interview in hand, there are steps you can take to prepare for when it does arrive. In a lull between waves of secondary applications, take some time to do the following:
- Familiarize yourself with each school and be ready to explain to an interviewer why you are interested in the school.
-Review your application and formulate a response to address any weaknesses on the application you may be asked about.
-Be ready to discuss any part of the application, no matter how minor. An interviewer may just gloss past the senior thesis you recently completed and focus on the pottery class you took four years ago.
-Practice your interviewing skills with a mentor, advisor or friend. By doing a practice interview early on, you have time to address any weaknesses in your presentation or verbal tics like saying “um” during every silence. Then, closer to interview day, you can put the final polish on your responses.
Once you see the long awaited words “Congratulations, you are invited to interview at ___ School of Medicine” you should go out, have fun and enjoy the moment. When you are done celebrating, then it is time to do some shopping. After all, the interview is the one step of the application process that can’t be completed on your computer in your most comfortable jeans and a t-shirt.
By Carleen Eaton, M.D.
With June underway, most applicants are deep into working on the primary application. While some applicants have submitted their applications already, many are still busy perfecting their personal statements, entering each course meticulously from their transcripts and finalizing their list of schools, all with the aim of submitting as early in the cycle as possible. You may not have even thought beyond that wonderful day when the application is safely in the hands of AMCAS. However, although a break is certainly in order after weeks or months of work on the primary application, don’t drift too far from the whole process, since you are soon to enter the next phase: secondaries.
AMCAS is already accepting applications for the 2010-2011 cycle and has given June 25 as the date when they will begin transmitting applicant data to the medical schools. That means that the secondaries will start arriving soon after that date for those applicants who have completed their primary applications. Secondaries may arrive from some schools within days, while others may take months to respond. If you applied to a large number of schools, prioritizing the secondaries and keeping track of the deadlines will be crucial. Some schools give a specific date by which the secondary must be completed, while others state that the secondary must be submitted within two weeks of receipt by the applicant. Prioritize the secondaries from those schools that you are most interested in attending. As always, being early in the process can work to your advantage, so turn in the secondaries from your higher priority schools first if you are in a situation where you need to triage the applications.
A typical secondary entails paying an application fee directly to the school and responding to several short answer questions. However, the range of secondaries encompasses everything from no questions at all to answer, to writing several essays of substantial length. Fortunately, many of the questions on the various secondaries are similar, so after completing a few, you will have a bank of ideas to draw from so that you do not have to begin the writing process fresh each time.
Typical secondary application questions include:
Why did you apply to this medical school?
Where do you envision yourself in ten years?
What are your greatest strengths and weakness?
Explain any deficiencies in your academic record.
How will you contribute to the diversity of the class?
What was your most meaningful clinical experience?
In the coming weeks, I’ll focus on a some of the more commonly asked questions and give you some thoughts about how to approach them and how to generate ideas in order to create substantive answers for each. For now, proofread that AMCAS application one more time and get ready for the huge relief you will feel when you finally submit it.
By Carleen Eaton, M.D.
The interview day tour is exciting. Walking the halls of the medical school, you really start envisioning yourself as a med student, short white coat swishing behind you (okay, so the short coats don’t “swish” the way the long ones the doctors wear do, but it’s a start.) The med student tour guide points out the anatomy lab, the library, and of course, the hospital cafeteria, encouraging the group to ask questions all the while. You figure you should ask a question and are about to go for it – when another applicant pipes up and “takes” the single good question you had ready to go.
The problem is, you spent all of your time preparing to answer questions and didn’t think about what to ask. After all, you just want to get in somewhere and aren’t too worried about the details as long as you get an acceptance letter.
However, there is something you might have overlooked:
You may get multiple acceptances.
This thought may seem truly amazing right now, since one acceptance seems nearly impossible. The admissions process breeds insecurity: thousands of applicants, much waiting and many rumors. However, if you are a strong applicant and applied to a wide range of schools, you could have some have some serious decisions to make and you are going to need the information you have gathered on interview day in order to make the best choice. Unless you fly around the country for a second look at the programs, interview day may be the only time you visit the schools. This means that you need to think seriously about what it would be like to spend four years at a school. Which one is going to the best place for you professionally and personally?
To figure this out, here are a few questions to ask yourself, the med students, your interviewer or the admissions office:
Do the medical students seem happy?
Is there a sense of camaraderie, or one of competition, among students?
Are med students assigned an advisor or mentor?
Is there a convenient, safe area nearby where students live?
Are the clinical sites busy enough that students can get plenty of hands-on experience?
How are students evaluated during the clinical years?
What kinds of support services are available to students?
Does the school emphasize primary care? Research? Particular specialties?
What settings are available for clinical rotations? Private hospitals, county hospitals, VA facilities?
And anything else that would impact your decision about where to go.
Besides giving you valuable information that will need in the near future, having these questions in mind will give you something else to think about besides “Will I get accepted?” as you stroll through the halls of the school. And one last thing - checking out the med schools can be pretty fun ( yes, I know “fun” and “applying to med school” don’t sound like they go together) so try enjoy yourself at least a bit!
By Carleen Eaton, M.D.
"We spent forty-five minutes talking about fly-fishing!" Sound like a med school interview? When I hear from applicants that the interview digressed into a discussion of basketball, ballet or bird-watching, the next thing they usually say is: "I didn't get to tell the interviewer about ___" (fill in the blank: my idea for a cure for AIDS, my poster presentation on gastroenteritis in chinchillas...you get the idea). Knowing your stuff is absolutely necessary, but don't be surprised if the topics don't stick to "typical" interview fare. If the interview is going in a different direction, well then, just go along and enjoy the ride. After all, you'll be more excited talking about fly-fishing than reciting your clinical experiences for the tenth time, and the interviewer will still get the information they need. Here's a rundown on how to be ready for any interview:
Buy a nice suit – and wear it to the interview – After telling me of their plans to wear khakis with a polo shirt or a casual skirt with a cute top, applicants explain that suits are too stiff and boring, it's not their style, etc. My simple fashion advice: "Wear a suit!" A suit looks polished and professional and helps the interviewer to see you as a future physician.
Know your Medical School Application – You've spent the last four years taking chemistry, physics and bio, so what does the interviewer ask you about? The "C" you got in the "Intro to Synchronized Swimming Course" that you took your freshman year and hoped to forget. You could be asked about anything on your application. Be ready.
Keep on top of current events affecting healthcare – Proposed reforms to healthcare, the swine flu, the aging of the population; you should know at least the basics about topics such as these. Read news sources on the Internet or newspaper or watch the news, and dig a bit deeper, just in case.
Know the school – Be prepared to explain why you want to attend this school. Research the school and talk to current medical students or alumni if you have the opportunity. Does the school have problem based learning or a traditional lecture format? Do they emphasize primary care or specializing? Is it a major research center? The answers to these questions can help you convey your interest in a particular program.
So you've done all this and you're ready to go. You show up looking sharp in your new suit, smile confidently and are ready to discuss the nuances of healthcare reform. You shake the interviewer's hand, take a deep breath ....and get asked about the bird-watching hobby you had listed on your "Work/Activities" section. Great! Use your response to show that you are poised, personable and would have a fantastic bedside manner. Be prepared, but be ready to change course and succeed in any situation.
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