Category Archive: Application Process

Finding Your Passion and the Push for Primary Care

There is an obvious primary care health care shortage looming in this country. By 2025 it is estimated that the US will be short nearly 52,000 primary care physicians.1 With such a shortfall looming, everyone involved in the health care system, including medical schools, are trying to innovate change to fix it.

One of the newest medical schools in the country, Quinnipiac University’s Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine, is one of those medical schools trying to innovate change. They are actively seeking students who are interested in primary care, and are pushing a primary care track onto their students. Their goal is to have 50% of the graduating class match into primary care. The current national average is 33%.

While many students applying to medical school have an idea of what specialties they are interested in pursuing after medical school, the fact is, the majority will likely change their mind during medical school.2 Quinnipiac, according to an NPR article, has the right idea, picking applicants from the beginning that are statistically more likely to go into primary care.

I question whether or not this sort of selection process will hinder both the experience at medical school, and the career happiness after medical school of Quinnipiac’s students. Every student, at every medical school, should be given the opportunity to do what they are passionate about. Passion is an integral part of medical education, and in life.

Applicants to medical school are no doubt passionate. But what are they passionate about? They are certainly passionate about become physicians, but the specific type of physician they want to become is a passion that is cultivated during the 4 years of their medical education. Trial and error, through every rotation, and every bodily fluid builds a students passion for what they want to do with the rest of their life.

I think Quinnipiac, and other schools that have a primary focus of training, are at risk of restricting the process of finding and developing a passion for a specific specialty. If that passion is not developed for primary care, or if the student feels pressure to choose primary care over something they are more passionate about, it’s not a simple fix. It is not easy to go back and complete a different residency, once you have chosen a specialty.

While the short term goal of increasing primary care physicians may seem to be achieved with these initiatives, the long term consequences may only hinder the progress of primary care, and more importantly patient care. I understand that the primary care shortage is of the utmost importance for our healthcare system, however, this may not be the best way.

Physicians who are not passionate will not be lifelong learners. Why stay up to date on the newest medications, newest disease management strategies and newest research if you are not passionate about what you are doing?

Physicians who lack passion about what they are doing do not have careers – they have jobs. They might as well be flipping burgers at the local golden arched restaurant for a paycheck. We are already in a current state of extreme physician dissatisfaction, with almost half of physicians stating they WOULD NOT choose medicine again as a career.3

As you, the applicant, are choosing what school you want to attend, it is very important to think about these things. Don’t just look at the MCAT score and GPA. Don’t look at the “best of” lists.

If you are truly passionate about primary care, whether it is pediatrics, family practice or internal medicine, a school like Quinnipiac might be perfect for you. But, if you just know you want to be a physician, and aren’t 100% sure about the type of physician you want to be, then you need to do your research.

Researching the schools you want to apply to is something that you should be doing anyway. Location, climate and curriculum are all important to know. Your chance at doing a sub-specialty away rotation is importation as well.

At a school like Quinnipiac, you have to be honest with them, and yourself during the interview process. You need to disclose that, while you may be interested in primary care right now, you would like to explore some of the more than 2 dozen other specialties.

Schools with a primary care objective may be the solution to the current and future health care crisis, but as a student applying, make sure you know what questions to ask of the school, and of yourself to ensure that you will be the best physician for your patients, and the most passionate person you can be.


Dr. Ryan Gray is currently a practicing physician in the United States Air Force. Ryan graduated from the University of Florida (GO GATORS!) with a B.S. in Exercise and Sports Sciences, and received his M.D. from New York Medical College. After graduating medical school Ryan completed his internship through a Tufts Medical Center transitional medicine program at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital. He is the founder of Medical School HQ where he blogs regularly.


1. Primary Care Access Report – http://www.sanders.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/PrimaryCareAccessReport.pdf; Retrieved 6 Apr 2013
2. Kazerooni, EA; Blane, CE; Schlesinger, AE; Vydarney, KH. Medical students’ attitudes toward radiology; comparison of matriculating and graduating student. Academic Radiology. 8/1/1997. 4(8). 601–607.
3. Medscape Physician Compensation Report: 2012 Results – http://www.medscape.com/features/slideshow/compensation/2012/public; Retrieved 4 Apr 2013

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Q&A with M Prep: Personal Statements

We recently received this email from a student regarding writing her personal statement:

I have been working on my personal statement and I started out with the free flow writing. It worked out well at getting ideas but I feel my paper sounds egotistical, too ‘health’ related, doesn’t transition well, and kinda feels all over the place… I was first going to attempt to have a great opening and break up the essay on the characteristics I possess that I would demand from a physician. I have a story how I developed them and attempted to perfect them. All of my stories are original to me, but I don’t know if this is what every medical student feels/ experiences and I don’t want to be unoriginal to the reader.

This issue is something a lot of students definitely face during the process of writing personal statements and is probably an inevitable consequence of Steps 1 and 2 from our ‘Pwning the Personal Statement Part II’. What are you supposed to do now that you’ve collected what appear to be several incongruous stories?

Believe it or not, you’re on the right track. The next step is really going to come down to making good choices about the story you want to tell and how your examples tell that story coherently. This happens during the editing process and it doesn’t happen alone. We’re going to deal with the editing process in Part III of the Pwning the Personal Statement series (coming soon!), but for now, here are a few things you can quickly do to figure out whether you’re on the right track.

  1. In 2-3 sentences, briefly tell the best story you can about yourself and why you’ll make a great doctor. Be as flattering to yourself as you want; this isn’t going into your essay. Include all the key reasons that you would want someone else to know if they were to meet you.
  2. Identify any key points that aren’t covered in any of your examples and add them in.
  3. Read over your personal statement and decide which examples tell any of those key points you wrote about in Step 1. Eliminate any redundancies by taking out the weakest one (you will not need two examples showing the same thing in your essay) and eliminate any stories that don’t hit any of your key points. Save this as Draft 2 (you can always bring culled stories back to life later if you want).
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 in their entirety (what you wrote in Step 1 may change after you’ve rewritten your essay a few times). Go through at least 2 full cycles of this process.
  5. Give your essay to someone whose opinion you trust but who doesn’t know you very well personally. Have them read the essay and ask them two questions:
    • Do they think what you wrote in Step 1 makes sense and is sufficient justification for admission to med school.
    • Do they think the essay matches what you wrote in Step 1.

    If you get a yes for both, you’re on the right track. If not, ask for specific feedback and go back to the drawing board.

Got your own questions you want answered? Email us at info@mcatquestionaday.com and we may feature your question and response!

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5 Tips to Acing Premed Requirements

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Are A’s everything in med school admissions? Not really, in fact, you get get away with B’s on your transcript pretty comfortably. Want proof? Based on AAMC admissions data, for students who got a 30 on the MCAT, 54% of those with a GPA of 3.6 were admitted to med school. 72% of those with a 3.8 were admitted to med school. The likelihood is very high that with a 3.6 to 3.7, you’ve got some B’s on your transcript.

Obviously not all B’s are created equal, and in general you want to be performing well in your prerequisites (Organic Chem, Bio, etc.). There’s also no substitute for doing honest, hard work in your classes. In light of that point, what things can you do to optimize your chances of doing well and give you a structural approach to handling your coursework?

  1. Go to lecture!

    Classes like Organic Chemistry are tough to learn from a textbook. Although textbook and online resources such as videos are great supplements, different schools may handle problems in different ways, and you want to be on the same page with your professor. Most premed requirements at larger schools have multiple lecturers for a the course. Since the exams for these classes are usually identical for all sections, if you don’t like your lecturer, just go to a different one! You still need to take your exams with your section, but if you don’t like your lecturer you aren’t necessarily stuck.

  2. Show up for office hours.

    There are a bunch of reasons to do this.

    • You get your questions answered and help with the content.
    • The TA’s and/or professor may be able to “use personal discretion” and move your grades around if you are on the cusp of the next letter grade and they feel like you’ve been genuinely working hard for your grade.
    • The TA’s and/or professor may be helpful down the road for recommendation letters.
  3. Do the work!

    Seriously, just do it. A lot of the content covered in your premed requirements is going to show up on the MCAT too, so you get a double bonus for learning it well. Try the Pomodoro Technique for balancing work/relaxation time. Learn more about the technique here, and get a timer for it here.

  4. Look up what the med school requirements are from your premed department.

    Don’t get fooled into thinking upper level courses are requirements – they may not be! Your pre-health advisor/department can usually help and may have a list of courses. Use your advisors as a resource!

  5. Check the averages for different courses.

    Note: not all schools allow public access to grades, but it’s worth a check to see if yours does. If not, you can also get by using something like RateMyProfessor.com or other service to gauge different classes. Not all courses are created equal! While in theory you should be taking classes that interest you and not just those that have high averages, be realistic about the weighting adcoms will give your interests. At the end of the day it’s important to do well, and monitoring course averages to avoid bombing classes can do wonders for your GPA and your psyche. Different sections may have different averages with different profs as well! While this is sometimes due to random chance of the section cohort, it’s clear that some profs just don’t do their teaching job as well as others.

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Taking Time Off After Undergrad

You’re approaching the end of your undergraduate career and deciding whether to take time off after undergrad. Perhaps you applied to schools and didn’t get in (where you want to go), or for some other reason, you’re considering taking time off between undergrad and med school. What should you do in that time? How much time should you take off? You are not alone with these questions. A number of students in med school take time off after undergrad – some worked in industry jobs, others work on a nonprofit or volunteer, some backpack through Europe, others get a graduate degree or a post-bac. But what about you?

Step 1: Identify why you want to take time off

Is it to retake the MCAT? Is it to beef up your application due to a low GPA? Are you just burnt out after undergrad or do you want to indulge in a different experience before heading off to more school? Your motivations for taking time off will come up in med school interviews so make sure you take full advantage of that time.

As you think about your reasons for taking time off, consider what is most important to you and beneficial to you as an individual and applicant. Consider including volunteering, research, work experience, etc… to keep yourself active. An idle year or two will stick out in your application and interviewers will likely ask you more about your time off.  Be confident in what you will gain from your time off and be ready to stand by the activities you choose to pursue.

Step 2: Decide what to do during this time

Now that you’re sure time off is right for you, what should you do? Activities future med students typically undertake include:

  • Career Building
    • Post-bac. These programs are geared for individuals who perhaps did not have the highest GPA/MCAT in undergrad or are coming from non-science fields and have not completed their premedical coursework.  These are excellent programs geared towards giving you the foundations to apply and be accepted to medical school.
    • Graduate degrees. There are several programs that individuals pursue prior to medical school to gain experience and a broader knowledge base. Masters of Public Health and Public Policy are common for those looking to go to medical school.
    • Work experience. Many students choose to get work experience in a variety of industries prior to pursuing medical school. Engineering, business consulting, and scientific research can segue into med school and be a great way to explore other interests.
  • Outreach/Personal Fulfillment Experiences
    • Research or other volunteering. This demonstrates a commitment to science and health which is a key factor in the admissions process. It’s also a great networking opportunity since many individuals working in these fields have connections to doctors, med schools, and other med students.
    • Study, work, or volunteering abroad. This is a great opportunity to broaden your horizons with a totally new experience. It’s often a humbling test of your commitment to medicine and can enhance both your passion for your career and your application.
  • Relaxation (this is ok!)
    • You don’t have to be sick or experience trauma to justify a break. Students who choose to take a break can still be incredibly successful in the admissions process and in med school. The key is to take the time to ensure it’s right for you and that you can justify it. You should also take advantage of that free time to pursue other interests, hobbies, or other experiences above to stay active and keep sharp. Couple relaxation with one of the activities above to make a good case that your break was reenergizing to your health as a student.

Step 3: Stay Organized

While you’re taking time off after undergrad, remember to make a list of your mentors in college and to ask for letters of recommendation.  Don’t put this off until you’re ready to come back and apply; the longer you wait, the less chance they’ll be able to write a great recommendation with specificity.

Caution:  Remember that your MCAT scores expire eventually, so don’t take off so much time that you have to retake the exam!

The most important thing is to not stress out about taking time off. The average age at matriculation for schools is around 25, so you’re not alone.  As long as you plan and spend your time wisely, you will be well-positioned when you’re ready to attend. Use your time to grow as an individual and your experiences will compound to make you a better applicant, and eventually a more compassionate and effective physician.

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Q&A with Dr. Vineet Arora

Vineet Arora

Dr. Vineet Arora is an Assistant Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residence and Assistant Dean of Scholarship and Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago.  She blogs at FutureDocs, a blog about medical education thoughts, news, policy, with tips for medical students and residents.  She also directs the NIH-sponsored Training Early Achievers for Careers in Health (TEACH) Research program, which prepares and inspires talented diverse Chicago high school students to enter medical research careers. She joins us for a Q&A session about the transition into medical school.

Q: What do you love most about working with students making the transition into medical school?

A: One of the fun things about working with students making the transition into medical school is to understand how they view the medical things they learn about, whether it be through research, news, or contact with patients.  Looking through the perspective of their eyes is refreshing as their views and hopes about medicine remind us of what medical care and medical training should be.  Because they are considered “zero-gravity” thinkers, who are unencumbered by prior experiences in medical training, they are often able to see the opportunities for improvement really clearly.

 Q: What’s the most frustrating misconception students have about the transition into medical school?

A: One frustrating misconception is that the “journey” is over or that the outcome of becoming a doctor is the ultimate goal.  Medical school is just the beginning of a lifelong learning process.   The journey is quite long, so graduating from medical school, while an important outcome, is not as important as the process of learning how to care for patients. That process never really ends.  I recertified and took my internal medicine board exam 10 years after finishing residency.  When I shared this with some of my premed student researchers who were studying for the MCAT, they were surprised to learn that the process of learning never ends.

Q: What do you wish you had known about medical school before you got there?

A: I wish that I understood more about careers in medicine, particularly between academic and private practice.  Although I thought I was interested in academia, it is still hard to understand what that means and what an academic medicine job is like.  It is also hard to appreciate the wide heterogeneity in academic medicine careers and the additional skills one usually obtains as a faculty member to be successful in these careers (i.e. MPH for clinical researchers, faculty development for medical educators, etc.)

Q: What’s the best way for a pre-med to prepare for the rigors of medical school?

A: The best way to prepare for the rigors of medical school is to take a tough course load in college, while also pursuing extra curricular activities such as research or volunteering that necessitates that you practice time management.

Q: How do I actually know if medicine is right for me?

A: Medicine is right for you if you see it as a calling.  You must want to pursue becoming a doctor because you are passionate about caring for patients.  If you are pursuing it for some other reason, such as money, prestige, or fame, you will be likely disillusioned and at high risk of burnout.

Q: How do you foresee medical education changing in the coming years and how will this affect today’s pre-meds?

A: The explosive growth of new technology, such as social media, simulation, and electronic health records, have the potential to reshape how our medical students learn to care for patients and also how they practice.  In addition, the evolving changes to the healthcare system, and particularly the way it is financed, will also have a big impact on medical education.   For these reasons, it is important for pre-medical students to appreciate the need for agility and innovation as practice models and educational methods are reshaped by current trends.   Rote memorization of facts will be less important than understanding how to access information and apply it to an individual patient care issue you face.

Q: If there is one thing that you could change about how medicine is practiced, what would it be?

A: I think that I would make sure that there was more time (and reimbursement) for diagnosing and talking with patients. Unfortunately, due to the underfunding of making diagnoses and taking a good history, it is often easier to get a costly test or do a diagnostic procedure which often costs money to the patient or the healthcare system (or both).  We need a way to reorganize the healthcare system so the doctor-patient communication is valued.

Would you like to see more interviews like this one?  Let us know by commenting with ideas for the next interview!
Have more questions for Dr. Arora?  Check her out at her blog, FutureDocs.

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Pwning the Personal Statement Part II: Writing the thing

This article is a continuation of Pwning the Personal Statement Part I: Intro and Free Essay Reviews!

Starting the essay can be extremely stressful and is often the hardest part of making a great personal statement (PS).  Students often want to write the essay by having inspiration inform structure.  This usually results in staring at a blank Word document for hours!  It’s far more efficient to have a structure over which you can lather inspiration.  With that, let’s lay out a structural approach to your PS.

1. Brainstorm: Create an Experience Map

You don’t have to be ultra-creative here.  Start off with a chronological list of notable accomplishments and experiences you’ve had in the last 5-8 years.  These can include volunteering at the hospital, doing research, and running marathons – anything you think could even be remotely relevant.  Ask for help from close family and friends – they’ll often remember events that you might have forgotten.  Quicktip: Making your list chronological will help ensure you get it all down!  Next to each item, write a short blurb about what you gained or what it tells about you as a person.  Here’s an example:

Research in pediatrics lab – displayed independence because I was given my own project.  Developed a love for science.

It’s as easy as that.  Your PS won’t include all of your experiences, just the select few you later choose to develop.  For now, this map will help you start to see the story you want to craft.  Did you realize you wanted to become a doctor ever since you shadowed that surgeon?  What subsequent experiences did you have that inspired that dream, developed its growth, and prepared you for this next step in medicine?  Your story should start to become visible at this point.

2. Word Vomit Time

This step is key and almost no one follows it.  It’s a huge benefit in writing essays and will relieve you of that writer’s block.  A lot of this probably won’t make it into your final essay but it will get you warmed up and focused.  Take a look at your experience map and just start writing whatever comes to mind.  Start with a brief introduction, jump into your examples, and conclude with a simple conclusion.  This word dump can be garbage – it doesn’t matter.

Here’s why: this process forces you to just write what’s on your mind and get your thoughts down in paragraph format.  It will reveal to you what you find important to discuss.  The editing process will allow you to clear things up, change examples around, etc.  Editing is ALWAYS easier than starting an essay.  That is why we heavily recommend you to just get your thoughts down first.

Yes, your essay might read “I want to be a doctor.  I love people and what to help them.”  Again, this can all be fixed up later with more poignant language.  If you at least get it started, you will have completed the hardest part of essay writing, all in probably under a couple hours.

3. Edit Like Mad!

We’ll be going in depth into this in Part III of this series.

4. Keep in mind…

While writing the PS, keep the following items in mind.  They should help you gather your thoughts and avoid common pitfalls in personal statement writing.

Recent examples trump old ones, but within reason.

Don’t talk about something that happened last week for the sake of having something recent, but don’t use something from 2nd grade unless it’s just there as background.  Your essay should show maturity; you’re going to do that by introspecitvely examining your major accomplishments in recent years, showing your utmost commitment to the field of medicine.

¼ of your content is answering the question “What happened”; ¾ is answering the question “Why does it matter”

Generic advice you’ll find online tells you to “show not tell” and to “not list chronologies”.  What they leave out is that your “awesome example” is probably pretty lame on its own.  Adcoms have likely read hundreds of essays which use the same examples you did.  Personal hardship/illness, global health work, research, they’ve read it all.

The only way to make your example unique is to actually talk about its impact on you and your desire to be a physician.  Explain what you learned from it and its overall value and why it proves that you have a deep passion for medicine.  Prove that you didn’t just get inspired; you took action and did something with your inspiration.

Don’t write like you talk

“I always used to think essays were best written as a conversation because I thought it literally enabled my writing to move mountains with meaning.”

Did you catch all the things wrong with that sentence?

1. “Always.” …really?  Did I think that way when I was five years old?  No.  Be clear about what you mean.  Avoid expletives and superlatives.
2. “Literally.” The writing literally moved mountains?  No, it didn’t.  Using “literally” or other hyperbole to illustrate a metaphor destroys your credibility.
3. “Move mountains.” Cliché.  ‘nuff said.
4. Avoid alliteration and consonance unless it actually makes the sentence sound nice and it’s a good sentence.  Don’t artificially inject a poetic or eloquent voice if it’s not who you really are.  Readers can tell, and it risks sounding cheesy.
5. This list is not exhaustive.  Always remember: be clear about what you are trying to say and say nothing more.
6. You have limited space so make it count.  For your Word Vomit, just throw it out there and don’t worry about these things.  But your second pass over it should already start cutting out anything that isn’t crucial to your story.

Be mature. Don’t blame others or yourself, complain, or regret anything.

There are few things more annoying to read than someone complaining or bringing up a serious weakness and then grasping at straws to justify it.  Don’t write about anything you aren’t prepared to be grilled about in your interview… which means this is not the time for a tell-all.  If you do have regrets and they have to be in your essay, make sure you can demonstrate maturity and growth as a result of the experience.  For example: If you hated doing research, at least you can discuss that you received an excellent opportunity to see academia first-hand and interact with scientists at the cutting edge of their medical field.

Don’t spin.

If you made a mistake and learned from it, admit that you made a mistake.  It will show maturity and that you learned from your past experiences – both very important qualities in an applicant.

Alright, that’s it for Part II!

In Part III, we cover the editing process: Pwning the Personal Statement Part IIIA: Editing.  So go ahead – go work on some word vomit and keep the above tips in mind!  See you next time!

P.S. Don’t send us your word vomit!  We’ll ask for submissions again after Part III!  (Don’t know what we’re talking about?  Check out Pwning the Personal Statement Part I: Intro and Free Essay Reviews!

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Pwning the Personal Statement Part I: Intro and Free Essay Reviews!

It’s getting to be that time when the early birds are thinking about their personal statements.  And you know what they say about the early birds… they get the interview!  We’re doing this series because a) most students struggle building a strategy for this problem and b) this is an extremely long and difficult component of the application process.

Start early!

Every year, students are required to write a personal statement (and additional essays depending on the specific programs where they apply).  The prompt rarely changes, meaning you can start preparing early with confidence.  The earlier you start brainstorming and writing, the better position you’re going to be in to reflect and have a complete and polished essay.

Participate!

This is the first of a multi-part series that will cover how to start brainstorming and writing your personal statement as well as how to edit your essay so it shines.

As part of this series, we’ll read and provide comments on your personal statements!  We’ll select a diverse set of samples and provide detailed comments on them for everyone to see and discuss (all personal info will be redacted).  Email your personal statement for a free review to info@mcatquestionaday.com under the Subject Line: “Personal Statement Sample.”  This is a great opportunity to get some solid feedback as well as help others in learning how to write great admissions essays. 

Note: the review is completely free.  For now, we will comment and provide feedback only on selected essays, so send yours in and be on the lookout for our comments!  Other essays may be reviewed at a later date, so don’t be discouraged if we don’t work on yours immediately!

Begin!

Remember, there’s a lot of generic advice out there.  Do a search and you’ll find the top tips on writing your personal statement include:

  • “Make the personal statement personal”
  • “Don’t list off all your accomplishments”
  • “Have other people help edit your essay”
  • “Tell them what makes you unique”

Everyone follows this advice, and most people use simply those tactics and nothing else.  So, admissions committees (adcoms) end up reading the same essays over and over again.  We’re going to show you how to turn the sleep-inducing essay into something that gleams on the paper.  For this first step, we invite you to jump into the waters fresh.  Get your ideas out as succinctly as you can – here’s the prompt:

Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school. The available space for your response is 5300 characters, or approximately one full page.

As we walk through the next few segments of this series, we’ll talk more about how to get the most from your efforts here.  Over the next few months you will probably end up writing multiple drafts from scratch.  This first draft will still be a useful way for you to reflect on your experiences and practice putting them to words.  Send your essays to info@mcatquestionaday.com and join the discussion!

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Getting Solid Rec Letters: Part II

This article is a continuation of Getting Solid Rec Letters: Part I

Seal the deal

Ok you’ve made friends with this mentor.  Now it’s time for rec letter writing.  When do you ask for it, what do you ask for, and how do you ask for it?   Don’t reveal that you want them to write you the rec letter until the time comes.  That is, don’t introduce yourself on Day 1 and say “Hi, will you be my mentor?  I really want you to get to know me and write me a rec letter next year.”  No.  Instead, ask them when the time is appropriate (give them at least 6 weeks to write the letter before it’s due; people hate it when you rush them and this letter needs to be solid gold).  It should be a pleasant surprise when you ask them, not a “I knew it…”

Be straightforward about it and don’t get awkward.  Tell them why you’re asking them (they’re someone who knows you well, who has seen you mature in your undergrad years, and can add value to your application by talking about XYZ qualities/experiences you have) and tell them how much you’ll appreciate having them recommend you.  If all goes well, they’ll be flattered.  Invite them to write it but give them the implicit option to decline, i.e. ask them if they would be willing to write you a rec letter.  They have to be free and comfortable saying no.  Because if they would say no, they’re not the person you want writing your letter.

Congratulations!  They accepted your invitation.  Make sure to tell them they have plenty of time to write it and it’s not due for a while.  Next, tell them you’ll give them more information about the letter.  Go home and put together a cheatsheet for them.  Make it very concise and to the point.  It needs to answer the following questions:

1. Briefly, why you chose them
2. Specific questions they need to address (if any)
3. The angle from which you want them to approach writing about you, referencing specific examples they could use.

This is a really important item because if you have multiple recommenders, you don’t want them all writing about how you’re smart and ignoring how you’re dedicated and empathetic.  Suppose you have 3 people and you want your application to emphasize 3 key qualities.  Well, simple: assign a each quality to the recommender who can best talk about it and have them focus on that.  Reference specific experiences or things you want them to talk about (this has to be things they’re familiar with).  Your goal is to proactively guide the rec letter to paint a complete picture of yourself.  Your rec letters are a chance to really emphasize certain qualities you want the adcom to know about you, or perhaps even to remedy weak areas of your application (say your GPA is low; have the person write about how brilliant and creative you really are).

Follow up

Nothing is worse than using people as a means to an end.  They wrote your letter and now you… cast them by the wayside?  No!  This leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth and they know when they’ve been used.  It can haunt you down the road if you a) ever need them to back you up in the future or b) they’re disgruntled enough to complain about you to the med school.  Worse, it’s just bad taste.  These are people who care about you.  Presumably, you care about them too.  Keep them updated on how you’re doing at various stages of the process.  Even once you start med school, keep in touch every once in a while to catch up.  Practice this kind of relationship building now because you’ll need it in your career as a physician.  Also, write a thank-you card (once the app is submitted; not months down the road).

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/getting-solid-rec-letters-part-ii/

Getting Solid Rec Letters: Part I

Ah, one of the most dreaded moments of the undergraduate career: emailing a former professor who never quite learned your name and asking for a letter of recommendation.  It’s hard to tell which is scarier – pretending you knew the prof well enough to write you a letter, or worrying about whether the letter will actually talk about you in any manner of specificity beyond “Shana was a great student and I highly recommend her.”

Therein lies the first blunder, and for many premeds, by the time you bother to read this, it’s already too late to remedy the situation.  So we’re going to talk about two things here: how to manage your relationships assuming you have time before your rec letters are due (at least a year before you apply for med school) and how to do damage control if it’s too late to make friends with a rockstar prof.

But first, we have to ask ourselves, what’s the point of a rec letter in the first place?  Is it due diligence for the adcom to see if you’re lying about your qualities?  That’s certainly one way to look at it, except that even if you’re an a-hole, that rarely shows up in the rec letter.  It’s rare that rec letters actively hurt applicants; what’s far more common is that rec letters fail to be a golden seal to give applicants an edge.  The harm in having a generic rec letter is that since very few candidates actually have good ones, if yours is unremarkable, you’re just like everybody else and your application doesn’t stand out the way it could.

So we’re not going to talk about how to avoid getting a bad rec letter; we’re going to talk about how to get that golden seal on your application that makes the adcom member think “wow… someone important is actually willing to stick their neck out for this individual – this candidate must be awesome.”

Find a mentor.

Not a peer mentor, but someone with a position of authority.  Most pre-meds make the mistake of going to one of their freshman/sophomore lecturers for rec letters and attempt to build good rapport.  At the end of organic chemistry lecture, just count how many people come down to ask questions and try to introduce themselves to the instructor.  Now, this may not be a terrible idea, it just likely has little benefit.  Orgo (and other pre-med instructors) teach hundreds of students per semester, run their own lab, and have multiple other obligations.  They rarely have time to form a meaningful relationship with a premed; unless they really take you under their wing, you’re not likely to get a good letter in the long run.  Pick professors from some of your smaller classes or individuals who will actually have the time to mentor you.  Someone who shares your sense of humor and can relate to you.

If you’re too late to foster meaningful relationships with a mentor, find a mentor-worthy person who knows you well.  This always outweighs a recommendation written by somebody whose title is fancy but who has to use your student number to look up your grade in their class when they write your letter.

If you’re looking for multiple mentors and recommenders, pick a diverse group.  Don’t pick people who all do the same thing; pick people who know you from different contexts.  Maybe one knows your brilliance in research while another knows how great you are as a leader, etc.  Diversity is key because you don’t want to be a one-trick pony.

Building the Relationship

It should come as no surprise that you actually have to talk to this person.  Tell them your story.  Tell them your motivations.  Tell them jokes (if the person hates your sense of humor, reconsider your choice of mentor).  Answer important questions without being asked, e.g. why you want to go to medical school.  Run ideas past them and get their feedback.  Ask them more about their career path and choices.  The best mentors are those who see you as a future peer; be comfortable around them and chat but keep the relationship professional, not casual.

Talk to this person on a regular basis (every other week at least).  Ask them for advice.  Be someone who is worth talking to… that means take the advice (assuming it’s not awful advice).  Then, follow through by reminding them of the advice they gave you, telling them what specific actions you took in line with that advice, and showing them what great results you now have.  If you don’t follow through, you’re just like everybody else.  This is about how to make you stand out.  When this person writes about you later, you will be a mentee and they will be seriously invested in making you a star because if you fail, then they fail.  They will write about you in a completely different way than profs who don’t care about you.

Check out Part II here!

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/getting-solid-rec-letters-part-i/

Why Generic Advice is Hurting Your Chances of Med School

Welcome to the M Prep Portal!

Even if you’re just getting started in your premed adventure, the following advice is probably already all too familiar:

  • do research,
  • volunteer,
  • start writing your personal statement early,
  • edit your personal statement,
  • ask for recommendations from people who know you well,
  • start studying for the MCAT at age 3.

We can probably agree this advice is next to useless.  Of course you’re going to do all these things to maximize your chances of med school – everybody knows to do them!

If everybody knows to do it, and the people getting into med school are doing it, how is the advice hurting me?

Reason #1: Nobody tells you how to do it.

It’s easy to tell somebody to volunteer, do research, write a good personal statement, and get good rec letters.  It’s easy to tell people that their personal statement needs to be introspective, that they should start early and have friends/family edit.  But when it comes down to actually doing these things, generic pieces of advice don’t give you a real action plan to bring you any closer to your goal.  Specificity has the advantage of giving you

  1. precise, measurable outcomes (results) to achieve
  2. an action plan for how to get those results
  3. a mechanism for getting feedback on how you’re doing
  4. alternative tactics where necessary.

Reason #2: Because everybody else is listening to it.

Everybody else reads the same blogs and talks to the same people who give similar generic advice.  Which means that other premeds are also bombarding profs with emails to volunteer in their lab, joining every healthcare-related club, and writing their personal statement about how they’ve wanted to be a doctor ever since they were a child.

The only way for these stereotypical strategies to work for you is if your story is somehow much more compelling than everybody else’s (i.e. you just happen to be in the top 5% of the people with that story).  But the fact is that you do not have to be Mother Theresa to stand out.

The Specificity of Advice: A Case Study

A few years ago, one of our students (we’ll call him Jeff) found himself in need of letters of recommendation.  Jeff took the basic pre-medical advice he knew and went around to his science class faculty to try to make connections.  He tried his orgo and his physics II professor.  But these faculty were busy, teaching classes of hundreds of students.  They wouldn’t be able to provide true mentorship for Jeff and definitely nothing more than a generic rec letter.

We discussed Jeff’s undergraduate experience to try to figure something out.  It turned out that one of his favorite courses was an anthropology course taken as a sophomore.  Jeff had a great relationship with his GSI (graduate student instructor) and aced the class.  Traditional pre-med advice suggests that you find professors to write your letters of recommendation, but we recommended that Jeff reach out to his GSI.  He received an excellent letter which was signed off by the professor of the anthropology course.  Now in his 2nd year of med school, we’re sure that Jeff doesn’t regret his decision to use a GSI to write his recommendation.

The Bottom Line

This is one of countless examples where the traditional pre-med advice can prevent you from success because it’s inflexible to your unique situation.  The bottom line is don’t settle for generic pre-med advice – it’s simply not useful and can hurt in the long run.  Stay tuned to the M Prep Portal for pre-med advice that’s up-front, honest, and practical!

Permanent link to this article: http://portal.mcatquestion.com/why-generic-advice-is-hurting-your-chances-of-med-school/

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