Category Archive: Volunteering

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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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).

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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!

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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!

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