Advice for students applying to medical school
Part of my story and what I learned from the process
I am a current second year medical student studying in Canada. Over the past couple years, I have had the pleasure to be able to give some advice and mentorship to friends in lower years. I personally reached out to many upper-year students for help when I was applying, so I am more than happy to give back. I recently had a call with a rising senior who was worried about the COVID-19 pandemic and how that might potentially affect his application. I decided to write down some of my two cents’ worth of responses, in case it may help others in the same position.
Now that my summer plans are delayed or cancelled, I’m worried I won’t have enough time to work on my extracurriculars or develop strong relationships for potential reference letters.
That’s a fair point. Many students may have had their ideal summer plans, which they may have worked really hard to organize, postponed indefinitely. I know how sucky that is, trust me. I was in the middle of elective clinical rotations which I had to beg and plead (via email) for cancelled as well. That’s going to be the story for a lot of people, and you and the admissions committee will just have to accept that. However, there are also many new opportunities arising in this unprecedented time. New student initiatives for helping to pick up groceries or check in on independent elderly seniors, volunteer positions for contact tracing or tele-health screening (those are available to medical students at least), and even helping with designing and creating 3D-printed PPE. Take the chance to find creative ways to build up your application while also potentially helping out with the crisis! In this uncertain time, I believe admissions people will like to see flexibility and applicants taking initiative to create their own opportunities, whether that means volunteering and getting involved in dry lab research, studying for the MCAT or thinking about admission essays, or just simply working on creative skills like writing or music and working on yourself. It’s totally okay to give yourself some time to relax too and be with your family, especially if they need your support right now as well. That’s worth more than any of this med school stuff in the grand scheme of things!
What was your application process like?
So I took the MCAT the summer after second year of undergrad. I took the summer off to do just that because I really didn’t want to have to rewrite the 8 hour ordeal. It paid off—my summer was manageable, I didn’t burn out because I had time to do human things besides study, and I managed to get a good score at the end.
It didn’t feel like that right afterward though. I wrote the exam in mid-August and so the score only came out shortly before the OMSAS application (a Canadian centralized medical school application) deadline in October. At that time I was still on the fence whether I even wanted to apply for the 2018 cycle, or if I should just concentrate on doing well in my third-year classes and apply in fourth year like everyone else. There was nothing wrong with getting to do a thesis and graduating with my friends. However, when I got my score, I did better than I expected, and decided to apply just to see what would happen. And luckily, I managed to get in off the waitlist.
Do you have any tips for preparing for interview questions?
It’s usually good to think ahead, but I don’t think it makes sense to start worrying about all of that before finishing your application. Don’t stress yourself out when you don’t have to, and just focus on the next step. One step at a time! I will be more than happy to give you those tips when it is time.
What should I be working on now? What was the most difficult part of the application?
I would say getting the reference letters together and writing the essays were the most time-consuming parts. For letters, it helps to be a little strategic in selecting your three referees—ideally they have all known you for long periods of time, can speak to your extracurriculars/academic ability/professionalism from different angles, and are enthusiastic about supporting your application. The third one is arguably the most important point, above the referee’s status or qualifications. This took a lot of time because you need to give them a lot of notice, and be able to check in on their progress without being annoying or ticking them off. One reason research supervisors make fantastic references is because you are likely meeting with them on a regular basis, and so at least they are reminded of your request when they see your face. This time is way more valuable than yours, so this may very well be the last part of your application to be completed, which is why getting on top of this early is a good idea.
The essays took a long time for a different reason. For me, applying to med school was a huge reflective journey and process. I started university with a vague desire to pursue medicine, but I didn’t really have any strong, concrete reasons for it. It was only when I was forced to write those essays did I really have to look inside at my own soul and values and figure out what I believed in and the kind of person I wanted to be. Take the time to really ask yourself why you want to do medicine. Why do you want to sign up for a minimum of 6 more years of rigorous school and training, $100,000s more in additional student loans, and the responsibility of other human lives? It’s okay if it’s not as unique or heartwarming or tear-jerking or even as “complete” as someone else’s story. It’s okay if it’s simply a variant of “I want to help people.” And it’s okay if you are still working on it—hell, I’m learning more about my own reasons every day! Whatever you decide on, just make sure it is 100% genuine and you are 100% committed to it. That way you can proudly say: “this is my reason, take it or leave it!”, without any hesitation or regret. So take the time to reflect a little bit.
Any final tips?
I know you are stressed from this pandemic, we all are. Med schools know that. Residency programs know that. But that’s the current reality, so we all have to make the best out of the situation. Try your best to make your application as strong as possible, and hey, if you don’t end up getting in this year, that’s okay. There are many, many people who only get into medical school after a number of attempts, in fact it is probably the norm. I truly believe that if you are really passionate about this medicine thing, you will get in eventually. And if you try a couple times and decide your passions change and you want to bring your talents elsewhere, that’s fine too. Things will be okay in the end. Keep working hard—you got this!