Encouragement and Warnings for Late Medical School Applicants

Two blog posts in two days after two months without a single word?! I know you’re probably confused, so I’ll give you the two-part answer: 1) The deadline for the NIH fellowship application that I’ve been working on all summer is looming quite near now and my brain is becoming fried from scouring over pages and pages of my own academic writing – I NEED to freely write again; and 2) This date holds a special place in my past –

two years ago today I submitted my medical school application! 

I bring this up for two reasons (two must be the number of the day!)

First, I would like to encourage anyone whose medical school application is taking a little longer than planned that it is not too late to still apply this year. While it is ideal to apply in early June when the application system first accepts submissions, plenty of people do not get their application in that early. In fact, while I submitted my application first on this date, I didn’t send it to my actual school where I was accepted until October (though its deadline was in December not October like most schools). Therefore, all hope is not yet lost for this year if you have not submitted.

On the other hand, I would also like to warn you that applying this late does have its risks. I applied to 15 schools in total – ten in July, four in September, and one in October. This put my application toward the bottom of the pile for many schools and they had already accepted quite a few students before even looking at my application. The majority of my secondary applications came while I was also trying to manage school, marching band, research, leading a sorority, and working overnights shifts as a receptionist. Turning around the secondary applications in two weeks (as recommended!) became challenging especially when I received some applications just as my two-week long marching band camp began (let’s just say 12 hours of band each day was not conducive to writing strong secondary responses.)

After completing all of these applications, spending a couple thousand dollars, and receiving quite a few rejection letters, I finally – FINALLY – had one small bit of good luck. I got my first interview invite in mid-November for my undergraduate institution’s MSTP (MD/PhD program). I then interviewed the day after my last final for fall semester (so just before Christmas.) In mid-January, I found out that I did not get in. It was hard to deal with especially knowing that other people had been accepted to school so much earlier. A friend applied to pharmacy school months after I submitted my primary application, interviewed before my first interview, and was accepted soon after that. Many of the twitter #medfam folks had already announced their acceptances as well. I feared checking my e-mail in case I had a rejection letter (and since many MD/PhD programs also consider you for MD alone, you often get TWO rejection letters per school).

Luckily, I then received an interview invite to Illinois in mid-January (they line up the MD/PhD application deadline/interviews with graduate programs, which are much later). I interviewed in early March and received my acceptance in the middle of the month. I made it, but barely.

It’s true that all you need is that one acceptance, but I can’t help thinking back and wondering “What if?” What if I hadn’t found out about Illinois’s MD/PhD program from an e-mail? What if I had ignored said e-mail? If I had followed through with my original schools that I applied to, I would have been re-applying (which I was preparing to do anyway by the time of my acceptance) meaning all of my time and money would have been for nothing.

Looking back, the process would have likely been better had I applied earlier and been smarter about where I applied (but I really wanted to go to places like Yale or UCSF). Instead, I applied to 15 schools, interviewed at two of them, and was only accepted at one. Therefore, I highly suggest that you take a good and hard look at your application and try to figure out if it’s worth applying later into the cycle, and if you’re willing to go ahead with applying, figure out if the schools you’ve picked are reasonable. Otherwise consider waiting until the next year to apply and do it early in the application cycle.

I lucked out. Through my many rejections, I came to find the University of Illinois. While their MD/PhD program is not NIH funded (unlike the MSTPs that I had naively set my aims to), I honestly do not think I could find a more perfect program for me (important to note – the “top” school may not be the best schools for you – know thyself!) Had I applied earlier, perhaps I would have got in somewhere else that processed their applications earlier and not even applied to Illinois. But who knows, maybe I would have loved it there too. Either way, the risk of not getting in was quite real to me and it becomes more real the later you apply.

Good luck to all who are applying!

If you like my writing, please consider following my blog! There’s a link near the top of the side bar to do so. Also, feel free to like my Facebook page, MD, Phd To Be, and follow me on Twitter, @MDPhDToBe. Any questions or comment can of course be directed to me from any of these locations or directly emailed to me at mdphdtobe@gmail.com. Thank you for reading!

A final note for those of you applying this year

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If you are applying and want the extra help, Lean On Admissions, the medical-student advising company for pre-med and pre-pharmacy students that I am proud to work for, is here for you. We offer primary essay edits starting at $49 for 2 edits, secondary application edits starting at 10,600 characters (however many essays from however many secondaries you can fit within the limit) for $49, and we currently are featuring $10 off holistic secondary application edits! By holistic edits we mean that we look at one secondary in its entirety at a time so that we can ensure that all of your responses fit together and give a complete description of you! Since schools tend to look at students in a holistic manner, it is helpful to have this in mind when writing and having your application edited, which is what the holistic secondary application edit offers. You might even be able to have me edit your writing!

How I prepared for the MCAT in only a month

The MCAT is a rite of passage to medical school. Everyone takes it. It is a formidable barrier that many spend months or even years preparing to overcome. I prepared for a month.

To give a little background, I didn’t know MD/PhD programs existed until the March before I applied to medical school. As I was preparing to take the GRE so that I could apply to graduate schools that fall, I came across the program as I looked into where I would like to do my PhD. It seemed like a program that would allow me to do all that I hoped to do with my life and over the next month, I solidified my decision to apply.

In the mean time, I took my GRE and my chemistry GRE the month after just in case I ultimately decided to not try for the combined degree. I signed up for the soonest MCAT I could once deciding since I wanted to apply that year but not too soon that I would not have adequate time to study. As I came to my decision in April, my next option was later in May but I had finals and a trip planned before then. Therefore, I opted for the late June test date.

I survived finals and then I took off for a week in San Diego to visit my aunt. I came back on May 20th and the next day I started studying for my June 21st MCAT.

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The Goods

With only a month to prepare and being a poor college student, any prep course was out of the running. As more of an independent studier anyway, I preferred to do it on my own.

I searched on Amazon for MCAT prep books hoping to find one that was comprehensive and cheap, and I ultimately decided on Barron’s MCAT prep book. Not only did it include study materials for each subject and practice tests but it also came with a CD-ROM of practice tests that mimicked the screen display of the actual exam.

Barron MCAT

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The Plan

I knew that making a study schedule would help me keep on track and use my month to its greatest potential. Therefore, I split up the time before my test to make sure that I covered everything in my prep book with plenty of time to spare to run through practice exams.

To get through all of the information quickly, I decided to do one subject a day. One day was physics, the next general chemistry, the next verbal, the next organic chemistry, then biology, and finally the essays. While going through each subject, I would do the practice questions pertaining to that subject as a way to gauge my understanding. I took a week off of working in my lab and focused all of my energy toward getting through as much material as possible. While I didn’t quite keep to my goal of a subject per day, I had given myself plenty of leeway to fit everything in.

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The Grit

After reading and taking notes on all of the information, I then put my focus on doing practice exams. I never did an entire practice exam in one sitting, instead doing a section at a time then grading it and going through the questions that I got wrong. This last part was the most important step. I used the exams to diagnose what areas I needed to work on and then I would do my best to look up as much information about them as necessary until I were comfortable with it. By really trying to figure out why I got a question wrong and how I should look at a similar question the next time, I was able to learn from my mistake before I made the same one on the real exam. I did each exam multiple times to make sure what I was learning was really sticking.

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The Final Countdown

Over these few weeks, my scores on the physical sciences and biological sciences sections rose quite a bit and I was happy with how well I was doing as I became more familiar with the exam. Nonetheless entering the last week before my exam, I was still not doing as well as I hoped on the verbal. I decided that I needed more practice questions to go through so I caved and purchased The Official MCAT Self-Assessment: Verbal Reasoning. While this is normally an assessment to use prior to studying for the MCAT, I used it as my final practice because it offered me many passages to read and 120 questions to run through and become more familiar with the kinds of questions that will be on the real test.

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The Calm Before the Storm

I spent the night before my exam not even thinking about science. I left lab early and went to an aunt’s house who lived close to my testing center so that I didn’t have to drive in rush hour traffic for at least an hour in the morning. I hung out with my aunt and uncle as well as my aunt who was visiting from San Diego. We watched a baseball game and relaxed, and I tried to not think about the morning’s exam. I went to bed early so that I was well rested in the morning though nerves made it hard to fall asleep.

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The Day Has Come

The morning of my exam, I woke up early and ate the largest breakfast I have probably ever eaten. My uncle made me eggs, toast, and bacon. He even put rosemary on the eggs because one of my aunts said that rosemary would help with memory (if it does, this was a little late for it). I also ate the power bar and bananas that I brought for breakfast not realizing that I would have breakfast made for me as well.

I enjoyed a short drive to the testing center, took a sniff of fresh rosemary that my aunt made me bring, not because of its supposed memory boosting ability but because I simply like the smell.

After waiting some time until it was my turn to enter the computer lab, I was scanned with a metal detector and had my fingerprints taken before taking a seat at a computer. Then, for the next five hours or so, my complete focus was on the exam. While we were given 10-minute breaks between sections, I did not stop – I had information in my head and I wanted to get it out. Plus I didn’t feel like just sitting there for 10 minutes at a time with nothing to do.

Everything was going smoothly until the writing section when, despite eating such a large breakfast, all I could think about was how hungry I was and what I wanted to eat when I was done. As someone who normally can get by with little food until dinner, this was rather strange. I tried to ignore those thoughts and finish my writing alas forgetting to save one of my two writing samples before time was up (seriously, no auto save?)

I sped through the last section partly because I was confident in my answers, partly because I wanted food, and left with half my time still remaining. The proctor seemed quite surprised that I was leaving the room because I was done and not just going to the restroom.

After stocking up on food and eating my fill, I entered a sort of loopy tired state. It seems the test had mentally worn me out without my even noticing. What followed was probably the best nap I have ever taken. Ahh, the test was behind me.

Sleeping Cat

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The Aftermath

After the test, life went on. I continued to work full time in my lab and the time I once spent for studying was redirected toward my personal statements (an ordeal of its own). Finally after a month of anticipation, scores were released. I had my goals set to a perhaps unrealistically high score and yet I was decently satisfied with my score despite a low writing score from forgetting to save. Nonetheless I had my personal statements and my GRE writing score to back up my writing abilities and offset that lower writing score. Ultimately, it worked out. I got accepted. And that’s what matters.

More on the blog: Study tips for the MCAT

This is just the beginning!

If you like my writing, please consider following my blog. There’s a link near the top of the side bar to do so. Also, feel free to like my Facebook page, MD, Phd To Be, and follow me on Twitter, @MDPhDToBe. Any questions, comments, or requests for future blog posts can of course be directed to me from any of these locations or directly emailed to me at mdphdtobe@gmail.com. Thank you for reading!

Featured image source: “Studying” by Steven S. | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Grades – Will they make or break you?

I was recently asked the following on my ask.fm account:

How important are grades for med school? Can other things make up for not achieving super high grades? I read that you got in with a 3.6 (I thought getting in required gpas near 4.0); what else made you a strong applicant? Not trying to sound rude or anything 🙂

While I could go on and on about GPAs and being a strong medical school applicant, I will limit my response that is nonetheless too long to fit in its original medium to this:

Of course getting good grades is definitely important. It shows that you can be successful over a long period of time in a variety of areas of study.

But there is a fault in looking at GPA alone – it’s variable.

A GPA from one major is not equivalent to a GPA from another major. A GPA from one college is drastically different from the next. If you took a lot of easy courses and got a 4.0 or you took a lot of hard classes and got a 3.7, the 3.7 is probably the better GPA. You can also replace the word “classes” in the previous sentence with the words “major” or “school” and it would be just as applicable. For example, I took a ridiculous amount of hard classes in my major and beyond at a large research institute, so my 3.64 is likely stronger than you think.

BUT if you look at numbers alone, a higher GPA is obviously better. It’s a deceiving measurement. In fact, I’ve heard that some schools only look at GPAs above a certain cut off, but where you fall above that range matters less.

Just to make sure, I checked with my PI today who has sat on many admissions committees for our MD/PhD program. He said that your GPA can break you, but it can’t really make you. So a really high GPA isn’t going to set you drastically above other applicants, but a low one can hurt your chance at admissions.

That being said, he also told me that much more weight is placed on the MCAT because it is the same test wherever you go and lacks the variability of the GPA. So while I had a 3.6ish GPA, I also had a 35 on my MCAT to make up for it.

It is also important to note that while you do need to show academic intelligence to be a strong medical school applicant, you also need to show things like passion, dedication, and a general understanding of what it’s like to be a doctor.

You can do this by being involved. While generally it seems that people have the idea that the more extracurriculars, the better, I’ve in fact heard and believe that being involved in things that you can be highly dedicated to and are passionate about is better than just trying to boost your resume with experiences that are superficial. No, these activities do not necessarily have to relate to science or medicine.

For example, I am particularly passionate about music, and so I was in marching band, pep band, and concert bands in college and even became a leader in these organizations. I could have spread myself out across a bunch of other things but I focused my effort on these because they mattered most to me.

I also am quite dedicated to research (hence why I’m getting a Ph.D. in addition to the M.D. and in fact plan on spending the most of my energy on research in my career). Therefore, I worked in research labs for three years. I had a project of my own in one lab and I was awarded an undergraduate grant and fellowship to do research, which strengthened the experience on my application.

I was also involved in health care as I volunteered at a hospital from age 15 onward so I had 6 years under my belt by the time I applied. Thanks to high school and college keeping me busy plus not wanting to actually become a doctor for most of that time (a long story of its own), I had only accumulated a few hundred hours, but it shows longevity and it shows that I have put in the time to actually experience the kind of work place that I would like to end up working in.

There’s a lot of things that you can do to become a strong medical applicant, but the most important thing is that there is no single definition of a strong medical school applicant. We all have our own strengths and it is those whose strengths most outweigh their weaknesses that are often the strongest candidates. 

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Featured image source: “Report card 1944” by Phil Jern | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The Path From High School to Medical School

Everyone takes a different path to medical school, but there is a general guideline to follow to meet medical school requirements. Here, I wish to give you an outline of how to go from high school to medical school and to explain common terms that will surely soon become part of your lingo if they aren’t already.

1. Get in to college. An undergraduate degree is a requirement for medical schools in the United States. Ideally, you should take the ACT or SAT by the end of your junior year or the beginning of your senior year of high school. These are tests that are required to get into undergraduate programs. Which one you need to take is dependent on the school. After taking this test, you will be able to apply in the fall of your senior year. Your high school advisor is a great resource for learning more about the process of applying to college.

2. Go to college. After you are accepted to a school and you graduate from high school, the real fun begins – college! As someone planning on going to medical school, you are defined as a pre-medical student. Pre-medical, or pre-med, refers to a particular track offered by colleges that prepares students for medical school including pre-med coursework, volunteer activities, clinical experience, research, and the application process. Most colleges do not have pre-med as an option for a major or minor. Instead you may pick a major in any field of study. There is no certain major more fitting than others as you can read about in my post: Undergraduate Curriculum.

3. Prepare to apply to Medical School: Once you’ve completed the undergraduate course requirements, volunteered/shadowed in a hospital, and maybe done medical research, you need to take the MCAT. MCAT stands for the Medical College Admission Test, which you should take before you apply; therefore, during or before the spring of your junior year of college if you intend to go straight from undergrad to medical school. It is a standardized test offered by the Association of American Medical Colleges. Over the next few years, this test is transforming from three sections pertaining to physical sciences, biological sciences, and verbal reasoning with a writing section to include a natural/behavioral sciences section including psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior, as well as the new Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills sections. The writing section is also disappearing.

4. Actually apply to medical school! When you feel that you will be a competitive applicant for medical school, you apply via the American Medical College Application System, AMCAS for short. The medical schools in Texas have their own system called the Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service, TMDSAS for short. The application becomes available in May each year with submission first available in early June. The earlier you apply, the better. After submitting your primary application through either AMCAS or TMDSAS, you will likely receive secondary applications from each school to which you apply. After submitting these applications in a timely manner, you may begin to receive interview invitations, which are required for acceptance to a program.

5. If you don’t get in or don’t feel you’re competitive enough to apply to start right after undergrad, there are options to help you strengthen your application. One of these is a post-baccalaureate program, post bacc for short. If you would like to know more about these kinds of programs, there is a wonderful post on goingtomedschool.com which you can find here: http://www.goingtomedschool.com/2013/06/17/what-is-a-premed-postbac-program/.

Well, that’s the general sequence. I hope that I helped you understand a little bit more about the process of getting to medical school. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask me through my contact form, on my twitter at @MDPhDToBe, or in the comments below. Best of luck!

Adderall abuse in college

I was recently asked a question of my ask.fm account (http://ask.fm/MDPhDToBe) regarding how I feel about Adderall abuse in college. Unfortunately, my response was too long to fit in the space allotted for a response because it is such an important topic to address. Therefore, here are my thoughts:

I highly suggest that you do not abuse Adderall or any other prescription drug, especially to help you do well in college. These drugs are only available by prescription for a reason. If you feel you need to take it for self-diagnosed ADHD or narcolepsy, see your doctor to be diagnosed and get a prescription that way.

If you need more convincing, here’s some reasons why abusing Adderall is a bad idea:

1) Side effects and drug interactions. Adderall has plenty of side effects, some minor, some serious. Overdosing can result in cardiac and/or pulmonary arrest, death, severe and lasting mental effects/defects to name a few. If you abuse Adderall, your tolerance to the drug will likely go down so you will likely take more and more of it, increasing your chance of overdosing. If you overdose and you’re anywhere but near medical professionals, your chance of living is slim. This is an extreme case, but it is always a possibility. Other side effects include anxiety, transient depression, heart palpitations, elevation of blood pressure, Tourette’s syndrome, seizures, stroke, and psychotic episodes or plain old psychosis. The negative effects of taking Adderall are amplified by drug interactions. There are 488 drugs that have drug interactions with Adderall, 36 of those interactions are major. Even the common drugs acetaminophen (found in Tylenol) and ALCOHOL can amplify the negative side effects of Adderall. Receiving a prescription from a doctor is important because they will make sure that you can avoid these detrimental drug interactions.

2) Addiction. Adderall is highly addictive, so much that you will find it difficult to ever study again without it. As I previously mentioned, this can lead to a greater addiction as tolerance is increased which increases your chance of overdosing and it can lead to a whirlwind of addiction to other drugs.

3) THE LAW. THE SALE, POSSESSION, AND USE OF ADDERALL FOR ILLEGITIMATE PURPOSES IS A FELONY. FELONIES ARE ON YOUR RECORD. MEDICAL SCHOOLS, FUTURE EMPLOYERS, ETC. CHECK YOUR LEGAL RECORD. THEY WILL PROBABLY NOT LOOK ON IT TOO KINDLY. PLUS, FELONIES ARE PUNISHABLE BY DEATH OR IMPRISONMENT IN EXCESS OF ONE YEAR. DON’T RISK IT.

4) Violation of honor code. While this isn’t a thing at every school, some schools like Wesleyan University are taking the stance that the use of pharmaceutical study aids, like Ritalin and Adderall by students without a prescription is a violation of the university’s academic honor code.  Many other universities hold a similar prohibition through their non-academic honor codes. It’s not even that you will get caught, but you will then have to live with knowing that your academic success is partially attributed to taking an illicit drug. It’s not fair to your fellow students who are not taking drugs to help them study and it’s not fair to you because of its negative effects on your body and it will likely lead to dissatisfaction with studying without it. If you ever run out of it, you’re screwed.

BOTTOM LINE: DO NOT ABUSE PRESCRIPTION DRUGS. Strive for academic success in an honest way. If you need to help yourself focus on studying, drink coffee. Caffeine is still a drug but it a legal drug that is less potent, less dangerous, and available to all. Even better yet, EXERCISE. Exercise has been shown to boost your mental focus and cognitive performance for any challenging task you face that day. Plenty of us have made it through college without using prescription drugs to help us study, so it can be done without drug abuse.

Related articles:

Adderall: The Most Abused Prescription Drug in America. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-ronald-ricker-and-dr-venus-nicolino/adderall-the-most-abused_b_619549.html

Are study drugs a form of cheating? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/13/wesleyan-university-answe_n_761495.html

4 Ways to exercise to boost brain power. http://www.boston.com/dailydose/2013/03/07/ways-exercise-can-boost-your-mental-performance/nI4DA55GaKDZbdrAk9EmiO/story.html


Featured image: Instagram | Hanna Erickson

Getting research experience as an undergraduate/post-bacc student

Research is essential to advance our knowledge of the human body and to develop improved ways of treating diseases. Without the innovation of researchers, we still may be doing things like putting leeches on people to heal them of their illnesses or cutting holes in people’s heads to release “evil spirits” that were believed to be the cause of their ailments. To show your devotion to the medical field as a premed, you can get involved in research so that you can get a better understanding of how it is done and a better appreciation of the hard work that goes into the knowledge doctors use to diagnose and treat their patients.

So how do you actually go about getting involved in a research laboratory? If you go to a large research university like I did, it’s a little easier. You find professors that you’d be interested in working with from the university’s website and contact them asking if they’d be interested in taking on an undergraduate student. Your advisor will also be a good resource to contact for help with this. Expect to at least start off volunteering as putting money into an inexperienced undergraduate isn’t the most logical for someone working hard to maintain grants to fund their lab. Depending on the professor (also called the PI or primary investigator of the lab) they may ask you to take a directed research course to verify that you’ll spend enough time in the lab or they’ll at least expect you to be in the lab for a certain amount of time each week. Often, you’ll be paired with a graduate student or postdoctoral student who will be your mentor. You may just assist the student or once you’re more experienced you will get your own project that they will simply advise you about. If you don’t go to a large research university, you can still contact professors at your nearest university to see if they would be able to take you in their lab.

Also, keep your eyes and ears peeled for professors saying that they are looking for undergraduates for their labs. This is how I managed to land both of my research positions in undergrad. I found out about the first lab I worked in because the professor was a guest lecturer in my freshman genetics course. He began his presentation with talking about the importance of research for undergraduates and said that if any of us wanted experience, his lab was always willing to take more undergraduates. I emailed him the next day and he told me to come in and talk to his lab manager whenever I was ready to start work. I found out about the second lab I worked in from an email the professor had forwarded to the chemistry majors by our advisor that said she was looking for undergraduates. As this lab was in a more convenient location and was much closer to what I wanted to do, I jumped on the opportunity. Nonetheless, if you pick a lab this way, you may not be working on something that you would want to go into (like for me, genetic engineering of livestock, which I helped with in the first lab).

Another option is to apply for a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, REU for short. These are summer research programs that let you to go to another school for 10 or so weeks to get full time research experience. The best part is that you get paid for it! To find more about these, search for “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” on your favorite university’s website or simply google it to find schools that are offering such programs. They are  highly prestigious programs that are highly competitive, so it is suggested that you apply to quite a few of them!

If you’ve graduated from college, there are still opportunities to get research experience without pursuing an advanced degree. One incredible opportunity that I wish I had known about before I applied to med school is the Post-baccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) offered by the NIH. This program is for college graduates who received their bachelor’s degrees less than two years prior to the date they begin the program who intend to apply to graduate or professional school during their tenure in the program. Essentially, the program consists of working in a primary investigator’s lab at one of the National Institutes of Health facilities. It has rolling admissions with just 10% or so admission rate, but it is a fabulous opportunity to try for! I applied in the late early spring of my senior year in case I didn’t get into medical school and had a PI contact me about working in his lab just a few weeks later. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I had been accepted to an MD/PhD program at that point, so such a backup plan was not needed. There’s a general application on the site, but it will help to contact PIs that you’re interested in working with to help you get into the program!

Surely there’s other places to get research experience such as individual study or at a hospital. When in doubt, your advisor is your best friend and can surely help you land a great research experience!


Featured image: Hanna Erickson