Premed Q&A: MCAT Timing, Shadowing, ECs and More!

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Session 240

This week, I jumped on Facebook Live and answered a ton of questions from students who interacted with me. Check out the great questions that came in. Join us at our Facebook Hangout Group and be a part of our collaborative community.

[01:25] Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep)

I’ve been collaborating with Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep) for several years now and I’ve always heard good feedback from students about them. They are known for their one-on-one tutoring. Expensive, but well worth it the investment. It’s comparable to doing a full-course with other big companies but you get one-on-one tutoring. Their newest product, the MCAT course, is a do-it-yourself, self-paced course that includes their ten MCAT full-length practice tests, all the AAMC materials, over 100 hours of videos, as well as five live office hours every week with Next Step’s top instructors. And it’s cost-efficient. Check out Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep) and use the promo code MSHQ to save some money on all their offerings.

[03:27] Taking the MCAT Too Late (September)

If you’re applying this year (2017), taking the MCAT in September is too late. But never say never. There are some people who do this and still manage to get into medical school but it’s not recommended to take it in September. If you take it in September, your scores come back a month later, which is around October.

This is where most students fall into a trap is they look at the schools and look at the MSAR and College Information Book and the deadline for applying is usually around October 31st. So these students assume that if they took it in September and scores comeback before the deadline then they’re good. The problem with that thinking is you forget that the application process is a rolling admissions process.

[Tweet “The problem with taking the Sept MCAT is you forget the application process is a rolling admissions process.”]

[05:20] Rolling Admissions Process

For example, if you start off with five seats to medical school when you submit in June. Come August, there are only four seats left and come September, three seats left. Come October, there are only two seats left. Because it’s a rolling admissions process, every day you delay submitting your primary and secondaries and having your application complete is delaying your application. This results in a reduced chance at getting into medical school because those seats are taken. It’s like a giant game of musical chairs and most students don’t think about this when they are going through the whole application process. This is not the same as undergrad; which is not a rolling admissions process. As long as my undergrad applications are in by the deadline, I’ll be okay; but that is just not the case for the medical school admissions process.

[07:00] When to Take the MCAT and Prep Tips

Hence, is it too late take the MCAT in September? Technically, no. But ideally, yes. It is too late because you want your application complete as soon as possible. I don’t recommend taking the MCAT later than mid-July. Ideally, take the MCAT by March or April; but no later than July.

*Remember that when you’re taking the MCAT, you’re taking one of the hardest test, if not THE hardest test of your life. Listen to The MCAT Podcast to help you in your journey into medical school. The MCAT is a beast and you have to be ready for it. Don’t take the MCAT just because you need to take it in March or April. The last thing you want to do is rush your application. You need to be prepared for the MCAT as much as possible; which means doing lots of practice test, going through all of the content and making sure you are understanding things and not just reading the books. Don’t just rush it.

[09:35] Involving Religion in your EC’s

Suzanne has been volunteering in an Islamic organization for more than four years. Her question is, how can students talk about religion involvement or should they focus more on just shadowing and clinical experience?

I think it’s perfectly fine to talk about religious organizations and what you were doing especially in today’s climate where it’s a great discussion about what’s going on in the world. You can frame it in a certain way that would bring some education to some people. I don’t think religion is something to shy away from in an application. I see plenty of students writing about their religious affiliations and volunteering in churches and those sorts of things.

[Tweet “I don’t think religion is something to shy away from in a med school application.”]

Whether you should focus more on just shadowing and clinical experience in your application, the answer is no. You have those fifteen spots for writing about your experiences in your application and those are your opportunity to help the admissions committee see how you can fit into the next class they’re trying to put together. If you focus just on clinical experiences and volunteering, then you are failing at showing them how well-rounded you are. Make sure you do a good job of showing extracurricular activities that don’t involve clinical experience, shadowing, or anything medically related. I highly recommend putting on things about your hobbies, cooking, sports involvement, and anything else you can think about. If you love travel, then write travel as an extracurricular and talk about everything else that you can talk about in that world. Don’t just focus on the clinical side or the medicine side because it’s not necessary and it could even be something that can hold you back. Again, you’re trying to paint the picture for them of how you’re going to fit into the class.

[Tweet “Do a good job of showing extracurricular activities that don’t involve clinical experience, shadowing, or anything medically related.”]

[13:00] Reapplying to Medical School

Question: Is a much improved MCAT score enough to constitute growth and improvement between application cycles or would I need to show growth and involvement in multiple areas such as shadowing and volunteering?

Answer: This question really comes down to why you didn’t get into medical school the first time. A big determinant for me is if you had any interviews. If you applied to medical school and you received interviews, there’s a good chance your MCAT score was good enough. After all the interviews and you don’t get an acceptance, it could be the MCAT score that held you back after an interview. But if you got that initial interview, there’s a good chance you score was good enough.

Listen to the Premed Years Podcast Episode 171, which was an interview I did with the former Dean of Admissions at UC Irvine where we talked all about reapplying to medical school and what a reapplicant should do to improve their application. It’s a great episode to highlight what students are doing wrong on that transition from the first application to the second application.

You need to understand your application inside and out. What is it that the admissions committee did or did not like? What is it about your scores? Were you lacking in clinical or shadowing experiences? There are so many things that go into the application.

[16:10] Personal Statements

Question: I just took my personal statement to the university’s writing center and the lady there said it was one of the better drafts she’s read; but she says it can be much better but that may take another week or two. What are your thoughts on the cost/benefit for taking this long?

Answer: As of this recording in late June, you need to get your application in sooner rather than later. I think a couple of weeks is okay depending on what the personal statement looks like. I don’t know the person that reviewed your personal statement and what are her experiences with medical school applications or is she just a general essay reviewer kind of person. Personal statements are hard. Bad ones are bad and good ones are good. If she’ s saying it’s good, it really comes down to what you think. Whenever I’m done editing a personal statement, I ask the student whether they’re comfortable with it or if they have any reservations about it. So, what reservations do you have on your personal statement? Is there something in there that you think is not explaining yourself well enough on why you’re going down this path to medicine and to being a physician?

It says here she has experience with personal statements but not necessarily medical schools. A medical school personal statement is unlike a lot of other personal statements because you need to explain they “why medicine” so much.

[Tweet “A medical school personal statement is unlike a lot of other personal statements because you need to explain they “why medicine” so much.”]

[18:30] Investing in Premed Conferences

Question: I noticed that you’re hoping to speak at the AMSA Premed Fest (November 4-5 at USF). Do you recommend for an undergrad sophomore student to attend and invest in going to this event?

Answer: If you’re a sophomore premed, I recommend you go to this event. There is nothing like being around other students who are on this path. The UC Davis Conference is huge and they are expecting 4,500 people this year. The AMSA conference will probably have 300-400 but it’s premed and they focus on premed. UC Davis Conference focuses on prehealth.

[20:20] Inconsistent Volunteering

Question: How much of a red flag is inconsistent volunteering? I try to keep it as consistent as possible but work full-time Monday to Friday along with some course retakes made it difficult to keep a three-times-a-week schedule of volunteer work. Should I address this anywhere in my application or in essays?

Answer: As long as it’s consistent for the long run. Some students will have shadowing and clinical experience during their freshmen year or sophomore year of college and nothing in junior and senior year. This is a huge red flag. But if you went from three days a week down to one day a week, skipped a couple of months and went back to one day a week, that to me is still consistency in the long run. I think this is okay because when you are are writing your dates on your application, if you have a month to two-month break in there, I wouldn’t even put that as a break but just whatever month, year to whatever month, year. As long as it’s not a significant gap in time, that’s okay. The application instructions may have some more specifics on what they would consider a gap and start-stop dates but I would probably just consider that as just one continuous thing.

When you put that on your application, the way that it prints out and the way that it looks to the person reading it, they can’t tell that there was some inconsistency in there. Besides, they would expect some inconsistency because your job is to be a student. They will also take into account the fact that you’re working full-time. When I was at the UCF Medical Symposium back in February, I spoke with the Dean of Admissions there and he said they understand the student’s commitments; whether that be because of work or kids or family obligations. There are a lot of different reasons for some inconsistencies, so it’s okay and it’s expected.

[23:28] Shadowing in High School

Question: I did shadowing during the summer between junior and senior in high school. Can I put that in the application or should all the activities be during undergrad college time?

Answer: The general rule of thumb is anything before college does not count, with the exception of anything that you can continue into college then you would put the start date before college. But if you had something between junior and senior year, if that was an isolated thing, I wouldn’t put it in your extracurricular list. This is a very common thing that pops out a lot on the prehealth advisors page which is being asked a lot.

[24:20] Clinical Experience to Make Up for Shadowing

Question: Does working closely with physicians and residents over two years make up for limited to no shadowing experience?

Answer: First off, what does working closely with physicians and residents mean? Can you afford to just call it something that it isn’t? Clinical experience doesn’t make up for shadowing. Shadowing is one of those things where we say “there are no check boxes to get into medical school”; but you need to do some things to show that you’re well-rounded. And you need to show more specifically that you know what you’re getting yourself into.

[Tweet “Shadowing is one of those things you need to do to show that you’re well-rounded.”]

A lot of nurses ask if they don’t have to do shadowing since they work around physicians all day and the answer is no. You need to shadow. Working as a nurse or PA or NP is different than shadowing a physician where you’re not working and your brain is in a totally different spot and your job is to soak it all in, to see what that’s like.

[Tweet “Working as a nurse or PA or NP is different than shadowing a physician. You need to shadow (not be at work) and soak it all in.”]

Question: I shadowed physicians from multiple specialties as part of my paramedic clinical rotations. Can I count that as shadowing on the work activity section?

Answer: Definitely. That’s shadowing and you can definitely count that. A lot of people do that, including an NP I worked with last year on her applications. She did a ton of shadowing through her NP schooling and she counted all of that as shadowing.

[26:35] How to Stay Motivated, Withdrawal, and Stumbling Grades

Question: What is your best advice for older students bouncing family, work, and school loads and not getting discouraged when life gets in the way explaining withdrawal in the semester or stumbling grades? What’s the advice for staying motivated?

Answer: You just do it. If you understand why it is that you are on this path then everything else is just distraction. Family is obviously not a distraction, but they’re there to support you. Understand there are going to be times when they take over and you’re going to have to put down the school work and that’s okay. Don’t let that bother you. Just be okay with it. But when it’s time to be “on” with your school work and MCAT prep, be “on” with it. Turn off your phone. Turn off all the distractions and study. Be efficient with your time so that you can utilize that time to the best of your ability knowing and keeping it in your mind why you’re doing it and why you want to be a physician. This helps you stay motivated and on this path.

Listen to a great TEDTalk by Simon Sinek called Start With Why. Knowing your why really helps you get through all these moments when you get discouraged because life is going to get in the way. Life always gets in the way and it’s something that you just have to be okay with. With regards to withdrawing a semester, just be honest and own it. Give it a line on your personal statement if it’s important. If you have a trend of great grades and you have a withdrawal on the first semester and you come back and you still have good grades, you don’t have to mention it. It may come up in the interview or in the secondary essay but if that’s the only thing where you’re withdrawing a semester, a lot of students do it due to different reasons (ex. death, illnesses). A lot of students take breaks.

[Tweet “Life always gets in the way and it’s something that you just have to be okay with.”]

Stumbling grades is a little bit different. If you have a pretty bad negative trend in your grades, that’s something to look at and it’s something that may need an explanation. A lot of secondary essays will allow you to explain some poor grades.

[30:10] Join Our Facebook Group

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[30:40] How to Go About Shadowing

Question: Do you have an episode that talks about how to ask for shadowing opportunities? There are a few places I’d love to shadow but I don’t know what’s the proper way to ask. Do I show up in person, write a letter or an email?

Answer: Whatever you’re most comfortable with but a lot of students send emails. I recommend making phone calls so you’re actually talking to somebody. Try to go to more of a private practice in your area. Call and ask for the office manager. Don’t ask for the physician. Just explain that you’re a premed student and you’d love to shadow Dr. Smith because of XYZ. Have a specific reason for asking to shadow that physician. When you ask more specifically in that way, it makes it sound more personal and you’re not just going down the list and trying to get anybody and everybody. When in reality, that is what you’re doing. But try to make it a little bit more personal. Although I recommend phone calls, you can also email. I also definitely suggest showing up in person, since it’s much harder for them to say no or shoo you out of the office. You may get a lot of no’s but it only takes one person to say yes.

[32:40] Planned Activity Section

Question: How do I approach the planned activity section of my application? What are Admissions Committees really looking for?

Answer: They’re not looking for anything. They just want you to put in your answers. The planned activity section is the part of the application where you’re telling the admissions committee what you’re planning on doing from when you turn in your application into the future. So what are you planning on doing? Whether it be traveling abroad, research, shadowing, being an EMT, whatever it is, put that there. Don’t try to put something there that you think the AdComs want to see. That never works. Just be honest and put whatever you need to put there.

[34:00] How to Get Letters of Recommendation

Question: Is there a better way to know if schools will accept other types of letters of recommendation besides professors like contacting each school personally?

Answer: If you’re a traditional student and an undergrad, look at the MSAR. Look at the school’s website. Look at the College Information Book for DO schools. Look at the letters of recommendations that they require. A lot of them will ask for three letters, typically two science and one non-science professors. Some will say you can send a letter from a physician you’re shadowing or something else.

If you’re a nontraditional student and you’ve been out of school more than three to five years, a lot of schools will be okay with you not sending academic letters. They understand that if you go back and try to get a letter of recommendation from your science professor from six years ago, those letters probably aren’t going to be very good and aren’t going to be a good representation of who you are. It’s okay to reach out to the medical school and explain your a nontrad and that you’re hoping to use letters of recommendation from your research PI or work supervisor or from your volunteer supervisor in place of letter one, letter two, letter three. Be very specific about who you’re asking letters from and replacing with.

[36:10] Shadowing: Quality versus Quantity

Question: How varied should shadowing and volunteering be? I expect to be working as a pharmacy technician at the local teaching hospital by the end of next month, so I would have access to a wide variety of specialties. Is there something I should zero in on or would reaching outside the hospital be something I should do as well?

Answer: I don’t necessarily disagree with shadowing a lot of different specialties, but I don’t think it’s mandatory either. I very much prefer quality over quantity. If you find a physician that you connect with very well, stick with that doctor because those connections can go pretty far. But if you really get interested in one specific type of disease or type of patients and you’re interested in checking that out then try to go find a specialist to shadow that treats that disease. There’s nothing wrong with seeing lots of different things.

In Specialty Stories Episode 29, an OB/GYN talked about wanting to be a pediatrician initially and now she’s an OB/GYN. There’s a huge difference between shadowing a specific specialty and actually doing that specialty as a medical student and a resident. What you find you like watching as a shadow is very different once you’re literally elbow-deep into something in the operating room.

[Tweet “What you find you like watching as a shadow is very different once you’re literally elbow-deep into something in the operating room.”]

Hence, as a premed student, having that shadowing experience doesn’t mean you’re going to find the love of your life, specialty-wise.

[38:52] Life Experiences

Question: What will make me more well-rounded in their eyes? I have a lot of life experiences but I want to know what to include and exclude.

Answer: You are unique as a nontrad and so just find those things you are most passionate about, writing about, and talking about. Those are the things you should include.

[39:17] Letters of Recommendation

Question: Is it okay to ask for a recommendation letter if I only shadowed the physician for a few hours?

Answer: No, I would not ask a letter of recommendation from somebody you only shadowed for a few hours. Letters of recommendation should come from somebody that you know well and they know you well. This is another reason to stick with one person for a long time instead of hopping around to different specialties. They should be able to write a very strong letter of recommendation which means they should know who you are.

Question: How long should a shadowing be before I can ask for a recommendation letter?

Answer: As to how long shadowing should be before asking for a recommendation letter, it should be as long as it needs to be for you to have great connection with them for them to be able to write a great recommendation letter for you.

Question: Is it okay to ask for a letter of recommendation immediately after shadowing or go back to the physician after two years when I’m actually applying to medical school?

Answer: This goes back to the connection you have with that physician. If you shadowed him or her two years ago but you stayed in contact and they know where you’re at in the process and you have a great relationship, then you ask if they could write a strong recommendation letter for you. If they’re pretty hesitant, pass on it. If you shadowed somebody two years ago and you haven’t talked to them for two years, do not go back and ask that person for a recommendation letter.

[41:08] MD or DO

Question: Am I hurting myself by wanting to apply only to DO just because I like OMM and OMT. I think it’s cool to learn and kind of a bang for the buck but I also feel like if I only apply to DO, I’d be missing out on a lot of great schools that will make me a doctor at the end of the day, which is the main goal.

Answer: There are a lot of students who apply to DO schools for that specific reason. They like OMM. They like OMT. They like the holistic approach to medicine that DO’s spout off. I don’t agree with the marketing angle they have of their DO philosophy of how they treat holistically because I think all good physicians, MD or DO treat patients holistically. But OMM or OMT is great. At the end of the day, it’s you who makes the ultimate difference between a good physician, a great physician, and a bad physician. It’s your attitude, your skills, your knowledge. Your effort that you put into everything that you do in life is what makes you a great physician, not the school. Find a school that does that for you and that helps support you to be a great medical student so you can one day be a great physician. Don’t worry that it is a DO school because you can do anything you want as a DO.


TEDTalk by Simon Sinek: Start With Why

AMSA Premed Fest on November 4-5, 2017

The Premed Years Podcast Session 171: Reapplying to Medical School – What You Need to Know to Improve

Specialty Stories Episode 29: What is OB/GYN?

Need MCAT Prep? Save on tutoring, classes, and full-length practice tests by using promo code “MSHQ” for 10% off Next Step full-length practice tests or “MSHQTOC” for $50 off MCAT tutoring or the Next Step MCAT Course at Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep)!

MedEd Media Network

The Premed Years

The OldPreMeds Podcast

Specialty Stories Podcast


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