Dr. Sunny Nakae has been around in the medical admissions world for a while now. She previously served at Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola in Chicago and is now at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine.
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[02:10] Interest in Medicine
Sunny’s first job out of undergrad was working in community outreach, helping get kids excited about science. And on her first day, they dissected fresh cow’s eyeballs with high schools students in a lab at the University of Utah School of Medicine. She loved seeing that hands-on exposure that sparked among the youth. She was so happy to work with students who were also passionate about medicine.'It's really important to explore your career tracks and just know that it's what you want to do.'Click To Tweet
The dealbreaker for Sunny in medicine was the body fluids. She didn’t really like sick people too. Medicine is so much more than liking science and wanting to help people.
So Sunny pursued social work for a while. Specifically, she did clinical social work with veterans with PTSD for a year and a half. She ultimately realized it wasn’t a fit for her. She then shifted into the policy side, community partnerships, and campus partnerships.
[05:25] The Biggest Mistake Students Make When Applying to Medical Schools'The biggest mistake that students make is to give up authenticity at the very beginning of the process.'Click To Tweet
Medicine is so much about becoming a physician and you have to bring your real self and your whole self with you into that. This is actually what they see on the committee side. When someone comes across well, it’s because they’re pursued things they love. This makes them who they are and they’re deeply connected to the ways they see themselves in the world.
On the other hand, students who only go with the checklist also come across this way when they read them. They’ve done all the right things but they don’t really feel it. They won’t feel the student’s passion or they can’t see how they fit with their mission.
They’ve become a generic cutout of what they think a premed applicant can be that they’re unable to see who they authentically are.
If you don’t allow the admissions committee to see who you are outside of the “checklist” you’re doing, they’re not going to know how you fit in with the class. And they’ll move on to somebody else who can show that.
Additionally, Sunny thinks the mission of the school really matters. Applicants are not being as thoughtful and discriminating as they should be in terms of their goals in medicine. The school also looks at who would be the right fit for the mission of an institution.
[08:00] Understanding the MSAR and Beyond the Stats
The MSAR only publishes the 10th to the 90th percentile. Sunny actually sees the need to have this published in its full range. Since students want to know if they get any consideration at all.
That being said, there’s a tremendous range of applicants who get accepted if you look at the published data from AAMC every year. GPAs go all the way down to below 3.0 and MCAT goes to below the 490s even. It’s not a lot of students but it’s not impossible.
Similarly, there are those “academically perfect” students with the 3.8s to 4.0s and 517+ but about 15% of them don’t get anywhere in the country.'It widens the door of consideration to have good numbers but it doesn't mean you will be passed over if you're not the right fit for the school.'Click To Tweet
[10:50] Getting on the Radar of the Admissions Committee
Sunny had seen admissions committees fall in love with applicants that are mission-fit in every single way and they only had one flaw such as low MCAT or GPA. She had worked with committees who have gone below the 25th percentile on the MCAT. Again, it’s not everyone.
Sometimes, schools may offer an opportunity for the applicants to be there in the summer so they can show who they are. Faculty will then be able to get to know the students.
Faculty members have a lot of power to advocate for someone they genuinely like. There’s no better testimonial than that.'When there are a strong mission fit and an investment, committees will make offers.'Click To Tweet
These programs are typically offered on their websites. Sunny said they used to have a book on summer opportunities that came out every other year but they stopped publishing it. It contained an inventory of all these types of programs across medical schools.
That said, just do some web surfing. Look for offices about region inclusion or recruitment offices. Also, look at the center of excellence grants offered through the fed to increase representation in rural and urban communities.
[13:20] Advocating for Yourself
Sunny is a fan of students advocating for themselves within the parameters that the schools allow. Express your interest if there’s a way for you to update your application or email the admissions office.
Some schools would have open house days where students could come and learn about the school. Sunny advises against just dropping in. They want to be prepared for students coming in.'Just because we don't choose you doesn't mean you're not great. A lot of the admission's decisions are not as personal as applicants take them to be.'Click To Tweet
There are different types of screens or lenses that applications are filtered or prioritized. A lot of the times, they’re not looking at your whole application and say no. They might be saying not yet or you’re not the right fit.
[16:20] What Admissions Committees Look For
From the admissions side of things, they specifically look for team players and who can demonstrate that they care about others ahead of themselves. They look for demonstrated efforts of altruism. Endorsements or letters of recommendation are important, and typically, letter writers are able to emphasize that.
Sunny cited an example of one applicant whose letter of recommendation was written by his supervisor at the warehouse he was working at. The committee just got melted by the letter. It said he was the first one to volunteer to walk other team members to their cars at the end of the day. He would work holidays so other people can spend holidays with their families. He was always willing to pick up shifts. He was the first person to help.
It had nothing to do with clinic or research – he was just a wonderful human and that’s what they need in medicine.
When asking for letters of recommendation, Sunny recommends going to the person who knows you better, and not the person who’s either well-known or who’s going to be able to tell your grades. They have your transcript so they’d know how you did in Organic Chemistry.
[21:10] How Premed Advisors Can Give Better Information to Students
With a broad spectrum of advisors out there, Sunny encourages students to have a panel of advisors. Look at the type of advice they give you and how invested are they in your success. Try to weigh that when choosing your advisors.
Some advisors are well-meaning but they may only be advising students wholesale. So they’re not able to individually help students develop the best version of themselves because there’s too much on their plate. They feel obligated to give the basic template. It’s up to applicants to take control of that and to feel confident in customizing it.'Every mentor is not going to serve the same purpose.'Click To Tweet
It’s hard to find the perfect mentor. So it’s great to have a personal board of mentors. One can probably be professionally encouraging and one can help you with your personal or spiritual development. One may also give you the technical aspect.
Sunny explains that shadowing has so many differential access to it. And they may not indicate that the applicant understands medicine and they know what they’re getting into if they just follow someone around all day. They’re not really allowed to ask questions and they’re only observing. They’re not really getting a guided interpretation of what they’re seeing.
The admissions committees want to know that you know what you’re getting into. So how do you know that? This is a big deal because it’s a huge undertaking. It’s expensive. And so they want to make sure the applicants get a clear picture of what they’re getting into regardless if that comes from shadowing.'The goal of that is to help us understand that you're willing to commit your life to this profession.'Click To Tweet
[25:55] Writing Personal Statements
Sunny wrote a blog called Tough Love for Your Personal Statement: Advice from a Medical School Dean, where she shared some tips when writing personal statements.
A good personal statement includes who you are and why you want to be a physician.
A personal statement should not be anybody else’s personal statement with your own tweaks. It should be personal. It should be the results of your interrogation of yourself. It’s a process, not an event. It’s a personal journey that you have to go through.'If you really can't think of anything to write, you're probably not ready to apply.'Click To Tweet
Sunny emphasizes that they’re investing in the future. So as they read them, they think whether the applicant is emotionally mature to deliver bad news or take care of loved ones.
Some things you can include in your personal statement would be why your experience matters, what did you learn from it, and what has surprised or changed you. They want to see how you’ve grown from your personal statement or how you’ve viewed something differently. If you can show that to the admissions committee, that’s powerful!
Lastly, really take the time to write your personal statement. In fact, you will interview better if you interrogate yourself and your motivation in your personal statement.
Many students go to medical school for reasons of prestige or it’s what their parents expect of them. But Sunny warns that medical schools are one of the worst places to be if you don’t want it.
[31:10] Who Can Get In?
The applicant’s purpose must come forward, front and center, as well as how they’ve spent their time should be a manifesto of their passions and identity.
They don’t have to present themselves as perfect. The application has to come across in a way that’s authentic. It’s not so concerned with how it’s going to be judged, but with passionately articulating their personal purpose in medicine.
Your experiences must show how they’ve helped you grow, what you’re passionate about and why. Why are you taking time to do things you’re doing? And do they matter? Be able to make those connections with some genuine curiosity and this will go a long way.
[33:10] Final Words of Wisdom'You are so much more than numbers.' Click To Tweet
Sunny has worked with students over the years who had GPAs even below 2.0 but are now physicians. If you feel called to medicine, then you owe it to yourself to stick it out and to do it.
If you’re doing it for the right reasons and you’re the right kind of human then medicine really needs you. There are ways to improve your score. So don’t give up.
Some of Sunny’s favorite students had struggled en route to medical school. But when they got there, they never took it for granted. They worked really hard and in a way that showed a sense of gratitude for just being there. They were much more resilient in the face of challenges in medical school because they’ve been through stuff before medical school.
Read Sunny’s blog: Tough Love for Your Personal Statement: Advice from a Medical School Dean
Read her other blogs on Reflective MedEd.
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