How to Convey Your Story Through the Med School Application

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PMY 394: How to Convey Your Story Through the Med School Application

Session 394

What’s the best approach for writing your personal statement? What are admissions committees really looking for, specifically? And more! Let’s ask the Dean!

This is a private Ask the Dean Episode Two now where I’m joined by Dr. Scott Wright. Ask the Dean is a special program that we do in the Mappd Facebook group which is for students who have pre-ordered Mappd.

For more podcast resources to help you along your journey to medical school and beyond, check out Meded Media.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[01:33] How Mappd is Revolutionizing the Premed Process

Mappd is a new technology platform that I have partnered with Rachel Grubbs and we’re building to revolutionize the premed process. Historically, students have relied on Google Sheets and Excel spreadsheets to calculate their GPA. They use their Notes app or a Google Doc to track their extracurricular activities or their Google spreadsheet to track hours for their activities. And all of that is great, and it does the job to track.

But where the problem comes, is that you don’t get any feedback from doing that. And Mappd is going to change that. 

You’re going to be able to tell us what school you go to. Based on that, we’re going to have all of the courses that’s the plan. We’re building a huge course catalog for every school for students who are part of Mappd. At some point, we will have the path that that school actually recommends. If you have a prehealth advisor at that school, we’re going to reach out to them and say what is the process at your school and what they would recommend.

So if you’re a freshman coming in and you sign up for Mappd, and you put the year at the University of Florida, we’re going to be able to recommend what should you be taking this semester or which extracurriculars to look at for these premed programs. We’re going to be able to let you know that this grade in that class is likely not going to work and you’re going to have to retake that course. We can tell you if the school replaces the grade on your transcript and whether that’s going to count on your application, and here’s what your GPA is going to look like.

  • We will tell you what your GPA is going to look like and how that is going to potentially look to medical schools.
  • We’re going to give you MCAT information on how to study and how to create a study schedule.
  • You’re going to track all of your extracurriculars and be able to write little diary entries based on every action activity that you do. We’re going to automatically track those hours.
  • We will track your supervisors and who you want letters recommendations from.
  • Based on the medical schools that you selected, you can create your school list on Mapped.

We want to make sure that every student is going to be able to use this and capitalize on it to succeed because of it.

You also get to participate in the Ask the Dean Facebook Live that we do with myself and Dr. Scott Wright, who’s the former director of admissions at UT Southwestern, former executive director at the TMDSAS. He has extensive experience both on the admissions side, as well as the prehealth side for premed students.

[07:50] How to Get Started with Writing a Personal Statement

There is a Genesis moment where you take something out of nowhere. And you put it into actual writing and you begin to use this sort of gardening metaphor. You use water, you water this idea, you fertilize this idea, and you let it begin to blossom. There’s a starting point or a Genesis point that’s going to expand into other things.

'Regardless of what technique you use to write your personal statement to begin that process, you have to use a process that makes sense for you.'Click To Tweet

You’ve got a lot of these experiences that you’re using. And what happens often is you pull from those experiences and you even pull phrases that you used.

To begin the process of putting together what’s going to eventually be a personal statement, an essay, but at the very beginning, it does look like an essay. It’s just a seed, or it’s just a brain dump, or however you want to conceive of it. Ultimately, do what makes sense for you.

Most students are going to need some sort of initial structure to help them figure out how to begin this process.

This is where the book The Premed Playbook: Guide to the Medical School Personal Statement comes handy. You can follow that structure from beginning to the end. Or you may start off with that structure and then go somewhere else with your writing process. And that’s okay, too.

“It's very much an idea of you making it making sense to you and be using structures that will help you get your head around it.”Click To Tweet

Moreover, what actually works is to tell a story and for students to understand how to tell their story using normal storytelling techniques. It’s not really a secret to the personal statement, but it’s just storytelling in general, whether it’s a novel, a movie, or whatever.

[13:33] Lack of Experience of Nontrad Career-Changing Students

Q: Are the admissions committees sensitive to the reasons behind the lack of clinical experience that nontraditional career-changing students may have compared to their more traditional co-applicants? Are nontrad students considered a little differently in that regard?

A: From the Director of Admissions standpoint, the question comes down to number one, how potentially is that data seen that a student is nontraditional? And then from the admissions committee side, how do you take that into account?

When we talk about nontraditional students, what we’re really talking about is students who have not done the traditional 18 years. They go straight out of high school into college. They go through college for four years, applying in junior year, then they’re going into senior year. Then straight from college to medical school.

Gap years are becoming much more common. They’re not typical, but they’re more common now than they used to be.

So that’s the sort of traditional pathway. But taking a gap year would still often be seen as a traditional applicant. Nontraditional students often are going to school full time and working part-time, or go working full time and going to school part-time. They just don’t have a whole lot of room in their schedule for a whole lot of shadowing. Their experiences may be seen as somewhat less and they’re worried that the amount of experiences is less.

“What you have to focus on is not necessarily the amount of time you're spending doing something. What is really crucial is what you're getting out of it and how you talk about it.”Click To Tweet

Talk about its value to you, the meaning of it, and how that meaning got created, and how you communicate that meaning to an admissions committee in your application. 

You maybe had 40 hours of shadowing or volunteering and there are these other applicants who have hundreds of hours doing all kinds of different things. But I’ve seen so many applications, where a student had lots of experiences and has no clue what they did. They have no idea of the magnitude of what they were doing, or what it meant to them or the value of it. They don’t know why they were even doing it. They could talk about the task-oriented questions that they did the tasks but they could not talk about what it meant.

What you did volunteering and shadowing, that’s the “what” part. The more important issue is the “so what” part, who cares that you did that? 

Everybody does that kind of stuff. They want to know what difference it made in your life, what you got out of it, the meaning of it. So you have to focus yourself as an applicant.

Regardless of whether you only have 40 hours of medically related experiences or 300 hours of medically related experiences, you’ve got to focus on what it means to you. That’s what the admissions committee wants to know.

“If you're limited in the number of hours that you've got or the experiences that you have, you focus on that value. That's the important part.”Click To Tweet

A lot of students forget to put jobs and other stuff in their activity list that they think may not be related to medicine. But it just paints a better picture of who you are and what you’re doing. Then the admissions committees can see that your hours are a little bit lower than what they normally look at. They take a look at the whole picture of who the student is.

[22:03] Different Types of Interviews

Q: How do admissions committees figure out who is right for their school and will make a great physician? Who are they looking for in a student for their class?

A: These days, medical schools have very different ways of interviewing students. Some schools do the traditional interview method with the faculty members.

Some schools use medical students or residents to interview students, and it’s still a very traditional 30 minute or so interview. It could be structured and unstructured. In other words, structured would be there. They’re told what questions to ask. Nonstructured would be they can ask whatever they wanted.

And other schools use multiple mini interviews (MMIs) where you go to different stations. There are ethical or social dilemmas that are presented and you have to respond in a very short period of time to what the scenario is.

Some schools use a mixture of those two. They may use multiple mini interviews and then they may have one or more traditional interviews.

Within the context that every school does it differently, what medical schools are looking for would be a variety of things. 

One of them is whether you can actually carry on a conversation. This is a very crucial part of what it means to be a physician. You’re carrying on a conversation with them. And you have to come to a point where you can make that person feel comfortable with you.

The admissions committees get a lot of information about mission orientation and how well you fit that to the secondary application. But they may be exploring that as well in medical school interviews. They look at your language and whether you can connect with them.

[27:22] Does the Undergrad Institution Matter?

Q: How important is an applicant’s undergraduate institution?

A: The question is really about fit. It’s the same as choosing your degree. You study what you want to study because ultimately, that’s where you’re going to do best. If you want to go to the state school because your best friends go in there and because you really connected with it, it sounds cool and then go to state school.

You have to go to an institution that fits you.

There’s always been this myth that there’s some sort of formula that the medical schools alter your GPA based on this formula. And the formula has within it a modifier for the type of school you’re coming from. So if you went to what’s considered a really tough school, then they’re going to modify that GPA accordingly. That is not the way it works at all!

'Don't go to a great school, go to a school that will make you great.'Click To Tweet

What medical schools want is to see this whole picture of who the student is. However, Scott doesn’t recommend a student at a four-year institution who goes home for the summer to go to community college and take science classes. 

If you’re going to go over the summer and need to take classes during the summer, do courses that are just general electives or general education courses.

But if it does become clear that you are at a four-year institution, and that you are trying to go to a community college to take Physics because you think it’s gonna be easier there, then they’re absolutely going to see that. So don’t do that.

If they can tell based on the story that you’re struggling in your four-year university classes. And all of a sudden you have these community college classes that are A’s then they’re going to question that.

[37:52] Including Kids in Your Personal Statement

If it’s somewhat gratuitous that you’re including mentions of your children in your application, then that’s going to be weird. But on the other hand, if you have such a meaningful experience where, for example, one of your children had a terrible chronic disease and that’s part of the reason you want to go into medicine, then it makes total sense.

Again, they will take a look at the whole picture. If that picture includes children, and it makes sense to include mentions of your children in your application, then don’t shy away from it.

“You have to be true to yourself ultimately, and want to give the picture of who you are to the admissions committees.”Click To Tweet

[40:38] What to Do At This Time of COVID-19

The admissions committees are going through COVID-19 just like everybody else is. The medical students have had to stop rotations. And it has affected everybody.

'The admissions committees aren't on some other planet, they realize what's going on.'Click To Tweet

For those students who are applying this year, there’s not a whole lot you can do. There are some remote internships that you can do. But in terms of real experiences, that’s going to be a bit of a challenge. There are not a whole lot of remote or online internships that you can do.

Just take what you’ve got and go with it. The admissions committees are aware they know what’s going on. They understand what this is all about and the limitations that is placed on everybody. So you don’t need to worry about that.

[44:24] Arrest Record Because of Joining Protests

Medical schools are not living in some vacuum somewhere. They may be experiencing the protests in their own neighborhoods. They may be caring for people who have been somehow wounded in or hurt in the process of these protests.

The medical schools know what’s going on. If you got arrested in a protest, you would have to put that on the application.

Most of the applications ask if you’ve been arrested or charged with a crime or whatever. You have to look at the language carefully. What that gives you is an opportunity to explain that. Talk about the bigger context for why you got arrested. Now, having said that, if you get arrested because you’re looting Target then that may be a different story.

Understand that the far majority of schools are going to be okay with you protesting non violently and not looting. They’re going to understand that especially right now and to the ones that don’t, well it’s their loss.

'You can't live your life thinking what is this going to look like to the admissions committee. You got to live your life and be you.'Click To Tweet


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