Dr. Scott Wright, our VP of Academic Advising at Mappd, joined me on Instagram Live to discuss common mistakes he saw in his various roles in medical education.
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.
[01:09] A Little Background on Dr. Scott Wright
Dr. Scott Wright is the former director of admissions at UT Southwestern Medical School. He’s the former executive director of TMDSAS, the whole application service to all of the Texas Medical Schools. He was also Associate Dean and Director of the Health Professions Advising Center at UT Dallas.
Scott has a very unique perspective on all sides of it. He’s been on the premed side, the Director of Admissions side, the medical school side. And he’s been in the middle with the application service interfacing with all of the advisors and the medical schools. So he’s got a wealth of knowledge that he’s going to share with you right now.
[04:57] Mistake #1: Not Being Careful and Rushing It Too Quickly
The most common mistake in the preparation for the application and then the application itself is not being careful. So they make these small mistakes, misspelled words, bad grammatical mistakes.
Students want to get it done early. They want to get everything in and rushing. And this indicates a lack of seriousness about the whole endeavor. Word doc or Google Docs has a spell check button so be sure to use that.'You have to carefully check your application. Get someone else to proofread it for you.'Click To Tweet
[06:56] Mistake #2: Empty Personal Statement
If you go to your personal statement section, and there’s no personal statement there, there’s nothing in the box that it won’t let you submit. Occasionally, there are students who would type into that box, come back, and do this later. And when they submit, that was it. And they’re mortified when they discover it.
TMDSAS says this happens every year. And they don’t give these students a second chance because you wouldn’t want a physician who wouldn’t read carefully before they click Submit.
[09:00] Mistake #3: The Application Photographs
What this indicates to the admissions committees is a lack of seriousness about their application.'The photo is part of your application. This is part of what a medical school uses to verify that you are indeed who you say you are.' Click To Tweet
When you show up at the interview, they can see your application picture. They can see you in person. And so they would use it to verify that the actual person and the person on the photo are the same.
You don’t have to go to a professional photographer. You can just get a friend to take your picture with your phone. But put on a nice shirt or a dress and get behind the nice bush with greenery. At least make it look presentable and appropriate for what you’re doing.
It becomes an issue of professionalism. Medical schools are really hitting us hard because our society is also expecting professionalism from their health care providers. And so medical schools are expecting it from medical students, and they expect it in the application process as well.
[11:53] Mistake #4: Activities
Have reasonable expectations about what you’re going to face in clinical experiences. For most applicants, you don’t know anything. You don’t know how to do anything. So for you to expect that you’re going to walk into a hospital and be able to witness an open heart surgery, it’s maybe not a good expectation.'Have reasonable expectations about what you're going to be doing, and be able to reflect on what you did and what it meant to you.' Click To Tweet
It’s not what you did that makes the difference, but its the value that you’ve taken from that experience. What did you learn about that experience? Show that you have a good work ethic and that you showed up when you’re supposed to be there. Get your foot in the door. Network with other people and you’ll open up doors that way.
Remember, you’re not just checking off boxes. You’re not just trying to reach a certain hour count for anything. But it’s about the richness of those experiences. There have been so many students over the years who had somewhat limited experiences, but the richness of how they talked about those experiences was amazing. It far outweighed other applicants who had many more hours of experience.'It's not just about checking off the box, it's about doing. It's about engaging in what you're doing and really getting something out of it.'Click To Tweet
[17:20] Mistake #5: Translating Your Nonclinical Experiences into the Core Competencies
Another common mistake is that students avoid showing their whole journey, even outside of medicine because they think the application is clinical and medicine only.“Medical schools are looking for a variety of different personal qualities.”Click To Tweet
The AAMC calls these core competencies, and some of them can be expressed in a variety of ways. It can range from student organizations to work experiences, to other types of volunteering clubs. There’s just a variety of things that a student can do that can develop their leadership abilities.
Check out the TMDSAS APPLY Magazine where they had an article about what difference does it make and how to translate non-clinical experiences into these core competencies. Just download their magazines for more resources.
So whether it was clinical or not, it can still be applicable to the qualities that medical schools are looking for in their applicants. Don’t discount those things at all and include them in your application.
Keep in mind that you’re creating a marketing tool. You have to know what you’re marketing first before you can market it. And so get very clear in your mind about what you want medical schools to get out of your application. And then figure out ways to make that happen in the various parts of it.
[20:03] Mistake #6: Activities From Highschool
There’s this general rule of thumb which is an unwritten rule about applications with regards to activities. The activities you should be talking about are right after high school, with the rare exception of things that started in high school, but then continued right through college or into college.
In essays, it’s a lot easier to use that kind of stuff than it is in the descriptions of events and activities where it becomes much more noticeable.
If something in your high school years, for example, was very pivotal that’s important in your premed process, then that’s where you can discuss it in that personal statement. Or discuss that in an optional essay where you can really explore that in much greater detail. Put more emphasis on how that was imperative to your growth toward going into the application cycle.“Don't go back to the high school stuff. The one exception would be dual credit when you're including courses that you took in high school that you got dual credit for.”Click To Tweet
As a premed society, we call it your extracurriculars but its official name on the application is The Activity Section. And so students get very confused. So if research was part of your Ph.D., that is technically not extracurricular. That’s part of the curriculum. But you can include that stuff on the application.
[23:06] Mistake #7: Interview Mistakes
One of the biggest mistakes students make is getting themselves so wound up that they’re so crazy nervous. There’s such a level of anxiety that they don’t perform well. It starts days ahead of time, and it builds and builds and builds. Then they get to the interview, and they’re a nervous wreck. And that can be disastrous.
Everybody’s going to be nervous and there’s going to be some level of anxiety. And if there’s not, I would probably worry about that. But students need to find ways to calm themselves down.
A lot of medical schools have social mixers and things. It’s a good idea to go and really be able to meet students.“Nervousness is a real, crucial point that students have to battle.”Click To Tweet
There are different ways that nervousness can show in students. Some students sweat profusely, others get really cold. So if you’re that kind of student, have layers of clothing. And if you start sweating, take your jacket off. Have a bottle of water that you can take a sip from if you start coughing during the interview.
Some students also tend to jabber on and one when they get nervous. But there are also students who just give a one-word answer to everything. So these are things that you need to pay attention to.
All those being said, you can overcome your nervousness issues through practice. So be sure to do a couple of mock interviews with your prehealth advisor, with a mentor, or a friend.
[26:26] Not Knowing the Right Answers and Preparing Questions
You don’t have to know all the answers. It’s perfectly good to be able to go into an interview and then when they ask you something and you say “I haven’t thought of that before. Let me think about that.” Or to be able to say, “I don’t really know the answer to that question.”
Another thing that students often need to consider is they need to have some questions ready for their interviewer. Often, interviewers in a traditional interview setting will ask the applicant if they have any questions they want to ask.“Have some prepared questions in your mind.”Click To Tweet
Some of them can be very basic. Consider asking questions like:
If they’re a faculty member there: How long have you been at this institution? Why do you stay? Why do you like it here?
If they’re a physician: What is it about this medical school that you like or enjoy? What do you not like? Where did you go to medical school? Tell me about your experience in medical school.
[27:41] Q&A Time
Q: Should a student read into an interview ending earlier than it was supposed to?
A: No. You can’t make any meaning from that.
Q: For someone with a speech impediment, or a stutter, is there something they can do to address that? Maybe at the beginning of the interview, or maybe it’s exacerbated by the stress?
A: Sometimes students will have covered that in their personal statement or optional essay or a secondary essay about adversity or something to that effect. That way, the interviewer may be aware before you walk in the room that there is an issue.
But it would not be unreasonable to just address it at the very beginning. Tell them that sometimes your speech impediment or your stuttering may make people uncomfortable. And you certainly don’t want them to feel that way. So you will do your best to communicate with them. and that you’re looking forward to your time together. That’s super professional right off the bat!
And what message is being sent to the interviewer here is that this person is self-aware. They understand who they are and what their potential limitations may be.
[29:54] Mistake #8: Overpreparing for an Interview
One of the common mistakes students make is when they’re so overprepared that they sound so rehearsed. They sound like they’re reading from a script. It sounds fake.
Scott strongly urges students not to write out their responses to questions like that. It’s fine to write down some notes about some heavy topics or whatever.“What the interview is really trying to do more than anything is to see if you can communicate with the interviewer.”Click To Tweet
The average doctor visits these days is somewhere between 10 and 13 minutes. So they want to see if you can communicate. Can you talk and connect as human beings? They want to see if you have some qualities that are important, not just for medical school, but as a physician.
[33:15] Mistake #9: Picking the Wrong School
Students think that the ranking or reputation of the school is important in getting a better residency program. But that’s not true.
Students base their decisions on the US News Report and the actual methodology behind their rankings. But it’s honestly a subjective crap. It’s not helpful. And this is a big mistake students make.
You have to pick a school where you see yourself fitting into that school and where you feel comfortable.'Ultimately, you're going to do better in an institution in a city where you fit and where you feel comfortable.'Click To Tweet
Now, there are students who will use the financial aid packages offered by the school and it makes total sense that that should be a part of your consideration. But Scott cannot emphasize enough the importance of personal fit in the institution.
How did you feel when you went there for your interview? How did you like the city and the surrounding area? How did you like the students and did you like what they said about their school? Did you like what the faculty had to say about the school?
[37:04] Mistake #10: Dealing with Institutional Actions and Arrest Records
Medical schools are looking for how you talk about that event, whether it’s an institutional action, an arrest, or some sort of criminal record. They’re going to want to know not only what the situation was, but they want to know what did you learn from that? Why are you a better person now than you were when you experienced that? So it’s not an automatic no.
Be able to talk about it in such a way that gave light to how you’re a much more mature person now, having gone through that.
Now, having said that, there are situations particularly with drug abuse and drinking, that they’re going to want to know when the event happened. It’s okay if it happened when you were still a freshman and you got caught with weed in your dorm room, or you got a DUI. As opposed to getting caught last week or that it happened the second time.
If you don’t indicate it on your application, and they find out later through a criminal background check, they can not only withdraw an offer from you, they can also kick you out of school if you’ve already started. Check out Episode 197, where I interviewed Larry Cohen about how to address arrests and institutional actions on your application.
[40:10] Getting Past the Stat Barriers
There has to be some barrier of entry from a stats standpoint. You have to be good enough to get past that, but after that, the sky’s the limit in terms of your story and being viewed as an applicant.'It's difficult to say the stats are not important. They are important. But they're not everything.'Click To Tweet
The difference between an excellent applicant and a mediocre applicant is an application that seems to get it. They seem to dive deeply into their own psyche, their own sort of self-appraisal, and really put that out there. They’re able to show that they understand who they are, what they’ve done, and the value they got from their experiences. Obviously, that’s combined with the numbers and everything, but those can’t be underestimated in terms of how powerful they can be.
[42:15] What is a Good Enough MCAT Score?
Anything below 500 in that type of scenario is very concerning to admissions committees. And with regard to AAMC data showing that African-Americans as a whole score a 497 on the MCAT, Scott thinks there are significant issues that need to be tackled by the medical education community in the United States. They have to talk about how it goes forward and what it means in the application process.
When an admissions committee is looking at things like that, they’re also looking at the competition level in getting into medical school. The admissions committees have to be able to justify in their own minds when they give somebody (with a 499 MCAT, and a 3.75 or 3.85 GPA) a place in the medical school class when there’s somebody very similar in many ways.'The general rule of thumb is to shoot for that 500 as the 'good enough' number.'Click To Tweet
That being said, we’ve seen students with 496 or 497 that get in. And that happens because they had an amazing story themselves.
[47:34] Reaching Out to Medical Schools
Scott says that as an applicant, there’s a limited amount that you can do in terms of reaching out to schools. You just have to be able to craft your personal statement well and your secondary application the best you can. And then you just have to let it run.
On the other hand, I’ve personally worked with a student who got a 499 on the MCAT and she sent a short email to the Dean of Admissions. Then she got an interview the next day.
Obviously, there are appropriate ways to do that and there are appropriate times to do that. Of course, I’m not saying every premed should go inundate the admissions offices with emails asking them to be picked by the school because that will just backfire.“Medical schools are filtering out applications that I call the digital shredders.”Click To Tweet
But students just have to understand that schools have their ways of sorting out applications and filtering them out. They typically will rank and just start at the top and send out their invites until they run out of spots. And then they’ll figure it out from there.
[51:12] Mistake #11: Getting So Worked Up'You need to have friends who care nothing about medical school.'Click To Tweet
You need to have friends that you can interact with, and not constantly be talking about medical school application, and MCAT and biochemistry, etc.
That’s why Scott cautions students when they get into these SDN forums because it can produce so much stress and anxiety.
Or you can make rules that when you’re with your other premed friends and you go out to eat (in the non-COVID days) that you’re not going to talk about anything premed or related to the application.
It’s so important to be able to stick to those rules, otherwise, it just builds and builds and builds and it can be devastating.
[58:57] Check Out Mappd!
Mappd is the premier technology platform to help guide premed students on their journey. We’re currently building the foundation. Please sign up now so you can start entering your courses, your activities, and diary entries for your activities as well as reflections on each day. That way, you can already track everything you’re doing.
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