Ask the Dean: Premed Questions Answered

Dr. Scott Wright and Dr. Ryan Gray answer our Mappd Members' Questions

Controversial Activities, Letters of Rec, & More!

What makes an applicant stand out during the process? What experiences really matter? Should you put a non-medical related activity on your application? All these and more on today’s episode. Plus, hear our thoughts on the 2021 MCAT and application process!

Ask the Dean is the first media project from my new company Mappd. It's a technology platform that's going to help premeds understand the process of getting into medical school. 

Joining me are Mappd co-founder Rachel Grubbs and Dr. Scott Wright, our VP of Academic Advising. He's the former director of admissions at UT Southwestern and the former executive director of TMDSAS. 

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

[01:21] Working as an Autopsy Assistant

Q: Would working as an autopsy assistant classify as clinical hours?

A: The patient is not living. Clinical emphasizes the notion that you are participating with a physician in a setting where you experience patients and families. Scott thinks that while it's definitely a healthcare environment, it's not clinical. 

"When we're talking about clinical, we're talking about interacting with patients."

[03:17] Paramedic School Experience

Q: Does paramedic school count as an extracurricular? It was 2,500 hours of training.

A: It's certainly extracurricular to your college environment. In terms of what they're doing at the paramedic school, it's curricular. But relative to your premed journey, it's considered extracurricular.

[04:37] Insights into the 2021 MCAT and Application Process

Scott thinks it all depends on what happens with COVID and when a vaccine comes up. And I don't see anything changing until that happens. It's going to take a while for that vaccine to be manufactured and to get it to the public. 

In terms of the application cycle, a lot of medical schools are seeing that this virtual interviewing has worked out pretty well. They may stick with it or give it as an option. So, let's see what's happens.

[05:54] Too Many F’s and W’s

Q: Do the admissions committees ever get to the point in an application where they say this student has too many "W's/F's" and they decide they're not a fit for their school? Or would the really strong upward trend help the student's case? For example, a really bad first two years of undergrad and then a really strong finish.

A: It's not unusual for students to have a bad freshman year or even a bad first-two-years, and then recover and they do really well in the last two years. In that case, an admissions committee doesn't just automatically wipe it off and say they're not going to deal with the student. They're really going to look closely at the trend. And in this circumstance, the MCAT becomes very important and they want to see what's the real story here. 

When you get to the last two years in college, you're dealing with upper-level coursework, particularly in the sciences, where the material is much more difficult. The admissions committees look very carefully at all that.

“Medical schools get concerned when it comes to withdrawals or drops is if this becomes a trend.”

For instance, there's a drop or two every semester. What it says to them is that the student signs up for a bunch of classes. Then they withdraw or drop. And if this is a trend, then that becomes very concerning. 

[10:33] Texan Applicants Applying Out-of-State

Q: For Texan applicants, is it futile to apply to out-of-state schools assuming they don't have strong ties in other states?

A: You have to be careful with which schools you're applying to and know what their residency requirements are for their state. Some private schools have some restrictions on students from their own state. 

If you're a Texan, a smart student would apply to every school in Texas. They would also identify a handful of schools outside of Texas they're interested in and then apply to those as well. 

Now, there are some students in Texas who will only apply to Texas schools, which is also fine. The restriction by the state is 90% Texas residents in the schools. And so it really benefits Texans quite a bit. But for a Texas applicant to apply outside of the state is not futile.

[12:57] Non-Medicine Related Activities

Q: Would an admissions committee question if an applicant is more suited towards a different field, like policy or law, for example, if they list a lot of activities, unrelated to medicine, but that they're passionate about?

A: No. The key here is if you're passionate about it, then involve yourself in it, even if it's not related to medicine, or it doesn't have an obvious connection to medicine. So it's not an automatic red flag for medical schools now. But if your personal statement is all about policy and law, then that could be a problem. 

"Admissions committees like to see broadness in their applicants and interests that are outside of medicine."

[14:52] Letters of Recommendation

Q: Is it a bad idea to get a letter of recommendation now from professors if you graduated in May? I fear if I wait until the spring, they won't be able to speak as well about my presence and the classroom activities.

A: This is really a question about timing and about contact with your faculty that you're getting letters from. If you graduated in May, and you're doing a gap here, be sure to keep in touch with that professor throughout the year. You can just email them to keep them up to date with whatever's going on with you. That way, they're not going to forget you if you keep in touch with them. 

"The date on the letter should be the same year as the year you're applying." 

Rachel adds that when you're sending the resume or the CV or your LinkedIn profile, or whatever updates you're sending, include a note asking them to have those printed and sign them by hand.

This is important to verify the authenticity because you would be surprised to know that there are forged letters by students every year.

[22:43] Experience at Planned Parenthood

Q: I also just started as a clinic escort at Planned Parenthood. Is this too controversial to be placing it on my application? I'm very passionate about reproductive rights. As you might guess, I've got a lot of thoughts here. 

A: Scott doesn't think it's too controversial. When you're filling out your application, you have to be you. If you're passionate about reproductive rights, and you are passionate about what you're doing at Planned Parenthood, then put it on there. And if a medical school rejects you because of that, then you don't want to go to that medical school. 

[24:31] What AdComs are Looking For

Q: Could you speak to what UT Southwestern ad coms really focus on for their candidates?

A: Every school has its own mission and what they're looking for. And they're looking for students they feel are going to be successful at their school. They're going to be looking for students who add diversity to the class. 

"There's a lot of goals in the admissions process of what they're trying to do."

That being said, every school has a sense of what they're looking for and this is why secondary applications are very important. So really analyze what those questions are because from there you can get a better idea of what they're really wanting to know or what they're looking for.

[28:41] Applying to MD/Ph.D. Programs

Q: "I'm on a budget and I don't know if I'm ready to apply. By June of next year, I'll have about 200 hours of clinical exposure and 1,500 hours of research, almost all of that dedicated to one research. I graduated in May with a 3.8 GPA. Two majors come in math, currently doing a master's in biomaterials and I want to get an MD/Ph.D. Should I take a gap year to accumulate more experience?

A: What MD/Ph.D. programs are looking for is not what you've done but they want to understand what you've been involved in. They're looking for students who are going to be able to become independent investigators in a laboratory setting. And in order to become a primary investigator, you've really got to understand what's going on in that lab. And not every student gets to that point. 

Scott recommends that this student seek out some assistance and advice from an MD/Ph.D. program. 

[39:00] Question on Credit Hours

Q: I went to a community college for three years and then I transferred to university for two years. What's the class standing when you're at multiple schools for five years?

A: For TMDSAS, it's up to you to make that determination. Traditionally, what they consider a freshman is set to 30 hours, 30 to 60 hours is a sophomore, 60 to 90 hours is a junior, and then anything above 90 is a senior. This is the way they deal with the credit hours. So, you're just going to have to make that call for each class. The AMCAS is pretty similar. But then the fine print says you can make some determinations. 

[42:23] Letter of Recommendation from an FNP

Q: I had trouble finding a job due to COVID. I was able to get a job as a medical scribe for an FNP (family nurse practitioner). Would it be helpful to get a letter of recommendation from the FNP? Or should I look for a position working under physicians instead? 

A: Just keep moving forward with it. It would be a good idea for you to do some physician shadowing or some volunteer-type work with physicians themselves. And don't be afraid to ask for a letter of recommendation from the nurse practitioner. That would be fine.

[46:21] How an Applicant Stands Out

Q: Where can you stand out in a nontraditional way on your application? We know GPA and MCAT scores are important, but what areas really make an application stand out?

A:  It's not about the "what you did" because everybody's done things. The "so what" part is going to be the thing that differentiates a good applicant from a great applicant. 

What did you get out of your experiences and how were they meaningful to you? And this is where it really makes a difference.

The deeper you can get into that kind of stuff in your application, the better off you're going to be. And the deeper the admissions committee is going to really look at it.

"The ‘so what’ part is how your application stands out."

[48:21] A Need for Self-Reflection

Q: I'm feeling very stressed realizing that my GPA cumulative, and postbac are lower than what I thought. I did a 30 credit postbac DIY and I'm prepping for the MCAT, any tips?

A: It's a concern if your postbac is lower. Because your GPA was originally low that's why you've gone to the DIY postbac. And if it's not as high as you thought it was going to be, then that's a concern right there. In this case, you need to reflect on where you are with your circumstances right now.

"A higher MCAT isn't a magical cure, but it might help offset some of the GPA."

Sometimes, you've got to give yourself some really tough love. And sometimes it means having conversations with your family members who don't get it and that don't want you to study somewhere else. You may have to think really hard about how you're going to change your game plan. It's not time to give up hope. It is time to assess yourself.

[53:11] Firefighter Applying to Medical School

Q: I'm currently a firefighter looking to apply next year for medical school. I'm nontraditional. I've been an EMT, and then a paramedic. And then now a firefighter all over the last 13 years. My grades in the past have not been good, but now I'm doing a postbac. My sciences GPA will be 3.01 with an upward trend of A's and B's. Do you think I need a graduate program?

A: If there's been an upward trend, that's a good thing. Medical schools tend to like nontraditional students and students that have a background particularly like this student who has a very high-intensity career. So you’re off to a good start here!



The Premed Playbook: Guide to the Medical School Personal Statement

The Premed Years

The MCAT Podcast

The MCAT CARS Podcast

Specialty Stories

OldPreMeds Podcast

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