Ask the Dean: Premed Questions Answered

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

Personal Statements, Clinical Experience for Nontrads and More

In today’s episode, we’re covering questions about writing personal statements, how AdComs view nontrads who lack clinical experience, what medical schools look for in the interview, and some concerns students have in their application in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

My name is Dr. Ryan Gray and 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. I have a host of other podcasts including The Premed Years, The MCAT Podcast, The MCAT CARS Podcast, Specialty Stories, OldPreMeds Podcast, and more. 

Dr. Scott Wright is Mappd’s VP of Academic Advising. He’s the former Director of Admissions at UT Southwestern and former executive director of TMDSAS. So he has remarkable experience both on the medical school side and the application side. 

If you're looking for any help with your applications, Dr. Wright is available for some one-on-one help, along with myself and Mappd co-founder Rachel Grubbs, who also has years of experience both in the premed world and the test prep world. 

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

[05:31] Writing Personal Statements

There are a lot of different ways to start writing a personal statement. And basically, there is a Genesis moment when you take something out of nowhere and you put it into actual writing. Using this gardening metaphor, you water this idea, you, fertilize this idea, and you let it begin to blossom.

“Regardless of what technique you use to write your personal statement, use a process that makes sense for you.”

It's important to track your thoughts and this is where Mappd can help you. Begin the process with Mappd as a freshman or a sophomore or even as a junior. And as you're tracking classes and extracurriculars, you can pull from those experiences. 

Most students are going to need some initial structure to help them figure out how to even begin this process. In this case, get some guidance from The Premed Playbook: Guide to the Medical School Personal Statement and you can choose to follow the structure from beginning to end. You may also start with the structure and then go somewhere else with it along the process. Use what makes sense for you, but using structures will help you get your head around it.

One of the most powerful techniques you can use as mentioned in the book is storytelling. The book will also show you the things that you shouldn’t do when writing your personal statement.

[11:08] How Admissions Committees View Nontraditional Students with Less Clinical Experience

Q: Are admissions committee sensitive to the reasons behind the lack of clinical experience that nontraditional career-changing students may have compared to their more traditional co-applicants?

A: Traditionally, nontraditional students were seen as students that are above 25 years old. In other words, it was traditionally defined as age. However, medical schools are trying to expand the notion of what nontraditional means. Someone could be younger than 25 could but they're nontraditional in their pathway. 

The traditional pathway is that students do the 18 straight years, out of high school into college and straight through college for four years. Then straight from college to medical school. And anything that deviates from that is nontraditional.

That being said, gap years are now becoming much more common. They're not typical, but they're more common now than they used to be. And just because you take a gap year doesn't really necessarily mean you're a nontraditional applicant. 

You would still often be seen as a traditional applicant if you took a gap year, and then you came back and applied.

The challenge nontraditional students often have is they're working full-time, or 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 shadowing so their experiences may be seen as somewhat less and so they're worried about that.

“You did volunteering and shadowing – that's the what part. The more important issue is the so what part? “

But what you have to really focus on is not about the amount of time you're spending. What is really crucial is what you're getting out of it and how you talk about it.

You may have a total of 40 hours of shadowing and some volunteering. And other applicants have done hundreds of hours of doing all kinds of different things. But there have been so many applications where students had lots of experiences but have no clue about what they did. They had no idea about the magnitude of what they were doing, or what it meant to them, or why they were even doing it. They could talk about the task-oriented questions that they did, but they could not talk about what it meant. 

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 meant 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 in on that value. That's the important part.”

[19:34] What Medical Schools Look for in the Interview

Q: Out of the hundreds of incredible premed students who interview, how do admissions committees figure out who is right for your school and will make a great physician? How do you frame your questions? What information are they looking for?

A: These days, medical schools have very different ways of interviewing students. Some schools do the traditional interview method. It's usually two faculty members or perhaps a faculty member and community physician. Some schools use medical students or residents to interview students. 

Traditional interviews could be structured and non-structured. Structured means the interviewers are told what questions to ask. Non-structured would be they can ask whatever they wanted. 

Other schools use the Multiple Mini Interviews (MMI) where you go to different stations. There are ethical or social dilemmas presented and you have to quickly respond to whatever scenario is given. Some schools use a mixture of MMIs and traditional interviews. 

What medical schools are looking for in an interview is a variety of things. One of the most important is whether you can carry on a conversation. This is a very crucial part of what it means to be a physician. Because you're talking to people and you have to come to a point where you can make that person feel comfortable with you. 

We hear over and over again about stories of physicians who don't know how to connect with their patients. So the interview is not to find out more information about you. But to find out if you're a real person and if you can connect with the interviewer.

The admissions committees also try to get a lot of information about mission orientation and how well you fit that to the secondary application. Scott would rarely ask medically-oriented questions. At the end of the day, they just want to find out if you could connect and the kind of language you use.

"Ultimately, the goal is interviewing and finding somebody who I want to be around and who I want to have to take care of my family.”

[25:18] Does It Matter Which Undergrad Institution You Go To?

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

A: You have to consider where do you see yourself? Where do you feel comfortable? It's the same as choosing your course. 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 connected with it, then go to a state school. If you are super intrigued by the Ivy League school or some private school that anyone wants to go to then go there. 

There's a myth going around that medical schools have this formula and that they alter your GPA based on this formula. And within that formula is a modifier for the type of school you're coming from. But that's not how it works. There's not an algorithm that does that because it's on a case by case basis.

"Don't go to a great school, go to a school that will make you great."

Now, some students are beginning at a community college and going there for a couple of years before transitioning into the local state university because that's what they can do financially. And it's been perpetuated on SDN and Reddit and everywhere that medical schools don't like it when students go to community college. They say that community college classes are easier and they know you're playing the game to increase your GPA.

Scott doesn't agree with that though. A lot of medical schools have these necessarily broad generalities about anything. They're trying to figure out who this individual student is, what's their story, and why they went to a community college. They look at the whole picture of the individual. 

What Scott doesn't recommend is a student who is at a four-year institution and goes home for the summer and goes to community college and takes science classes. 

If you're going to go home for the summer and need to take classes during the summer, do non-science related courses. Pick up History or Political Science or English or Psychology or other courses that are general electives or general education courses. 

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 going to be easier there then they're going to see through that a mile away. 

[35:15] Including Kids in Your Personal Statement

Q: Does including your kids in your personal statement make ad coms nervous that you might not be able to succeed in medical school? 

A: If you mention your kids in your personal statement just out of the blue, then that's going to be weird. But if you talk about, for instance, one of your children had a terrible chronic disease and that's part of the reason you want to go into medicine, then that makes total sense.

“It's not necessarily the micro-story in one of your essays, it's the bigger picture of what this applicant all about.”

You have to be true to yourself ultimately. Give the picture of who you are to the admissions committees. If part of that is your children then absolutely include it. But if it seems weird when they're reading it, then that may be a red flag for a whole different reason.

[37:44] Lack of Activities Due to COVID-19

Q: With COVID and everything going on, what are your general recommendations for students right now who may have had their shadowing and clinical experiences stop? What is this hiatus going to look like from an application perspective? What should students be doing right now?

A: The admissions committees are going through COVID, just like everybody else is. Medical students are going through COVID as well. They had to stop rotations and shut down a lot of things. It has affected everybody. 

"The admissions committees aren't on some other planet. They realize what's going on."

For students 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.

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

[41:23] How Medical Schools Look at Arrest Records

Q: What happens if I get arrested? Will I have to answer these questions on the application? Will the medical schools understand that I was not just out for fun but out protesting for justice as well? How do you think schools are going to deal with that when a student potentially applies and has an arrest record because of these protests?

A: Medical schools are not living in some vacuum somewhere. Perhaps the majority of medical schools are in urban areas. So they may be experiencing the protests in their neighborhood. They may be caring for people who have been somehow wounded in these protests. So these medical schools know what's going on and they see this all around them. 

What is most important is if you got arrested in a protest, then you would have to put that on the application. But you have to look at the language pretty carefully. 

Physicians have a role in our society to take care of people but also to be at the forefront of being leaders in our society. But if you got arrested because you're looting Target, then that may be a different story.

Live your life and you let the things that are important to you pour out of you. And if that means you're out protesting, then do it. Do it wholeheartedly and do it because you care about it. The far majority are going to be okay with that and they're going to understand that especially right now. And to the ones that don't, then it's their loss.

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



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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