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Ask the Dean: Premed Questions Answered

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

9 Premed Questions Answered: MCAT Mistakes and Interview Tips

This week, we answer questions about mistakes in MCAT scheduling, controversial topics in the med school interview, what questions to ASK in your med school interview, and more!

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. More than 1,400 students are using it to track their progress to medical school. If this is something you're interested in, check it all out for a free two-week trial. Also, check out Mappd.tv.

Mappd is not meant to replace the advice you get from your school advisors. But we hope to support the good work that they do, and also help you bring your attention to things a little earlier. So that when you get to the application year, you're in that much better shape. The whole idea is to be able to take all this data and actually give very specific and very nuanced, and very personal guidance along the way. 

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

[06:29] When Should I Take That MCAT?

One of the biggest mistakes students make in scheduling their application is planning to take the MCAT in the summer, which is after the school year ends. Maybe the curriculum is hard or you're worried you won't be able to get the grades you need to get and learn what you need to learn and get your MCAT score. And in these pandemic times, we've already seen that test dates aren't always reliable. So you want to build in a cushion because you don't want to take the MCAT before you're ready. 

When students take it in January, you've now just made the application process in the Spring. This is much better for yourself because if something happens or something goes wrong, and you don't feel completely ready, or the score just doesn't match your practice test results, you've still got April or May as a fallback.

If you can plan early, then you should plan early. But if you're telling yourself May, June, July, and then anything goes wrong, you're already looking at either being a later applicant or already potentially looking at delaying until next year. 

Another common thing for students to do is wait for that date until they're comfortable. But you never really feel ready for them. It's a high achiever problem. It's the pressure of so much of your career in one moment of your life one day of your life. 

"Pick a test date, and then build a study plan that works backward from there."

So really think ahead. Plan your breaks ahead and have a schedule. It's like a part-time job. It might not be 40 hours a week, but you schedule yourself hours. And like with any job, maybe you're sick once or twice, but mostly, you just show up and do the work when you're scheduled to do it. 

[11:19] Controversial Topics During Interview

Q: Students avoid controversial subjects like abortion, politics, etc. during their interview in case the interviewer gets offended. What is the most controversial thing a student has ever talked about or wrote about that you've seen?

A: Scott admits he hasn't seen a lot of that. In the past, the interviewer had a lot of freedom to ask whatever questions they wanted to. But now, that has become less common with more and more with the multiple mini interviews and with structured interviews where the interviewer has specific questions to ask.

Just make sure that your conversation fits the topic of the question and the chances of a controversial topic are slim.

But if the interviewer gives you a controversial scenario, just be honest and don't bullshit around. Just say you're committed to the duty of a physician and what you have to do for the best of your patients. 

“Don't get in an argument with the interviewer.”

At the end of the day, you have to go into it being yourself. Don't dress like you're going to a funeral if that's not who you are. Just dress the way it needs to be professional. Be as spot on with the questions as possible. And then beyond that, just don't worry about it. And if the interviewer gets all sideways about it then maybe you don't want to go to that school to start with.

As long as you are empathetic, and you are not attacking the other side of whatever the topic is, you'll be okay. You're allowed to disagree. You don't have to have the same political leanings and you don't have to have the same morals or ethics as someone else. In fact, that doesn't make for a good cohort, if everyone is the same. 

You don't know the agenda of the interviewer. So if you're trying to figure out in your head and assume some things about them, you may get totally botched in with your response. So you just have to be honest about your own feelings and just go from there and show consideration and compassion.

[18:00] Old Extracurriculars

Q: Hi! Nontrad student here, how "old" can the extracurriculars I include on my application be? I won't be applying until the summer of 2022. The reason I'm asking is that I have plenty of volunteering and employed experience clinical and nonclinical from my long and slightly drawn out undergraduate career ranging from 2014 to 2020. By the time I applied, that timespan will be even longer from 2014 to 2022. Should I focus on more recent experiences? Or can I include older meaningful experiences as well? 

A: You can include all then you can talk about those most meaningful experiences to cover why that was so meaningful to you.

But if you're depending on the old stuff for everything then that's a problem. There has to be some new stuff that's very meaningful to you as well. Have a reflection in terms of the "so what" part or what value it has to you.

[19:58] MCAT as Optional

Q: There are medical schools that made the MCAT optional, but aren't there any schools that block the MCAT completely from the admissions process?

A: Due to COVID, a lot of schools have made the MCAT "optional." For students who haven't had the opportunity to take the MCAT yet, meaning you can apply. Every school has a little bit of a different process, whether you ask for them to be optional. Let them know you're not going to be able to take it and they'll review your application in a different way. 

"The far majority of schools are still using the MCAT in their admissions process."

Most of the schools are still using the MCAT. And so you have two different types of people in the admissions process – those who have an MCAT, and those who don't. And in that specific situation, students who don't have an MCAT are disadvantaged. Because we, as humans, are so stuck in our routine of needing the MCAT to review an application.

There's one school though that's making the MCAT optional. And if you've taken it, they're going to blind everyone to that MCAT score. They're not going to use it in their admissions process this year. I think that's the right way to do it because it's putting everyone on a level the same. 

A lot of schools blind their interviewers to MCAT scores. But at the end of the day, the vast majority of medical schools, the admissions committee, when it's making its final decisions of selection, they're going to be seeing everything.

With the admissions process this year, schools are trying to figure it out as they go along. And the pandemic hit them as hard as it did anybody else. So they're trying to just do the best they can to figure out how to do this. 

Scott says there's a value in the MCAT, but it's overvalued. Nonetheless, most schools are still trying to use it as much as they can.

[25:32] Looking at Your Last 60 Hours

It's never wise for an admissions committee to put tie itself down in a policy that could disadvantage students or groups of students. 

“Admissions committees don't like to hand-tie themselves down to things that are going to affect the way that they view things in terms of policies.”

I've heard from lots of different admissions committees that they don't like having any published rules. Because once you publish that rule, then you are expected to be held to that rule. Then students get frustrated by that.

And so, schools not publishing any sort of rules like that and not living by any rules like that actually helps more students than it hurts. It gives the admissions committees freedom to look at a student who may otherwise not get a chance because they don't meet a certain cutoff for something. Or they don't have enough shadowing hours, enough clinical hours, a high enough GPA, or a high enough MCAT score, etc. 

It gives the admissions committees a lot more freedom to break the rules because there are no rules. 

Looking at the other side, students don't like the mystery. They're science people so they want to know all of the details and they want to see all of what's happening in the experiment. 

It’s frustrating to students when there's a black box and they don't know what's going on in it. 

Interestingly, the medical school at the University University of Utah had a big lawsuit because there was a student who didn't get in and a big shot lawyer sued the school for it. After the review process, it was determined that the school didn't have enough rules in its admissions process because it was too subjective. 

And now, if you go to the University of Utah's website, they have some specific criteria listed. And they're one of the few schools that actually lists that information. They have left themselves with enough leeway to actually still be able to review an applicant and how they want to review an applicant. But at least there are some objective measures that they're putting out as public information. 

In this regard, the AAMC laid out the 15 core competencies they expect to see from students. And this is why it's not as cut and dry as grades and MCAT scores and even the number of hours. To clarify, the AAMC has no role in the admissions process. So they're not expecting to see anything. But they have worked with all of their partner organizations and all the medical schools to determine what a good match looks like stressing the core competencies. 

[33:45] Letters of Recommendation and Committee Packets

Q: Is it acceptable to only request one letter of recommendation from doctors and professors?

A: Every medical school wants something different, they request something different. Undergraduate institutions have committee letter processes. They may have rules with regard to how many professors you have to have, or other individuals like that. 

Keep in mind that professors are addressing different competencies than doctors that you work with. So they're going to be addressing different competencies related to classroom, work ethic, teamwork, and various things more relevant to the academic environment. As opposed to doctors, they are going to be viewing it depending on their relationship with you.

“Generally speaking, it's best to have two letters from professors that you know and then you can supplement that with a variety of other letters depending on what your situation is.”

There are some downsides to the committee process at undergraduate institutions. But that's also one of the benefits of coming from a committee process regardless of what you have in your committee packet. 

Nine times out of 10, medical schools are going to accept a committee packet. Regardless of what's in there, they're going to accept a committee packet even if it doesn't necessarily fit with their typical regimen. So the committee packet supersedes whatever requirements the medical school has.

[37:10] Questions Students Should Ask During Interview

Q: What are some questions that you feel prospective students fail to ask when interviewing?

A: If nothing else, all you have to do is say to the interviewer, is ask them why they're staying there. What do they like about the institution? That's a very simple question that is not relevant relative to anything personal or whatever to the interviewer. You could ask it, regardless of who the interviewer is, and it would be applicable. 

And just keep it simple like that. Otherwise, no questions might lead them to believe this is an apathetic student who hasn't done their homework. And too many, complicated questions would lead them to think you're arrogant.

"Be general enough that anyone can answer them."

Opinion-based questions are also great because you don't have to be on the curriculum committee to answer a curriculum. 

So some questions you could probably ask are: Why do you like it here? What about this institution is compelling to you? or How long have you been here? And why do you stay? What is one of your favorite things about this school that doesn't get enough attention?

Ask things they can easily answer. Everybody likes to talk about themselves at some level or another so ask them something personal about themselves that they can answer.

[41:07]  Shopping for Clinical Experiences?

Q: How long should I be doing a particular extracurricular activity at a minimum to show commitment? I'd like to get varied experiences, if possible before I jump in for a long-term commitment. 

A: Scott had seen applicants who had a one-day experience somewhere. And they talked about it in such depth that it was so compelling. 

Especially as a freshman or sophomore, looking around and joining a lot of clubs and stuff and seeing what you connect with makes sense. But ultimately, you have to really focus on yourself. It's the issue of depth, rather than superficial reality.

Links:

Mappd

Mappd.tv

AAMC Core Competencies



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