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Ask the Dean: Premed Questions Answered

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

17 Premed Questions Answered: Personal Statements and Letters of Rec

In this episode, we delve into concerns regarding taking time off to study for the MCAT, the relevance of SAT stores when applying to med school, the relevance of international degrees, how to decide if you need a postbac, how LORs may change due to COVID, 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.

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

[2:56] Mappd Updates

Q: Any Updates on Mappd?

A: On the left sidebar, there's a new application tab that shows all three application services, options do personal statement, and personal comments, among others. It's the same thing more or less, except each application service has one.

Under Student, you now have applications, and you can go to AMCAS, AACOMAS, and TMDSAS. There are personal comments, which is the technical term for personal statement, as well as our work and activities. You can then create a draft of your personal statement and just start typing. And it's there for the world to see. 

The advisor whom you invite to have access to your account will be able to see your account. The good thing is they will be able to provide feedback and leave comments for you. 

This is just the beginning. We have lots more features in the works, however. At some point in the coming months, there will be a bit of a style polish. But for now, it's all substance all the time because we just want to get you where you want to go.

[5:32] On Character Reference

Q: What do admissions committees think of character references? If I know someone at the medical school, such as a student, can they put in a good word for me? 

A: Generally, those things don't work very well. But there were times when some students would send an email or came to talk to say their friend is applying as a heads-up. Most of the time, as long as it wasn't pushy at all, this approach may initiate one to look the student up.

On the other hand, it could backfire if the application raises real concerns or questions about their ability and it might initiate a further review of the applicant. Therefore, it's not discouraged, but just because you know somebody at medical school, it doesn't mean you'd be certain of what's going to happen.

[9:15] Character Issues of Applicants

Q: If a medical student knows an applicant who potentially has some character issues that may not make them a good fit in the institution, what would you recommend the students do?

A: Reach out to the admissions office at your medical school and just let them know that you've become aware of some concerning information with regard to one of the applicants. Explain to

the office your concerns and how you learned about this. The problem is when you get this information anonymously, as none of that carries any weight and goes anywhere.

[11:13] Applicant’s Autobiography

Q: Do admissions committees read the applicant's autobiography that their premed advising office sends in letter packets? If I choose to write one, should I have some elements of my personal statement in it? 

A: A small number of schools do send letter packets. But admissions committees already know what's in your application, which is standardized for every applicant. So when they get a letter packet that has an autobiographical sketch, they'll just look at the letters and disregard everything else. 

“Admissions offices have way too much to look at already so they're not going to look at the autobiographies.”

Hopefully, these premed advising offices should become more open to their students about what would happen once the letter packets reach the medical schools.

On the other hand, just do whatever your school asks you to do. You don't want to worry about getting crosswise with your premed office. If they ask you to do an autobiographical thing, just do it and let the medical school hash that part out. 

[13:47] CARS Diagnostic Tool

Q: Do you have any advice about the CARS Diagnostic Tool that the AAMC made?

A: It may not be perfect, but no practice test is. And nothing is ever going to be better than something the test writers made. 

“Anything from the AAMC is your best resource.”

CARS confounds many premed students, and they struggle with it. On the other hand, others tend to overlook CARS, if not, they think that it can be improved. It absolutely can. However, CARS demands a different set of skills from the other skills you're employing. So it's easy to think that it's not possible to hurdle when actually it's just a new challenge and a new skill set to learn. CARS will serve you not just on the MCAT, it's going to serve you for the rest of your life. So, yes, CARS is highly recommended.

[17:57] CASPer Test

Q: Should I study for the CASPer Test? 

A: Usually, CASPer is something you just have to understand and not study for. To understand what CASPer is, caspertest.com has a practice test. It's something you take at home since you need to have a webcam. 

CASPer is a situational judgment type test created by Altus Assessments from McMaster University, the same team of beautiful minds that created the multiple mini-interview. 

Many schools are using the test, although how they're adding it to their admissions process varies a bit from one school to another. Check out The Premed Years Podcast Session 303 where I interviewed Dr. Kelly Dore of Altus Assessments, one of the creators of CASPer and the MMI. 

[19:58] GPA up to 3.3 and Cumulative to 3.6, is it Good Enough?

Q: I was a student-athlete at UCF, and in my sophomore year, my science GPA took a huge dive. I graduated in May of 2020 and pursued a do-it-yourself postbac to continue my upward trend of one semester with a 3.75 science GPA and the following four semesters with all A's. This will bring my science GPA up to a 3.3 and my cumulative to 3.6. Considering everything else is good in my application, is this good enough? 

A: In terms of that part of the application surrounding academic work, it sounds good enough, with the assumption that you're studying full-time. On the other hand, we don't know anything about your clinical hours, shadowing, activities, or the MCAT. 

But definitely, the postbac hours are going to help as the schools are going to focus on the postbac GPA. This depends on the number of hours they want to see in a postbac GPA to make it credible for them to work with. 

[22:23] Medical Exposure Through a Spouse

Q: My spouse is a resident dermatologist, and I'm curious how much I should discuss or avoid in telling my story since she had plenty of exposure to the process and the physician’s life.

A: If you say you want to be a physician and your exposure to medicine is through your spouse, that would make for a weak personal statement. 

A common mistake that students make in their personal statement is they think they know what medicine is therefore they’re ready to be a doctor. Or they think they have lots of exposure to the process, therefore, they should be a physician.

Many students make their personal statements around those arguments, and this student is no exception.

This is why we talk about clinical experience and shadowing, about getting those experiences for yourself because taking care of someone is different from your wife talking about taking care of someone. So be careful with that. 

You don't have to avoid discussing those facts, but you have to tell your story, not her story. Your story should not revolve around somebody else. It must be compelling enough to say that there is a seed or genesis from where this initial spark came.

[26:12] Who Best to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Q: I was not close with any professors, unfortunately, in undergrad. Is it okay if my letters of recommendation are from supervisors of my valet job who can speak well of me, but nothing from educators?  

A: The simple answer is no, that's not going to work. Not being close with any of your professors is your mistake. You have to initiate contact with professors, you have to become close with them. It doesn't mean that you have to be their favorite student, but you have to get to know them. 

Go to their office hours, stay after class, ask questions, and be curious. Doing this is the responsibility of students.

You need a couple of academic letters that address your ability in the classroom, your curiosity, and your academically centered learning. While it might also depend on the medical school and the requirements that they have set for letters of recommendation, in general, what you're planning won't work.

[29:56] When to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Q:  If I'm taking a gap year, should I ask for my letter of recommendation after I take the class or when I'm applying?

A: Let the professor know that you're applying to medical school after your gap year. Tell them you’d love to stay in touch with them throughout your gap year. And when the time comes, ask for a letter of recommendation.

“It's ideal that you have a letter of recommendation that is dated the year that you are applying.”

Most faculty members at universities and colleges are willing to work with students, and they have a desire to help out the student as much as they can. And yet many students fear that they're the first student ever to ask for a letter of recommendation from this professor. 

The assumption should be that professors understand that this is a part of their job. Asking for a recommendation is not some weird request that you're making. And you're not the first medical school applicant they've interacted with. It's just part of their job, and you're just the next student to ask.

[32:59] Listing Shadow Hours

Q: I was assigned to shadow an attending neurosurgeon for 20 plus hours. However, he would only do the first cut and then let the residents do the rest of the surgery, and he'd go see other patients and leave me in the OR to watch the surgery. So, should I also add the residents for my shadowing or just the attending physician?

A: The attending neurosurgeon is whom you're supposed to shadow. You need to shadow attending physicians because you need to understand what a day in the life of a physician is like. You have to get a better understanding of what their duties are, what they're required to do, and what they're doing when they're not seeing patients, among many others. 

“The rule of thumb is you shadow attending physicians.” 

Whereas a resident or fellow is someone who's in training. In your case, the experience with the residents you're shadowing is an issue you need to deal with. You have to talk about your experience with the residents, so when you get that letter of recommendation, they know what's going on. 

Knowing who you're shadowing and what the situation is with the physician in question is important so you can illustrate well in your application that you shadowed residents. 

[36:10] On Online or Hybrid Classes

Q: Will admissions committees look down on an upward trend with classes being online or hybrid? My upward trend started only one semester before the pandemic.

A: So what if admissions committees look down on your upward trend with classes being online? There's nothing you can do. You just have to put what you've done out there, and let it stand on its own. 

Still, it's unlikely that admissions committees are going to look down on your upward trend, particularly within the context of the pandemic. While some may be hard-nosed and continue to hold the line on that, most of them are going to be pretty forgiving on online and hybrid matters.

Admissions committees need to look deep inside of themselves and try to overcome some biases that have taken hold for a long time that online classes are horrible and too easy. It will be very interesting moving forward. But at the end of the day, there's no other choice but to go back online.

[39:11] “Expired” Prereqs

Q: I took all my prereqs in community college from 2011 to 2013, then transferred and finished undergrad with a Bio degree in 2016. I have a good science GPA, and recently took the MCAT in 2020 and did okay. But are my prereqs considered expired or outdated since it's been eight to 10 years? Should I contact each medical school to make sure I don't have to retake any of them?

A: Yes, they could be "expired." And, yes, you should reach out to the schools. Even if schools don't officially say that prereqs expire, the biggest concern here is that it's been five years since you were in the classroom or in an academic setting. And that can be problematic. 

Schools may question your understanding of the academic environment or your grasp on study skills. 

“Technically, nothing expires, but medical schools may have a policy that they want newer stuff.”

It's much more nuanced than just prereqs expiring after X number of years. When looking for applicants, medical schools would want to see some recent coursework that shows you're a good student.

[41:00] Difference Between Four-Year College, Senior College, and University

Q: Is there a big difference between four-year college, senior college, and university? 

A: No, there's not a big difference. But the terms sound somewhat out of date. 

The general language around these parts is a community college. Many junior colleges and community colleges are now just called colleges. You don't really know whether they're a junior college or community college. 

Usually, there are colleges within the university. Harvard College is one of the colleges within Harvard University. The general term university refers to anything that's post-secondary.

[43:55] Committee Letter vs. Personal Letters

Q: Is a committee letter preferred more than personal letters?

A: If your institution does a committee letter, then do the committee letter. And if your institution doesn't, then you do the individual letters. 

If you have a committee at your school, then do whatever they ask of you. While you can get personal letters, you may have to explain why you didn't get a committee letter. There are cases where the medical school calls up the undergrad institution to ask why the applicant didn't have a committee letter. 

Some students say their schools limit committee letters to certain stats. So if you're someone who has a great upward trend but not that stellar, there might be some instances where you won't qualify for the committee letter. But that's not the end of the world. While a committee letter is considered "optimal," individual letters are "acceptable."

[45:27] Where to Ideally Get Prereqs

Q: Is it okay to do prerequisites in any of the post-secondary institutions?

A: Optimally, you would do prerequisites at the institution where you're going to get your degree. On the other hand, there are students who do community college first and then transition to the university setting. That's acceptable.

All of these levels of institutions are accredited. As long as the institution is accredited, then you're safe. The courses are going to work. But whether taking any or all of those classes will be the optimal setting for you depends on your situation.

You need to do well at all levels of institutions you're going to. It's more complicated in reality. But at face value, you can do those anywhere, and they'll meet the prerequisites. 

[47:28] Talking About Research in Personal Statement

Q: Is it okay to talk about research in my personal statement, especially since I want to continue that in medical school? How detailed should I be? 

A: The personal statement answers why you want to be a physician, not what do you want to do as a physician. This question is leaning towards saying, "I want to continue research in medical school and likely beyond." 

When a student focuses on research in their personal statement, that suggests they're lacking clinical experience. Or, they're trying to highlight research because they think it's the best thing in the world, and they want to do research later on. All this is a distraction from the personal statement. 

Again, the goal of the personal statement is to answer why you want to be a physician. And you don't have to do research to be an amazing physician. You don't have to do research in medical school or in residency to be an amazing physician. 

“If you want to do research, great, but that doesn't need to be in the personal statement. And that's what your extracurricular activities are for.”

Now, it's not necessarily bad to mention research in your personal statement. If there's a storyline there that makes sense, fits together with the research part, and sheds light on why you want to be a doctor, then that's acceptable. 

But the largest part of your personal statement has to focus on clinical medicine and why you want to be a physician. If it's all about research, then you really should examine more whether you should be applying for an MD/Ph.D. or just go to the Ph.D. route.

[50:34 Weight of Professor’s Background on Letter of Recommendation

Q: When evaluating professors for my letters of recommendation, should I take into consideration where they received their degree from?

A: No. It's a very common question that a lot of students will chase a letter from someone who has a name, someone who's from that prestigious institute, versus someone who knows you better. 

“Always go for someone who knows you and will write you a very strong recommendation.”

But if you've got a choice between someone who knows you really well but went to a less prestigious school, and someone from Harvard who doesn't seem to like you much, then pick the person who will communicate positively about you.

[52:45] Public DO Schools

Q: Are there any public DO schools? 

A: Yes, there are seven, according to the Choose DO Explorer. These are:

  1. Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine
  2. Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine
  3. Oklahoma State, University College of Osteopathic Medicine
  4. Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in New Jersey
  5. Sam Houston State College of Osteopathic Medicine
  6. Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of North Texas
  7. West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. 

Links:

Mappd

CASPer

The Premed Years Podcast Session 303

Choose DO Explorer

Mappd.tv 

Watch on Mappd.tv

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