Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Scrivener's Guide to Applications

(or, how to retain some semblance of sanity and financial solvency)

Let's get one thing clear: the medical school admissions process is designed to encourage neuroses. If you subject a group of intelligent, hardworking people to a process shrouded in secrecy and with terrible odds (half of those who apply will be rejected from all schools), you're bound to incur some paranoia.

That being said, you, too, can get into medical school if you follow these easy tips. What makes me qualified to give you advice? I applied to 12 allopathic schools for Fall 2007 (including one Canadian school), got 9 interviews, and ended up with 7 acceptances. All told, applications cost me about $2000 (3000 if you include the MCAT fee, my two suits, and Second Look weekends). Plus, I just like giving away free advice. This particular post comes via a suggestion from my friend K, who is applying for Fall 2008. As I told him, if you know what you're doing, this process is not a crapshoot.

Tip #1 is to be normal. I really can't stress this enough. A friend of mine had a stellar academic record, but she was so obsessed with getting into med school that she ended up shooting herself in the foot and not doing as well as one would have thought. Myself, I was so nervous at my first interview that I babbled and gushed about how great medicine was and ended up waitlisted and then rejected. Maintain an interest in something outside academics/work and applications, because otherwise, sure as the sun rises in the east, you will go crazy. Watch some TV; read a book; hike a mountain—anything.

Tip #2 Let it go. Three days after I took the MCAT, I woke up in a cold sweat because I suddenly remembered that I had confused the Lyman and Paschen series in the physical sciences section. This was a bad idea. Once the proctors call “time,” once you mail off your secondary (with sizable check), once you shake your interviewer's hand and walk out, it's over. There isn't a lot more you can do, short of sending a letter of intent (which is legally binding, so think carefully before you write it). Move on with your life. Hike that mountain I mentioned in Tip #1.

After those two rather philosophical tips, #3 is a bit more practical. Get a copy of the MSAR. The Medical School Admissions Requirements book is a must-have when you start the application process. I don't recommend buying—you'll only use it for a week or two, and since an updated one comes out every year, the resale value is almost nil—but borrow from an older friend or check it out from the library. The MSAR is basically an alphabetical listing of all the medical schools in the US and Canada, with a page-long description of each along with average GPA and MCAT. The rule of thumb is GPA*10 + MCAT; your score should be within one point of the school's score. That means you're a good match numerically, but doesn't take into account your state residency, minority status (Native American, black, or Hispanic; sorry, Asians!), or other personal circumstances. Once you have a list from the MSAR, go to individual schools' websites to narrow it down to 15 or so.

Interlude for personal gripe! AMCAS really sucks. The centralized application service is very poorly-designed. For instance, you have to painstakingly enter each college course (including high school APs and IBs) exactly as listed on your transcript. Not in a table; no, that would be too easy. Nope, each course has an individual HTML form, and once you hit “add course,” it's almost impossible to go back and fix mistakes. And then you send them an official transcript so that they can verify all the information you told them, a process that can take several weeks (see below). AMCAS may be streamlined for the schools, but for applicants, it's an exercise in following directions.

Tip #4: Apply early. SDN would have you believe that several thousand premeds hit “submit” on AMCAS at midnight on June 1, the day the whole thing opens. Like most things on SDN, that's an exaggeration, but do try to get your AMCAS in by the end of June. Verification gets more and more backlogged as the summer goes on, and since most schools have rolling admissions, it's best to be at the front of the pack. Turn your secondaries around fast, too; two or three weeks is the norm. If you're still in college, try to get them all in before classes start. Nothing sucks more than having to write a convincing essay (show, don't tell!) about how empathic and diverse you are after taking a three-hour biochem exam.

Tip #5: Don't splurge on a suit. Before buying from Ann Taylor or Jos. A. Bank, go to outlet stores and mid-range department stores. Look for lightweight wool in conservative colors (dark blue, brown, dark gray—avoid black if you can). Try things on. Women, get a three-piece wardrober (jacket, pants, and skirt). Keep an eye out for sales. No one really knows or cares that you are wearing last season's lapels. You shouldn't have to spend more than $75 on a good-quality suit. And get really comfortable shoes. At one school, the girl next to me was wearing those pointy-toed witch shoes. She slipped them off while she was waiting for her interviewer, and her feet had actually molded to squeeze into that unnatural shape. No fashion is worth that price.

Tip #6: Interviews are fun! I know this seems counter-intuitive, since they are so subjective and all, but the vast majority of my interviews were low-key and conversational. At one, we talked for about fifteen minutes about Harry Potter. But be prepared to explain any weakness in your file: a low semester GPA, a red flag in a letter of recommendation. Interviews are also cool because you get to check out the school and the area in person. My opinion of several schools changed a lot after the interview.

Tip #7: Don't take rejection personally, and don't get cocky over an acceptance. Like I said, this process, while certainly difficult, isn't a crapshoot. That's why rejections hurt so much—some school thought that your best wasn't good enough. Take a deep breath and follow Tip #2. (Keeping a stash of chocolate on hand is highly recommended.) Sometimes, the school is willing to look over your file again and tell you what went wrong so you can fix it. No matter what, don't let a rejection affect your performance at other schools. Similarly, celebrate your acceptance, but don't get arrogant about it. All it means is that you managed to convince someone that you might make a good doctor. The real work is still ahead of you.

There you go; the Scrivener's seven certified tips for getting into med school. Apply away!

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