I am far from perfect. I didn’t get a 4.0 in college nor did I score in the top percentile on the MCAT. I strived to get “A’s” but sometimes I got “B’s”. In fact, here’s something few know about me:
Dr. Trot’s Confession #2:
I used to joke with people by saying, “I study very hard because I want to get as many A’s as possible so I can get into medical school. I mean come on, there are three A’s in my name for a reason!” Well, that often was the case but not always. I squirm as I type this but I did receive one “C” on a chemistry test, and for a “perfectionist” like myself I felt like my world was ending when I got my grade back. But it didn’t. (Imagine that!) My mom told me:
“Alana, you have today and only today to throw yourself a pity party. Cry as loud as you want. Throw a chair. Eat a box of cookies although you may throw up in practice. But do whatever you have to do to get your anger out. But tomorrow, the party is over! It’s a brand new day full of new possibilities. Pick yourself back up and get your … together. Why? Because nothing is broken that can’t be fixed!”
I listened to “Mama T” and I let it go the next day. (For those of you wondering I didn’t eat a full box of cookies; I had two donuts lol.) I looked at my exam and found some relief; turns out I made some simple mistakes and I didn’t know a particular concept as well as I thought. I found my mistakes, adjusted my studying, worked hard, and was able to finish the course with a B+. Nothing is broken that can’t be fixed. Touché Mama T. Touché.
As I write this, I am about to finish “Part B” of my journey in becoming a doctor: medical school. I have endured the rigors of the pre-medicine curriculum in college, withstood the stress and empty pockets that came with applying to one of the most competitive academic systems (medical school), and “overcame the odds” by matching into a competitive surgical residency program. You’d think my resume was flawless right? Wrong! Sure, I have achieved great accomplishments that have helped me stand out from the crowd but to be totally honest with you, I did have some weaknesses in my applications to both medical school and residency, which added more stress (or “fun” as I sarcastically say) to the process. So how was I able to finagle myself into both medical school and residency as in imperfect applicant? Keep reading…
The Strategy Behind the Madness
From my experiences in applying to medical school and residency, the “secret to success” in applying is how you tell your story; in other words, learn how to “sell” yourself. Yes, your grades and MCAT score(s) will play a big role (and I want to stress that) but you can find ways to “distract” the reader or interviewer from a weakness to focus on a strength. For example, use your weakness as a strength! Wait, what?
Even though many of us strive for perfection, the irony of the madness is that we know we will never attain it. But that doesn’t stop us. We study all day to ace our physics test; we volunteer every Thursday at the local hospital rather than hang out with friends; and we become a tutor within the sciences to add to our already busy schedules. We do whatever it takes to get into medical school. But what if your application has a weakness that puts your competitiveness into question? I am sure some of you have been told:
“Your GPA is not competitive for medical school.”
“Your MCAT score is too low. I strongly recommend that you re-take.”
“I think you need to be more realistic about your chances and try something else.”
First, I want to start by reminding people what the word “average” means. According to mathisfun.com (say what?), the word “average” means a calculated “central” value of a set of numbers. Hmm…so if the average MCAT score for the 2015-2016 application cycle was 28.3 (scoring system prior to the 2015 change) that means that even though many applicants scored close to 28, some applicants scored above AND below 28 and entered the application, some of whom will be successful. The same applies to the GPA.
As I will forever stress on #DoctorGoals, try to do your best in classes and on the MCAT otherwise your road to medical school may be much bumpier and perhaps longer but you can still get in if you stick with it and fully dedicate yourself to the process. For example, a graduate student featured in my FREE eBook INCLUDE NAME was recently accepted into two medical schools. She is elated and beyond relieved because her journey required her to withstand rejections and even someone saying, “I think you need to be more realistic…” Her undergraduate GPA was low (for applying purposes) at 3.0 and she had a below average MCAT. Talk about a hill to climb! But that’s exactly what she did. She analyzed her application, targeted her weaknesses, and improved her application. After entering a graduate program, she improved both her GPA and MCAT score. In fact, she graduated as the top student with a 3.9. She withstood rejections the first time she applied but bounced back with a stronger application the second time around and now she gets to chose a medical school.
I also wanted to include a quote a student featured in NAME OF EBOOK. He is a first year medical student who is the epitome of “weathering the storm” and fighting for your dreams.
“If you really want to do medicine, you’ll get in. I say this because you will have your doubts and your doubters, but if this is something you genuinely want to do than whatever obstacle you may face will only become apart of your journey and make you stronger”
First Year Medical Student
Nothing is broken that can’t be fixed.
Okay, so let’s say you have a weak component to your application but you strongly believe that you are competitive and ready for medical school. Here are some strategies on how to tackle different application “weaknesses”.
Example #1: Your GPA ain’t stylin’
Let’s say you graduated from college three years ago and recently decided to become a doctor. You have a decent MCAT score but your undergraduate GPA isn’t competitve. In college, medical school wasn’t even on your radar and you received average grades. In order to improve your GPA, you enter a graduate program and work diligently to become one of the top students but you’re still concerned that your undergraduate GPA will dampen your chances. Well, if you’re asked about it on an interview you can spin it this way:
“I understand that my undergraduate GPA isn’t my strongest asset, but I was determined to improve and become a stronger student so I entered the graduate program at X University where I have significantly improved my GPA. Throughout the process, I have learned X, Y, and Z, which has shaped me into a well-rounded student ready to handle any challenge. I can’t go back and change my undergraduate GPA, but I can continue to get improve as student and learner every single day.”
What you just showed:
- Ability to acknowledge your weakness and find a way to improve it
- You really want to be a doctor and will do what it takes to be the best you can be
Those are all excellent qualities to display on your application and especially in an interview. I know that’s what I looked for when I interviewed medical school applicants.
Example #2: The MCAT – Your “Mt. Everest” and you slipped off the mountain…twice.
Okay. First of all, even I still cringe when I hear the word “MCAT” and I haven’t taken it since college. It is just a behemoth of an exam. It is overwhelming, stressful, and there’s “always something to study” (hmm…sounds just like medical school). It is challenging test and is often the reason why qualified applicants do not get into medical school. While preparing for different blogs on #DoctorGoals, especially for Dr. Trot’s Top MCAT Tips, I’ve talked to many medical students and residents about how to succeed on the MCAT and have found some interesting commonalities:
- Most of the people I spoke to took the MCAT more than once
- If someone did not get into medical school, it was because “My MCAT score was too low”
- There was a strong dislike for the exam (shocker)
I say all this because I want you to know that you are not alone if you feel overwhelmed by this exam or if you did not do well. It is especially difficult for a pre-medicine student who has succeeded in the classroom to not have the same success on the MCAT. This is not to say that the MCAT is impossible; not at all. In fact, I know of some students who did so well that their respective medical school gave them a scholarship, which is awesome. And if anyone of you reading this did well on the MCAT, congratulations! For those who haven’t, keep your head up! The fact that many of the medical students and residents that I’ve spoken too did “okay” on the MCAT and simply cringe with the thought of those four letters says enough. Yes, the MCAT has a big influence on your success as an applicant, but it is not an all or none deal. This is where strategy comes into play and where you turn a weakness into a strength.
For example, let’s say you’re an undergraduate senior student at a top academic university and will graduate with an excellent GPA (3.8). The rest of your application is strong as well but you have this elephant in the room starring at you with a smirk: you scored two points below average on the MCAT and this was your second attempt (based off the scoring system before the 2015 change so let’s say the score was mid-20s). How in the world do you “distract” an interviewer and have them focus on your achievements rather than a score that you took on one day. Check this out:
Interviewer: You have a great application but I am concerned about your MCAT score. It is a little low and they say that your MCAT score correlates to how you will do on the boards in medical school and thereafter. You have a strong GPA so I am confused about the disparity.
Before you answer! One thing I learned to do on interviews was to take a couple seconds to quickly get my thoughts straight before responding. I’ve found this technique to help me stay calm and appear confident even if it was a challenging question where my answer would be very important like defending a below average MCAT score in this case. You can say the same thing but what makes the difference is how you deliver it. If you are embarrassed by the score, it will show and will come off as you aren’t ready to handle the rigors of medical school. If you answer the question head on, acknowledging the weakness but quickly redirecting the subject to discuss your accomplishments the interviewer may forget that he/she even asked you about the MCAT plus you leave the interviewer full of reasons why you are ready for medical school rather than allowing a score to support a rejection.
Okay, you’ve taken a deep breath and you’re ready to answer this question with confidence:
Applicant: I understand that my MCAT score is a blemish on my application, but I would not be sitting here if I wasn’t confident that I had the potential to succeed as a medical student and future physician. I do not believe that my ability as a student and potential as a future physician is directly correlated to a seven hour standardized test that I took on one day. I believe a better indicator is my GPA, which reflects my ability over these last four years. Sure, I had some road bumps as the pre-medicine curriculum is challenging, but I learned how to readjust my study plan and ask for help when needed. I have worked very hard and am proud to say that I will be graduating from X University with honors. After working as a scribe and volunteering at X hospital, my passion for becoming a doctor is undeniable. I know this is what I want to do and I am ready to work to become the best physician possible for my future patients. At the end of the day, I believe they will want a doctor with strong medical training and a personable approach to medical care much more than knowing what my MCAT score was from ten years ago.
Boom. Drops the mic.
Here’s what you did:
- You acknowledged the weakness head on but you immediately moved from this weakness to your strengths and did so in a confident manner showing that your score doesn’t “faze” you because you strongly believe you can do this!
- You provided a brief example of how you’ve overcome adversity (“…I had some road bumps….but I learned how to readjust my study plan and ask for help when need.”)
- You provided evidence as to why you are a competitive applicant (GPA, graduating with honors, work as a scribe, and volunteering)
- You said what (should) matter to you most: providing the best care to patients. I think ending your response the way I did leads the interviewer to think, “Hmm…good point” even if just for a moment.
You did all of this even though you were asked specifically about the MCAT. The art of “selling” yourself…
Please note, you could give the best answer to this question and still not get in. But you want to give yourself the best chance by proving that despite the score, you are ready. Of course, this is just one approach and I encourage you to ask advisors, doctors, other medical students, etc. what they recommend when it comes to approaching this inevitable question. Come up with a way to answer it in a manner that leaves no doubt in the interviewer’s mind that you are ready right now. Otherwise, say hello to MCAT attempt #2.
For more tips on how to excel in an interview, check out NAME OF eBOOK.
Example #3: “You don’t have enough medical experience”
This actually came up in some of my interviews, which I found annoying. Personally, I feel like one of the best exposures to the reality of what it’s really like to be a doctor is if you have a doctor in the family, which both of my parents are. As I described in Is Medicine Right For Me? I state that because I saw how hard my parents worked and how often vacations were cut short due to medical emergencies, I wanted to be anything but a doctor. It looked too hard! Plus, my “limited” exposure to medical experiences in college was due to the simple fact that I did not have the time as a collegiate athlete in the Big Ten Conference. Despite my lack of time, I still volunteered at a free clinic and a local hospital and shadowed a few physicians. I absolutely understand and agree that there should be a strong emphasis on one’s exposure to the medical field as you should be 100% dedicated or else medical school will swallow you up fast and spit you out. But in a way, I’ve been exposed to the medical field since I was a kid on a daily basis.
This was pretty easy for me to “defend” as I had just enough medical exposure on my application to show my dedication. Plus, the interviewers fully understand that I was not able to have a million extracurricular activities since I had one that required a significant amount of time.
But let’s say you aren’t involved in an activity that consumes a lot of your free time and your main medical experience is, say, volunteering at a free clinic. All you have to do is show how this one experience has made a dramatic impact on your decision to become a doctor and one of the best ways to do this is to start by telling a story and follow with how this experience has deepened your passion to enter this field. For example:
When I started college, I was pretty certain that I was going to become a high school teacher. I mean, my destiny was pretty much determined as my mom and uncle are both teachers. So, in a way, I followed in their footsteps. I was pretty interested in becoming a science teacher, so I took some extra science courses for fun. I also wanted to get more involved in the community and my friend told me about a great volunteer opportunity at a local free clinic. I had no medical experience prior to this but thought it would be a great experience. I had no idea this would lead to a career change. Every day was exciting. I was fascinated by the doctor’s ability to make an assessment within minutes. I watched with awe as she examined her patients looking for clues to support her working diagnosis. I saw the “magic” of medicine as I listened to the doctor explain the benefits of taking X, Y and Z. I even saw a doctor grab ahold of declining situation when a patient became hypoglycemic in the waiting room; she knew exactly what to do. At first, I didn’t know if I was more fascinated by the “power of the white coat” or if I actually wanted to wear one, so I asked to shadow two other physicians one at the free clinic and the other in the emergency room. Fastforward a year later, and here I am sitting in front of you proud to be considered as potential medical student at X. You know it’s funny, I didn’t think anything of me taking the extra science courses for fun until now. Perhaps I’m just late bloomer.
What you did:
- Even though you’ve had one main exposure to medicine, you gave multiple examples of what lead to your decision
- You did not make a fast decision (“At first, I didn’t know…). Rather, you took your time and exposed yourself to different physicians and areas of medicine.
- At the end, you show that even though you’re a “late bloomer”, this journey isn’t that unexpected; it just took you a little longer to realize it.
Summary: How to “sell” yourself
- Acknowledge the weakness. You can’t hope that it’ll be “ignored” and you can slid right it. Think of it this way, if you are applying with your application as it is, you are saying that you are ready for medical school despite this weakness.
- Be confident in yourself. As I mentioned above, you can say the same words in two very different ways. Be confident! If you have doubts about yourself because of your weakness it will come off in the interview. Trust me.
- Give examples of your success to overshadow your weakness(s). Of course it would be nice to have perfect application but that just isn’t the reality for the majority of us. So, whatever your strengths are, own them! Whatever your weaknesses are, own them! Just learn how to “distract” the reader or interviewer by providing more than enough evidence to show that you are ready.
- Figure out what makes you unique and focus on that.
Know somebody who should read this? Share it with them. Tweet. Facebook. Whole 9 yards.
~ Alana aka “Dr. Trot”