By Sai Phyo, St. John’s University
Preparing applications for MD/PhD programs not only requires years of preparation – from doing research, to participating in extra-curricular activities, to having good grades – but also requires perseverance during the application process itself. As a fellow MD/PhD applicant, I know firsthand that taking advantage of available resources and staying on top of deadlines can make the process less stressful.
The first step is being sure that you are really passionate about research. If your mind is set on becoming a physician-scientist, start getting as much research experience as possible. You do not necessarily need to be a co-author on a publication, but it will set you apart. Engage in your research project and be able to articulate your role in the project. MD/PhD admission committees are looking for students who are not only successful, but also those who have the potential to succeed.
Second, establish a good academic track record and participate in extra-curricular clinical and non-clinical activities. Be aware of the prerequisite classes for medical school. These classes can include one year of chemistry with lab, one year of physics with lab, one year of biology with lab, one year of organic chemistry with lab, one year of humanities, one year of mathematics, and one year of English or English intensive courses. Most medical schools accept AP credits, but some do not. Most medical schools also strongly encourage applicants to take certain biology classes such as biochemistry and physiology. Be sure to check with each school what their policies are regarding AP credits and prerequisite classes.
The most important step for getting into an MD/PhD or an MD program is the application. The application process includes the Medical School Admission Test (MCAT); letters of evaluation (LOE); The American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), which is also known as the primary application; school specific supplemental applications, which are also known as the secondary applications; and the interviews.
The primary application is used by all medical schools outside of Texas. Texas medical schools use Texas Medical and Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS) instead of AMCAS. However, medical schools such as the University of Texas Southwestern use AMCAS for MD/PhD applicants, but TMDSAS for MD applicants.
Most students decide to apply for medical school by the end of their junior year in college. The application process takes one year, so you will need to apply by the end of junior year. The best time to take the MCAT is about a semester after you have finished the prerequisites for the MCAT: general chemistry, physics, biology, organic chemistry, psychology, sociology, and biochemistry. The MCAT score is released thirty to thirty-five days after the test date. By taking the MCAT at the end of junior year, students can start the application process knowing where they stand in the applicant pool.
Collect LOEs from professors who know you on a personal and an academic level as early as possible. Give them time to reflect on your strengths and write you a great recommendation letter. If you have a pre-medical committee, it is imperative that you utilize the committee letter service instead of sending individual letters. Contact your pre-medical advisory committee early and get information on how to proceed with the committee letter. Almost all medical schools participate in the AMCAS letter service. This means that all LOEs, including the committee letters, are sent to AMCAS before being distributed to your designated schools.
The AMCAS application cycle starts in early May, but you will not be able to submit the application until early June. The deadlines for medical schools vary, but the deadline for the primary application is usually in October. Research the schools you want to apply to and be mindful of the specific deadlines. In addition to the biographical and academic information, there is one personal statement for MD applicants and there is a personal statement, an MD/PhD statement, and a PhD statement for MD/PhD applicants. Once you have sent in the transcript from your school and filled out all required information, you can submit the AMCAS even without sending in your LOE/committee letter. The LOE can be sent later, but medical schools will not review your application until they receive all application materials.
After sending in the AMCAS, it takes about two to four weeks to get it verified and sent to your designated schools. The LOE is verified separately and it can take up to four weeks before it will be sent to your designated schools. If required, the designated schools will invite you to complete the secondary applications and pay an application fee. Policies on sending secondary invites depend on each school. Some schools send out invites to all applicants (e.g. Harvard), but some schools send out invites only to applicants they are interested in (e.g. Vanderbilt). The secondary applications ask for basic information and most medical schools will have additional essays. The deadlines for secondary applications vary as well. Some have rolling admission while others have deadlines in early October to early January.
After the medical schools receive your MCAT score, LOE, primary application, secondary applications and application fees, they will start reviewing your application. Strong candidates are then invited for an interview.
One tip is to first apply to schools with rolling admission after ranking them based on your preference. This will put you on the top of the list, giving you a higher chance of getting interview invites that are usually emailed starting in early August until the schools have run out of interview spots. After applying to schools with rolling admission, apply to schools with fixed deadlines. The actual interview dates vary, but will be during the fall or spring semesters. Students choose their own interview dates among the available dates depending on their schedules.
Also be sure to utilize your pre-medical advisor. They can offer you insight and can help you with your application essays as well. Get to know them well since they will be the one writing the committee letter.
There are numerous resources to help you in the application process, including:
- Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)
- Student Doctors Network (SDN)
Many schools such as MIT, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins offer great insights regarding application essays on their websites. Finally, an AMCAS fee waiver is available for eligible resident students. More about this can be found out at: www.aamc.org/students/applying/fap/ .
So to summarize the timeline, aim to take the MCAT by the spring of your junior year, start your AMCAS in May, finalize AMCAS by June or early July, work on your secondary applications from August to December depending on your preference and the schools’ admission policies (rolling or non-rolling), go to interviews in Fall and Spring semesters of senior year, get accepted by medical schools during senior year, and matriculate in medical school the semester following graduation.
For more information on TMDSAS: www.tmdsas.com
For more information on the new 2015 MCAT: www.aamc.org/students/applying/mcat/mcat2015/
For more information on AMCAS Letter service check: www.aamc.org/students/applying/amcas/amcasresources/63226/faq_amcasletters.html
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How To Craft Your AMCAS Personal Statements
When the AMCAS application service opens in early May, your brain will be overloaded with lists upon lists of requirements and data points to collect. These include letters of recommendation, verifiers, contact information and transcripts. It will feel like a lot and, yet, you will eventually make it happen because you will have read the AMCAS application instruction manual closely to avoid a returned or incomplete application or, worse yet, an investigation into your application.
American medical schools usually have a rolling admissions process. Even so, applicants who make it into the pool early have a better chance at both interviewing and acceptance. So open your application as soon as the application opens and aim for an early submission, in early June.
During the fluster of activity, you will have to write a short personal statement about why you want to go to medical school. The personal statement constitutes Section 8 of the AMCAS application .
MD versus MD-PhD
If you’re applying just to MD programs, then you have a single personal statement to write. It’s just 5300 characters (including spaces) with the following instructions from AMCAS:
“Use the Personal Comments essay as an opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants. Consider and write your Personal Comments carefully; many admission committees place significant weight on this section.
Some questions you may want to consider while writing this essay are:
- Why have you selected the field of medicine?
- What motivates you to learn more about medicine?
- What do you want medical schools to know about you that hasn’t been disclosed in other sections of the application? In addition, you may wish to include information such as:
- Special hardships, challenges, or obstacles that may have influenced your educational pursuits.
- Commentary on significant fluctuations in your academic record that are not explained elsewhere in your application”
If you are applying to MD-PhD programs, you also have to write an MD-PhD Essay and a Significant Research Experience Essay. The MD-PhD Essay is a 3000 character (including spaces) essay on your reasons for pursuing the combined program. The Significant Research Experience Essay is a 10 000 character (including spaces) essay on your previous research experience, which must include a lot of detail about the project(s) and your contributions to the work.
AMCAS Personal Statement Tip #1: An Essay is Not a CV, It’s a Story
Your personal statement should NOT be a recitation of your CV. Your CV is just data, it does not narrate a story about why you have become interested in medicine, nor why you are particularly suited to medicine. With AMCAS, you get a few hundred characters to describe each element of your CV so save your writing on these for your sketch, unless one or two of them directly lead to a discussion of why you want to be a doctor.
The essay has to serve as your voice on paper to the admissions committee. The essay should articulate your own point of view about what you will bring to medicine, the traits you have carefully cultivated over years of education, those you were born with and your own core sense of empathy. The essay is an interpersonal analysis of who you are, aside from your accolades. Because the essay is an exploration of you as a person, it should be structured around a narrative. I am going to share with you a piece of my own personal statement from my residency applications to give you a sense of what I mean, as an example:
Personal Statement Example:
“I decided to become a doctor so that I could be of direct, longitudinal service to my community through innovative, and solutions-oriented work that helps people live well. At the core of my service vision is health equity, or the elimination of avoidable, unfair differences in health status experienced by different groups. My dedication to health equity is clearly reflected in my academic and work life, but it is rooted in the lived experiences of my family.
My mother grew up as one of 14 children in a very poor home, in rural central Ontario, where both parents, while loving and warm, suffered with alcoholism. She and her siblings experienced significant childhood adversity, the legacies of which still loom large. As matriarch, she supported dozens of my aunts, uncles and cousins, provided stability for my immediate family and ran a small business. She modelled, and I internalised, compassion for my loved ones as they lived through uncertainty and dislocation, conflict and loss. The doctors in my family’s story have buffered the effects of poverty and social exclusion. When my uncle Elvin was dying of liver cancer in 2008, my family doctor stopped by his house every other day to manage his palliative care, even as he continued to drink alcohol. She treated him with such humanity and with full recognition of his life arc. Family medicine is where the lives of patients are wholly expressed. I belong in family medicine because I appreciate that the patients’ social, economic and biological narratives are critical to their primary care experiences.”
First, do not copy from this essay. Second, this is what I sound like. This is my actual voice. My family, friends and colleagues can hear me in this statement. And that needs to be true of what you write as well. Third, note that I am not using particularly fancy language but each sentence is carefully wound. You don’t need to use large words to craft a compelling story about what brought you here, to medicine. But each sentence must serve a purpose and have a role in the statement. That’s how you work with 5300 characters.
AMCAS Personal Statement Tip #2: No Prompt
The hardest part about crafting a distinguishing 5300 characters is doing so in the absence of a traditional prompt. What do they want to hear? How do I sound unique when the purpose of the essay is so generic?
Reach back into your experiences and identify a moment that had you at the patient interface. Were you volunteering at the local oncology ward? Do you remember a patient vividly? Did you help that patient, through conversation or just by helping her find her glasses? What does this experience mean in the larger picture of why you want to become a doctor? You need to drill down to a significant clinical experience, vividly describe it, and then reach up towards a description of who you are and what you will bring to medicine.
If you don’t write often, this is a challenge. Do not leave these until the last minute. I recommend you start by writing the personal statements. Start here so you have time to consult with writing tutors at your university, to run phrases by mentors and to reconsider your approach. Writing your personal statements is not an afterthought, it should be central to the experience of applying to medical school. (Click here to learn how BeMo can help you make your personal statement stand out.)
AMCAS Personal Statement Tip #3: Draft, Draft, Draft – Then Repeat!
On this note, you must go through at least three or four drafts to come up with your best statement. I say this as someone who rarely writes drafts of anything – university papers, medical school papers and these very blog posts. It comes out and it lands for me because I have been writing for a very long time and the stakes are much lower. But for my personal statements to medical school and residency? Ten or more drafts each. These statements mean so much and they will be read by such a diverse audience. They must land as close to perfectly as possible. Give yourself time to redraft. Give yourself time to figure out exactly what you mean and exactly how to say it.
AMCAS Personal Statement Tip #4: No Victim, Only Redemption
Bad things happen to people. People’s parents die of cancer in their second year of university. People get abused. People migrate countries. People experience war and famine. All of these can knock a GPA to its knees. And medical schools want to know about these experiences if they are reflected in your GPA. For AMCAS, these personal experiences should be described in your personal statements.
And this is really hard, right? You don’t want them to take pity on you. You want them to see that you are strong, capable and resilient. You want them to see all you have come through and for them to take this into consideration when they note your GPA is less than 3.8.
How you tell the story matters. Note that when I talk about my family – a complicated one, no doubt – I don’t talk about how it may have disadvantaged me to come from the middle of nowhere and be among the first to attend university. I don’t beg for special consideration because of all the hard things. I talk about how my experience of my family lent me traits that are in great demand in medicine today: equity-focused, conscious of how poverty affects health, nuanced when it comes to addiction. I focus on what I bring to the table and why. This is what you need to do if you have had an adverse experience.
If your experience is something like sexual assault, you have to be even more careful. We remain quite conservative around discussions of these kinds of crimes even though you have to live with the very real consequences every day, including those faced by your GPA. Additionally, you may have been named publicly through criminal proceedings and this isn’t something you want to lead with when trying to get into medical school. Suffice to say, if you believe the only way to understand why your GPA is low is to share that you had an adverse, traumatic experience, do so with a frame of resilience and seek feedback from your trusted inner circle around how to do this. Do not go to Premed101 or Student Doctor Network as the discussions there are not fruitful, in my view. Also try to see if your university will alter your GPA from a score to a pass\fail system for the affected courses but you MUST do this before you graduate.
AMCAS Personal Statement Tip #5: Writer’s Craft
And in the end, some of this is about writing skills. You have to become a good, if not great, writer in the process of applying to medical school and this is just fine. Can you come up with a good reason not to try to become a good writer? The skill will serve you in medicine in ways I am unable to describe.
Great resources on writer’s craft include Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay and To Show and To Tell, as well as Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve been listening to the latter on audiobook for a while and it’s incredible.
AMCAS Personal Statement Tip #6: Get Expert Feedback
Get an expert second set of eyes to look at your personal statement and provide you with objective feedback. That means your mom is probably not the best person to ask (even if she’s an accomplished writer because your family and friends cannot remain objective and are afraid of hurting your feelings). But the reality is every great writer has an editor. You need an editor. That’s the only way to make improvements to your personal statement but more importantly your writing skills which you are going to need to improve in order to be an excellent future medical doctor. Period.
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About the author:
Dr. Ashley Faye White is currently a rural medicine resident at McMaster University and a senior admissions expert at BeMo. She has an M.D. from McMaster medical school and has navigated her way into med school as a non-traditional applicant.
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