Avoiding Common Pitfalls When Applying to Med School
Another important consideration is whether the admissions committee will find your recommender objective and trustworthy. You don’t want someone too close to you. Even a prestigious professor might not help your application if he’s your uncle.
“Avoid getting recommendations from family friends, even if that includes the chair of surgery at the local medical school,” cautions Dr. Mark Edney. “The committee member reading the letter will assume bias right off the bat. Even if the recommendation is glowing, it may not carry as much punch as one that does not have the potential for bias.”
Finally, you want your three letters of recommendation to come from diverse sources. Instead of thinking of each letter individually, consider the impact the letters will have as a group.
Dr. Edney says, “A little diversity is the key to success here. If you were a science powerhouse as an undergrad and get your three letters from the chairman of biology, the chairman of chemistry and a research advisor, you know those people could all be expected to say, ‘This is the best student we’ve had in years.’ But that’s not your best strategy. It would be much more effective to include a letter from a literature or classics or philosophy professor who might be able to say something like, ‘Sarah brings a refreshing and unique perspective to our philosophical discussions, which is not typical of someone who has such academic achievement in the sciences.’ That would show the admissions committee that you’re strong across the board, not just in science.”
Pitfall #3: Interviews
Interviews are another trouble spot for many med school applicants. The way you present yourself makes a big impression on the interviewer. On the one hand, it’s often difficult to prepare for interviews since they can vary so much from one to the next. But at the same time, you don’t want to practice so much that you sound rehearsed and unnatural.
“The interview experience can be highly variable,” Dr. Goldmakher notes. “You can predict some of the standard questions you’ll be asked, but some interviewers will also use the time just to see if you can establish communication and rapport. Others will press you hard on your reasons for going into medicine or even ask you to discuss some of the dilemmas you might encounter during the course of your practice.”
Dr. Goldmakher also warns against appearing over-rehearsed. “It’s important to have key points you can get across during the interview,” he says. “But you don’t want to sound too rehearsed or mechanical, even if you are talking about something you’ve gone over a thousand times.”
Dr. Edney agrees that the way you come across in an interview can make a big difference. “I interviewed several applicants at Dartmouth who were rock stars on paper but in person were boring, without personality, not willing or able to talk openly or to share their opinions and views,” he says.
“My advice to applicants going into interviews is basic: Be honest. Be yourself. Smile. Be receptive to humor. You don’t have to be a comedian, but show your personality,” advises Dr. Edney.
Think about what the interviewer is looking for in a potential doctor. “Many of us apply what we call ‘the mommy test’ in admissions interviews. We ask ourselves, ‘Would I want to bring my sick mother to this person for medical care?’ ” says Dr. Edney.
“Communication with patients and their families is part and parcel of being a physician,” he continues. “If you can’t talk and use emotion and listen and respond, you lack a key ingredient for being a good physician. Your interview is your chance to show you can do those things. You can get better at demonstrating these abilities if you need to. Practice.”
Even if you have a fantastic interview, it’s possible you’ll still get waitlisted. Instead of giving in to disappointment, use the extra time to be proactive and convince the admissions committee that you’re the right choice. “You’ll improve your chances of winning admission if you convince the school that you were made for each other,” Dr. Wu advises. “Tell the admissions committee about your recent achievements. Submit updated grades. Ask your professors if they can put in a good word for you with someone they know at the school. Call the person who interviewed you and ask for their advice. And learn more about the school—ask if you can meet current students, observe classes, or speak with someone about your candidacy. The more interest you show in the program, the more likely you are to be the waitlisted candidate who gets a call when a class space opens up.”