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Zach Donato, who will be starting medical school later this year, reflects on his application experience and his expectations for med school [Show summary]
Zach Donato, who is preparing to start medical school, shares his perspective on getting accepted as a reapplicant, staying on top of the application process, and mentally preparing for med school.
An accepted incoming medical student shares why, in admissions, “the straight path is not always the best one.” [Show notes]
Zachary Donato is happily anticipating the start of medical school. He graduated from Emory University in 2018 with a major in neuroscience and behavioral biology. He is currently pursuing a masters in biomedical science from the University of Miami, and this summer, he will start medical school.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? [1:56]
I was born in a small town in Virginia called Roanoke. I lived there until I was about five, then we ended up moving to Denver, Colorado. So I was raised very outdoorsy. I was hiking all the time, biking, running, you name it—outdoor activity, I probably tried it. So I grew up in Colorado. Then I went to Emory undergrad, like you said, and pursued my degree in neuroscience there.
How did you decide to pursue a career in medicine? [2:30]
The main thing was during my high school career, my AP biology class. So kind of up until that point I was all over the place. I was taking business classes and just trying to envision myself doing different things. I would say my teacher, my AP biology teacher, really inspired me and ignited a passion for me to pursue a scientific career. Nothing got me as excited as when I was doing the labs in biology or learning new concepts. It felt like nothing I’ve ever felt before. So I knew I wanted a career in the sciences and that kind of led me down the path of, “Okay, maybe medicine is something I should consider.”
How about clinical medicine? Where did you get the appetite for that? [3:16]
That next summer, I ended up volunteering in the post-anesthesia recovery unit at a hospital in Denver. I think as I started kind of getting familiar with patient care and listening to patients’ stories, that really excited me in a way that I was intrigued with. I realized that I could do a lot of little things to make a patient’s experience much better. I kind of wanted to keep doing that, so I kept exploring the medical field.
Your 2019/2020 application wasn’t your first medical school application—you applied for 2018/2019 first. What do you think contributed to your rejection the first time around? [4:02]
I think one of the things that applicants really struggle with is getting the whole picture together, right? So you have your letters of rec, you have your personal statement, you have your activities, but how can you put that into one really nice picture of yourself? So I think first of all, my letters of rec, I kind of rushed to get them. A lot of times students struggle getting close to people, especially with undergrad. You have so many people in your classes. I really struggled doing that. I think my personal statement really didn’t reflect who I was and my journey. I told a lot of nice things, but it wasn’t about my story. I think that’s really where I struggled the first time.
What do you think you did differently the second time that made the difference? [4:44]
Preparation. You have to be ready for everything the day that AMCAS application comes out. I submitted on the first day. Getting the personal statement to be my story, and then having the activities backing up what I say about my story. Then getting close with the faculty at UM, really developing those relationships, and doing a lot to show my commitment to the medical field.
What was the idea behind pursuing a masters as a postbac? [5:18]
I kind of needed to reinvent myself a little bit. In college, I struggled. My GPA wasn’t great. I was a very, honestly, even below-average applicant, and I rushed that first application. But I think that that second year was really meant to show medical schools, “Look, I can do it. I can take medical school level courses, and I can be successful.” That’s something they really needed to see for me.
Did you also retake the MCAT? [5:54]
Yeah, I actually ended up taking the MCAT three times.
What was the hardest part of the application process for you? [6:31]
I think the hardest part was just learning how to do the application, the timing of everything. I had no idea what was going on. Being organized, trying to have all the information at hand, having my secondaries written, and having the timeframe of everything, I think was the hardest part for me. I think the actual application is pretty straightforward, but I think the organization aspect was something that I had never had to do quite like that before.
How did you approach the primary application? What was your goal? [7:47]
I think I needed to convey the story I needed to convey. With the personal statement, I think everyone has this idea that it needs to take the full word count or have everything I’ve ever done in my entire life. No, it needs to focus on you are and what you’ve done to lead up to why you should be a medical student. I had a concise statement about me and who I was, and they could see that when they read that. Then I made sure that each of my activities, and my most important activities, for sure, kind of fit in with that personal statement. When I reread it that second time, I thought, “Wow, this is an applicant that has all the moving parts,” but also you could see the sum of those parts. The first time, it was like, “Here’s an experience all the way over here, over here, over here.” But how did it come together in the right way? I think that’s something that really stood out to me the second time.
How many schools did you end up applying to both the first time and the second time? [10:00]
The first time, I applied to 33 schools, and the second time, I actually ended up applying to 28. I think another thing to consider is you don’t have to apply to 60 schools. I know a lot of friends who applied literally everywhere you could possibly apply. Another thing I learned throughout this is that the school has a mission fit. If you look on MSAR, the Medical School Admissions Requirements, and you look at their mission fit, they have a mission statement that they’re looking for students with particular assets, right? If I didn’t do a lot of research and I’m applying to a school that’s very research-heavy, it doesn’t matter what my personal statement says. The fit’s not there. So I think that’s something that I had to go through the second time as well.
How did you stay on top of the secondaries, and what do you believe is key to success with secondaries? [10:08]
The secondaries are honestly, I think, the most important part of the app process. I say this because everyone submits a primary. You’re saying who you are at the surface and all that. The secondary is a way for you to really stand out and convince the school that you’re the best fit for them. So what I personally did was this: There’s a database that has from A to Z all the schools and their past secondary questions. Even though some schools change from year to year, you can get a good idea of what the school is going to ask you, right? Whether it’s an ethical scenario or just “why this school.” I think beyond that you just have to plan for, can I say something about this school beyond just, “Oh, I’d really love to go to your school because it looks great, and I think it’s a great school, and I want to be at medical school”? So diving deep into your connection with that school I think is important.
Keeping track of which secondaries I sent in already and where I was with everything. Spreadsheets were very important. I did pre-write. The second I turned in those primary apps, I knew I had about a couple of weeks, and I pre-wrote those secondaries. I think if you have those ready, that’s a little more stress just off your shoulders already.
How many schools did you interview at? [11:39]
I ended up interviewing at three this cycle.
What are your plans for between now and the start of medical school? [11:55]
I’ve been working. Right now I’m trying to save up a little bit of money because obviously I’m going to be very devoid of that in a couple of months. So I’ve been actually working. I got my EMT license. I’ve been working as an EMT, so kind of keeping the clinical experience rolling a little bit. So that’s been really fun. Then just doing what I love to do, which is following doctors around. I found a doctor that I really liked to work with, and he’s teaching me every week. I just love to continue learning, you know? I think that’s something I want to do right now.
What do you wish I had asked you? [12:30]
I think one thing is what scares me going into medical school. You get there, and you get the acceptance, but then you’re like, “Wow, like I’m actually going to start this journey.” You have to develop a new routine. It’s not going to be like undergrad. You’re not going to be able to coast by with, “Oh, I’ve got to cram everything in the last night.” You really have to set yourself up for success from the beginning. So I’m a little nervous about that. But I think that’s normal.
Do you have any concerns about the emotional demands of medical school? [14:01]
Absolutely. I read an article a couple of weeks ago about someone who wrote a paper on delivering bad news. I was reading it, and I thought, “This feels so scientific,” but then you realize the weight of what’s carried on a physician’s shoulders and what you actually have to do. The reality of it is crazy. Truth be told, you have to be prepared for that because it’s going to happen. It’s about realizing and remembering that you’re doing this for a reason, and you’ve worked your life to do this. I think that’s something that you get the unique privilege and burden of doing at the same time, and that it should be dealt with in a very respectful way. You’ll be ready when the time comes, hopefully.
Any last bits of wisdom or advice for pre-meds? [17:28]
I’ve met so many people throughout this journey that are so determined. “Get through undergrad, go right to med school,” or, “Taking three years off is going to be detrimental.” I have to say that the year that I didn’t get in was probably the best of my entire life, and for so many reasons. A lot of people think, “We get into college, then we do this, then we do this,” and we’re just so used to getting what we want. That was a kick in my butt a little bit. I got to sit and determine, “Is this really what I want to do?” And that kind of ignited the fire for me more than anything ever had.
Then there’s the maturity aspect. I feel like I had the chance to really reflect on myself, and I think I’m going to be a better physician because of that. So I really urge people that are kind of on the fence, and whose parents are like, “You just need to go, you need to go, you need to go, you need to go,” just take your time. The straight path is not always the best one you should travel, right? You got to go through some obstacles. I really think that helped me a lot.
I’ve also seen on social media all these forums out there that enable everyone to panic about things and blow things out of proportion. I think people are set on, “I need a perfect MCAT score. I need a perfect GPA. I need to cure cancer to get in.” That’s just totally not true.When medical schools say they’re holistic, I really believe that. I think as long as you can show a continued commitment, and that you’re doing something to improve yourself, it’s going to happen for you. It’s just a matter of when. People have all these anxieties about, “I failed gen chem. I’m not going to be able to get in.” That’s just not true. You’ve just got to keep working towards what you want in life, and eventually it will happen.
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