A tale of med school reapplication success [Show summary]
After getting rejected from medical schools the first time around, Nicole Stephens bounced back and reapplied. Now happily anticipating the start of med school, she shares her advice for fellow reapplicants.
How to apply stronger the second time around [Show notes]
Were you rejected from this year’s med school cycle? Is the deafening silence from medical schools causing you to fear rejection? Are you starting to think about reapplication?
Our guest today, Nicole Stephens, reapplied successfully and is happily anticipating the start of medical school. She earned her bachelor’s in neuroscience from UT Austin in May 2019, and she is currently pursuing an MS in biomedical science from MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Science in Houston.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and where you grew up? [1:56]
I grew up moving around the country with my brother and my parents, and both my parents served in the military. Every few years we would pack up and move to a new location. Not only did this inspire my future career, but it taught me a lot and shaped me a lot as a person, teaching me things like integrity and discipline and showing me the diversity across the whole country. We finally did settle in Central Texas where we really fell in love with the area. I decided to stay to do my undergrad in Austin at the University of Texas. Then, I stayed in Texas for my graduate program here in Houston and will be attending medical school here in Texas as well. I’m not from Texas, but I’m now a Texan at heart.
How did you decide to pursue a career in medicine? [3:01]
I decided around when I was in middle school and early in high school from observing and learning about the injuries of returning soldiers. Being from military communities, many of the members would deploy overseas and return with injuries like post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury. I saw somewhere in my community that I would be able to help. That’s what inspired me to go into medicine.
Did you volunteer with some of the veterans and soldiers that came back injured? [3:29]
I was able to volunteer at the military hospital at Fort Hood, Texas in the ICU there. My mom, she’s an artist. She did some art with some veterans, and I was able to volunteer with her for that. This was when I was 14 or 15. I wasn’t able to do much as a volunteer, being so young, but I was able to observe a lot. I think being in that environment at a young age, I was able to see that that is what I want to pursue in the future.
Why did you decide to pursue the master’s in biomedical science? [4:09]
I knew that there would be some time between my time as an undergrad and medical school, and I wanted to do something that would challenge myself, but also show medical schools that I was dedicated to continuing my education and show them that I was able to continue to increase my GPA. That’s why I decided to do a program. The reason I chose my particular program is because I had the opportunity to continue my research. So as an undergrad, I did a lot of bench work research, and I worked with fruit flies. Now as a graduate student, I’m now able to work more with patients in clinical research. That was a really neat opportunity and led me to this particular program.
What is the application of your research, either with fruit flies or human beings? [4:58]
With fruit flies, I studied their circadian rhythmicity and a few different mutant variants. Now I’m doing completely different research. I’m actually doing research at the dental school here, working with geriatric patients. Geriatrics is something I’m really interested in, so that’s why I chose this particular lab. My thesis project is in studying oral health changes over time in nursing home residents. The oral health and systemic health, they’re connected. For oral health, it’s the state of chronic inflammation in the oral cavity. And when there’s inflammation somewhere in the body, there’s a pro-inflammatory state everywhere else in the body, which affects diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
You indicated you took the master’s because you knew you were not going to go directly to medical school. Was the 2020-2021 medical application your first one? [6:02]
No, this was a reapplication for me. I had previously applied the 2019-2020 cycle. The reason I had to reapply, I don’t know exactly, but I can tell you what I’ve done to strengthen my application and what I think led to my success this cycle. I did retake the MCAT and restudied for the MCAT and did a lot better, 11 points better. I think that really showed the schools that I was dedicated to strengthening that foundation in the sciences. And along with that, I did well in my coursework in grad school. That was also showing them that I was dedicated to the academics of medicine. I increased my clinical experiences through shadowing my clinical research and volunteering in a hospital here pre-COVID.
Also, I think something that really helped me was having better recommenders the second time around. My first application cycle, I only had one recommender that knew me really well, my mentor, and then I had a physician that didn’t know me super well, and then two professors where I did well in their class, but they didn’t know me outside of the class. This application cycle, I had four recommenders who knew me very well, knew what I wanted to do in medicine, and could write a stronger letter for me. I think that probably helped a lot. And then also just learning how to write for the applications, I think, made me a stronger applicant, writing more actively about what I did and what I learned, as opposed to maybe just telling a story about what I observed.
When you say you had better recommenders, what made them better? [7:58]
The fact that I was able to spend more time with them to show them what I really was interested in medicine. My previous recommenders, like I said, were two professors. I was in their class and I participated in their class and did well, but they didn’t know me outside of just being another student in their class. This time I had my MS advisor, who was a course director for a seven-hour course I took my first semester here, so she spent a lot of time with me. I have my new mentor here, who I work with daily, and then I have a physician that I got to know better than the first physician I had. She was really dedicated to helping medical students get into the medical programs they’re interested in.
You indicated also that you changed your writing. How did you change your writing? [9:15]
In working with Accepted, I learned a lot about how to write for these applications because I think I was already a strong writer in telling stories. But as a medical school candidate, you have to learn how to say, “I did this experience and I showed integrity, or I learned this about being a geriatric physician,” things like that, and the qualities that it takes to be that. I think in my previous application cycle, I was writing more about what the doctors did that I observed as opposed to what I learned.
What was the hardest part of the application for you, either the first time or the second time? Did it change? [9:57]
The hardest thing is the time it takes and realizing that it takes perseverance and that it’s going to be a long process and to not get burnt out. Understanding that it is a marathon and not a sprint is challenging.
When you realized you were not going to start medical school in 2020, were you already prepared to reapply? How did you process that? [10:20]
I knew I was ready to reapply. Before the whole cycle was over, I hadn’t heard back much. I got one interview, and then I was waitlisted from that school. I started studying for the MCAT again during the application cycle. I did have one friend who’s in medical school here in Houston who said, “Just wait and see. Don’t rush it.” But I think being that anxious premed like many of us are, I just started studying again. I always prepared to reapply. I did have my school here that I could do the second year, which was helpful. I had something to do in that time to focus on. I wasn’t in too much of a rush.
How did you approach the primary application, and when did you submit it, both the first time and the second time you applied? [12:30]
Both times I applied really early in the process. I applied in Texas and then the whole United States. They’re different schedules, but both I did very early on. I did approach them differently the second time compared to the first time. The first time, I approached it more about the quantity of applications, rather than the quality of applications. My first cycle, I applied through AMCAS, TMDSAS, and AACOMAS. I applied to many programs in all of those, and I didn’t necessarily focus on the mission of the schools. That’s something I’ve learned. For example, I applied to Virginia Tech, and I think that school really wants people who want to serve the Appalachian Mountains and the rural areas there. That’s not necessarily where I want to go in medicine, and I didn’t pay attention to that. So when I reapplied, I decided to focus more on the quality of my applications. I was able to put more time into applying through TMDSAS and then AMCAS, but to fewer schools with AMCAS. Having more focus on a fewer number of schools compared to the really, really large number I applied to my first year made me a better quality applicant.
How many did you apply to the second time around? [14:15]
The second time around I applied to every school in Texas under TMDSAS and then one school in AMCAS. Then, I ended up finishing the secondaries for seven or eight schools for TMDSAS.
How did you stay on top of the secondaries? [14:45]
It’s less overwhelming when you reduce the number. You’re, again, able to produce more quality essays for the secondaries. I think what’s really difficult about the secondaries is that you’re already so far in the process and you’re often very tired and you need time to decompress. I took a few days to decompress, and then I decided to start knocking them out. But what I found I was able to do with the secondaries, both in my first year and my second year applying, was recycle some answers. What I mean by that is: Those schools aren’t going to ask questions in the exact same manner, but often they asked the same questions. One school may ask about a failure and one school might ask about a time you learned a lesson, and you’re able to take the story from the first essay and tweak it to address what the other school wants. It definitely cuts down on the time restarting on a blank page.
Also, when you pay attention to the mission of the school and you think it’s a school that you would be a good fit at and that would be a good fit for you, it’s a little easier to write for them because your experiences fit that school. It’s somewhere you really think you’d fit in well, so it’s exciting to write for those programs.
How many schools did you interview at the second time, and how did you prepare? [16:28]
The second time I interviewed at two schools. I began my preparation for the interviews maybe two weeks before, maybe a little more time, but around two weeks. I started by looking at the most common med school interview questions and some example answers and what is expected of you when answering questions in medical school interviews. Next, I outlined my experiences, some stories from those experiences, and qualities that I showed in those experiences without writing out answers to questions, brainstorming what I’ve done.
Then, the main thing I did when preparing for interviews was pretending like I was being interviewed and talk to myself or talk to my computer, look up questions, and pretend somebody has asked me that question and answer as I would in an interview. I found that I became more comfortable talking about myself over time. I became more concise in my answers. I was able to come up with the stories that I wanted to tell easier. It feels silly, but that’s what I found to help me and be more natural in an interview setting. Whenever I was getting ready for bed, sometimes I would pretend I was answering a question.
What are your plans for between now and the start of medical school? [18:00]
My plan is to graduate from my master’s program. I need to finish my thesis and then defend my thesis. Then, I’m hoping to have some time in between to relax, but that’s my main goal before med school.
How do you see your career developing? Do you have any direction within medicine? [18:27]
As I said earlier, I’m really interested in geriatrics, but I’m going into medical school with an open mind because I’ve heard so many people say that they go in thinking they want to do one thing, and then they come out doing something they never expected that they would do. I’ve kind of experienced that. I didn’t know I would be interested in geriatrics until I shadowed a geriatric physician and I really enjoyed it. I’m going into medical school with that same mindset to shadow different physicians and go on the different rotations with an open mind.
What do you wish I would have asked you? [19:05]
There’s something I want to add to the part about my rejection and why I think I was rejected the first time around. In college, I didn’t start college with a great GPA. I was kind of shocked by the coursework, and I didn’t know how to study. But I was able to steadily increase my GPA. I think that showing the programs in my reapplication that I was able to perform well in grad school at that higher academic level really made a difference, which I wasn’t able to show them the first time around. Although grades are very important, I think that you’re able to get past bad grades if you show the schools that you can perform in your harder coursework later on.
Over time did you figure out how to study, or did you go to some centers on campus to help you or talk to professors? What did you do? [19:58]
Freshman year was really difficult for me. I’ll be honest, because maybe this will help somebody. I received three Cs my freshman year of college in my science courses. My sophomore year, I said to myself, “We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to learn to study for these classes.” I tried different ways of studying and put more time in. That was something that I knew I needed to do. It wasn’t just immediately “poor GPA to 4.0.” It was a slow, steady increase because I did have to learn and I did have to gain that foundation I was missing from my freshman year. But I think showing schools that you’re able to slowly steadily increase your GPA, it says something about that.
We don’t often talk about low grades as premeds, but I hope this can help somebody know that it is possible. Although I’m sure schools enjoy seeing good grades all the way around, they’re not going to just focus on a few bad grades. They can look at you in the holistic view.
Did you get more than one acceptance the second time? How did that first acceptance feel? [22:37]
I had two offers. It was a little sigh of relief because of all the hard work that we do as premeds and how long the process really is. I don’t want to say it was unbelievable because I do think I put in hard work, but I think it takes a moment to soak in that you will be a physician once you get that offer of admission.
Any last bits of wisdom or advice for premeds, both first-time and reapplicant? [23:12]
I think this could apply for both: I think we can get stuck as premeds looking to the future too much and always thinking we’re going to be happier at the next step. We’ll be happier when we finally finish MCAT, or we’ll be happier when we finally get into med school, or when we’re finally physicians, we’re going to be the happiest we’ll ever be. But find peace in the present moment and know that you’re on the journey already to being a physician. Find happiness in this moment. Put hard work in to reach your goals, but enjoy the process because it’s very long, and you’re already on the journey.
- The Reapplicant’s Guide to Medical School Acceptance, an on-demand webinar
- Get Accepted to Medical School in 2022, an on-demand webinar
- Life as a UCI Med School Student, Wife, and Mom, an interview with a successful medical school reapplicant
- Accepted’s Medical Admissions Consulting
- How This Premed Student Got Accepted to Medical School Early
- A Reapplicant’s Route to Med School Acceptance
- Facing Adversity as a Med School Applicant
- Accepted to Med School in Mid October: How Did He Do It?
- An International Student’s Experience at Harvard Medical School
- How to Apply to the Best Med Schools for You