Learn how real students and recent grads have navigated their way through the medical school admissions process and med school itself with our What is Medical School Really Like? series.
Meet Luke, an incoming MD/PhD student at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Luke, thank you for sharing your story with us!
Let’s start at the beginning… Where did you go to undergrad and what did you major in?
Luke: I went to the Georgia Institute of Technology and majored in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. This certainly isn’t the most traditional premed major, but I’m glad I chose it for many reasons (the main one being that I can always find a job if this whole medicine thing doesn’t work out).
What was your inspiration or epiphany for deciding to pursue a career in medicine?
Luke: It was definitely more of a slow boil rather than an epiphany. At the beginning of undergrad, I really enjoyed the basic science research I was doing, so I planned on eventually applying to PhD programs.
Cue the COVID-19 pandemic. During the first summer of the pandemic, I had the chance to do research in a lab that was developing antibody-based therapeutics against SARS-CoV-2. It was a frenetically-paced 3 months, but the timing of this experience helped me realize that research can meaningfully respond to changes in society and doesn’t have to be limited to a lab bench. As I reflected on this internship, I realized that I was most excited by translational, patient-focused research. Applying to MD/PhD programs seemed like the most logical next step.
I also had the good fortune of meeting some fantastic physician-scientist mentors along the way. During informal conversations with each of them, they consistently spoke to how they would do it all again despite the challenges and lengthy training timeline. From then on, I knew it was the right career path for me.
During the application process, were you also working full-time? What did that look like and how were you able to balance it all?
Luke: Yes, I took one gap year so throughout the application cycle I was working full-time as a research assistant in an academic lab. As an MD/PhD applicant, this was the ideal position for me because it allowed me to do research full-time (which isn’t possible during undergrad) and provided a flexible schedule for applications and interviews.
Whether applicants are working full-time or still in school, applications will consume a lot of your time and energy, especially during the summer (secondaries) and fall (interviews). They are definitely manageable, but it’s important to outline expectations with your professors, PI’s, or supervisors ahead of time.
Which “tools” – such as an app, technique, lifehack, website, guide, mantra, or advice – got you through the application process and into your target school?
Luke: As a podcast junkie, I found various podcasts to be helpful when I was first learning about the medical school admissions process. A few of my favorites were: The Prospective Doctor, The Premed Years, All Access: Med School Admissions, and of course, Admissions Straight Talk.
Many applicants would agree that one of the biggest hurdles in medical school admissions is the MCAT. Study tips for this test can be found other places online, so my biggest piece of advice would be to minimize the amount of money you spend on study resources. Outside of AAMC material, most of these are unnecessary and there are plenty of low-cost or free resources on the internet. I’d also like to plug a great initiative, MD Collective, which provides free, personal MCAT tutoring and long-term advising to first-generation and low-income students.
Once you crush the MCAT and submit your primary AMCAS application, secondary essays will become the next big boss you need to beat. The name of the game with secondaries is efficiency and organization. I would recommend making a spreadsheet with deadlines and secondary prompts (diversity, adversity, leadership, etc.). This will help you realize where you can use control-C to kill several birds with one stone.
Aside from these tools, the best “lifehack” for getting into medical school is finding good mentors. Whether they’re current students or attending physicians, they will help you avoid common pitfalls and be great resources for reviewing essays and conducting mock interviews.
Speaking of, the best piece of advice I received from one of my mentors was to take the road less traveled as a premed. This doesn’t mean to go against the grain for the sake of it, but rather to try and carve out your own unique journey to medical school. Some of the most interesting accepted students I’ve met have stories and backgrounds that aren’t “traditional” in premed terms, so try not to lose sight of what makes you different.
There are so many factors that go into accepting an offer at a med program! Which metrics did you use and what was most important to you?
Luke: Receiving multiple admission offers is a difficult, but good, problem to have. It’s a very personal decision in the end, so I can only speak to what I valued during the decision process.
Can you envision yourself living in a certain city for 4 (or even 8 years)? Also, medical school is challenging and life will happen along the way, so it can be helpful to be close to your support system.
- Research opportunities
This was more important for me as an MD/PhD applicant, but could be a consideration for MD students as well. While all research-focused medical schools will offer plenty of opportunities, each institution has its strengths. For someone like me, interested in biomedical engineering and cancer immunology, it’s a dream to be at a place like Hopkins.
- Clinical education
I think the preclinical education is fairly consistent across institutions and most medical schools will do a good job of teaching you. What’s important to consider, though, is the environment you’ll be in and the patients you’ll be interacting with during your clerkship rotations. As an example, Johns Hopkins has a very unique and diverse patient population being situated in East Baltimore, and I think that contributes to the quality of its medical training in many ways.
Studying is a huge part of any med school student’s life – and studying truly never ends for medical professionals! What is your approach to studying? What does an ideal study session look like for you?
Luke: The best approach to studying varies between students and is also dependent on the subject matter. For example, my undergraduate engineering curriculum was very problem-solving focused, so it was helpful to study and work through practice problems in a group.
However, the MCAT and most medical school classes require you to study for long stretches and retain vast amounts of information. This is where the Pomodoro method and spaced-repetition flashcards like Anki come in handy.
I’m easily distractable so I typically like to study alone in a quiet library with brown noise playing through my headphones. Of course, a cup of coffee is always within reach.
Med school is intense, to say the least! How has it forced you to get outside your comfort zone?
Luke: Outside of challenging myself academically, I think being a premed made me much more willing to put myself out there in search of new opportunities. In fact, my most formative shadowing experiences, research internships, and mentor relationships came from cold emails.
In a similar way, applying to med school made me much more comfortable with the idea of failure and rejection. Even if you’re a successful applicant with numerous acceptances, there will be a long trail of failures and shortcomings that others don’t see. As someone much smarter than me once said, “the best formula for success is to double your rate of failure.”
Does Johns Hopkins have any traditions or superstitions that med students participate in?
Luke: I’m sure there will be plenty of informal traditions that I’ll learn more about once I start classes, but one thing stands out to me as an incoming student is the Colleges Advisory Program (CAP). During orientation, the entire class is randomly sorted (Harry Potter style) into one of four colleges, each named after significant historical figures at Hopkins.
The colleges provide an informal environment for students to interact with peers and faculty. They also host a 3-day Olympics each fall with a wide range of activities. I haven’t participated yet, but it seems quite fun.
CAP is symbolic of a larger theme that many might not suspect about Hopkins, which is that it’s a very friendly and collegial place. From my interactions with future classmates, current students, and faculty, I can definitely say that the medical school feels like one, big family.
Where can people follow your journey to get an unfiltered view of what it’s like to be a med student?
Luke: I’m most active on Twitter (@luketomasovic11), where I tweet about life as an MD/PhD student and occasionally geek out on science.
And finally… What advice would you give your younger self just beginning the med school application process?
Luke: Wow, where do I begin? I’ll do my best to condense my advice into three main points:
- Be kind to yourself
It’s easy to fall into the trap of perfectionism along the way, but I can assure you that most things in life tend to work out as long as you make your best effort.
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint
If undergrad felt like a long time, then the application process will feel even longer. Don’t forget to fit the rest of your life into this period, and try to stop to smell the roses every once in a while. You won’t remember whether you got an A or an A- on an exam, but you will remember a weekend spent with friends. The journey is the reward, so take it all in stride.
- Comparison is the thief of joy
An overused quote, but maybe for good reason. One of your goals in the application process should be to reflect on what makes you unique, so comparing yourself to others defeats the whole point. You should be more concerned with being the best version of yourself, instead of keeping up with the Joneses.
Do you want to be featured in our next ‘What is Medical School Really Like?’ post? Know someone else who you’d love to see featured? Are there questions you’d like us to ask our students in this series? LET US KNOW!
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