What unique challenges can this year’s med school applicants expect to face, and how can they be overcome? [Show summary]
Dr. Herman “Flash” Gordon, Accepted medical admissions consultant, walks med school applicants through applying during COVID-19, as well as disclosing thorny issues like academic discipline or a criminal record.
How COVID-19 is impacting medical school admissions [Show notes]
Dr. Gordon returns to Admissions Straight Talk to discuss applying during the pandemic, as well as applying with blemishes, like a criminal record or academic discipline. What qualifies him to guide you? He served as chair of a medical school admissions committee for four years.
Dr. Gordon earned his bachelor’s at Harvard and his PhD in developmental neuroscience from Caltech. He began teaching at the University of Arizona’s medical school in Tucson in 1991 and has been doing so ever since. He also served as chair of the med school’s admissions committee, and after leaving that position in 2014, he’s been a very popular admissions consultant at Accepted. Who can better guide you in applying to med school, especially if you have some issues to deal with? (And everyone is dealing with the issue called COVID-19.)
How did you get involved in med school admissions at the University of Arizona? [2:14]
Like so many committee assignments, I was drafted. I was fine with it because I thought it was an opportunity to help choose the students that I’d be teaching. As I got into it, I really, really enjoyed it. It’s such an important committee in med schools. It’s definitely the most labor intensive, even probably more than PMT. It’s also extremely rewarding, because you’re changing people’s lives by accepting them to med school, and it’s such an intense effort. You’re working with your colleagues who are also really dedicated to this task, and the outcome is great. You end up with this class that you really enjoy teaching, and you feel good about them becoming doctors.
At University of Arizona, like at many schools, there are a number of students who serve on a committee as well. And that’s very valuable, and I think they get the word out to fellow students, both at their own school and other schools, how dedicated everybody is to this effort. They also communicate how much effort it is, but it’s also something I think everybody feels good about. I know that from talking with colleagues, who say “I had to serve on this or that committee,” the one committee that everybody says was really worthwhile was the admissions committee.
There’s uncertainty about the kind of education future med students will get this fall. (Online? Offline? Blended? Clinical experience?) What’s your take on how they should be responding to these different challenges? Let’s take, first of all, the uncertainty surrounding the MCAT. [5:14]
First, it is what it is. Med schools have to accept a new class of med students. And so they’re going to roll with it. They know this, and what the MCAT is doing is allowing students to apply even if they don’t have their MCAT score posted yet. Schools are sending out secondaries even without the MCAT. What they’re saying is once you get the MCAT in, then we’ll process your application, but you can be building it in the meanwhile and it’ll just go through when it does. It won’t be too late. Even people who are taking the MCAT through June and into early July, they’re saying that they’re expediting the reporting of the score. So it’ll only be two weeks. So worst-case scenario, there is the end of July. That’s still very much within the normal season for MCAT. So I wouldn’t stress over that.
I think the bigger stress I’m hearing from applicants is if they don’t already have an MCAT score, and they take the test and it’s not the score that they would have wanted, they don’t have time to retake the test. And yet they’ve already spent all the money and put in the application. So now they’re going to have to fly with whatever the score is. We’ll just see how that happens. Be aware and do the best you can. Everybody’s trying to do the best they can.
Any guidance on if applicants are better off waiting until next year (the 2021-22 cycle) to apply? [7:48]
Who knows what’s going to happen then. I think if you’re ready, I don’t see any reason not to apply. For doctors, these are exciting times. You’re putting in everything that you worked for your whole life in order to help people. And as med students, you’re going to be part of that. If it were me, I’d say, yeah, I want to be part of this right now. I’m applying.
If you’re in a situation where you haven’t had clinical experience yet, then definitely you need to take at least a year, a gap year, to experience what your future career is going to be. That’s why admissions committees put so much weight on the clinical experience these days: they want to know that the applicant has sorted this out, that it’s really the future for them.
I remember just once in all my teaching, there was a student who came in after two weeks and he said, “Med school is not for me.” And he left. That’s a slot that can’t be filled, because two weeks of med school have already gone by. That means that’s a doctor down the road who’s not going to be there for their patients. So it’s really serious, and that’s why it’s so important for applicants to have really vetted their own career and know that this is what they want to do.
It’s also important to the admissions committee to see that you’ve really done your job. You’ve done your work over a period of years. Now, in terms of not having access to opportunities, I am hearing from clients that they are getting jobs as scribes and even medical assistants. So these kinds of jobs are opening back up. I had several now who have followed my suggestion to try out the crisis text line. And every one of them has really been enjoying it. So that’s a way where you’re not face-to-face, but you are interacting directly with a person in need and you are helping them. And that’s exactly a clinical experience. And that’s something that’s fairly valuable to admissions committees.
The other concern I’ve heard is the pass/fail situation. Many applicants who were taking serious science classes and premed requirements last semester for a grade, and wanted the grade, instead had a pass. [12:50]
Again, it is what it is. Med schools can’t reject it because it’s a pass grade. If you were looking for it to improve your GPA, it wouldn’t have improved your GPA by that much. Even a whole semester of pass/fail grades isn’t going to change things that much. And the admissions committees have to take what they get.
Do you think that 2021 will be a good or a bad time to start medical school? [13:35]
I think it’ll be a great time. There already is this focus on the importance of medical care in America. It’s going to be a lot of thinking about ways to improve the system. I think it’s going to be very dynamic. The people, the faculty are going to be talking. The students are going to be talking. Everybody’s in it because they want to do good. But how do you best accomplish that? If I were young and going to med school, I’d say, “Yeah, I want to go.”
Would you be concerned about limitations on clinical exposure? [14:23]
We’ll just have to see. I know that first years are being limited, in terms of their clinical experiences. I think that there are ways around that. Med schools will be exploring those. I can think of one, which is to have standardized patients who have been screened for COVID. There are some really good videos of doctor-patient interactions, and those are good reflective opportunities. Some of the videos are set up so that they’re like House, like how not to be a good doctor, right? Actually, you could use House episodes! But what’s important there is the reflection, the discussion about the nature of the interaction and what’s important. Students won’t be getting the direct practice, but I think that there are opportunities where they could get direct practice. There’s certainly a need for working with the homeless, and those positions are open.
It’ll probably vary a lot from one school to another. I think people will be very creative about trying to make the most valuable experiences for students. Some will succeed and some will fail, just like any other teaching enterprise. And the ones that succeed, everybody else will try to copy and take credit for. And it’ll all work out. But I think that it’s going to be exciting. So no matter what, it’s going to be exciting to be in this sort of atmosphere. Hearing from your teachers who are on the front line, what’s going on. What they’re up against. That’s going to be incredibly valuable.
What about for medical scientists programs, MD/PhD programs? [16:23]
They are trying to get the labs up and running again. And sort of like the general economy, it’s the labs that fund the universities. So they have to make them work. It depends on the particular lab, but they are easier to try to set up the social distancing in the lab situations. I think what’s going to be difficult are the medical studies, the clinical studies where you have patients come in and they’re supposed to be doing something, but hospitals are making it work. It’s all a challenge, but people will figure it out. And by next year, hopefully we’ll have a vaccine, and that’ll change a lot of things.
How do you feel in general about gap years? [17:35]
Med schools love gap years. They are an opportunity to really get some extensive clinical experience. You want to use your gap year to get that clinical experience. The other thing that’s good about them is that they give you the time to put together a good application. If you’re putting together the application while you’re in school, you’re going nuts. You’re trying to keep your grades up and take all these hard courses, and maybe do research and clinical experiences. How are you supposed to put your application together? Some people do, and good for them, but I think an awful lot of people today are taking gap years. And med schools are absolutely fine with it, and it’s actually a good thing to do so. And it will make your life a lot saner. If it were me today, I would be taking a gap year.
You and I were recently discussing the situation of a client who has academic discipline on his record. You had a succinct framework for handling that situation, which actually comes up more than we’d like to admit. Can you review it with us? [18:32]
There are three important parts that you have to get across in the 1,300 characters that you’re given for dealing with this. So there’s reflection, there’s contrition, and there’s redemption.
The reflection is you need to spend some time thinking about what it is you did wrong, why you did it, how you would act differently in the future. The contrition is after you’ve done that sort of self analysis, then you have to accept that you are the one who was responsible. And you have to make that very clear, right? And then the redemption is that you need to do something that sort of makes amends for what you did wrong.
So let’s take a very simple case, which admissions committees see quite often, which is getting caught for drinking in the dorms. One of the redemption activities you can do is outreach to fellow students to let them know how serious it is. And why it’s important to follow the rules of the school. Especially for doctors, it’s very important that you be able to follow the rules of where you work. And that starts younger. And so your activities and the mistakes you make and how you deal with those mistakes, those all reflect on your fundamental character and your ability to be a responsible moral doctor.
Sometimes you hear contrition expressed as, “I don’t want to go through that again,” meaning that, it’s not so much you’re acknowledging that you did something wrong as it is that the reaction was so severe and so unpleasant that you wouldn’t go through it again. Is that distinction important? [20:51]
Yes. At two levels. One is the moral level, right? And then the other is the admissions committee level: They want you to understand why it was wrong. Not, “I don’t want to be punished again.” It’s, “There’s something that I did wrong and this is what was wrong about it.”
Would your advice differ at all if it’s a criminal matter? Let’s say a DUI, or in the academic context, academic action because of cheating. [21:47]
Cheating is pretty serious. There’s going to have to be some pretty significant contrition and redemption to overcome a cheating charge. Outreach activities are always good. I had a client who went through this, and she did outreach to high school students in the community where she grew up, and explained how important it was to follow the high road, both from the moral as well as the career perspective. So all of that counts.
Now let’s say you had a felony. That’s going to be almost damning for getting into med school. That’s going to take 10 years of being out in the world and helping people. Admissions committees are very risk-averse. And if they can choose somebody who doesn’t have the felony, why should they choose you? What’s special about you that has overcome that felony conviction?
Let’s go back to DUIs. I remember a discussion on our admissions committee where it was somebody who had two DUIs. One was during college and the other one was about four years after college. The discussion was, “No way, no how.” This person is old enough to have known better. They had already been through it. And yet they still succumbed. And also there’s this sort of stereotype of doctors drinking too much, and they just want to avoid that no matter what. So it was the drinking part, it was that it was the second time, and it was well after they had graduated from college. There was no way we could let them off.
I think drinking and marijuana charges, if it’s during college, especially during the first two years of college, they’re sort of like, “Well, it’s a bad judgment and they haven’t done it again.” And if they’ve got the appropriate contrition and redemption, okay. It’s not a big deal. But if those things start happening after college, they become much more serious.
Let’s move on in the application cycle. Since we’re almost at secondary season, what’s your advice to applicants and clients for responding effectively to secondary applications? [24:40]
The secondaries are even more important than the primary, and they’re more work. The secondaries are how you get your foot in the door and get the interview. And if you look at the statistics, it’s about one in 10 to one in 15 get that interview. And then across schools, once you’ve got the interview, it’s about a one in three chance of actually getting accepted to that school. So it’s all about getting your foot in the door, getting invited for the interview. And a large part of that is based on the secondary, because the secondary is about your match to the school. You may be a great candidate, but if you’ve got no connection to the school and you haven’t drilled down on their website, and you don’t know what it is that you would get out of attending that school, they’re not going to be interested in you. They don’t want to waste an acceptance on somebody who’s unlikely to come. So with the secondary what’s most important is, “Why this school?” Why do you want to come to our school? And then a variant of that is, “What can you contribute to our school?”
What about advice for interview prep? [26:18]
Interview prep is very important. Even people who are very personable have benefited from extensive interview prep. Part of it is just sort of getting used to the situation that you’re not having a conversation. You’re being interviewed for a job. So there are particular topics that you want to be able to hit. You want to be spontaneous, and yet you want to be prepared.
So for typical interview questions like “Why do you want to be a doctor?,” you should have three things lined up, right? You have bullet points. You go through, you give your bullets, and then you go through and you explain them. And then you allow for a conversation with your interviewer. You don’t want to just be blabbing, have a spiel that you’ve got all prepared, and you have to run through it and then you’re done. You want to have stopping points where your interviewer can ask you a question and maybe steer the course of the conversation that you’re having. You frame it with your bullet points, but then you leave it open for a dynamic discussion, so that your interviewer can ask you the questions that they want to know the answers to. If you go in with your spiel, it may not be what they wanted to hear, but if you give them the opportunity, it will flow very naturally.
And all of that benefits from practice. A lot of people will do one interview prep. I have found it makes such a difference to do three, and the people who’ve done it really say, “That made a big difference.” Because after the first one, you might say, “I thought about it for a couple of weeks, and I practiced with my friends and then I came back. And then I learned more from the next session.”
Any last words of advice? [28:33]
You want to be starting as early as possible, your freshman year. And I do have clients who are signed up and getting advising starting as freshmen. And it doesn’t have to be every month. You can check in every semester. Especially if you have a choice between two different clinical opportunities, and it turns out one of them is patient-facing and one of them is not, well, that’s a very important distinction, right? And be on track, so that when something like COVID comes along, it doesn’t really make any difference to your preparation. You’re ready.
Is there anything you wish I would have asked you? [29:49]
“What’s the difference between being on an admissions committee and being a consultant for Accepted?”
I talked before about being on the admissions committee, and it’s a very rewarding position to be in, but I think it’s even more rewarding consulting with clients and helping them optimize their story and presenting themselves, so that they do get in. I saw so many applications when I was on the admissions committee where we knew this person was going to be a good doctor, but the application stunk. We couldn’t take them based on this application. Not that a lot of my clients started with applications that stunk, but anything you can do to help strengthen that application and get your story across more effectively just makes such a difference. And being part of that, I have found to be very rewarding.
- Get in touch with Flash!
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