Med applicant Mary Thomas shares her path to medical school acceptance early in this year’s application cycle [Show summary]
Mary Thomas will begin her medical school studies next summer after receiving an exceptionally early acceptance in October. She shares how she achieved that early acceptance, along with insights into her application process and the personal passion driving her pursuit of a career in medicine.
How this non-science major gained a spot in medical school [Show notes]
Are you planning to apply to medical school next summer? Would you like to be accepted by November? Mary Thomas did just that. She is happily anticipating the start of medical school after being accepted in October. (Yes, you read that right!)
Mary graduated from Pitzer College in 2019, took a couple of gap years, and applied this cycle to medical school. Let’s learn more specifically how Mary got her first acceptance to medical school in October of this most extraordinary year.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and where you grew up? [1:56]
I grew up in Edmonds, a suburb outside of Seattle. I grew up with two older siblings. I grew up with my parents being really involved with their jobs, so I spent a lot of time alone growing up. I was a really avid reader, and that was something that led me to become really passionate about social justice in high school. That is how I ended up going to Pitzer College in Southern California, because I knew it was a school that really emphasized social justice in its curriculum. I ended up going down there for college, and it was a really good fit for me, and it was a big part of how I ended up pursuing a career in medicine.
How did you decide to pursue a career in medicine? What were some of the formative experiences? [2:39]
My older sister, we’ve always been really close. She’s in medical school right now, and that was something that was always in my mind as something that I might be interested in. But I would say I didn’t become really driven towards it until I was in college. I started working with a volunteer organization, a grassroots women’s mental health group. I was working with these women that came from really challenging backgrounds and faced a lot of really difficult circumstances, and I was a really passionate volunteer for that organization. I was there for the entire three years, starting my sophomore year of college. I was totally devoted. I think I missed maybe three of our weekly meetings the entire time that I worked with them.
As a volunteer, what did you do with these women? [3:29]
We had our weekly meetings, totally community-led, where we would do a wide range of activities like meditation. Sometimes we did things like yoga. We did a unit on dance therapy. We would do art therapy. We would have a lot of discussions. We didn’t really call it group therapy, but discussions where we were able to share a little bit about experiences that other people might not understand outside of that community. My volunteer work was helping plan these weekly meetings. Sometimes we’d have presentations about certain therapeutic techniques and things like that. That was my role with that organization, and I loved working with them.
Though I was a super devoted volunteer, I felt like I didn’t have that much to offer. That was what made me realize that medicine would be a really powerful career for me to pursue because the women in this group didn’t have a lot of access to healthcare. I realized that maybe that’s something that I would want to pursue to be able to give even more to this group. I felt as just a college student, I didn’t have that much to give, even though I really wanted to help and it was such an awesome organization.
Were the challenges that these women faced mostly financial? Emotional? Socioeconomic?
It was a mental health group, but specifically a group for Latina immigrants. A lot of the women were monolingual Spanish speakers, so that was definitely a challenge. Some of them were undocumented. They were mostly all low-income or from a low-income community. Those were definitely some of the main challenges.
What surprised me is that we didn’t actually talk about those challenges as much as you might expect. I think a lot of the challenges that we talked about in our group were things that pretty much anyone could relate to: challenges with the family, with your kids, with your friends, or with your community. I was a little bit surprised by that, but I felt like I could really contribute. They always appreciated that I was the same age as a lot of their children, so I was able to share that experience.
Did you test your hypothesis that medicine was your path with clinical exposure? [5:49]
I definitely did. Going into college, I had already trained as a certified nursing assistant. I was also inspired by my volunteer work with this immigrant women’s group to go live in Mexico for a little while. While I was there, I volunteered at a nursing home in Mexico where I was able to get a little bit more clinical experience. Then, I also shadowed surgeons and physicians in outpatient facilities in Seattle where I grew up. Some of them had a lot of connection to what I was doing in Southern California and some didn’t so much, but it was still a really good experience.
What have you been doing during your two gap years? [6:39]
Immediately after college, I definitely knew that I wanted to move back to Mexico, where I had spent a bit of time during college and where I had been volunteering at the nursing home. I made a bunch of friends there, and I lived with a host family that I was very close with and am still very close with. I moved back there for six months, which is the longest amount of time you can stay with a tourist visa.
While I was there, I studied for the MCAT, which was a very serious endeavor. I studied for it like it was my full-time job, really from the moment I woke up till the moment I went to sleep. I felt like it wasn’t totally the “Mexico living abroad” experience I had hoped for, but it was definitely important for me to do that studying for the MCAT. I took the MCAT in the winter, after I graduated. Then, I started the AmeriCorps program that I’m working with here in Los Angeles, and I’ve been doing that for this entire year.
Did your studying pay off on the MCAT? [7:32]
It did end up working out. I did get not an astronomically incredible score, but a good enough score that I’ve been getting some interviews and, ultimately, an acceptance.
What was the hardest part of the application process for you once you got the MCAT done? [7:46]
I know you said once you got the MCAT done, but I would definitely have to say the MCAT. I don’t know if you could really explain to someone who hasn’t taken the MCAT how truly difficult it is and how demoralizing it is. I never expected it. I’d taken the SAT. I’ve taken lots of tests. I thought, “It’ll be just like that,” and it really was not like that. I felt like I was waking up every day and having someone tell me I was never going to be good enough because it just was so hard, and I felt like I was never really going to understand. The questions are meant to be hard like that.
Even though I ended up getting a good score on the MCAT, I still look at those questions and think, “Oh my gosh, I have no clue.” I think that it definitely leads to a demoralizing situation, and I definitely had to try and stay positive. I’m very lucky to have only had to take the MCAT once. I did a lot of practice tests, so I knew what score I was about to get when I did take it. But that was a really difficult period of time that I spent doing that. I also wasn’t a hard science major in college. I studied Latino community health, which I loved, but I think I was definitely a little less prepared for the science sections of the MCAT. I’m taking physiology now, and I’m kicking myself because all of this was on the MCAT. I tried to learn it all on my own studying before taking the MCAT, and that was hard to do. If only I had taken some of these courses in college! But I just took the bare minimum requirements: biology, chemistry, organic chem, and physics.
You mentioned the emotional toll of the MCAT, that feeling of, “How am I going to be good enough, and am I ever going to get the score I need?” How did you handle that? [9:32]
I wish I could say that I had a good way to handle it. It was really difficult, and I do think I kept it together fairly well. What really helped me in the most difficult moments, when I really wanted to give up, is just thinking about my reason for doing it, hoping to one day down the road have some skills that I’ll be able to give back to communities that don’t have access to healthcare. I thought about those communities that I worked with as a volunteer in Mexico and in Southern California and how much they gave me as a volunteer, how much I learned from them, just wanting to be able to give back to them. I thought about them and how much I wanted to be able to contribute and give back to that community. Now, I’m able to say it really did pay off, but that’s what I always thought about in the most difficult times. I said, “Keep doing it because I really want this.”
How did you approach the primary application once the MCAT was behind you and you knew your score? [10:36]
I was staying really on top of it. I think that after the MCAT was done, I felt like everything was going to be fairly smooth sailing. I would say it sort of was. Those secondaries were very overwhelming. But definitely with the primary application, I started really early. I had a lot of people review my primary application and review my experiences. I put the whole thing together and then looked over it again, so that I could see the gaps in it and try and improve it again. I spent a lot of time on that, and I submitted my primary application just about as soon as you could submit it. I ended up applying to 40 schools.
How did you stay on top of the secondaries? [11:26]
It was very difficult. They all came in about two weeks, so for two weeks I cleared my schedule and did nothing but secondaries from the moment I woke up till the moment I went to sleep. I barely left the house for two weeks, which was fine because it was the beginning of COVID and there wasn’t really anything to do anyways. I stayed really focused on that. I did maybe three a day for two weeks. I had pre-written maybe four or three of the secondaries before they came out, but I really did write a lot of them.
I tried to stay really organized by keeping it all laid out in a spreadsheet. Even though it didn’t seem that important at first, by the time I was on secondary number 35, I was seeing questions that I knew I had written before, and I did not want to rewrite them. That would have taken forever to read through all of my other ones to find it, so having a spreadsheet that laid out each question and how I had answered it was super helpful to be able to go back through and reuse chunks that I had already written.
I also had family members read through my essays, which was super beneficial because after being so exhausted and writing 10 pages of secondaries, I could barely even bring myself to read through it. Having someone else do that last read-through to check for any typos and everything was super beneficial.
What do you believe is key to success with secondaries, in terms of content? [12:47]
I would say tying every question to experiences that you’ve had. I think that for some of the questions, you could write a really good answer that’s just your opinion on it, but I think it’s really beneficial if you can say, “Here’s my opinion that I formed from this clinical experience where this happened, or from this volunteer experience where I gained this knowledge and work with these kinds of people.” Then, you’re sharing a little bit about your personal views, and you’re also sharing a little bit about experiences that you’ve had that will help you be a good physician.
How many schools did you interview at, of the 40? [13:30]
I have had six interviews so far, and I have two coming up. I’m lucky to have gotten so many. I didn’t expect that at all.
How do you prepare for your interviews? [13:44]
I have done a lot of interview prep. I did a lot of standard interview prep, where people would ask me questions and I would go back to them. I also wrote out bullet points for pretty much every standard interview question you could get. Maybe it’s just the schools that I’ve been interviewing at, but I really haven’t gotten many crazy weird questions. It’s really been mostly standard interview questions. There’s been just a handful where I didn’t have an answer pretty much prepared already, so definitely that prep helped a lot for those interviews.
Obviously, all interviews this year are virtual. Are you missing the experience of actually visiting the campus? [14:16]
It’s hard because of course it would be amazing to be able to travel to all of these different schools, and I think I would probably gain a lot more understanding about the schools, and I’d love to see these different cities that they’re in. But I have to say, I can’t really complain about not having to spend hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars flying all across the country and taking more time off of my AmeriCorps program. It’s a huge expense to be flying and staying in hotels and even renting cars, so I’m a little bit grateful for it.
Did you have to take the VITA? Do you have any tips? [14:59]
I did do the VITA, yeah. It was pretty difficult. I prepped a ton. I would prep my answers to my video camera, and I would have my mom text me interview questions to simulate it. She would text me a question, I would set a timer for one minute, and then I would do my three minutes to the camera recorded on my computer, and then watch it back and make those notes. It was really difficult. I did a lot of that prep, so I could be as prepared as possible. I hope for future students that they don’t do it because I think that was probably a lot more stressful than any of my virtual interviews I did. It’s so awkward.
You’re in an AmeriCorps program now. What are your other plans for between now and the start of medical school? [16:13]
My AmeriCorps program ends in exactly a month. I didn’t expect to get an acceptance so early on, so I had been preparing to try and get a clinical job after my AmeriCorps was over because I didn’t have a lot of clinical experience. I was really preparing for the worst: to not get accepted this cycle and maybe even restart studying for the MCAT. Now, having this acceptance so early, I really don’t know what I’m going to do. Also, there’s COVID, so some of the more fun things that I would have liked to do are not really an option right now. Things like travel are not really an option, so I don’t quite know yet, but definitely relaxing.
Is there anything you wish I would’ve asked you? [17:02]
Maybe about coordinating everything to be a good applicant. I was lucky to have my sister’s experiences to lean on, so I think I learned a lot from her experiences; they were able to help me. I knew going into college, even though I wasn’t 100% sure that I would be pursuing medicine, how important it was to keep your GPA up, and so that was something I really had at the back of my mind all throughout college. I know that a lot of people don’t know where they’re going to pursue medicine or don’t realize how important the GPA is considered in that process. But I took that really seriously.
I actually didn’t take organic chemistry or general chemistry at Pitzer. I took it at a different college over the summer where I knew I could really focus and get those good grades that you need. I also actually withdrew from chemistry my freshman year because I was going to get a C in the class. I was doing really badly. I wasn’t flunking, but I was going to get a C, and I withdrew because I knew it was going to have a really bad effect on my GPA. I thought having that withdrawal was going to be an issue during my applications, that they were going to ask, “Why did you withdraw?” But that didn’t end up being the case at all. That ended up being a very good strategic move, since that C would have really hurt my GPA. I withdrew and I took it the following summer.
You are also a nontraditional major. Many people who start college knowing that they want to go into medicine are bio majors, chemistry majors, etc. because they feel that’s what they should do. You took a very opposite tack. [18:23]
I never really considered myself a super science-y person. I didn’t love my science courses. Public health and community health were a lot more interesting for me. In some of those science courses, you’re taking labs. There’s just a lot on your plate, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to get as good of a GPA as I was able to get choosing different classes, where I was more interested in it and I was able to really do the work and be passionate about it and excel in those courses. I didn’t take that major for that reason, but it ended up working out that way, which was a good thing because the GPA is so important.
My major was Latino Community Health, a self-designed major. I was grateful to use college as a time to explore different things that I’m passionate about. I’m still not very passionate about my sciences, my hard sciences, so I was glad to be able to explore other things.
Does that worry you, approaching medical school? [20:42]
Sort of! I know that I’ll still need to do a lot of those hard sciences, especially in that first year/first year and a half. I know I can do it. I did fine on the MCAT and everything like that. I took my pre reqs in college, but I know I’m not going to enjoy that first year and a half. I don’t think I’m going to be thrilled or absolutely fascinated by it, but I think that the clinical experiences will hopefully outweigh that.
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