All you need to know about med school admissions [Show Summary]
Madison Searle, a published writer, graduate application advisor, and former director of an undergraduate Honors Center at a leading Public Ivy, shares his tips and strategies for medical school applications that lead to acceptance.
Madison Searle, Accepted medical school consultant, talks about how to get accepted [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 472nd episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for tuning in.
Are you ready to apply to your dream medical schools? Are you competitive at your target programs? Accepted’s Med School Admissions Quiz can give you a quick reality check. Just go to accepted.com/medquiz, complete the quiz, and you will not only get an assessment but also tips on how to improve your chances of acceptance. Plus it’s all free.
Our guest today, Madison Searle, is a published writer, graduate application advisor, and former director of an undergraduate Honors Center at a leading Public Ivy. He earned his Master’s in English Lit from UVA and taught writing seminars for students in two honors programs at the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin in addition to being the director of those programs. Almost all of the students in his seminars were applying to medical school or other healthcare professions. UT conservatively estimated acceptance rates for those programs at around 95%. Today, Madison is an Accepted consultant working with med school and healthcare applicants.
You were an English major and got your Master’s in Literature. How did you get involved in med school and science admissions? [2:13]
Good question. For the past decade, I’ve taught two writing seminars to two honors programs that were about 80% premed students. One of the first things I did in that first semester a decade ago was teach autobiographical writing because I knew that’s what they were going to be doing for medical school applications. I continued doing that through January of this year and I also worked with countless students on their own medical school application letter.
You worked with students individually through the program as well as providing the seminar? [2:47]
How do you suggest applicants approach the writing portion of the primary application? [2:54]
My first bit of advice to any premed student, and I got them early enough in their trajectory that I could give this advice to them, was to keep a daily journal about their premed journey. It would be useful to them in three ways. First, it would help them to simply remember the experiences and thoughts they could draw on for their medical school applications. It would give them practice at writing about their own thoughts and experiences, and it would also help them gain clarity in figuring out and really being able to articulate their motivation for going to medical school.
As far as the personal statement itself goes, there are few absolutes in writing and teaching students how to prepare for an essay. But I think that’s one of them. You should not just dive into the personal statement. I was working with someone last week who was frustrated with herself because her draft was not to her satisfaction. And she said, “It’s such a simple question. This ought to be easy.” Of course, it’s not a simple question. It’s a very complex question, but I think a lot of students have the idea that the question, “Why do you want to go to medical school?” is obvious. It shouldn’t be obvious and it takes most students a good bit of time to get the complex reasons down in a way that feels authentic and honors the significance of that decision they’ve made to apply to medical school.
How many times did you have a student say they want to go to medical school because they want to help people? [4:37]
Well, that’s the number one thing not to say, I suppose, because everybody else says it.
One of my rules and we’ll talk about this later maybe is don’t say anything that you don’t need to say. Respect the reader’s intelligence. If you’re applying to medical school, everybody assumes that you want to help people.
Do you have any suggestions for determining which experiences belong in the personal statement and which belong in the most meaningful experiences? [5:21]
That’s a good question. My rule of thumb is that everything that belongs in the personal statement should be to support and expand on that central answer to the question, “Why are you going to medical school?” Anything extraneous to that or anything that’s not crucial to that decision and that answer does not belong in the personal statement.
There’s one exception to making this distinction. It’s a good idea to come back to an experience that’s already in the personal statement in the meaningful experience section if you can say something else beyond what you already said in the personal statement. Very often you can because you don’t have any time to meander in the personal statement and you’ve got to be ruthlessly efficient. It’s also a good strategy because it allows the readers to know that you can draw on nuance and less obvious conclusions from an experience that you talked about in the personal statement. To answer your question, only the most meaningful experiences belong in the personal statement.
In your experience, what do applicants frequently just not understand about writing the medical school personal statement that they should really grasp before they approach it? [7:00]
That the readers are human beings. I’ve said this many times, but I’ll say it again. My favorite bit of writing advice for applicants is Kurt Vonnegut who said, “Pity the reader” and especially pity these readers, because they have a hard job. They’re reading lots of very similar sounding applications with flowery, overly elaborate stories and lots of adjectives that obscure rather than illuminate the writer’s main point. I tell this to the students I work with. First of all, think of the reader, pity the reader, and make this as easy on him or her as you possibly can. Make it as clear as you possibly can. And if you can say something in five words rather than ten, go with five every time.
What’s the difference between verbal authenticity and your own voice versus writing like you do on social media? [8:41]
You don’t want to write like you write on social media. It’s a good question. We have different languages for different audiences. We talk with our parents differently than we talk to our friends. We talk to our friends differently than we talk to teachers, et cetera. The problem for a lot of very competent writers, the kind of students that I dealt with at UT Austin, is they had learned to write for different audiences: teachers, standardized tests, lab reports, and maybe employers. Those different audiences often had very good reasons for requiring them to write in the way that they wrote with particular stylistic quirks and mannerisms and conventions. The problem is that those conventions don’t translate to the medical school application where you’re writing about yourself. I think my shorthand way of describing what authenticity means for a medical school applicant is to write like a slightly dressed-up version of yourself.
A lot of students have been persuaded that three syllables are better than two and a fancy word is better than a plain. First of all, that’s wrong. And second of all, it gives the impression they’re trying to impress. Of course, they’re trying to impress, but they don’t want to leave the impression they’re trying to impress.
How can applicants tell their stories in a way that rewards a reader’s attention and reflects the fact that they have pity for the reader? [10:55]
The first is to be clear. It’s not always obvious to a writer where they’re being unclear, which is where people like me come in really useful, as well as other readers. That’s the first rule: be clear and keep asking yourself, “Would someone who cannot read your mind, understand what you’re talking about?” The second and I mentioned this earlier is to respect the reader’s intelligence. Don’t say anything obvious. Don’t say anything that doesn’t need to be said like, “I want to help people.” The third is to be interesting. A handy way to keep yourself on the rails is to try to draw something unusual from an experience or a realization. Something that’s not obvious that might have occurred to you on third or fourth reflection that you wouldn’t have had time to get to in the personal statement perhaps.
Do you have any suggestions on how to build a good story? How can applicants reward the reader’s attention? [13:14]
Again, if you can draw something unusual from an experience that wouldn’t be obvious to somebody who was simply reading about the experience before you reflected on it, that would be good. Any way that you can individualize yourself and make yourself unique and distinctive and three-dimensional is something you want to.
How personal should the personal statement be? [13:47]
To start with the obvious, don’t say anything you don’t want to share. That’s not on you. And of course, don’t offend. I think nowadays students are over-correcting. They’re sort of leaning too much in the opposite direction, and they’re worried about sharing things they genuinely believe in like religion or faith or lack of faith or political convictions. Of course, this comes with the big caveat that if you’re going to talk about this stuff in your personal statement, it has to be related to the main answer to the main question which is, “Why do you want to go to medical school?” If those convictions or one of those convictions is related to that answer, that helps you become a person for the reader. That’s what the essay is for. The essay will help the reader imagine who you are in ways that test scores cannot.
Do you have any advice on interview prep for those who do write great personal statements and secondary essays? [15:32]
Reread your essays because you’re going to get questions about them. Remind yourself of what you’ve already said. Second, the interview is a chance to connect with somebody. I realize telling someone to think of it in those terms may not reassure them because it’s a high-stakes encounter, but that’s really what the interview is for. It’s to reassure your interviewers that you are a person who can communicate and connect with people. I think this is often underemphasized for applicants. They want to see evidence that you are interesting and that they can imagine you as a clinician who’s actually capable of interacting with a wide range of people in very vulnerable situations. Connect with your interviewer, make eye contact, and do all the things that you would want people to do with you in a formal or semi-formal encounter. Practice interviews really help too. A lot of us have mannerisms we’re not aware of that can be distracting or confusing. It’s good to have someone else give you honest feedback on how you’re coming across in a fake interview before the actual interview.
How would your advice for dealing with secondary essays differ from the personal statement? [17:17]
The secondaries are really to talk about those points again that you didn’t have time to talk about in the personal statement. This helps flesh the applicant out for the readers. Remember that at this point, the readers haven’t met the person. They don’t know the person except through numbers and words. The secondaries help create dimension for them to realize you as a person. Very often, what’s helpful to talk about in secondaries are distinguishing experiences or something distinctive about your background or your family like where you’re from and your experiences in school or outside of school. That’s sort of the dividing line for me. The distinctiveness that will help readers understand you as an individual.
If you were a premed student, traditional or otherwise, what is the one thing you’d be doing to prepare yourself to complete an application and start medical school? [18:29]
I wouldn’t have said this two years ago, but I’d say it now. Cultivate habits of self-care. Eat well, get enough sleep, don’t be afraid to ask for help, exercise – all these things that we know, but often neglect in our rush to go, go, go. I’ve recently become a believer in the value of mindfulness meditation, just as a way of calming yourself and developing a little reflectiveness before you speak or act, which always helps. Medical school is hard. It’s difficult. It’s stressful. The best way to succeed at medical school is to be happy. That’s the first baseline condition. You want to take care of yourself so you can be at your best.
What do you wish I would’ve asked you today? [19:27]
I think it is recommended reading. I had all of our premed students read a memoir by Paul Kalanithi called When Breath Becomes Air. It’s not a standard how to apply to medical school book, but he was a neurosurgeon at Stanford. I won’t tell you what happened to him, although you find out in the first chapter. When I read this book, the main thing I took away from it was how difficult medical school is. The one thing that will disqualify any candidate from medical school is any evidence that they’re not quite sure that they want to go to medical school. This is something that everybody in medical school admissions committees looks for. They look for a student who’s been really reflective and knows what they’re getting into and is willing to sacrifice for a long, long time. In fact, to commit to a life of sacrifice and service. We view healthcare as what it is. It’s a professional service, a life of service. That was the main thing that someone who knew very little going in about medicine came away with. It’s a hard life. It’s a difficult life. Richly rewarding, but hard. Also, he was a beautiful writer. He was originally an English major before he switched to biology. And it’s short. He pitied the reader.
- Contact Madison
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