Here’s a conversation with Hanna from the blog, M.D.,Ph.D. To Be, where she writes about her journey through the joint MD/PhD admissions process. Hanna offers a ton of insight here in this interview and on her blog – excellent for all med school and MD/PhD applicants! Thank you Hanna for sharing your story with us!
Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? What is your favorite flavor ice cream (obviously this is very important)?
Hanna: I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. My father worked at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and he helped me first act on my interest in medicine while in high school by getting me involved in the hospital’s junior volunteer program. Between my experiences on campus at the hospital and my adoration of the university’s marching band, I never considered going anywhere else than the University of Minnesota for undergrad. There I played clarinet in the marching band for all four years while earning a bachelor of science in chemistry with a minor in biochemistry. I also worked in genetic engineering and medicinal chemistry research labs that gave me opportunity for even further study.
Most importantly, my favorite ice cream is chocolate chip cookie dough. The more cookie dough in it, the better. 🙂
Accepted: Where will you be attending med school this fall? Can you tell us a little about the program and how you chose it?
Hanna: This fall, I will be starting school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I’m in a combined MD and PhD program, which will prepare me for practicing medicine and leading research, but most importantly, it will prepare me to span the gap between the two in my future career as a physician scientist.
The program begins in the graduate school phase that will take five or so years to complete. During this time, I will also be the seemingly eternal M1 student as I take the first year of medical school classes spread out throughout the time that I am completing my PhD. Following this, I will complete my last three years of medical school.
I liked the set up of the program because of its emphasis on the research years. Most joint MD/ PhD programs that I have encountered use a 2-4-2 schedule where students do the first 2 years of medical school, then complete their PhD in 4 years, and finish with their last 2 years of medical school. This puts the clinical lectures in M2 far away from the years in clinical rotations, M3 and M4. It also squeezes the PhD into a shorter time, which means it may be necessary to have a little easier thesis project to get it done in that time. Research has always been my priority, so I want the full experience when it comes to getting a PhD, which is why the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was the best choice for me.
Accepted: How many programs did you apply to? Did you only apply to joint MD/PhD programs?
Hanna: I applied to 15 schools in total, all joint MD/PhD programs. By applying to the joint program, I was also considered for MD alone at nearly all of the schools, which was sort of a backup plan in itself. So I thought “What the hey, might as well apply for the joint program.” But seriously, I couldn’t imagine doing one degree without the other and that’s why I only applied to joint MD/PhD programs.
Accepted: What was the hardest aspect of the admissions process for you? How did you approach and then overcome that challenge?
Hanna: Writing my personal statements was definitely the hardest part for me. Yes statements as in plural because applying to MD/PhD programs requires three personal statements – one about medicine, one about research, and one about combining the two.
While I have always been confident in my writing skills and clearly I am passionate about my career path, I just couldn’t find a way to get my ideas across in an interesting and cohesive manner that would also help me stand out. In the beginning, I wrote almost completely in a expository way – it seemed to be nearly a repeat of my activities section in an essay form – because this is how I was trained to write as a science major.
Over the next month, writing these statements took over my life. When I wasn’t actually at my computer writing, I was thinking about what I could do to make them better. I reached out to friends and internet services that would give me feedback on my writing. I also looked to online articles that were immensely helpful to get me to view my statements from a different perspective.
By the time I was done, I had learned to include narrative and go in-depth about the experiences I included to explain not only what I did but how I felt and what I learned from it that helped my aspiration grow. Over time, my statements grew from essays into stories.
Accepted: What would you say are your top three tips to med school applicants who are just beginning their journeys?
1) Be early. Even strong applicants if they apply later in the cycle may have a more difficult time getting in. Take the MCAT before the application cycle begins so that you can get your application submitted and verified early. Start your personal statement early as well; I submitted my application on AMCAS a month later than I had hoped because I just wasn’t satisfied with my personal statements.
2) Be smart. No I’m not talking about having a high GPA and MCAT score; I’m talking about being smart about where you apply. While schools tend to look at their applicants holistically so your experiences and personal statements are also considered, you can still have a general idea of your chances by comparing your GPA and MCAT score to a school’s average score. For example, if the average MCAT score for matriculated students at a school is 36 and you have a 30, you’re going to have to have a really strong rest of your application to make up for it. At another school with an average MCAT score of 29, you will likely be a more competitive candidate. It may be okay to apply to some reach schools, but make sure you also apply to some schools where you are more competitive as a backup plan.
3) Be consistent. Make your secondaries are just as good as your personal statement. Yes, you want to get them in within two or so weeks from receiving them, but put in the time to make sure they are well written and have someone look over them for you before you submit. Looking back at my secondaries, they were definitely not up to the quality of my personal statements because I was swamped by the new marching band season and the new school year. Getting your primary application in earlier will help with this because you’ll likely get your secondaries earlier in the summer!
Accepted: Can you tell us about your blog? When did you start blogging and why?
Hanna: I hopped onto the pre-med track a little later into college than most and I felt that the resources I found online were not as much help as I hoped, especially with regards to MD/ PhD. Therefore, I first created my first blog in the summer of 2012 to share my experience with writing my MD/PhD personal statements and to simply be a resource for students considering going to med school, grad school, or school for MD/PhD.
Since then it has evolved to become a mishmash of pieces about applying to medical school, my undergraduate experiences, some of my science writing work, and simply my observations about life. Soon, I will begin writing about my first-hand experiences with med school and grad school!
As I previously said, writing my personal statements was the most difficult part of my application process. Nonetheless, it was through my struggle with them that I became interested in writing. Having this blog has helped me further improve my writing skills, and even more importantly, it acts as my stress relief as it helps me search for meaning in life. I try to tie in my experiences to each post but also find a way to relate it back to a lesson for those interested or already involved in medicine.
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