Get ready to read about “Dandelion,” an anonymous med school (now residency) blogger who writes about life, school, and medicine at Dandelion On The Loose. Dandelion shares important insights into the med school and residency application processes – read on from some excellent advice!
Accepted: Let’s start with some basics: Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? Do you hold any other degrees?
Dandelion: I bounced around abroad as a child, but eventually settled in California and attended the University of California where I earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology. It was during undergrad that I was bitten by the science bug. I worked in a basic science lab part-time during my junior and senior years and full-time during the summer after junior year. Given this newfound interest, I applied for MD/PhD training at various institutions around the country. The MD/PhD road is a long one, eight years at most institutions, but it is a very rewarding one, and I strongly believe that my PhD in basic science will help me be a better physician.
Accepted: Did you head straight to med school after finishing college? If so, what do you think the advantages or disadvantages are of that? And if not, what did you do in between?
Dandelion: I had to take a year off after college because I did not have my act together as a junior to prepare my medical school applications. I took an industry job for 10 months. I was disappointed at first but it turned out to be a wonderful thing! My job was flexible enough that I could take a couple of extra days off with each of my interviews to spend time touring the cities and the institutions I was considering. Other advantages of working: I had a steady income for a year, which helped with application fees and those hefty beginning of medical school expenses such as books. Even though at first I thought it would be hard to go back to the classroom and study after spending a year in a 9-5 job, it turned out that I didn’t really enjoy the industry world and was very glad to be back in school.
Accepted: Where did you attend med school? What was your favorite thing about that program? Least favorite?
Dandelion: I was fortunate to have a few options and ended up choosing a program that offered strong basic research and a long tradition of clinical excellence on a “human” scale. The University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine (SOM) is a wonderful institution that truly cares about its students and values the sense of community among students, faculty, and staff. Given that I was to be training for eight or so years, it was very important to me to find a friendly place where I could grow roots and have colleagues to lean on during challenging times. The faculty at the UVA SOM is educators first and genuinely care about medical students. Other favorite things about the program include the responsiveness of the faculty to student concerns, the wealth of research opportunities, and the strong emphasis on balancing professional and personal life as a medical student and future healthcare provider.
Accepted: Can you tell us about the residency application process? What would you say your greatest challenge was during the process, and how did you approach it and overcome it?
Dandelion: The residency application process took me by surprise at first because it had been eight years since I had written a personal statement or compiled a list of extracurricular activities. However, the initial steps are very similar to the medical school application process, with a centralized online application.
The greatest challenge for me was where to apply! In my chosen field, there are almost 200 academic and community programs to choose from across the United States. The first decision is do you want an academic program, which tends to be at a larger institution connected to a medical school, or a community program, which tends to be at a free standing hospital. Because I wanted to stay close to a research environment, I opted for academic programs only.
All residency programs offer the same basic training because of ACGME regulations. This makes it hard to discern how programs differ from one another at first. However, I found that each program offered unique opportunities, often based on their geographic location (inner city vs. regional medical center), their connection to a medical school and/or graduate school (teaching opportunities), as well as their overall size.
To narrow down my list, I focused on geographical areas I was interested in living in and then looked only at academic programs. To further narrow it down, I looked at research opportunities and also at institutions that offered fellowship training in my perceived field of interest since I am fairly certain I will go on fellowship training.
In the end, I spend a lot of time online reading about programs and also talking to several professors at my school. I did not do any rotations during my fourth year of medical school but I have heard it can be really helpful to figure out if a particular institution is a good fit.
Accepted: What will you be specializing in?
Dandelion: I will be training in General Pediatrics for the next three years and hope to continue on to become a hematologist/oncologist and palliative care specialist.
Accepted: At this point, you’ve applied (and been accepted to!) lots of programs (BA, PhD, MD) — you must have some good advice for our applicant readers. Can you share your top three tips with us?
Dandelion: This is a tough question! I would say:
1. Start early! Medical school applications are complicated. Make a to-do list and every time you have an item ready to submit, cross it of your list. Organization is key to make sure you submit your best application. Also, don’t be shy to highlight all of your accomplishments and extracurricular activities. It is your opportunity to shine!
2. Get help! Have someone read over your personal statement. Ideally, have several people read it over. Give them enough time to read it and get back to you. Then send them an updated draft for further comments. Ask your advisers and professors about the various institutions you are applying to. Professors network a lot, and besides, academia is not as big a field as one might think. They may have insider information on a particular program or institution, or suggest programs you had not considered.
3. Be genuine! Medical school is an arduous endeavor. I strongly believe that finding a program that is a good fit for you is essential to success and satisfaction. So be genuine in your personal statement and during your interviews. First, because admission committees appreciate it, but mainly because it will help you (and help them) figure out you are a good fit for the program. A program that looks great on paper or is very prestigious may be wonderful indeed, but it may not be the right fit for you.
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