In general, all the cliche tips you’ve heard are true: get good grades, you need an ‘acceptable’ MCAT, definitely get patient experience, and you’ll likely need some extracurriculars. All of these things about this pseudo check-list are true, it’s just a matter of figuring out a strategy to execute it. It’s also important to take a 10,000 feet look at the process of trying to get into medical school: you just want to get in, but medical schools are looking for people who can add to their program.
1. Find a mentor as soon as possible, it’s never too late.
2. Go at your own pace (grades, scheduling and taking the MCAT, and extracurricular activity).
3. Gain marketable skills during your undergrad.
4. Have the right attitude.
5. Understand how the admissions process works overall and for the specific programs you’re applying to.
Finding a Mentor
Finding a mentor is easier for some more than others. If you already have connections, then it’s a rather straight forward process since all you need to do is reach out to who you already know. This mentor doesn’t have necessarily have to be a medical doctor, they should just know or be willing to get to know the difficulties you’ll face. Statistically speaking, since you’re in college you’ll probably have more access to a PhD professor than a MD or DO, it’s okay to start there. My mentor was my old physiology professor, I later worked on several projects with this individual. Because my mentor was an active researcher in electrophysiology it allowed for me to gain marketable skills and later find a job after graduation in the office of research at my old university. This made it easier for me to develop a set of traits and experience that may come of value to my matriculating class. I think people put too much emphasis on finding a physician mentor, while it’s great to have a physician as one, it’s important not to neglect your other resources. If you don’t know where to start, try checking out your universities “Office of Undergraduate Research” (or something analogous to it) as they typically specialize in aligning undergraduates with research mentors. I highly suggest research mentors because of the amount of depth and involvement that will be required for both you and your mentor — the deeper your involvement the easier it is to argue to medical schools just how you’d add to their program. Research certainly isn’t required (for most programs), but it’s a lot easier to explain what you did if you were part of a research team than say passively shadowing a physician. A good mentor will know your personality traits (the good and the bad) and will be able to work with you, helping you to become your own person and not necessarily a miniature version of them. Another trait of a good mentor is that they’ll often push you further when you’re all but ready to give up, not to torture you but because they know you’re capable of it.
Go at your own pace, don’t rush into failure
It’s easy to get sucked up into following another’s pace. Don’t be afraid to slow down, and be sure to get help when you need it — rushing to apply when you’re not ready, or trying to plow through the organic chemistry series isn’t the best strategy if things aren’t going your way (unless you’re applying for DO remember that your retakes at best are averaged together with the old scores). You have to be flexible about your abilities at the moment and pragmatic about what you can accomplish. That’s not to say you can’t get past the MCAT, but maybe trying to rush to take it so you can apply isn’t the best strategy. I’ve seen a lot of friends lose their chance to apply to medical school because they tried to sprint through the requirements or stack up too many extracurriculars concurrently. Take your time, this is your life, one or two years won’t really make a big difference in the long-run; take on challenges at a pace you can handle, you need not emulate anyone else or follow other premeds “suggested timeline.” Really, the only timeline you need to worry about is applying early during your application season, everything before that should be a personal journey. For myself, I didn’t go straight into the university I actually found myself working for years and considered dropping out of college completely because I had a career going at a young age. I later decided to go back, and went to a university and graduated in 5 years with a major, minor, and research under my belt. I took my time, and found my own path, with the help from mentors and several friends, and I ignored people whenever they questioned my timeline. Realize that a lot of people who you think are “rocking it” and will “surely get in” won’t, part of this is probably because of rushing and doing badly or burning out while doing well.
This also means that it’s better to do several things exceptionally than to do 100-mediocre things. In my old lab we used to host premeds who were ‘interested’ in research, but it soon became obvious where their heart was when they’d stop showing up once they got what they wanted, wouldn’t finish their assignments, or would put minimal effort into what they considered to be “scut work”. At that point, for example in lab, you’re probably unnoticeably sabotaging the lab. So, keep in mind that if you’re involved in activities you may be hurting more than helping by participating. If you hurt the organization more than help then don’t expect either a transformative experience or a letter of recommendation. So, if you can’t commit, and things are going too fast for your pace, slow down and figure out your priorities and only commit to things that you can help.
Gain some marketable skills
I wasn’t sure if I’d get into medical school, so I was terrified to graduate without any marketable skills. In other words, try to “specialize” in college. Unfortunately, not everyone will have an appreciation for your pipetting prowess or that you took labs like the thousands of others — so don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you’re a premed you’re automatically skilled because you’ve titrated a few times (some people get their PhD on titrations). If you get into research, it’s rather straightforward, you’d likely gain skills because you’d have to grow more proficient than the average premed because the success of your lab is riding on it. If you’re not a research orientated person, learning how to start service orientated clubs for example is an excellent skill, as is learning how to fundraise. What helped me in this process was to keep a resume and a CV, this way I was always objective when it came to “why” I was doing something. This also makes writing your applications for medical school dramatically easier, as you already understand your motivation and your objectives. Most premeds have a problem filling out the AMCAS application, though if you’re used to applying for jobs (jobs that require a degree) then it’s not an extraordinary process.
Have the right attitude — once you think of it as “scut work” all is lost
“Scut work” is a amorphous phrase, one person’s ‘scut work’ is another’s dedicated career. You may feel wiping out vomit and feces is below you, but besides the lessons in humility it’s also a lesson in relativity and often a lesson in team work. You may wonder what mopping the floor with disinfectant has to do with you becoming a physician. Well, in that case a lot, because you’re helping to prevent MRSA infections in the hospital, lessening the load of the staff etc. You may feel washing lab ware is beneath you, after all you just shadowed a neurosurgeon on Friday, but I’ve seen months of data lost (plus the lives of mice wasted) because premeds thought rinsing out the soap at the bottom of our glassware wasn’t important enough of a task for them. Yes, shadowing the surgeon was probably conceptually cooler, but how much did you really do besides observe? Often, it’s really the “scut work” that is where you can have the most impact. Besides, if you can’t wash glassware, or pipette properly, why would you be given harder tasks that you seem to not able to handle?
Once you start seeing things as “scut work” you’ve probably already missed the lesson, and the lesson is typically team work. Yes, I’ve gotten coffee for my lab mates and professor, but at the same time my lab mates and professor have brought me food and coffee because they knew I couldn’t leave my work space until dusk.
At the end of the day, hypothetically if you didn’t get into medical school and you abhorred your extracurriculars, than you probably weren’t doing it for the right reasons.
Know how the admissions process works
There’s a ton of advice floating around, some of it is legit, most of it is garbage. There’s a certain website, who’s name I won’t mention, that is ripe full of useless or misleading advice. Some advice you’ll get will be bad because people are ignorant of the process because they’ve personally have never went through it, but they’ll consider themselves self appointed experts because they’ve read enough anecdotes. Instead, go with people with admission experience and keep up with the latest AAMC news, and of course your specific programs’ guidelines and advice. The AAMC isn’t an evil agency as some would make it out to be; they’re rather invested in making sure you have the best shot possible at getting in — though, you wouldn’t know it by how some people act about the process of applying to medical school. Applying to medical school isn’t necessarily a mysterious process, but it sure will be if you didn’t do your own homework. Make sure not to be pulled into 20 different directions, stick to a few good sources (including the crown jewel aka the AAMC website), and don’t dilute your efforts too much by taking disparate advice from others. — even those who’ve applied many years ago are likely out of touch with what is required or expected of you currently, so it’s very important that you secure your future by doing your own background research. In the end, if you don’t get in no one will be accountable or more affected than you.
And lastly, it’s okay to be pragmatic, but don’t give up hope because of a bad grade or MCAT score. For the most part, courses and the MCAT can be retaken. Sure, it’s ideal to get past them with flying colors, but life doesn’t work that way usually. A test of your commitment is not only getting past these things, but learning how to do what it takes to get past them. This may mean you can’t apply to all Ivy Leagues, or that you’ll have to make a few detours. But, one C (or even D) won’t exile you from medicine, nor will a bad MCAT score — nor does it imply that you couldn’t survive medical school. You might find yourself taking a few detours, but in the end if you’re satisfied than that’s all that matters. Getting into medical school isn’t that transformative, but the journey to get there is, and if your endgame is just to get in without trying to better yourself then it’ll make applying just that much harder.
About the Author: I’m a non traditional first year medical student at BUSM who was originally planning to obtain a PhD. Growing up, I often struggled in school because I was usually absent because of constant hospitalizations, and I never expected to go into college never mind medicine. Though, later in college I learned how to excel in the sciences and became a department recommended organic chemistry, biochemistry, general chemistry, and human physiology tutor. During college I was also involved in numerous electrophysiology projects where I studied principally muscle chloride channels under my research mentor. Towards the end of my college career volunteering at a children’s impatient oncology center as a science instructor helped to solidify my decision to apply to medical school. To better serve my community I later served the underserved as a academic advisor and tutor within correctional institutions in hopes to reduce inmate recidivism in my local community. Around the same time, I became a contributing writer where I wrote health and fitness. While applying to medical school I became a member and Ethical Compliance Associate for both the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Animal Care and Use Committee. Currently, as medical student I write as a hobby and will never turn down a beer or wine tasting opportunity (maybe except around exams), play guitar, socialize, and dabble in art.