Would you like to hear insight based on decades of experience, both advising applicants to a variety of healthcare programs and working in admissions offices for, again, many different healthcare programs? Well, today’s episode is the ticket for you. Dr. Emil Chuck, Director of Advising Services for the Health Professional Student Association is our guest. He discusses the admissions process for healthcare programs. He shares his recommendation for networking, shadowing, and journaling as ways for applicants to gain insight into the healthcare field and develop critical thinking skills. He advises applicants to consider the mission and values of each school they apply to and to choose schools that align with their own goals and values. Dr. Chuck also emphasizes the importance of submitting applications early and being mindful of deadlines. He provides information about the Health Professional Student Association (HPSA) and Student Doctor Network (SDN) resources for applicants.
Welcome to the 561st episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. Do you know how to get accepted to medical school? Accepted does, and we share that knowledge and insight in our free guide, Med School Admissions: What You Need to Know to Get Accepted. Download your free copy at accepted.com/561download.
I’m thrilled to introduce our guest, Dr. Emil Chuck. He is the Director of Advising Services for the Health Professional Student Association, which among other services and assets host the Student Doctor Network, a major resource for applicants to and students in the healthcare fields. Dr. Chuck earned his Bachelor’s of Science in Engineering in Biomedical Engineering from Duke University and his PhD in Cell Biology from Case Western Reserve University.
He began his career in research, but then moved into higher ed and admissions. Serving at different times student advisor and test prep teacher for Kaplan Test Prep, founding health Professionals Student Advisor for 5 years at George Mason University, Director of Admissions at Case Western’s School of Dental Medicine, admissions consultant for the ADEA, Director of Admissions and Recruitment at Rosalind Franklin University, and for the last two years as Director of Advising Services at the Health Professional Student Association or HPSA. On SDN’s forums he is known as the prolific, helpful, and extremely knowledgeable Mr.Smile12. In addition, he has also served in numerous volunteer roles for professional organizations.
Dr. Chuck, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk. [2:29]
Linda, it’s a great pleasure to be part of your podcast and thank you so much for inviting me.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Let’s start with some really easy questions: your background, where you grew up, and how on earth you got interested in admissions from biomedical engineering. [2:39]
I guess the stuff that’s not on LinkedIn certainly is the earlier background about me. I’m proud to say that I’m a first-generation student. My parents immigrated from Hong Kong a couple of years before I was born. And so of all the places in the entire world where I guess in the United States where I would be born and raised for about 17 of my years before going to Duke was Shreveport, Louisiana, that’s northwest Louisiana, not anywhere near New Orleans to just make sure people know. And basically I grew up in that city, that little small town in northwest Louisiana and now apparently the home district to our current speaker of the house. It’s a little bit of a trivia note. I don’t know him. That’s one of the little known facts in terms of how it shaped my worldview one way or another.
Obviously at the period of time when I was growing up, I was involved in a lot of research type projects and did science fairs, was involved in medical research at the medical school over there at LSU Shreveport before moving on to ultimately apply to all the various schools that I tried to for undergrad and ultimately wound up at Duke. So biomedical engineering wound up being the field that I was really most interested in. And had I kind of gotten an idea ahead of time how really tough it was to do biomedical engineering and wanted to become a physician or become a doctor, I would’ve probably thought a little bit, had a little bit more of a pause before going, but I think in retrospect it really fit who I was at the time.
I was much more of a math and science problem solver type person and knew very well some of my strengths at that time. Memorization is not one of the things that I did very well in. Biology courses weren’t so great compared to my math, science and engineering courses. It was to no surprise of mine that obviously I didn’t get into medical school, but I did get a lot of background in biomedical research, including back then during the summers when I was at Duke, I would be spending my summer doing research at the National Institutes of Health. So there’s a great summer research program there. If you happen to be even a high school student, a community college student as well as an undergrad, and obviously now post-bac programs and so forth, they have a very robust program for people who are really interested in research to spend time there.
That’s where I really learned a lot more about being a “physician scientist.” I know we’ll probably date ourselves a little bit here. This was still sort of at the cusp of the dawn of the internet. There really wasn’t much known about applying MD/PhD. So I was fortunate enough that they did have some programming at the time where they featured MDs and MD/PhDs, doing research. I kind of got in my mind the idea that I should apply to medical school so I can do research like they do it NIH, and no one really sort of steered me as much as I probably should have to really consider the true just straight up PhD application. A lot of things have, as I said, I’ve learned a lot since then. I do reflect a little bit more on my own personal journey on getting into medical school on the PhD side.
Now as a PhD student, I wound up working in a research project in biomedical engineering, but working in the department of Pediatrics and pediatric cardiology at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland at University Hospitals of Cleveland. I basically wound up going to grand rounds. I would be talking to residents, I would be going to seven o’clock grand rounds in the mornings as if I were a resident. I really got a sense sort of skipped the med school side and just kind of got a sense of what clinical feigning was all about. So I think that kind of satisfied my itch for wanting to go to medical school and I didn’t have to pay med school tuition at the time. I wanted to learn what I wound up learning. So I have a lot of that insight into doing clinical research as a scientist, as an MD in medical residents and so forth.
After doing a stint in biomedical research and wanting to become a faculty member, things didn’t go in that direction. I wound up really gravitating towards doing more in education, especially as a professor. So my position at George Mason University allowed me to also teach. So I would teach introductory biology. I would do a lot of the administrative things regarding setting up an advising system and so forth from there. Those five years were really seminal in giving me more insight into what a university does to really shape students to be prepared for various health professional fields. I think that’s something that I think gave me much more insight as I look at applications. When I went into admissions, and I would look and visit campuses. I have a certain lens when I look at campuses that’s probably a little bit different from many other people when they visit.
Can you tell us a little bit about it? [8:27]
Well, a lot of things that I can tell you certainly is understanding the student support side, what’s available for students when it comes to the support system that they have, learning services, cultural services, commuter students support, and support for veterans to name a few. Those sorts of things aren’t really obvious when you look at an application, but if you really start digging deep and see certain patterns in terms of this person’s a commuter student and this restricts them from participating in certain clubs, you kind of get a little bit more of a sense of what the advising support exists and what exists for those individuals who are not your traditional students. I think that gave me a little bit more of a broader view when it looks and when I look at applications and sort of the diverse ways that people get into the journey to become a health professional.
I know I can certainly commiserate with the various pre-health advisors and these supervising staff, the DEI, the diversity in Student affairs individuals. I can get a bit of a better sense of what some of the challenges that they’re facing and how that could be reflected on the way that students perceive themselves or they seek help when it comes to the writing center for essays or for interview help. They go to the career center and those sorts of things. So just really trying to get a sense of the pulse of the school, what the culture is like at that campus. And once you have that, if you have that filter, which if you visited all these campuses, you can also carry that filter with you as you look at the various programs, med school, dental school or whatever else have you. So those filters are what I carry with me, especially when I go and I do a lot of the advising online with SDN over the years.
In answering the question, how I got interested in admissions, I think overall workforce issues have been something that have been part of me even in my research days. So the issues when it comes to diversifying the healthcare workforce are very similar to why aren’t we diversifying science fields in general? Why aren’t we getting more diverse people going into research and becoming faculty members and so forth. A lot of the same questions really wind up resonating over and over again. My interest in admissions is that at least med school admissions, there’s a little bit more of a more formal structure compared to grad school admissions. I just sort of stumbled into doing med school admissions because I had to do it before when I was a pre-med student.
There were a lot of things that I was able to identify with. I knew how challenging the science material was. I knew what courses, how rigorous they were. Everything sort of fit together very nicely in that it’s something that’s an extra on top of things that I would know how to teach. So admissions wound up being something that people really recognized and I wound up being very good at it.
You definitely are. You’re now the director of advising for the Health Professional Student Association, or HPSA. How does it benefit people interested in careers in the health professions? [11:25]
First of all, the Health Professional Student Association has been around for about 25-30 years to support people who are from rural or underserved backgrounds achieve their dreams to become healthcare providers. Ultimately the goal is to return to their communities to provide healthcare services as professionals to their home community. This organization has been around for that long a period of time from, I guess it was a different type of a research group, but predominantly run by physicians who were from osteopathic medicine and who were trained as army physicians. A lot of them were very interested in the same workforce challenges that we still hear nowadays about why we have such a mal distributed healthcare system and how people who are in need in rural and underserved areas, there’s just not enough healthcare providers going into those areas.
They wrote some papers way back then. There’s a history of some sort of white paper research that this organization has had. About 25 years ago, pretty much the dawn of the internet at that time, they saw that an online forum, an online community may be something that can help facilitate people who are in need of mentors or in need of role models to communicate with them. We’re glad to say that after 25 years, it still happens. A lot of people who were students 10-15 years ago are now attendings and residents and hopefully in good shape in their careers 10 plus years later. It’s really nice to see them being able to contribute back to the next generation or generations of incoming healthcare providers.
I think that’s one of the great legacies that the HPSA is trying to build upon. How I think it benefits people who are in these careers is to realize that there are people who are in this community who are willing to help support you. It’s the type of network where we can give frank advice and I hope professional sounding advice on the forum and where we can build a community that can last at least a decade or so.
That’s at least one of the things that I think is a great legacy that we’re trying to build upon with more resources and more tools that can help individuals who can’t afford more admissions consulting services and charges, and at least try to help people who don’t have those types of means get to where they would like to be.
There’s HPSA and there’s Student Doctor Network, or SDN. How would you distinguish their purposes? Or do they have the same purpose in simply a different venue of online and offline? [14:28]
Sure, sure. And that’s something that I know we’re developing a little bit more in terms of brand identity and recognition. HPSA supports and nurtures the Student Doctor Network, which comprises not just the forums, but also a lot of donor supported resources. Things like our pre-med planner. We recently have an activity finder. We have our 100 day MCAT planner. We also have our archive of articles that we’ve had for about 20 years or so.
We really try to present SDN as kind of a media outlet in terms of a forum, a community town hall, but an opportunity for people who really are interested to use us as a resource. Obviously a little bit earlier in the pre-internet days, there were also booklets to tell people and help people know what you need to do to apply to med school, optometry school, vet school, and so forth. Before the days that finally those professional societies decided to build their own websites and material to do the same thing.
So SDN is kind of a media outlet of HPSA, and HPSA is where we seek partnerships and projects to try to also help support, whether directly SDN or to also support the overall mission to help people from underserved or rural backgrounds or underprivileged backgrounds to get more insight and get more support so they can enter a health professional field and also be retained within and succeed in the health professional field as well. Certainly in the earlier stages for sure. We’re doing a lot more to see what in the current era and the current stage of things would be of interest to people who are thinking about supporting health professionals, especially individuals who we want to direct themselves toward rural and underserved communities.
We’re doing a lot on the HPSA side of things to see if we can develop programs and things that can be grant-funded, or we can collaborate in partnership with other nonprofit organizations or academic institutions, amplifying some of their impact a little bit further. We’ve been successful in one of our projects. Right now, we’re helping with grants from one of the schools in Texas to promote an online curriculum that they’ve been developing that focuses on HIV and HIV prevention. We are trying to help them and support them in promoting this toolkit not just to academic institutions but also to students and get more student voices and resident voices to be part of that process.
What are some of your favorite resources, either on SDN or within HPSA? [17:28]
I’ll be proud to promote the resources that I’ve developed in the last couple of years too. There are plenty of really fantastic resources that people go to for SDN a lot of times. I think one of the things that we are trying to do and I have it under both HPSA and SDN, is to develop basically an online resource to really help students with their applications. I know we’ll talk a little bit about application advice later on, but many schools nowadays have sort of what I call the bread and butter pre-med 101 type course, which is things that you need to do to have a really good strong application regarding your experiences, your grades, and how to write a personal statement and so forth. Certain bits and pieces of that exist online in SDN, either in the forums or in articles.
I didn’t necessarily want to recapitulate all of that material. Instead, as you kind of hear nowadays, there’s so much more of a focus on mission-driven admissions and holistic review that I don’t know if there’s really as much of a very good toolkit for people to navigate that. And I’m not just limiting it just to applicants, but also people in admissions and people who are advisors. What exactly does that mean? And we could go into that a lot more too.
Becoming a student doctor curriculum that I’ve developed is a curated resource, basically mostly open source material that depending on who the audience is of this course, really addresses some of the big key issues that are facing health education in general as it pertains to competencies, as it pertains to DEI, diversity and inclusion and belonging as it pertains to upcoming challenges that are going to face the community and the world in general as well as healthcare. Looking at all those things and how each of the schools and programs are addressing those issues now can help an individual student, can help advisors, and can help admissions people figure out how to communicate how the mission is realized in these programs.That’s something that most of us who’ve been trained in advising can have a hard to grasp. It’s very hard to differentiate unless you really know and it’s always changing as well.
Keeping on top of how all of the schools or how all the programs are talking about it or what specific projects they’re highlighting is something that would be very useful. Most of us, as we read an application and as we kind of interview candidates who say, yes, I want to go into healthcare because I want to be part of, I want to help underserved individuals. Well again, trying to demonstrate that as a mission fit is a little bit challenging. So this is what the course is really designed to kind help provide a little bit better language, a little bit more insight on the details of what is actually meant there so you could actually make a better fit and alignment with various schools that you were trying to choose to and want to be part of.
That’s the course. We make it free for anybody who would qualify for the fee assistance program. It’s basically my textbook, as it were, because it comes with me being able to help them with their application and any sort, and obviously SDN, the free resources that are there too. But I can help them give feedback on their applications, on interviews, on whatever else have you. It’s meant to complement what general questions that they usually will have about an application process and sort of going through the challenges of a very lengthy and very stressful period of time waiting for answers or waiting for decisions.
What are your plans for HPSA and SDN going forward? [21:28]
Going forward, we are trying to look forward to other opportunities where we can expand becoming a student doctor impact. There are organizations that are looking at professionalism, and I think there’s some overlap with what we’re covering and what they’re covering. We’re looking for a lot of partnerships in higher ed but have ideas about HPSA and SDN now that we’re in the post-pandemic era. I guess the term nowadays that I hear in higher ed is Gen P, generation pandemic students that are going into undergrad and now are going to be appearing on the doorstep for the health professions programs.
We’re really trying to get a handle on what this new landscape looks like. Most recently, we’ve been focusing on the virtual interviews and the virtual experiences that many students are having when it comes to the application process. Starting off with situational judgment tests. I know Casper’s been around for a little bit over a decade. This new situational judgment test, the AAMC PREview exam, is just starting to emerge. We’re trying to get a handle on what these two tests are playing a role in overall health professions admissions. We’re also looking at a lot of other virtual interviewing platforms, not just the live interviewing platforms, because everyone had to shift over to Zoom or WebEx or those types of platforms for interviews.
But there are other technologies that are out there that you can also do, say your own version of a Casper or not necessarily a preview exam, but you can do your own recorded video interview. It’s definitely caught hold in the dental admissions group and, in some cases, for physical therapy, but you are starting to see them also emerge in allopathic medical school admissions for sure.
It’s fairly common in business school admissions. [23:49]
Very common in business school. It’s a little more common in other fields other than med. We’re all coming a little bit late for us. So we wanted to get a better handle and give people a little bit more insight about what that’s like. And so I think one of our big challenges for plans for moving forward is we’ve been known for this great interview feedback database that’s gone for a long period of time.
We now have to modify that quite a bit. Obviously, MMIS came around about a decade ago and you couldn’t put a lot of questions from those situations in there. Now, with virtual interviews, you have a lot more questions that you can ask because a lot of students are asking, well, do I need to go to these meet and greet sessions and does that count for or against me? I mean, they technically shouldn’t count against you, but you never know, I guess. But you want to hear, well, what sort of questions we’re asked at the meet and greet? Is that something that we should put in this database? I hope you can. I think that’d be great to have in there. And so we’re really trying to go through and figure out how to create a new interview database and interview feedback question database so that future people can know what they need to prepare for, when is their term to apply?
So that’s one of the big plans that I know we’re definitely, at least I’m involved with working with them about. A lot of surveys that we’re doing with regards to situational judgment tests, the recorded video interviews, and maybe even other topics that may be of interest to people who are currently applying or currently in these types of programs, just to give us some feedback because we want to know what can we do to help people who have no access and no idea that these things are happening. Once they hit the application process they get surprised about, I’ve got to take this CASPER test, or I’ve got to take this PREview test, what is this about? We want to lower that shock.
Let’s turn to the admissions process. Let’s say somebody wants to apply to medical school or dental school. What’s your best advice for them? [26:00]
I think one of the big conundrums is how early is too early. It’s never too late, I guess is the first thing. I think for people who are really interested in those fields, obviously shadowing, finding people to talk to is really one of the more important things. And certainly something as simple as “‘I’d like to just have a coffee conversation with you for 20-25 minutes. Tell me about your career.” Those sorts of networking. I think those exist and those should still exist out there and nothing beats that. We have a lot of articles on SDN and online, and you’ve written many that are profiles of various professionals. Even reading some of those can give a little bit of a better idea. In short, the first major thing that I would always tell people to understand is that all of these professions really rely on a network of mentoring and a community.
One of the best things to do is as you’re shadowing, and I’ll talk on the dental side for sure. You could do shadowing, and you could ultimately become a dental assistant, but one of the things that you probably want to also be involved with is seeing how these dentists, most of whom are in individual private practices, how do they communicate with each other. Do they talk to each other about research? How do they meet because they’re not in a hospital setting in the same way that you probably could see a neurology department and so forth? There’s a network. The networking that exists among dentists and also for physicians who go to those conferences. For dentists, they have journal clubs of their own that they all convene and are able to talk about research, and they’ll do all of that under the auspices of their own dental societies locally or statewide or something.
I think one of the underappreciated pieces of networking that exist out there that I would always push is going to these local professional organizations just to get a sense of the big topics that they’re really interested in, whether it’s financial, whether it’s technological or whatever else, just start listening in and sort of breathing, if you will, the language and sort of the energy that these professions have. I think that is just as important and is certainly very underappreciated that we don’t document this on the application, but I think the more you have that insight, the more energy I think you can get a sense for yourself that this is a profession that you really are curious about. You really want to go into it a lot. I think that goes with just about all the other health professions too. Optometry has theirs, veterinary medicine has theirs, and so forth. Taking advantage of the professional organizations that are close by is really important.
Great advice. My eldest grandson is 19. He’s trying to figure out what he wants to do with himself. He was recently talking to me and I was saying, “Well, if you were my client, I would be advising you to set up coffee chats and take people to lunch. People who are doing things that you think might be appealing to you. Find out what their day is like, find out what they do, what they like, what they dislike, what’s useful preparation for the field, or as you say, what is the language of the field. What are the topics of interest, the frustrations, the good things, all fields have them. The best way to learn about it is from people in the trenches. [29:27]
Many students in their teens to mid-twenties are relying on short videos like TikToks and the Instagrams. I don’t know whether this, so-called age of the Influencer is a little bit overblown for this particular generation, but I just tell people not to rely on those images that you see from those short films. I think even many of us know that a lot of those videos tend to probably be way too optimistic in terms of showing what they want to show you, and they don’t really tell you whether there are sort of things that maybe you really need to know and understand. So I know there are many dentist offices out there that are doing their own small little TikTok videos and medical students and dental students that are doing short videos, even those run by admissions offices that will give their Instagram account and let other students take over it for a day or two.
But just be aware that that’s a great image. It’s meant to be uplifting. It’s meant to encourage you and give you confidence, but nothing beats a good sit-down coffee conversation that hopefully leads to a shadowing opportunity that leads to a lot of other neat opportunities. You really get to see all facets of the career and not just sort of the highlights.
You can’t have a dialogue with a video. [31:57]
You did a lot of research in the earlier parts of your career. One of the more common questions on SDN is “Do I need research?” Do they need research to apply to medical school programs? [32:02]
So first of all, I will admit my bias during my period of time as, I mean I have my PhD of course, and during my period of time at George Mason, obviously I actually spent a year of time working as an interim director of undergraduate research. So I want to be a big proponent of research in general, especially as it comes to the fact that you’re going to apply what you’re learning. And in medicine, dentistry and professional fields, it’s not just as important for you to have the foundational textbook knowledge, but you have to know how to apply what you learned in situations that are warranted in terms of your looking at things. Certainly with regards to academic competencies, being academically curious means understanding that you don’t have all the answers. How do you find the answers? How can you get to create new knowledge?
And there’s a lot of value in that, and that’s why you get master’s and PhDs and especially PhDs and doctorates. It’s sort of the pursuit of creating new knowledge and looking for things and looking for patterns that are germane. So I say this very nicely in that it’s a conflict to hear a lot, especially of health professionals who will say, really research isn’t that highly valued in the application review, even though you see on the AMCAS, like 80 plus percent of people that go into your school have research, but you don’t really value that as much as when it comes to getting into medical school. I warn people a little bit in that one of the things that has happened in undergraduate education is we want to have more people become more creative to look at research as an outcome of their degree.
And so when I see that there’s 80% of applicants or whatever that have research, from my standpoint, it’s a result of the fact that you got a bachelor’s degree and we’ve been encouraging you to do some level of research, whether it’s a capstone project, a modified research project or whatever else, and that has value when it comes to at least telling people that you have a good understanding of what you’re learning is not finite in the health professions fields, and that you’re going to be learning how to read and infer from research papers that might inform you about what treatments are appropriate or inappropriate.
So that’s where research is very important. And not that you’ve been on papers, not that you’ve published a whole ton or that you’ve gone to conferences so much, not to me in terms of just looking at you as a bonafide health professional. All of those are very important to me nevertheless. But I think the real value is, if you think about it just strictly as competencies and what are the things that are going to be important to you in a health professional learning environment, what’s going to happen to you? You’re going to have to learn what a systematic review is and what’s involved in that.
Well, someone, if you go into medical school or various programs, you might be involved in crafting up one of these systematic reviews. So I kind of warn people ahead of time that unless you are very specifically geared towards doing what I want to do, which is I want to be in a research lab where I want to do this, this, and that, I want to be involved with these molecular technologies to address this type of a problem or challenge in health, autoimmune disease or whatever else like that, then that’s a different conversation that you can have.
No, that is a very different conversation. [35:53]
For most people, research is important, but not to the depths, those types of other outcomes.
Do you feel that research, let’s say helps in terms of reading research articles that medical doctors are expected to read or in terms of developing critical thinking abilities? [36:05]
Well, a lot of different things. So being in a research environment means that yes, you get to be exposed to the highly scholarly language and the data analysis that’s involved with being involved in a research project. And clearly, you’ll be tested a little bit about that on the MCAT. Also, in most research projects, you’re not doing it by yourself, so you’re going to be learning how to work with other people. So there’s a teamwork environment, there’s a communication skills environment that you’re going to be developing. And when you’re working with people who have more seniority than you, you might be working with a master’s student or a postdoc or as well as a pi. Understanding the culture of being an academic research is also an important piece too. So it’s not just about the papers, it’s also about what happens when you finally get to that point to get to that paper and so many other things that you can benefit from.
Again, in terms of pre-professional competencies, being involved in research really helps you along those lines too. That’s the important part about being involved because you’re applying your work, you’re communicating new knowledge, you have opportunities hopefully to present to other people. Maybe you have opportunities to get a small little research grant either for yourself or for your lab. And again, you have teamwork. That also happens as well too. And I will also say even for dentists, for those who are aspiring dentists, depending on the lab, you also may have fine manual dexterity where you’re doing a lot of things in small spaces under microscopes, using tweezers or using whatever else. Have you a lot of fine manual dexterity examples? I’ve seen in dental applications come from labs and I’m like, yeah, I’m there for you. I know about how hard it’s to pipet for hours and hours on end and doing all the micro dissections that you’re doing because I did that. So it helps, helps. You just have to kind of know,
What are some common mistakes that you see applicants make when you were reviewing applications either for dental school or for medical school? [38:15]
I think most people don’t recognize that when you’re talking about applications, there always is the question of how you stand out among the volume of applicants that are there. And whenever I’ve gone, and I’ve given a talk at various pre-health programs and clubs, I actually turn the question around a little bit more, and the advice that I want to make sure that the mistakes that I see is people trying to really focus too much on being different and not realizing that you still need to be the same in certain aspects. You still need the bread and butter. Grades have to be solid, very solid letters, recommendations, all this sort of stuff. The things that you think are going to make you unique aren’t really going to make you as unique as you believe. So that’s one of the big mistakes that people are putting all their eggs into the uniqueness basket and sort of not remembering that everything else about you really counts too.
The other common mistake that I think applicants overestimate is when I wind up reading a thousand, 2000, however many thousands of applications, after a while you start seeing patterns and you start seeing how people rely on certain templates that they rely on, either through friends or what’s on the internet or whatever else. Now, I grant AI may change things a little bit, but you wind up seeing a lot of people who I don’t know who has given them advice on how to write a personal statement, but you will see every variation of every person’s advice given out there about how to write a personal statement.
And there will be a time where it’s like, oh yeah, it’s one of those personal statements where this person gives a personal story first, or they start off with the, oh my god, this is an emergency room setting, so there’s noise, noise, noise, noise, and then this is patient and this is how. You see all these patterns. It’s just fascinating to see that. And I think people understand, people think that their personal statement is everything and it’s not. It’s the whole package. It’s holistic admissions, but it really is the whole package. It’s all your essays, it’s all of your data, and it’s not just, I wrote a fantastic personal statement, I’m going, yeah, great, but I see every other personal statement there too. So again, trying too hard to be unique and then just realizing that a lot of people’s relying too much on templates that exist, whether it’s on the internet or we give them out or something like that. Don’t become too beholden to them. You still have to communicate who you are as a person and not necessarily follow a template because you feel that that’s the best way to show who you are, not quite. So those are at least some general mistakes on the application side that become noticeable after the first couple hundred.
Now that we’ve dealt with the negative and what you can do wrong, let’s talk about what you can do. I find your comment fascinating. If you try so hard to be unique, you might just fail to fit in. And I have for many years said that you have to fit in and stand out. You have to do both. If you want to show you’re going to contribute something distinctive, you have to in some way stand out, but you do have to show that you belong. [41:17]
So it’s this kind of balancing act and frankly, the best way to stand out is to be authentic. [41:43]
I agree with that totally. I think that the language in terms of how you stand out has changed a little bit, and I think part of it is the mission-driven element of applications. I think one of the ways to stand out is to essentially show that you fit their mission, or at least you have a very strong allegiance or alignment with a school or school’s general overall mission. So I say this in terms of what makes you stand out. Yeah, I see that you are working with homeless communities in a lot of your different activities.
Yeah, the activity itself makes you stand out, but the value is showing me that you can leverage and you can make the connection of that experience to something that let’s just say our medical school or our university does with regards to helping people who are homeless. I think if you make the connection, that to me when it comes to reviewing, it’s not the activity itself, but it’s how you connect the activity to mission and to what we offer as a school. Then that makes you stand out, that much more to the review.
But you can only do that in a secondary or a secondary application or supplemental application or interview. You can’t do that in the primary obviously. [43:03]
It’s harder unless it really is like this is my main reason to go into a particular, again, that’s all strategy. That’s all strategy with the overall application process.
What’s your advice for approaching any of the AMCAS applications? [43:27]
I think one of the things I know you recognize is I’m a little bit, I will put a little bit more of an edge on a lot of my advice. It’s like, yes, I agree with everybody, but push a little bit beyond the boundaries. So one of the things that I’ve always told people is, okay, yes, the CAS applications in general should not be changing year after year as well. So many advisors like me and other people, if you are in say, an undergraduate institution, you’ll hear a lot of times that even as early as the so-called sophomore year or the year before you apply, we actually will encourage students to just say, Hey, why don’t you just go ahead, sign up for getting access to an AMCAS application and look at it. As long as you don’t send money, most of the things are going to pretty much stay the same.
Well, obviously with this past year we have the other impactful experiences essay coming in, but that’s a little bit of an exception. But for the most part, I’ve always had, I’ve always heard many of my other peers also say, it doesn’t hurt for you to go ahead and just type in your information, get used to what’s being asked. If you have questions, you’re not applying yet, you feel free to ask if you have a pre-health advisor or if you do want to ask the AMCAS help team, go ahead and ask them for help if you want some clarification about the application. That’s all there for you, and again, the application generally won’t change. So I’ve actually encouraged people to go into the AMCAS application the year before or any other application the year before you actually apply, just don’t send them any money.
Many of the CAS applications actually have taken advantage of this fact and will let you roll over your personal data to the following year, even if you didn’t submit your application. So you’ve actually already saved time by doing that. So as I said, it’s like just be familiar with that process, go in and just see what it’s about. I also will say one other thing to add onto that is I’d also encourage people to investigate the fee assistance programs. Also at the same time, you’re doing this too, because when you realize how much money it costs to apply to AMCAS and apply and get your tests and all this other stuff, if you are eligible for the fee assistance programs of any of these cases, apply as early as you possibly can so you can get the benefits early. So even that’s a time where I would just tell people, have you looked into the FAP programs and what’s available?
We published an article last year because I actually did a lot of research and just said, here are the qualifications and here’s what people need for the various FAPs for all the health professions programs. I think we’re going to publish it again in early January of 2024 so people can find it again because it’s such an important piece, just to know that you have all that there. It’s nice to know that you can submit the application and not have to pay anything if you’ve got this letter beforehand.
So I think really giving them that insight of the fee assistance program helping you so much, not just with the application because you do need to know those nuts and bolts too, but also possibly test prep and all these other resources that at least for double AMC, they can provide for you. For AACOM, I think they used to provide an online mock interview account that you can also participate in. Those sorts of things exist that are out. So that’s the general answer, which is even on top of it, another answer of how one can really prepare for the application process. Don’t overlook money that you probably could use that people are willing to give you.
That’s great advice. Do you recommend journaling before you’re ready to submit to log all those volunteer, experiences, and community service experiences? [47:49]
I would definitely recommend journaling. You’re going to wind up doing so much self-reflection in this whole process, and you’re even going to do a whole lot once you’re in school too. Among the many books that I would have in my reserve library as a pre-health advisor, that I would encourage students if you ever wanted to look at stuff, that I would encourage you to read. Sometimes there are compilations of essays that are written by current medical students that are edited. Obviously medical humanities is a big thing, but they will edit these essays and they’ll publish them into various books. So you get a chance to read, not personal statements per se, but you can read all of these essays that are out there about how individual students and or residents struggle with certain circumstances when it comes to end of life or challenges with regards to communication with patients and so forth. I’m a big proponent of reading a lot of the medical humanism essays.
I think the Arnold Gold Foundation, I think they just released their 2023 award winners of the medical humanities essays. And so you get a chance to read through some of those. But I would definitely journal and I would read other people’s, I would read other people’s reflections and try to get there too because, but it is a skill that you ultimately will be doing. So it doesn’t hurt. We won’t test you on it until later.
One of the challenges medical school applicants face is sometimes they’re not sure they’re going to get into allopathic programs so they apply to osteopathic programs knowing that ultimately they can still be a clinician. But they’re backup programs. And of course, osteopathic programs don’t like to be backup programs. They want to be applied to for their own merit because applicants identify with their mission, which is a little bit different from the allopathic mission. How would you recommend that they not not appear as they’re just applying to osteopathic schools as backups? [49:36]
I come from the world where sometimes our faculty at the dental school would be very clear, dental school is not a backup to medical school. I definitely don’t think it’s as prevalent for the dental. I also don’t think it’s as prevalent nowadays for DO as well, just because there’s so much that has changed in recent time with regards to with more dental schools having opened, many more osteopathic physicians are available and are more prominent, including some that became surgeon general, the president’s physician, and so forth like that. So you’ll see a lot more. I think while there’s still a little bit more work to be done, there’s a lot of work that, again, if you look at the educational industry and the medical industry, there’s a lot of work that’s being done to really try to emphasize the equivalence of DOs to MDs. So I know there’s still vestiges of people who think that applying DO is kind of the backup and their metrics are a lot lower.
So well first of all just dispel this, and there is no safety in medical admissions and DO for sure should not be considered the safety. But they also have a very remarkable, are very remarkably mission oriented. Many of them definitely are. And so just thinking that you want to get into certain prestigious universities and you’re just going to apply, do as the backup. I think kind you’re shortchanging yourself in doing the homework on really focusing on the mission, which again, every school really is focused on. So many of the DO programs that I know of that are closest to me over here are very much geared towards rural medicine and underserved medicine as well. And they have set up all of these different programs, clinical as well as community-based programs really help their students gain much more appreciation of what some of the challenges are for underserved and rural communities. And and some of them have research opportunities too. I don’t want to dispel that sort of approach.
I think many of the advisors on the advisor side, we’ve been changing that. I think a lot of us who are on SDN, many of them are DOs. We’ve been also emphasizing that that’s separation, even though you have that concern isn’t really as stark a difference as you’re believing it’s going to be and it may change so that that difference is much more blurry by the time you graduate. So basically we just tell people, look at many of the places where there are hospitals, there are DOsworking side by side with MDs, and I don’t want anybody to think of them as a backup or safety because that’s definitely not true. But they are another option. And in terms of your education, understand what that option is, what are those opportunities? Many DO schools have tons of seats that are available and they’re trying to fill them too.
And so the reason why it could be a quote, safety or a backup or the numbers are lower is because in terms of who they’re trying to admit, generally are going to be people with relatively lower scores because many of them don’t have the same ivy-type privileges, I guess, in terms of their education or their preparation. And so I always will tell people, DO is another option. I would certainly say don’t disregard it. If you really want to be a physician, that’s an option. And so really investigate it. Do your networking, do what you need to do to be as informed as possible.
We’ve talked about allopathic medicine and osteopathic medicine a little bit, and those are two very related paths to becoming a clinician. How do you recommend applicants choose the schools that they should apply to? [54:20]
Let’s throw at a dartboard first. So a lot of times I would go with the one 50-mile radius rule. And again, this is coming a little bit from the dental admission side of things where it’s a little more regionalistic, but I also don’t think that med schools are any less regionalistic in certain cases. It’s just that there are 140 plus of them, whereas there are 60-70 dental schools. So behavior for dental admissions is a little bit different from medical admissions in that vein in that a lot of cases they really like people who are within 150 miles of where they’re located no matter what their state residency is. There are very few that are going to be like, I want to be a national medical school from coast to coast. And I think very rarely will you find those schools. So certainly in terms of picking schools, there’s a lot of different things.
I’m in the camp of holistic review and mission alignment, so know what your own mission is and find schools that fit your mission and also understand the statistics. So whatever your home area is or whatever your home state is and the surrounding states around it, definitely look at those. But if you want to move someplace else, you have to kind of think a little bit ahead in terms of costs and all those other things because that’s what we had to learn when we were in dental admissions, like, yeah, I would love to go to Penn, or I would love to go to Harvard, or I would love to go to UCSF, but if you go out there, there’s a huge cost of attendance challenge that you have to accommodate. And that’s going to be the same thing for most med schools.
The cost of living in two of those locations is pretty high. [56:26]
Exactly. So I think one of the things for sure is to understand where do you feel that you want to go? Where are the programs that really serve the communities you want to be serving? Whatever your specialty winds up being, and that should hopefully divide enough, maybe the 140 or plus if you add the DO schools, 160 some odd schools or 180 schools, you want to get it ultimately down to about 25 very, very select schools. I basically say if you were on The Bachelor, you start off with a hundred people that you’re trying to date. No, you don’t want to do that. You want to ultimately get to a point where you have a very reasonable number of about 20, 25, maybe 30 I would certainly say are the ideal numbers and really focus your attention on why you would go to any one of those schools if given the opportunity.
It’s an investment of your time at a minimum for two years, I tell people, but I would want to know what are the experiences that you need to be the doctor you want to be and what are the experiences you have with the communities that you want to serve? If you know yourself with regards to how you learn, what are the ways that you feel that you can learn that work best for you? What are some more challenging modes of learning that you can grow into? So there’s a lot of this discussion out there. I mean there are the big 30 questions that WAMC has, but I think the main concern that I know I usually will focus on is mission. Do you fit the mission of the school or do you fit the demographic that they’re looking for in terms of their regional areas or the populations that they tend to serve most with regard to the patients that you’re going to be seeing? And are you really the type of person?
The other piece is, are you the type of person that’s willing to learn, willing to adapt, willing to roll with the punches, as it were, depending on where you wind up going. It certainly doesn’t hurt to talk to current students at all of these schools. AMSA, ASDA, whatever the chapters are, they all usually will have a pre-professional subcommittee. They’re the ones that will also be part of recruitment fairs. They’ll also be part of orientation. They’ll do all of these other little things, but they really want to make sure that they can help identify and encourage people to come to their school. So I think a lot of people who are thinking about applying are afraid of approaching current students. I really try to tell people these are going to be the people you’re going to lean on and rely on for you to survive your first year of school. You might as well talk to these people.
You’re getting back the whole coffee chat idea that we discussed at the beginning of the podcast. [59:06]
Exactly. So get used to that.
What’s your advice for people concluding that they are rejected this cycle? [59:19]
Well, obviously there’s a number. Well, as having been a director of admissions and being the person who would either write or review the usual form letters that we would send back to students asking why they were rejected. Obviously, the usual things that we will tell you is think very reasonably in terms of your academic qualifications, think very reasonably about what your overall experience is in the healthcare field that you decide to go into medicine, dentistry, whatever. How have you shown that? And certainly, as I mentioned, the mission fit piece, really understand that mission fit is very, very important. I also will tell you, submitting an early application is probably the most important factor among everything.
It doesn’t matter how well you align with the schools on your list, it doesn’t matter if you have the best 98 plus percentile and all of the various tests if you don’t submit a relatively early application. And I think if you go on SDN, you’ll see our various rules. I have the July 4th rule in my mind, which is if you don’t submit… submit it before July 4th or if you’re a Canadian July 1st because that’s your independence, that’s your Canadian independence.
So if you submit it by then at least target yourself to focus that as your target date. It doesn’t have to hit exactly on that date. You can be a week or so late, but you would be very surprised and about how backlogged we all will wind up getting with applications who submit by all the way up to mid-July because that will take us to review all the way up to at least October for many many schools with just that group by itself. So if it’s timing, make sure you are really on time and really get everything together so you submit when you are available to do that. I also will say with a small caveat, you don’t need to submit on the first day available.
I say this because it’s very easy for people to submit and we say this on SDN too, it’s very easy for people to submit on the first day possible, send in their money, and they realize after they look through it, they made some big mistakes and they can’t change. So that’s why at least there’s a little bit of, there’s some buffer in there that hopefully by end of June or early July should give yourself enough time to just make sure everything is spot perfect in terms of what you wrote and it’s what you want to submit and just go from there.
I think if most people do that, that’s fine. The other area that people usually wind up making mistakes on is they either apply to too many schools or they underestimate the effort of having applied to so many schools. So in a lot of cases they may not have been accepted because they clearly ran out of energy. They didn’t adhere to various timelines or deadlines to get certain, like a Casper exam wasn’t in on time or they waited too late or they indicated they were going to take their MCAT in August and they didn’t take it or So there’s a lot of weird things that get thrown into the mix that if you don’t have everything all together and you submit it by July, you just sort of put yourself at risk that one of these weird little nuances in application processing can trip you well and you just really don’t want that. So it’s as much an acknowledgement of process as it is about your profile.
What do you wish I had asked you? [1:03:14]
Whenever I do interviews, sometimes I believe I should ask the question to my interviewees about the magic wand question. “So if you had a magic wand and you wanted to change one aspect of something, of an admissions process or something, what would that be?” So in answering that question for myself, and I think you realize this too, if you’re online, I wish we could be much more transparent and in terms of giving feedback to students on why they didn’t get in, I wish we would have more admissions professionals be more confident that they can tell people without being fearful that I don’t know, they’re going to get sued, or something else like that. I wish that could happen.
The other thing that I wish I could have a magic wand for, so I’m sorry, I’m going to do a second wish, is that I really wish more admissions professionals would sort of swap places with applicants somehow or in some dream or some sort of weird movie world. Someone who is a very grizzled old veteran on the admissions committee one day swaps places with a 23-year-old applicant, and it goes through their lived experiences about as an applicant and some of the challenges that they’ve had to overcome and so forth like that to really be a little more understanding of some of the difficulties people really have just so that the admissions screeners and or readers who are the professionals really understand that. A lot of times these students are really sacrificing a lot.
They are really telling us an immense story that they’re only limited by our process. They’re only limited by the number of characters that we allow them to write essays, the small snapshot that we get from their letters of recommendation and so forth like that. So part of me can kind of wish that for in some cases we would have a way that we could just body swap people in admissions with applicants every once in a while just so that there’s a better appreciation for really what the applicants are bringing to the table.
They work really, really hard. I’ll tell you that much.
Dr. Chuck, I think we’re running out of time. I want to thank you very much for joining me for the show and thanks for sharing your experience and perspective. Where can listeners find out more about HPSA and Student Doctor Network? [1:05:33]
Well, obviously if you don’t know about Student Doctor Network, we do still have our studentdoctor.net web address and you can certainly feel free to visit our forums.
If you’re interested in the Health Professional Student Association, our web address is hpsa.org. If you’re interested check out our becoming a student doctor course, whether it’s for you individually or for individuals or aspiring applicants, or even for people who want to bring this to their clubs or train pre-health ambassadors for their student organizations or whatever else, just so that they know a lot more about what it really takes to become a health professional. Please check us out on hipsa.org as well.
We have a YouTube site. We have Instagram and Facebook pages. We’re not big on TikTok, sorry guys, but you should be able to find us. Definitely check us out. And again, I’m more than happy to, as I said, help anybody who has any questions about their application process. Even as I said, not just med school, but also dental and a lot of the other health professionals.
- Student Doctor Network
- Health Professional Student Association
- Med School Admissions: What you Need to Know to Get Accepted, Accepted’s free download
- Advice for Applicants: Moving from 2023 to 2024, podcast Episode 557
- Are You Toast? – Med School Admissions Officers Reveal Interview Timeline, podcast Episode 555
- Applying to Medical School? The Pre-Med Competencies are What You Must Show, podcast Episode 554
- Are you rushing to attend Rush Medical College?, podcast Episode 551
- How to Get Accepted to Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University, podcast Episode 544