Application advice from a 6-year admissions consultant

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Jun 21, 2017
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After working with 300+ students to develop and submit their applications, I watch students do the stupidest things (e.g. “I want to write a secondary about how I grew up rich and how I’m proud of it and don’t think I should hide it” – his exact words by the way). I also witness incredible applicants fail at the process for issues that are well within their control. I wanted to share some advice for those going through this year’s cycle so you don't make the same mistakes I see year after year.

Before you read this, remember that there are few hard rules, and there are always exceptions, but you are unlikely to be one.

Just because everyone else has a 3.999 doesn’t mean you need to. Students always ask, “what’s the lower bar for the gpa and mcat that I need.” It’s different for every student. Your application isn’t just two numbers. You can make up for a lot by being interesting and having niche talents. That being said, there are some institutions *cough cough* that are more metrics focused, and certain applicants with otherwise cookie cutter apps can slip through.

Yes, science gpa (sgpa) matters more, but cumulative (cgpa) is not nothing. If you want to improve your gpa, it’s fine to take some post-bacc classes. But you need to weigh the benefit of a SLIGHT improvement in gpa with the benefit of actually doing cool new activities or publishing papers, and also the benefit for your own mental health and quality of life.

As for a Special Masters Program (SMP) or a Biomedical masters (though other advisors may disagree here), I personally do not recommend these to students for three reasons: 1. There’s (usually) no guarantee. Even if they have a pipeline, you’re paying a lot of money to “maybe” have a better shot at admission when you could just apply broadly. 2. Why do a masters in undergrad material versus something that would help your career long-term and be more interesting, like an MPH, MBA, MPP, Bioethics, Statistics, Epidemiology, Clinical Research, etc. 3. Couldn’t your time be better spent elsewhere? Nonprofits, family, leisure, paid work, research, etc.

Yes, if your gpa makes you cringe when you look at it, you probably need a higher MCAT score to reassure people that you’re not going to flunk out of medical school. Just don’t underestimate the value of a high-impact extra-curricular, a publication on a topic you’re passionate about, or unique or special life experiences you can’t have in the basement of your school’s library at 2am.

Unfortunately, the MCATs importance in admissions is undeniable. My program tried and failed to de-emphasize it. Unlike high gpas, which are common and poorly standardized, the MCAT is the stone that tips the scales.

Having been a tutor for near a decade now, I could write an entire post on this (if there is a demand for it).

Don’t retake a high score (e.g. a balanced 512). I had a student this year score a 516 and he retook and got a 514. I argued with him for an hour and he told me over and over, “But I had 520+ practice test scores!” He just shot himself in the foot because of his own ego. I had a student that I refused to tutor because he retook a 513...and got a 513.

So you got a good score? Stop. Go read for pleasure and not from review books. Touch grass. Hug someone. Do anything else. Why waste so much of your life on nothing? And be honest with yourself about why you’re really doing it. Is the real reason you want to retake because you associate the score with your intelligence and self-worth and you’re trying to prove a point to you and no one else?

I retook a 512 and improved 11 points, and I STILL don’t think it was the right move for me. Your priorities will change as you get older, settle down, care for ailing family members and bring children into the world. I promise you that your score on this stupid test will mean nothing to you in five years.

Yes, you can get screened out by having a low gpa or mcat, or both. But students vastly overestimate how high these screens are. If you have a 499 mcat AND a 2.99 gpa, well, you’re going to miss the mark at a lot of programs.

Does ___ school have a screen? It changes. My program eliminated their MCAT screen about 5-6 years ago and the average matriculant MCAT dropped by 10 points that year. Rumor has it, internal metrics demonstrated that class was, for a lack of better words, academically challenged. So, they reactively added back a hard screen at 512 and on their website encouraged applicants not to apply if they were below that. The next year, they removed that language from their website.

What can I do about screens? You can’t change a school’s screening policy. You can be honest with yourself about your school list, whether you are prestige chasing or catastrophizing your chances, and actively work to broaden and diversify your list. You can work on the non-quantitative parts of your application, which leads us to…

Personal Statement
I could write an entire post on this as well. Instead, just remember that the average student’s personal statement typically abides by this formula (P = paragraph):
P1 – Hook about personal or family illness, or sport/art they do
P2 - Describe an activity, maybe EMT or clinic
P3 – Other activity, maybe school club or tutoring
P4 – Yet another activity, maybe research
P5 – Bring it back to the hook and explain in lengthy and literal terms about exactly why they want to be a physician

For “typical” personal statements, I read them in under a minute. I can extract what I need to. It’s because I’ve read it a thousand times already (literally). I have your activities in front of me. Why describe them again? Your personal statement is your chance to connect your personal life with your professional goals. So, be personal. Be memorable. Above all, be interesting.

I sometimes hesitate to show students examples of personal statements, because some of them will blindly copy what they see. Examples can be clarifying though, and luckily some are published online so plagiarism would be easily detected. This is by a student of mine; it’s old but decent, though risky and intended to explain a red flag. Notice how he describes his personal life, his childhood, his values and what events led him to medicine. I walk away with a clear picture of who this candidate is. I will say that it’s missing many things, but functions well overall. (jk looks like they won't let me link the essay)

You’ll find many personal statements floating around. Don’t assume a personal statement is good because that person was accepted to a top school. Some of the worst personal statements I’ve read were from friends of mine at Stanford, who didn’t need glamorous personal statements, because they, for example, were consultants at BCG, graduated college at age 16, or had multiple patents for medical devices.

Is ___ a common topic for a personal statement? If you have to ask, probably. Yes, coming out stories, your dad or grandma needing a bypass, and your disabled sibling you take care of are all common. So is, you doing chest compressions and losing the patient, framing the essay around your sport or hobby or profession, a travelogue to your home country or your study abroad trip, going on a four paragraph rant about ending inequality, and finally the repetitious (and often incorrect) use of the words, intersectionality, social determinants of health, and underserved, marginalized, and vulnerable populations.

But something being common doesn’t make it bad. I’ve read incredible narratives about personal chronic illnesses that made me choke up. I’ve read the most inane, self-absorbed, and shallow narratives about the same conditions. It’s up to you to draw out what’s interesting and compelling about your story. Try to avoid telling a story as if you’re trying to win the trauma Olympics. If the time you got mugged in the streets of NY didn’t influence your development towards medicine, why make me read about it?

If you want something unique, copying a formula isn’t going to achieve that for you. Instead, dig deep. Imagine your life is a movie. What’s the inciting incident? Who’s your arch nemesis? What representative scenes must be in your movie. Consider what makes you the happiest, the angriest, the saddest. Journal at night by a lit candle. Write, write, and write, until you strike gold. Trust me, you’ll know when that happens.

Do what you’re passionate about. If you try to check all the boxes and do nothing else, you will look like you just checked the boxes and nothing else. Think about how you can elevate it above just simple volunteering. How can you increase the impact you’re having and how you can take on a larger leadership role? Don’t be boring.

Your application will look like you’re just checking the boxes if your experiences look like this:
  • One summer of research, no pubs
  • 100 hours of soup kitchen
  • 200 hours of hospital navigator/generic ED volunteer
  • 50 hours shadowing
  • Hobby – basic sport
You don’t need a lot of shadowing. At a certain point, it’s like ok, you’re really good at following someone around. Can you move on to something more active? You do need to demonstrate "due diligence" when it comes to clinical work, because you're applying to med school and how would you know that you want to serve patients if you never interact with them? It’s ok to not do any research at all (yes, really). Be "pointy" (i.e. really strong in certain areas, and perhaps weak in others) rather than well-rounded. If you reach your hand into a bag of marbles while blindfolded, will you notice all the round marbles or the one pointy one? It’s ok not to list hobbies. Don’t list ten hobbies. Don’t list 20,000 hours for a summer abroad because you were counting the time you spent sleeping (yes, he really did, and no he didn’t get in anywhere). Avoid putting anything on your app that has less than 50 hours (except shadowing, awards, and specific events).

For selecting most meaningful essays, don’t overthink it. If your application has a focus, like education for example, then yes you should pick your reading group for the blind. If your focus is on the underserved, then the homeless clinic makes sense. If you want to feature your publication in ___ journal, then choose your research. Consider the fact that most of your experiences will be just be a short description. Which experiences can’t be contained by that? Which represent who you are and what you can do? You don’t HAVE TO have one most meaningful be clinical, but it’s not a bad idea. For students without a strong clinical focus in their application, you can try to compensate with a clinical most meaningful. Doesn’t mean it’s going to convince anyone. Similarly, for someone with weak science scores, demonstrating a love for the sciences somewhere on your app can try to make up for it (but often doesn’t).

For descriptions, I appreciate a short 2-3 sentence CONCISE explanation of duties. Also make sure your title for the description makes it clear what you were doing. An example for a hospital volunteer, ‘I restocked supply carts, fetched supplies for nursing, and transported patients between units via bed or wheelchair.’ Do not write, ‘This experience is so meaningful to me, as I got to witness the profound beauty of medicine, how transformative and noble and sacred it is.” Save the flowery stuff for your most meaningful essay, and don’t be melodramatic. If you absolutely feel like you must add one line clarifying why you did the activity or what you learned, do it only for a select few activities. Imagine opening an app and their activities section is 15 huge blocks of dense flowery language, you wouldn't want to read it, right?

The title matters. If you write “Garden of Eden” as the title and nothing else, and it turns out Garden of Eden is a senior home and you were volunteering changing bedpans, I’m going to get annoyed. Just put “Senior Center Volunteer” in the title, and Garden of Eden in the location or description. However, a very clear first sentence in your description can amend this.

For most meaningful essays, this is your chance to emphasize who you are in relation to your activities. You can tell stories, bring out an anecdote, reflect on themes and thread them through your application. Think about your core traits and values as a person as how they’re reflected in what you do. I’m not a fan of the old, “when I started at this lab I was no good and now I’m great.” Character growth is awesome, but this is a little overdone. So is talking about perseverance when it comes to benchwork, learning to think “outside the box” in your dry lab, or how you had to learn a bunch of acronyms as a scribe. The list goes on. Sometimes, one beautiful sentence can stick in the mind. Put some effort into these. If you write it in a hurry, people will read it in a hurry.

Finally, don’t preach to the choir. Doctors read your application. So do people who spend all day reading med school applications. They don’t need to hear, “Medicine needs to change to do ___. It’s so important that we serve patients by ___.” You’re a premed student who hasn’t even started your training, who do you think you are preaching to?

Letters of Rec
Don’t write your own letters. When the doctor you shadowed for one day tells you to write your own, it’s because they don’t know you well enough and their time is too precious to waste on you. Ethics aside, students write garbage letters. Students have no idea how to write these or how to sound like a practicing physician. They say things like, “he showed up every day and was just so inquisitive, he asked deep questions, and I really liked that he stuck to his guns on topics he was passionate about and didn’t take no for an answer.” So, you showed up which was the bare minimum, argued with a doctor whose a decade above you in training, and demanded attention?

Professor letters are important and necessary. Some schools are sticklers for their letter requirements (lookin’ at you, Einstein) and won’t consider your application if you don’t meet their requirements to the letter. Though, I more often find that students can slip through the cracks with letter requirements (e.g. if the requirement says “science prof letter” and you have something science adjacent).

Generally, you want two science professor letters from one of the following disciplines: bio, chem, physics. Biochem is fine, a bio system is fine, you can usually get away with math, like biostats or epidemiology. It’s better to have letters from different disciplines (e.g. one from bio, one from chem). A non-science professor letter can be useful for some schools. An employer or PI letter is great. If it’s a post-doc or grad student, have your PI sign the letter too. It’s ok to have two signatures on one letter. MAKE SURE EVERY LETTER HAS A LETTERHEAD, DATE, AND SIGNATURE (aka instruct your letter writer to include these three elements).

I’m not a fan of shadowing doctor letters unless you did research with them. Volunteer coordinator letters often fall short. Letters from family or from anyone who it is unclear to what capacity you worked with them, won’t go far. Go for the better letter over the big name, usually.

“This person is really big in __ field.” How many professors in the country would you recognize by name? Do you think everyone on admissions knows professors across every institution in the country? I had a student receive an LOR from the dean of the medical school he was applying to and got rejected. Nothing is certain.

Give the letter writer your personal statement, your CV/resume, and example anecdotes from your time together. A good letter writer will have a discussion with you about your goals. They should already know your career path and you as an individual. Take the time to think about the overall focus of your application. The more clear it is to you, and in your materials, the more clear it will be to them. It’s polite to ask at least a month or two in advance. Send a reminder two weeks before the deadline. Deadline is dependent on when you think you’ll finish your primary and secondaries, though June 15 is usually safe for most people.

As for gifts, I always appreciate a small item with your school’s name on it, like a flag or a coffee mug. Avoid wine for many reasons. Don’t try to guess their sweater size.

School List
MSAR is your friend. $28 for a 1-year subscription, $36 for 2-year.

Yes, people will tell you to filter by either your gpa or mcat (whichever is lower) and look at the 10th and 50th percentiles for schools you’re interested in. This will narrow down the places that might seriously consider you. Honestly, I can understand why this is a useful first step, but it’s not the end all be all. I was below the 10th percentile for gpa at every school I applied to. I had plenty of interviews and acceptances. Imagine if I had never applied because someone on the internet told me I wouldn’t be considered. I also see students get into top schools with below than expected metrics all the time, though you can imagine, they are compelling applicants in other ways. Repeat after me. You are more than just your metrics.

It's okay to have a couple reaches. Yes, you should apply to your state schools. You should apply to some out of state (OOS) public schools and some OOS private schools. Apply places where you grew up, where your parents went to school, where your family lives near, or anywhere you have a special emotional connection. You CAN apply to schools in the middle of nowhere or programs that you’ve never heard of, but make sure to check their website because some schools expect you to have ties to the area. For example, I see students apply to UNLV, University of Arkansas, UC Riverside, etc, because they haven’t heard of them and have no ties, and they get hard rejects (usually) because they didn’t read their website. But keep in mind that aggregate data isn't always revealing (i.e. a school's OOS matriculation rate may appear high, but include students who grew up there but have a residence in another state). Do your research. There are programs that are well-known for loving a good story (lookin' at you, UCLA), pride themselves on being holistic (Stanford), are service-oriented (Rush), and drown their students in piles of money (Mayo).

I usually recommend between 15 and 30 schools for most students, with most of my students doing 30 because neuroticism and anxiety are just a part of being premed it seems. Above 30, it’s likely your returns are diminishing, and the quality of your secondaries will decrease. I fight with students on this a lot. If your school list of 30 is appropriate and strong, it will not be improved by adding a bunch of random schools. If you’re nervous, add DO schools in November if you don’t get any bites. You name a med school and I’ve gotten a student in there (not really, lookin’ at you Arkansas), and let me tell you that making your school list is by far the highest-yield activity you do. It only takes a few hours and dramatically alters your chances at acceptance.

I would recommend starting by prewriting 5 essays in each of the two categories: diversity and challenge. Aim for 300 words each to start, recognizing that you will likely need 100 word versions. You’ll end up with five versions of one essay, all at different lengths.

MAKE A MASTER DOCUMENT AT THE BEGINNING so your essays don’t get lost. Every time you get a new secondary, you’ll tweak an essay. If it’s not in the master doc, it gets lost. I do this every year with students, it’s turns into a mess, fast.

For challenge, you can write about ANYTHING (without reason). Challenges are implicit in good stories. A difficult time at work, in clinic, or with volunteering? A fight with a parent, friend, colleague? A unique childhood background? Color in your past. Show me your world, painted with words. A good challenge essay is implicitly a diversity essay, in that it will show me what is special and unique about you.

For diversity, no, I am not just asking about your race, romantic orientation, and SES. Think diversity of thought, opinion, and experience. How was your childhood different from others (I promise it was). Everyone has unique facets to their lives. I have students tell me constantly, “there’s nothing special about me, I had a really normal life.” And then they write gorgeous essays that leave me stunned. You have it in you. Dig deep and journal about every year of your life, everything that makes you and your family weird. Think about how it relates to your application, though, to painting a picture of you and what you have to offer to your new medical school class. Please no trauma and gore just for the sake of trauma and gore. At least show me why it matters to you.

Interviews, Letter of Interest/Intent/Update, Deciding between schools
I will do a separate post on this if there is enough demand. This one is too long.

You can get off the list at any point, up until school starts. Consider and actively work on your gap year plans in the meantime. Don’t reapply haphazardly without ensuring your application has ACTUALLY significantly improved. One hospital navigator experience and two classes with an A is not enough. Consider reaching out to an advisor or consultant (or even a therapist) to help you decide how you can improve between application cycles. But most importantly, don't just check boxes. Think about the kind of work you've always wanted to do with your life, any kind of work, anywhere. And go and do it. Make a splash. Be passionate and let it show.

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Thank you so much for all of this information. As someone who is prepping for a potential reapplication, this is incredibly helpful.
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Thank you for sharing your extensive advice. I wish I had this before I applied this year. If you have any advice with regards to being on the waitlist at schools that welcome updates, please share.

However, I'm curious as to why is it hard for some admissions people to understand why people retake good scores like 510-516?

Some applicants are targeting specific schools, and it isn't their fault that those schools have a 518 10th percentile MCAT or higher.
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Thank you for sharing your extensive advice. I wish I had this before I applied this year.
With all due respect to the original poster, in response, many other admissions consultants and sponsors post in the forums (under the appropriately forum) and some will post on the other public forums. Variations of this advice are regularly posted there and on our articles site. We have always provided advice of thos type over the past 24 (soon to be 25!) years! None of us OGs are shocked about the advice given. Read other articles on the main site! I'm glad to see the opinions adding to the library that shows our general advice hasn't changed.

It's always good to get aggregate opinions from experienced professionals. It's your choice whose advice you consider. And you could always ask for help.

To the OP: hat tip to defy short attention spans that are very common in most applicants... and experts. :)
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Some applicants are targeting specific schools, and it isn't their fault that those schools have a 518 10th percentile MCAT or higher.
We're allergic to perfectionism.

We also know from experience that most people who retake either stay at the same score, improve by only 1-2 points, or even go down.

We also know that while people can score very high in their FLs, they do worse in a real exam setting. Hitting .300 is easy in batting practice, but facing a Blake Snell fastball in San Diego is a different matter.
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Does ___ school have a screen? It changes. My program eliminated their MCAT screen about 5-6 years ago and the average matriculant MCAT dropped by 10 points that year. Rumor has it, internal metrics demonstrated that class was, for a lack of better words, academically challenged. So, they reactively added back a hard screen at 512 and on their website encouraged applicants not to apply if they were below that. The next year, they removed that language from their website.
So I wanted to say, this is not always the case. There are also many programs that when they de-emphasized standardized exam scores, the average dropped marginally, their academic outcomes for board passage stayed the same or increased, and they got classes that were more diverse (especially SES as that was the focus of the changes.

There is also published evidence that as an aggregate, med students with "lower" MCAT scores progress in medical school and can pass board exams at about the same rate as those with elite-level MCAT scores.
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It is laughable being an adcom, how many people I've voted to not admit who I later found out had top mcat scores and solid GPAs. It is scary awkward to see how much emphasis people place in their GPAs and MCATs because they think it is the only thing that defines them. But hey, does anyone want to see their doctor come into the exam room and introduce themselves with a GPA and an MCAT?

also, someone once told me in an interview they should accept me because of their gpa and mcat. you can imagine what my verdict was.
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We're allergic to perfectionism.

We also know from experience that most people who retake either stay at the same score, improve by only 1-2 points, or even go down.

@Goro I agree with you that it's a bad idea due to statistics, but I can understand why some applicants retake good scores. Coming from applying this cycle, it feels that unless you are above a school's 10th percentile of accepted student stats, you are unlikely to get an interview (assuming you are not a unicorn applicant).
@Goro I agree with you that it's a bad idea due to statistics, but I can understand why some applicants retake good scores. Coming from applying this cycle, it feels that unless you are above a school's 10th percentile of accepted student stats, you are unlikely to get an interview (assuming you are not a unicorn applicant).
, oh, I understand the mindset too!. But in this process, it's important to understand that applicants need to make good choices. We try to weed out people who make bad choices because they continue to do so while in medical school.
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