Military to Med School: What I would do if I had to do it again

TeamMLRS

2+ Year Member
Oct 25, 2018
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When I first made the decision to switch from the military to medicine, one of the first resources I used was r/premed and SDN. Lots of good resources, but it took days of piecing together bits and pieces and some creative license to get a decent idea of how to leverage my military experience best. After a successful cycle I have decided to put my thoughts to paper and maybe help out some people who were in my shoes. I’m going to write this as entry level so I’ll try to clarify the common terms and abbreviations.

For my credentials: I’ll start off with stating I am not admissions committee, I am just a guy who got out of the military and decided to go to med school. I went to undergrad with no intention of pursuing medicine. I joined ROTC halfway through and graduated with a poor gpa. To those of you still in the researching phase, the average matriculant(a person that gets into med school) has a 3.7 and a 510 MCAT. My gpa was below the 10th percentile of virtually every medical school. However, after getting out I used the GI bill to do a DIY post bacc and applied this last cycle. I was active duty for four years and received an honorable discharge. I received 5 interviews (II) and multiple acceptances(A’s). However, this advice is going to be for honorable discharges only, if you had other-than-honorable this won’t work.

Before discharge:

TLDR: write down good experiences, get some shadowing, try to start clinical volunteering, get LOR, get accepted to a college before you get out so you can start right away instead of waiting a semester.

This is for people that haven’t gotten out yet. There are some things I did, or wished I did, that can increase your chances of admission or lower the time it takes to apply. I had less than two years between ETS and applying to get my application fleshed out, so the earlier I could start the better. It also helped when I wanted to talk about the pros/cons of socialized medicine which is a hot topic in interviews. Here’s what I would do if I still had some time left in my contract before ETS:

First thing you need to do yesterday is write down some of the experiences in the military that either answered the “why medicine” question or made you a better person. If it answers both, even better. Not only will this entertain your grandchildren one day, but when writing your Personal Statement(PS) you’ll be able to tell a story rather than writing down facts. If there is one advantage veterans have in this process, it’s the stories we can tell. I’m not just talking about the times you saved a village, but also the times you positively affected someone's life. I wrote about the time I taught a private about property and it was received very well.

Next thing I did was start shadowing. I managed to shadow a nurse and a PA with some light exposure to a doctor. This was helpful because it let me see some of the differences between the different healthcare professions and make a more informed decision. It has been said if you could be happy being a nurse or a PA do that. They offer flexibility, lower responsibility and are important members of healthcare. I’m not trying to convince you one way or another, just be aware becoming a physician takes a long time with a lot of sacrifice. Realize shadowing a PA/NP won’t count as shadowing for you application, it’s just so you can make a more educated decision. If you can do this during the work day, even better.

If you can find a way to start clinical volunteering, this will help you especially if you already have a degree since your time from discharge to application will be shorter. Clinical exposure is required for admission to med school, the more the better. If you’re lucky to be a medical MOS you can thank Odin and move on. For the rest of us we have to pay the toll.

Talk to a commander or someone in your COC that knows you well, writes well, and is willing to write you a positive letter of recommendation(LOR), the higher ranking the better (but remember civilians don’t really know the difference in most ranks). I emphasize “writes well” because we all know that leader who still writes in crayons. I have heard most LORs don’t have any impact, but a really poor one can hurt your chances while an eloquent and meaningful one can really advocate for you. Typically the higher ranked they are, the more recommendations and evaluations they’ve done so they know how to make people sound like a rock star. You don’t need the letter yet, but when you hit them up later it won’t be as awkward.

If you have some time left, you have the possibility to begin or continue classes if need be. This is risky because a surprise field exercise or unsupportive command can cause you to fail a class. If you have an easy job and supportive command though, the military will often pay for the courses. I had a bad command/job/post so was extremely wary to take courses when I was in. The worst mistake you can make is to get poor grades, especially after the military since it can function as a reset as it did for me. The biggest advantage of the military is the maturity and work ethic, but bad grades will call that into question.

If you need more coursework apply and get accepted before discharge! The best thing you can do is spend the last year applying to schools. My ETS was two weeks before the first semester of my post bacc, and I don’t regret it. If you wait a year you’re essentially missing out on a year of attending pay. Sometimes there's a good reason to wait, but I’d be hard pressed to find it. You can do the whole process online so there’s no excuse. If you have leave saved up, you can even start school while receiving active duty pay. Double dipping is the best.

Choosing an undergraduate without a degree: You lucked out, you’ll receive preference and even with a **** highschool gpa you should have an advantage. You should choose a school that is in a location you desire. Prestige is important for med school admission so if you can get into an Ivy or similar school do it. GI Bill should pay for it, and you’ll have great funding for your extracurriculars(ECs). If it’s not a name brand school like Harvard or Stanford, choose a school in a state you want to attend medical school in. In-state preference is huge and will only help you. Applying OOS is a curse you should avoid if necessary. Also, take a glance at Table A-5: Applicants to U.S. Medical Schools by In or Out-of-State Matriculation Status, 2020-2021 to see which states provide the best matriculation rate, it may help you decide which state to attend school in. Either way, this is the best possible situation you could be in, you have a clean slate and schools being paid for.

Choosing a post-bacc or SMP if you have a degree but no prereqs and/or ****ty gpa(like me): This one is simple, choose any school that is in the location you want to study or live in for a while. Prestige doesn’t mean much because you will not be getting a degree. Some schools will have a large research program which should be looked at favourably if you’re hurting for a T20 med school, otherwise isn’t a dealbreaker. Choose an SMP if your gpa is sub 3.0 and you have extra money. They’re expensive. If you have over a 3.0, a post-bacc is usually a better option, either diy or formal. Formal is more for career changers, while diy is transcript repair. If you gpa sucks, take a look at Goro’s Guide for Reinvention, lots of good stuff and you can ask actual ADCOM(medical school admissions committee member) questions. Enroll as a second bachelor's student because it will give you better prices and priority registration, and more importantly your GI Bill will pay for it. Even if you don’t have GI Bill, second degree seekers tuition is usually lower. I’m sure there’s some schools that do it differently so check before you buy.

At this point, you should be on autopilot, waiting to go to CIF and turn in your gear. Freedom is near.

After Discharge

So at this point, you’ve been accepted into a school and are ready to begin or restart the premed journey. At this point, you’re essentially a normal premed, albeit a little older with broken knees. This next part is only if you still have courses to complete or a gpa to repair.

Your priorities should be:
  1. GPA
  2. MCAT
  3. ECs
  4. LORs

GPA is your new lord and savior. Something to note for people who are first generation college(first gen) like me. GPA is a reflection of both how smart you are and how well you know how to work a system. There are plenty of incredibly stupid people with a 4.0 because for whatever reason they at least understood how to play the game. You may think you want to challenge yourself by taking the hardest professors by reasoning that they will teach you the most. False, you’ll just be tired and have a bad gpa to show for it. Picking professors is the most important part of getting a good gpa. Trying hard is important too, but some professors make it impossible to succeed because of their own personal flaws. I personally think the MCAT is a better demonstrator of knowledge, but that’s an argument for another thread.

First thing you do, before ever stepping foot on campus, is sign up for classes. Before registration opens, you need to look at the registry and build a sample schedule. Look at each and every offered professor on ratemyprof and see the reviews. Many science professors are going to have a poor rating because students often don’t understand the difficulty of the content. Look for keywords that indicate the teacher is a poor lecturer, has arbitrary assignments, or specific comments about the fairness of the course. Ignore comments that are just people complaining about their bad scores and attendance policies. Lots of kids don’t show up for class, turn in assignments or study, then bitch about it when they fail. If you have to choose a weird schedule to get the best professors, do it. My first semester was 8am - 730pm because that’s when the best instructors were. Your gpa is the most important and you need to treat it as such.

Now that you’ve registered for classes, you need to pay for it. If you have a Veterans office, use it to see what benefits you’re entitled to. It can take a long time, but usually universities have a grace period while the VA does the work. You’ll need your DD214 and discharge paper for this, so have it handy. There’s a lot of paperwork that is either required for this process or given to you so scan it and save it. If you don’t have any benefits, I am sorry for your loss. One word of note, if you have GI Bill and a disability rating of 40% or higher, you may want to save at least a semester for med school. If you get approved for Vocational Rehab, you’ll get a significant portion of med school paid for plus BAH, but only if you have remaining GI Bill. I’m not a financial coach though so do your own research.

Once classes begin, go to classes. I don’t mean attend school, I mean go to each and every lecture and extra event humanly possible. Not only will you get the scoop on what's on test, you can build a relationship with potential LOR writers. Many times test answers will be given in lectures or extra study sessions that are not in your notes. Most of the science professors also double as researchers and can bring you onboard. They are more lenient with people that they see as reliable and hardworking. It’s crazy, but they’re people too. Become friends and they will help you. You’ll also make study partners in classes, and just have a more enjoyable college experience. Plus the best parties are those thrown by nerds. Finally, actively participate in class. It seems cool to sit in the back brooding, but professors remember the students that broke the monotony of lecture and added substance. Those same professors will write you LORs in the future. Plus it will actually make you a more motivated and better student! Or you can sit there silently and wonder why your professor didn’t curve your grade at the end of the semester. Anyone that thinks teachers don’t play favorites is wrong. You’re here for the gpa, don’t forget that. Plus, you’ll find out that a lot of professors are really cool and maybe make some lifelong connections.

ECs for vets are pretty simple. You have Clinical work and volunteering, Nonclinical volunteering, research, and shadowing. Sometimes you can double dip, but usually not. Don’t let any of these interfere with your GPA or MCAT score because a cool hospital story doesn’t make up for a C. It may sound cringey, but if you let people know you’re a veteran, many doors open that are closed for normal students. Something about the maturity and discipline vets are known for makes people willing to take a chance on you. Now don’t be that guy that wears the thank me shirts and puts patches on everything, but a casual mention will make people give you a second look. Rich kids with doctor parents aren’t above playing the system so be your own best advocate. We sacrificed our youth for this “advantage” so use it.

Clinical work and volunteering are important. Look at this sub to determine the best fit for you. I ended up working at a mental health place and it was a great experience. Some of you may not enjoy being assaulted by teenagers, and may find scribing more up your alley. They’re all valid. Try to get at least 200 hours and a few meaningful experiences that you could write about. You can do it for free or get paid, just do the ones that don’t impact your GPA. Search either reddit or SDN for common clinical jobs, but the general rule is if you can smell the patient it counts.

Nonclinical volunteering is the least important for us. You’ve already shown a history of service but you should probably do a little more. Volunteer at something you feel is meaningful and you will actually enjoy it. I volunteered at an intramural sport. Anything after highschool counts, even if it's from decades ago.

Research is a tough one. It definitely helps, but is time intensive and you have to get lucky to get into a good lab. Any type of research counts, not just science so explore different fields. If you want to get into a research intensive school, you need research. A publication is great, but the hours are useful too. I think if I had done research, I would have doubled my interviews but that might just be hopeful thinking. Either way, this won’t make or break your application but lack of it will keep you out of T20s(top 20 schools in the nation).

Shadowing is the easiest. You literally just follow a physician around. You should aim for fifty hours. There’s a couple ways to do it. You can cold call, use connections, or just ask every physician you run into if you can shadow them. Try to get a primary care doctor, but it’s honestly not that big of a deal which specialty you shadow. Make sure you subtly bring up how you’re a veteran and not a child and you may get to do some cooler shadowing. I was able to leverage that into being in the OR during surgeries which was amazing. He said there was no way in hell he was letting a normal student do that.

Throughout completing the previous priorities, you should have made enough connections to have plenty of Letters of Recommendation (LORs). The more personally they know you, the better. Request them the winter you apply so they’ll have plenty of time. Be prepared to subtly remind them, people get busy and forget. My final advice for this is don’t “brown nose” the people you want letters out of. Form a genuine relationship with them because as said before it will help you perform better in classes. Plus people can tell when you’re just using them. I used a commander, a couple professors and a volunteer coordinator I had worked with years ago. They were never mentioned in any of my interviews.

Committee letters are becoming more popular. I am a huge fan of them because they avoid LOR requirements at most schools and it's an additional letter by someone familiar with the admissions process. I visited my premed advisor once a semester under the guise of asking for advice, but really I was building a relationship with her. The better they know you, the better they can write a letter for you. Yeah she gave outdated advice, but I liked hearing about med school in the eighties so it wasn’t so bad. It’s like talking to the retired sergeant majors who drive the buses, highly entertaining if a little out of touch with reality. Don’t skip out on the Committee Letter, schools will ask and trust me premed advisors universally love vets.

MCAT
I took the MCAT after I did my post bacc. I worked part time during some of it, but nothing else. If possible you should take your MCAT after completing the prereqs. It is one of the most important numbers admissions looks at, so you need to do well. Military service will not make up for **** scores. There’s a whole subreddit dedicated to MCAT studying so go look at that. Only thing I would do differently is use anki during the prereqs so I can study for the MCAT while it’s relevant. Use r/MCAT to plan

Think of being a veteran as just having a really cool EC. It is unique, a select few schools will show favoritism, but remember it will not make up for bad scores. Nobody is going to accept an unqualified veteran over a better applicant. Bad gpas and MCAT, especially after leaving the military, will tank your chances at admission.

APPLYING TO MEDICAL SCHOOL

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. You’ve completed your prereqs(or at least will before matriculation) There’s plenty of guides here on how to apply so I’m just going to cover how to maximize your military service.

Build a good school list. Most of us are not Dr. Kim the Navy Seal turned Physician turned Astronaut. He had an amazing story and amazing stats. You can shoot slightly higher than your stats if you have good recent coursework, but being a veteran usually just guarantees you a second look, not a get out of jail free card. If you have Harvard stats, apply away, but make sure you build a realistic and broad school list that reflects your personal story and stats. Usually that means all the state schools and the regional ones that are OOS friendly. Use that list I talked about earlier. Use MSAR to see which schools have a higher veteran acceptance statistic if you feel the need to make a bigger school list or if your stats are below average. Also, DO is an excellent option, they’re known to be more forgiving to reinventors. WARS is actually a system I wouldn’t recommend for nontrads since our stats are usually less tangible but maybe you’ll get better mileage.

Prewrite your PS and secondaries. Your first draft will be garbage, and so will your second. You need to come across as eloquent, mature and self sacrificing to maximize your military service. ADCOMs know we’ve been through hell, but you need to paint the stories in their mind. Simply saying the military was hard and I should be a doctor will not cut it. If you can paint the tragedy that first brought the idea of medicine in the mind of your readers, they will interview you. Second, most of the readers have no idea what each rank means, much less your specialty or any of the other lingo in the military. If it doesn’t serve a purpose don’t use jargon. The exception is special forces due to the recent barrage of movies based on them. Don’t assume they know what you’re talking about either. If it is needed explain it. Rank is not important. Captain sounds cool, but so does Specialist. Crazy, I know. Nobody once asked me about how command inventories made me a better person. You could’ve been a Field grade but if the private can show a more convincing story they will get more credit. I write “show” specifically because your intent should be to show not tell. If you can make them feel the sheer boredom of rotating guard shifts or the thrill of almost leading a convoy over a cliff, you’ll have a person interested in your outcome. ADCOMs have heard the same story a thousand times from traditional students. You’ll have a unique and interesting tale if you spend the time perfecting it. But if you wait until they’re due, you’ll either take too long or rush it. Have trusted civilian people read it over and tell you their honest impressions of every aspect. I rewrote mine almost a dozen times because they weren’t expressing the feelings I wanted. You should have a theme of your PS. If the military is a big part of it this theme should reflect things the armed forces are known for like maturity, hard work, self sacrifice, etc. Unless you have a good reason not to, I’d recommend focusing on something like that. Really helps you play the part ADCOMs want. The model physician has a lot of similar qualities to the model soldier so confirming these beliefs is a good way to score points in most readers. With that said, remember you’re writing to show why you want to be a physician, not a soldier. Use the military experiences to show how great of a doctor you would be, not how great of a soldier you were. There’s enough theories on what makes a great PS so I’m just going to move on or we will be here forever.

Speaking about time, don’t think being a veteran will give you leniency when it comes to timelines. Submit your application day one and get your secondaries done within two weeks of receiving them. It will never be perfect so get it good enough. Every study shows the earlier you apply the better your chances. This was true during covid, and it will be true during your cycle. Don’t ever believe someone that says they will be more understanding due to some circumstance. ADCOMs are more willing to take chances on you if they have plenty of spots left. As they run out, they start being more conservative.

When Interviewing, the style matters. Open vs closed is important because in closed they know nothing about you or what you’ve been through. Be prepared to preface most answers with the situation you were in, which is tough when you only have five to seven minutes. In an open interview, the reviewer theoretically should know everything that was on your file. That is not always the case, but even still this should be treated as an organic conversation. If they bring it up, talk about it otherwise don’t force anything. Honestly this part is just like regular students.

All of these statements are generalizations that I think are more relevant to veterans. With that said, here are a bunch of opinions to questions I’ve seen a bunch.

Should I mention the death/killing/trauma? If it helps answer the “why medicine” sure. Just make sure you don’t go close to anything that’s political. Also this profession is about saving lives, so killing should be used judiciously.

Are veterans looked at equivalent to URM? No, unless you are a URM veteran. Then yes.

Will military service fix my bad gpa? This one is sorta. ADCOMs will at least look at your application, but they still want to maintain the high gpa averages or they will lose out on “prestige.” They’re willing to look over some past failures, but you have to convince them with excellent recent coursework. Veterans are like the alpha reinventors, but it’s still harder than just having a good gpa/mcat. Allegedly DOs are cooler about it. I’m not adcom so ask them

If I have all good stats, am I basically guaranteed? No, there’s a lot of luck that goes into admissions and plenty of great candidates get shafted. But it definitely helps.

What about HPSP? I don’t know, you couldn’t pay me enough money to get me back into the military. Ask a recruiter if you’re desperate enough.

I was a veteran and I did X but you said Y… I’m just a guy who was in the military and wanted to do medicine. There wasn’t a how-to so I figured I’d write one. Use it if you want, make suggestions in the comments. I am fully willing to edit this as needed.

How do you afford school if you don’t have GI Bill or a family or other expenditures? That’s a personal question that should be individually answered. How much you’re willing to sacrifice is something only you can answer. Plus I’m not a financial coach.

Should you do a graduate degree if your gpa sucks but the prereqs are done? No! ADCOMs know that graduate degrees usually give you good grades regardless of performance. They don’t care that you got a 4.0 in your MBA if your undergraduate GPA(uGPA or cGPA) sucks. Go back and do transcript repair at an undergraduate by taking upper level science courses similar to what a medical school would offer. Consider an SMP if you gpa is sub 3.0 and you already have a degree. Read Goro’s guide to reinvention

Should you do a graduate degree if you’ve accomplished your pre reqs and have a good GPA? If you can complete it before getting out, then yes. Otherwise, just take your MCAT and apply to med school. Remember each year you’re not a doctor is one less year of attending pay. Graduate schools also don’t count for much if your GPA sucks.

I feel cringey telling people I am a vet, do I have to? I do too but it seriously opens doors. The reason rich people stay rich is because of networking. Letting people know you are worth networking will increase the quality of your education and the opportunities after. Play the game.

What if I was reserves or guard, or didn’t deploy? Does this still apply? Absolutely. Like I said, most civilians couldn’t tell the difference between coast guard and navy. Obviously you shouldn’t lie or present yourself as something you’re not, but you also shouldn’t downplay your service. You answered the call when others didn’t, don’t forget that.

As a marine, is it cool if I write my PS in any color crayon or just black? You do whatever you think is best, just make sure you save some for a snack later.

If I was a medic, do I still need more clinical hours? Need, no. But you probably should so you can see what civilian medicine is like.

Is there a list of veteran friendly schools? There is a post somewhere where someone did the legwork of how many veterans each school admits. Find that and add all DO schools

Can I do Med school while in the reserves/guard? I wouldn't but you can. You can get called to active duty at anytime. Had a friend in Korea who was in her second year of med school who got activated. Guess who gets to reapply when she gets out. I'm sure there's some deal you could workout, but I would rather wait until I was out. IRR shouldn't pose an issue.

If you’re still reading this and have gone through this process or even better are actual ADCOMs, I invite you to put your own input in the comments. All of us have different opinions and mines just one of them. And most importantly THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE!!!
 
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Dec 22, 2020
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Great writeup! Is there a way to private message on this platform? I have a couple specific questions regarding your transition and post bacc selection/scheduling that I would love to hear your opinion on. I am in my last year of service and am starting to plan the next chapter so I am trying to hear recent success stories! Thanks!
 
Oct 19, 2020
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Just wanted to add, there is a program where you can join as a student and be undeployable...Don't remember much more than that though.
 
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