By: Ryan Kelly
If this sounds like the antithesis of a holiday, we’ll understand. I mean, it’s winter break, after all. There’s delicious food to eat, family members to see, football games to watch. You’d have to be crazy to spend your precious time off working, right?
Not really, especially considering the fact that doctors themselves often work during the holidays. Plus, if you don’t utilize winter break, you’ll have to address important application steps in the midst of your busy academic schedule in the spring. This will present WAY BIGGER distractions than your aunt’s signature fruitcake.
With classes on hold and many friends gone for the holidays, you’ll potentially have ENTIRE DAYS that you can dedicate to application progress.
What’s so important to get done at this point? We’re glad you asked.
#1. Pre-writing Exercises
In case you didn’t already know, there is A LOT of writing involved in medical school applications. You won’t believe the amount of pages you’ll need to write for medical school.
And since getting started can often be the toughest part, we highly recommend using some pre-writing exercises to get the creative juices flowing.
One of our favorites is the “50 reasons I want to be a doctor” exercise. I know what you're thinking, “50? I have a hard time thinking of 5!” But that's the point. You haven't yet pushed yourself to think about all the reasons you want to be a doctor. And that's exactly why you're having a hard time coming up with anything but cliches. By having to write 50, you will exhaust the generic reasons, and by reason 33 or 42, you will probably come up with something that's pretty darn good.
We also recommend reading as many personal statement drafts as possible, keeping a journal to record important events and reflections, and developing rough drafts of the “core stories” that will be used as anecdotes in your essays. Here are some additional tips:
#2. Decide on a Plan B
Whoa whoa whoa, you’re thinking, isn’t that a bit defeatist? Why should you already resign yourself to the idea that Plan A won’t work?
The fact is that Plan A doesn’t work out for most hopeful doctors. Only 42% of medical school applications are accepted into MD schools, so it doesn’t hurt to have a contingency plan. For some students, that might mean re-studying for a second or third MCAT. For others, it might mean gaining experience in osteopathy for future DO applications. For a smaller percentage, it could mean extending your application to international medical school programs.
You might be worried about Plan B stealing your focus away from Plan A. But this split focus is easier to manage than the pressure you’ll feel down the road without a Plan B. Plan B is a way to increase your overall chances and make sure that you’re not completely blindsided if things don’t go as imagined.
#3. Build Good Habits
With 2017 on the horizon, you will probably be tempted to make New Year’s resolutions. But as we know, these resolutions are often just hopeful, hot air that we spew in the midst of our revelry.
Habits, on the other hand, are things that you slowly develop over time by making them routine. Your habits should be small and manageable at first, to ensure that you can stick with them. Once you get in the groove, you can set higher expectations.
The most important habits to form?
Exercise - along with the benefits of endorphins, you’ll receive renewed, extended energy and a sharper mental focus; you’ll also help to avoid the illness and burnout that can come from long, challenging days ahead.
Writing - it takes time and practice to master the art of storytelling, find your voice, and hone your style; your writing will be crucial in separating you from the pack, so don’t underestimate the importance of developing this skill.
Just imagine starting 2017 with a healthy body and sound mind, ready to tackles the deluge of essays coming your way. Now stop imagining it and start building those habits!
#4. Medical School Research
Most candidates apply to at least 15 schools, and for some, it can be upwards of 40. The majority of school secondaries will contain a prompt asking why you want to attend that program, and how you’re a good fit for it. Do not hesitate in your preparation for secondaries; if you wait until secondary season, you’ll be overwhelmed in a mad scramble to meet deadlines.
A good first step is consulting our database of medical school secondaries to see what schools are asking in their prompts. For programs that have a “Why our school” question, start researching 2-3 aspects of their curricula that resonate with you and your experiences.
It’s good to find abstract connections to a program (i.e. you fit its mission of developing “innovative leaders”) as well as concrete connections (i.e. your past research experience will make you well suited to assist in its ongoing clinical trials). Jot these connections down as possible approaches for your future essays.
#5. Update Your Resume
This tedious, time-consuming task is perfect for the holiday break. It’s relatively mindless compared to most application steps. Plus, the act of compiling all your valuable skills and experiences usually makes you feel good about yourself (we hope).
Make sure that activities and experiences are up-to-date, obviously, but also check to see if you could spruce up any descriptions. It’s important to highlight certain characteristics, leadership, reliability, maturity, exposure to diverse populations, critical thinking, etc.
Include these things whenever possible:
Trackable progress - details that show quantifiable or concrete growth
Accolades - proof that you were good at your job and that people valued your performance
Ongoing legacy - show a long-term, continuous effort; emphasize the precedent that you established in your role
An updated resume will put you in good position when asking for letters of recommendation. You’ll be able to give the letter writers what they need immediately, and it will give them excellent material to draw from.
What’s that? A period of time when you’re completely free and doctors are still working?
Shadowing during the holidays seems like a no-brainer, but make sure to reach out to doctors as soon as possible to make arrangements. You probably won’t be the only pre-med with shadowing on the brain.
Do your best to find physicians in specialties that align with your future goals, but don’t discriminate, since nearly every shadowing experience will have something valuable to offer.
Don’t just be a passive observer. Yes, you’ll be limited in your shadowing capacity; don’t overstep your boundaries, but take every opportunity you can to engage with patients and ask the doctor questions. Don’t just go through the motions to check off the shadowing box on your application. Like many things in life, shadowing is what you make of it.
#7. Make a Plan for Your Gap Year
You will frequently encounter secondary prompts asking about your gap year plans. The prompts themselves are pretty straightforward, but your plans might not be. Gap year plans vary from student to student, but the best ones will 1.) communicate ongoing improvement, 2.) show a sense of balance, and 3.) provide some memorable flair.
Communicate ongoing improvement - if there’s an area of your application that is weak and/or underdeveloped, then convey your plans to gain more exposure in that area
Show a sense of balance - if you include very detailed research plans, perhaps couple that with a desire to travel abroad or volunteer as a big brother/sister for disadvantaged youth
Provide some memorable flair - perhaps include some enriching hobby or quirky personal goal, so that your response gives unique insight into your character
Winter break should be fun, no doubt, but don’t let it pass by unproductively. Most students cannot afford to procrastinate, especially when the competition is aggressively striving to improve their candidacy. Use the holiday break to avoid a potential future breakdown. The earlier you get started, the better your chances. Check our list (twice?) to determine your priorities, and give yourself the gift of a head start on your application.