By: Ryan Kelly
In an era of fake news and an explosion of opinions on social media, you may have heard the term “confirmation bias” before. If not, it’s pretty simple - it means we tend to seek out and believe information that reinforces our pre-existing opinions.
You might think that you’re above this kind of mental lapse, that you always see things objectively and logically, but you’d be wrong.
And it’s not your fault. There are many pre-med myths and misconceptions that are perpetuated by the hivemind, a mob mentality that arises from internet hearsay and a fear of missing out (FOMO, as the kids call it).
Whether it’s online through forums like Student Doctor Network (SDN) or reddit, you are constantly inundated with advice (both wanted and unwanted), and it’s tempting to take whatever advice sounds good or most convenient for you.
Why? It’s because these myths are an easy escape from the truth, a way to avoid deeper and more critical thinking. They often play off our basest fears, instincts, or first impressions. They typically break things down into deceptive black-and-white dichotomies, which are easier for our brain to process and therefore more attractive as ideas.
Since you’re dealing with such high stakes and steep competition, these forms of mental bargaining all the more alluring. Who doesn’t want an easy formula for success, a quick-fix catch-all solution? Be careful - buying into these myths could have negative effects on your admissions chances.
8 SDN Medical School Myths That Can Keep You From Getting In
In some cases, we’ve paraphrased actual comments from these online forums (see the italics below); others are derived from years of working with students who continuously cite these sources as the Gospel Truth of admissions.
Like wikipedia, these sources are a great place to start when doing research, but they can’t be viewed as the end-all-be-all. Here’s why:
SDN Medical School Myth #1 - The False Cause
“My cousin volunteered with Alzheimer’s patients and did three years of research, and he got interviews with dozens of medical schools. If it worked for him, it’ll work for me.”
This monkey-see-monkey-do myth can be useful at times (line dancing, for example), but your medical school application is far too personalized for such a one-size-fits-all approach.
Sure, that formula of activities worked for your cousin, one person, but there were many other factors at play (his background, GPA, MCAT, overall time commitments and responsibilities, etc.) that affected his success. Attributing it to his volunteer capacity and amount of research alone is a False Cause myth, since you’re creating a correlation that is built on a limited and short-sighted premise.
You might follow the same path and wind up miserable and overworked, without much to make you stand out. Do not jump to conclusions about causality or you’ll wind up a casualty.
For a healthier approach to your application, click here to find out what really separates the typical from stand-out pre-meds.
SDN Medical School Myth #2 - Slippery Slope (or Hasty Generalization)
“You don’t want to major in anthropology. The admissions committees will think you want to be Indiana Jones or something. You’ll never get in.”
Spend enough time online, and you’re sure to find some trollish voice condemning another pre-med to rejection hell.
It’s usually something relatively minor, like getting a C in freshman biology or taking science courses at a community college. Maybe even choosing a non-science major. But the trolls are hasty in their generalizations, letting small things snowball, claiming others will never get into medical school due to X, Y, or Z reason.
That’s where the Slippery Slope myth ends for most pre-meds - rejection - not getting in. When voices are telling you that something always or never leads to rejection, speaking in such certain extremes, it’s hard not to listen. The Slippery Slope or Hasty Generalization myth makes a haphazard leap in logic which plays off our fears.
In some cases, certain factors will prevent you from getting in, but majoring in anthro is not one of them. Neither is getting a C in freshman bio. Small blips can be compensated for, and many academic paths can lead to pre-med success.
Don’t give into the snowball myth of the Slippery Slope!
SDN Medical School Myth #3 - The Gambler’s Fallacy
“If I apply to 25 MD schools and 25 DO schools all over the country, one of them is bound to give me an interview, right?”
Playing the numbers game to the extreme relies on flawed logic. Apply broadly all across the country, cast the widest net possible, and your chances of getting an interview will go up!
Not exactly. You can’t compensate for iffy stats, limited clinical experience, and typical background by maximizing the amount of applications you submit. If anything, the cumbersome amount of work you’ll be doing to complete the applications will be a detriment to their quality.
Should you apply to 68 medical schools? Only if you want to go insane.
Every school gets the same primary application, transcripts, letter of recommendation, etc. from you, and they all receive fairly similar secondaries about your life and experiences. So for the most part, with some exceptions (in-state vs. out-of-state, for example) your odds with each application are relatively the same every time.
But you won’t even be getting the benefit of the 50/50 coin flip. More likely, you’ll just be eating massive application fees and ending up in the application slush piles.
Sure, there are stories of pre-meds who have miraculously pulled off this numbers-game approach, but that’s the same as people winning the lotto or beating the house at a casino. They’re the anomaly that helps to feed the myth. You’ll find far more people with crumpled lotto tickets and empty pockets.
SDN Medical School Myth #4 - Sunk Costs
“I know my scores aren’t great, but I’ve already worked so hard and invested so much time; wouldn’t it be a waste not to apply and see what happens?”
We all know this feeling. We’ve invested ourselves into something and we want to see it through. For me, this is my growing collection of stories and poems that have unraveled into the “Outtakes” folder on my computer. Most of the time, it’s good to finish what you’ve started, BUT not at the expense of your long-term success.
That’s how the Sunk Costs myth operates. It tricks you into the idea of feeling “pot-committed” - or obligated to finish something - strictly due to the energy previously spent.
This myth can rear its ugly head in many scenarios for pre-meds - lingering in impossibly hard classes until it’s too late to drop them without penalty, clinging to countless fringe roles in a slew of half-hearted extracurriculars, settling for a biology major after a year of classes instead of pursuing something more personally stimulating.
More specifically, let’s say you stick around in a research position that you find unfulfilling, simply from fear of being labeled a “quitter.” Great, you save some element of pride, but you’re unlikely to end up with any inspiring stories, tangible results, or pending publications. Check out our 3 signs it’s time to quit your research position for more insights.
Don’t be fooled into feeling pot-committed - in the end, that’s usually just an excuse to do what’s more passive and comfortable!
SDN Medical School Myth #5 - The Appeal to Authority
“My advisor at the NIH says that you should never open your personal statement with a story because admissions officers just want you to get to the point.”
The Appeal to Authority myth is particularly hard to shake. We’re taught from a young age to listen to our elders and heed the wisdom of those with more experience. As a pre-med, you should recognize how much of a novice you are in the grand scheme, but you shouldn’t blindly follow advice from someone just because they’re on a higher rung of the ladder than you.
In the example above, the candidate is putting a lot of stock into the advice from his superior at the NIH. And why shouldn’t he listen to one of the higher-ups at the National Institute of Health?
Well, for one thing, the NIH has nothing to do with admissions and no authority over what constitutes good personal non-fiction for your essays. If the supervisor had given you advice on finding research opportunities, then it wouldn’t be a myth - the advice would have legitimate ethos and credibility.
We make this mistake all the time. When we feel like people are smarter than us, we tend to take their words as objective truth, whether or not they have any specific expertise on the topic. It dates all the way back to agreeing with our parents that babies come from storks, and this tempting mental shortcut never goes away completely.
Moral of the story - take all advice with a grain of salt (even mine) and examine it critically. Consider the sources of information and the expertise behind them, and never lose your healthy sense of skepticism!
SDN Medical School Myth #6 - The Appeal to Pity
“I was waitlisted at XYZ Medical School, but it’s totally unfair! I was sick with the flu and moving apartments, but they still didn’t let me reschedule my interview date. Plus I had to travel across the country, only to be grilled about my out-of-state status. My interviewer was so awkward! I just know they didn’t get the best version of me - do you think it would help if I sent an update letter explaining why I screwed up my interview?”
Think about all those advertisements you see on TV with sad dogs in cages, encouraging you to donate money to such-and-such charity. I’m all about helping dogs, but those nonprofits are clearly pulling at your heartstrings to sell you on their message.
Appeals to Pity (guilt tripping) are ineffective when they stand on their own. That’s why there are three points to the rhetorical triangle. Pathos (emotion) can be very convincing, but it needs logos (logic) and ethos (credibility) for it to be a sound argument.
The pre-med Appeals to Pity happen most often when students write disadvantaged essays or essays about institutional action.
We’ve written about how to piss off your medical school admissions reader, and one of the big takeaways from that article is that you shouldn’t make excuses or pull cards that you don’t have. Candidates sometimes take this route when they feel desperate or out of options, but it’s likely to further undermine your chances.
This is NOT to say that disadvantaged candidates don’t face significant challenges, or that emotional and mental health aren’t valid. ‘Do no harm’ includes your own self-care. The point is that there’s a clear line between legitimate disadvantage and fabricated sob story. If you let the facts of your circumstances speak for themselves and don’t editorialize, you can achieve the pathos you want while also maintaining a sound argument.
SDN Medical School Myth #7 - False Dichotomy
“If you’re lucky, you’ll sneak your way into a few lower-tier MD schools. Maybe then you can swing a surgery residency. But if you only get into DO schools, forget about your dreams of being a surgeon. You’ll just wind up in primary care.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” He’s right, but our brains don’t like to operate that way; we like to see things in clear-cut, black-or-white dichotomies because they’re easier to process and seem more reliable.
As illustrated in the italics above, a good pre-med example of the False Dichotomy myth is the belief that DO programs will determine your range of future specialties. In essence, it’s MD or bust in some people’s minds when it comes to competitive specialties like surgery. This notion might lead you to believe that DOs exclusively fill primary care specialties, with no grey areas or exceptions in between.
Do MDs really have more success than DOs in residency applications? The verdict is that both types of programs can get you into residency programs, no matter their ranking. Sure, MD programs might help you slightly for more competitive specialties, but looking at it in such an all-or-nothing way is reductive.
Too much thinking in this mindset will cause you to avoid diversification or risk-taking in your application. In turn, this will lead you towards a safe, generic application that comes across rather one-note to admissions committees.
We encourage you to bend conventions and plot your journey in your own distinct way, free of the false dichotomies placed on you.
In other words, we want you to be pre-med while still being yourself!
SDN Medical School Myth #8 - The Golden Ticket
“All I need is a publication in JAMA and a letter from the XYZ Medical School dean, and I’ll be a shoe-in anywhere. It’s practically automatic at that point.”
In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka prints a handful of golden tickets inside his chocolate bars, dispersed randomly across the globe, giving recipients a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour his factory.
It was that simple in the book; if you had a ticket, you got to enter. And that’s how the Golden Ticket myth tricks you. It deceives you into believing there’s a secret, hidden method or formula that will guarantee success. If you have X, or if you can get Y position, you’ll be irresistible to every medical school you apply to. It’s at the heart of the easy thinking that plagues all the myths on this list.
The Golden Ticket myth partly arises from our inability to distinguish the part from the whole (i.e. it was X reason why I did or didn’t get in, rather than a bevy of factors weighed holistically). It also stems from our inability to accept the concepts of luck, chance, and all the small aspects that are out of our control.
This myth has us clamoring for a guaranteed solution, perhaps to absurd lengths, but that solution will always remain elusive… because it doesn’t exist.
There is no surefire, foolproof method when it comes to medical school admissions, or life in general. It’s not the “what” of your application that will get you into medical school; it’s the “how.” And how you present your application will depend on your experiences, personality, writing style, school selection, etc.
You won’t find a secret formula for admission, so your best bet is to complete an application that’s authentically the best representation of yourself as an individual. Focus on YOUR strengths, YOUR stand-out experiences, and YOUR potential contributions to the field. They’re your real golden ticket.
No matter where you’re at in the admissions process, make sure to heed this advice and stay clear of the myths that pervade the online forums. Don’t hurt your odds! Keep an open, objective mind and make Fitzgerald proud!