March 7, 2018

Our First Facebook Live Event - February 2018

Rob Humbracht

Our first Facebook Live event answered questions about applying to medical school, with a special emphasis on writing your personal statement. Do you have questions you want answered live?Email your medical school admissions questions to our Head Advisor, Rob Humbracht, for our next Facebook Live event. All questions welcome.

I think we’re live! Coming to you from sunny Southern California, where it’s currently chilly Southern California. I’m here in my home, and I’m here hoping to help answer your questions on applying to medical school. So, we’re here. Any question is fair game. Given our focus on the 21-day writing challenge that many of you guys have been engaging in and trying to get people moving on their personal statement before it’s actually due to submit this summer, we’ll focus some of the first couple questions that we’ve gotten on personal statements. We’ve got a couple of questions that have come in by email and other means that people have been wondering about for their personal statements, so I thought I would start there. We have a couple of questions, let’s see. The first question we had come in was:

“How can I paint a picture of my experiences that is neither overwrought nor cliche, but is compelling and will get admissions committees to give me an interview?”

So, how can I paint a picture of my experiences neither overwrought nor cliche. So, the first (there’s a lot loaded into that question), the first part of that is many of us want to be doctors for cliche reasons. That’s OK. There’s a reason that cliches are overused; it’s because they’re true. And so, if you have a cliche, hide it later in your essay. So, if the reason you want to become a doctor is because a family member got sick or you really want to help people, just don’t start your essay with that nonsense because although it’s important to say why you want to be a physician,if you say it a little later in your essay, hopefully you can hook the reader nice and early.

The second thing, way, to be neither overwrought nor cliche is to tell a compelling, honest story. And so, a compelling, honest story would be one where you are the center of the action. It would one where there are just the right amount of details to put the reader in your shoes. And then it doesn’t hem and haw at the end of it talking about what you learned; instead, it allows the readers to draw their own conclusions about you from the story. So, if you tell good stories, your essay will stand out no matter whether those stories broach cliche topics or not.

Alright, that was question number one. Question number two is:

“What should I not include in my essays?”

So, the first thing not to include in your essays would be the rest of the application. There’s a reason they have a whole section on your grades and your MCAT and your activities. Your personal statement does not need to become a resume. Instead, your personal statement should be a personal history of when you decided to become a doctor, why you decided to become a doctor, and a couple of compelling stories that show who you are. I’m going to sound like a broken record because I’m going to be talking a lot about stories today. So, don’t include just the rest of your application. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the other part of your application, but don’t repeat stuff that would seemingly be available to the reader in other sections.

The second thing is being clear that your personal statement is one of four essays in the primary application. So, in addition to your personal statement, you’re going to write three “most meaningful” essays. These are essays that ask the question, why was an activity meaningful to you, how have you grown personally from the experience, and they’re 1,300 characters so it’s about two paragraphs to answer those questions. So, you have your stuff in your most meaningful essays and you don’t want to just double dip for your personal statement. If you mention that same activity in both, you want to have a different purpose to each essay. The “most meaningful” essay can show your growth, can show your leadership. The personal statement shows how that activity led you to want to be a doctor. So, that would be the other thing not to include in your personal statement would be stuff that you already mentioned in your “most meaningful” essays.

Alright, question number three that I wanted to mention today was:

“How can I use my personal statement to stand out from other applicants?”

I get this question a lot, and I really think a lot of times students try too hard in their personal statements. All you need to do is a couple of things. The first would be to avoid cliches. So, especially at the start of the essay, that I want to help people, my parents are doctors, I was sick, my family member was sick, the doctor saved the day - those are some of the most common cliches. Oh, I love science, I find the human body fascinating. And if you mention those in your essay, especially towards the beginning, you’re just going to get a snooze from the reader and so they’re not going to get to the rest of your essay. So that would be the first way to stand out, would be avoid that stuff.

The second way to stand out would be to write honestly. Most pre-meds aren’t good writers and so they end up either using the thesaurus too much or they show their essay to all their English friends who then try to gussy it up with big words that don’t ultimately add to the value of their writing, so I would urge you to avoid that. Good writing is easily understood. So, be simple, be honest.

The final thing I would say for standing out would be to focus on stories that show who you as a human being and the kind of doctor you will be. That is easier said than done. Coming up with those good stories and learning to tell them well is an art and it takes practice, but you don’t have to be a brilliant writer to tell a great story.

Alright, let’s see, next question is

“How to figure out what to write if you don’t have a moment that made you decide that you wanted to become a physician.”

So, that’s a good question. A lot of time people think you need to have an a-ha moment, and I would say most pre-meds don’t. Life is messy. It’s usually a complicated combination of things, and your essay shouldn’t try to pretend there’s an a-ha moment if there wasn’t. So, instead of saying, it was the moment that I realized a-ha I definitely know that I want to be a physician for the rest of my life, I would encourage you to say, “My interest in medicine grew over time, and here are the three things that I’ve realized over the past couple of years that have made me decide this is definitely the career path that I want to pursue. So, instead of one a-ha moment, you talk about an ongoing ecclection of things.

Alright. Next, final question that I got about personal statements in advance is:

“How do I make my personal statement powerful?”

How do I make my personal statement powerful? And I love that question because you can’t. It’s not the personal statement that’s powerful; it’s the experiences in life and the story of your life that’s powerful. So, either you have those experiences or you don’t. Now, there’s time before the application process and you can continue to do interesting things that you can talk about to medical school over the course of your application process. So you have time to choose interesting activities and to create compelling moments that you can talk about in an application essay, but I don’t think the personal statement will be powerful unless you have those experiences to relate already.

Alright, so those are the personal statement questions that we got. We also got a general question here, and if you guys have any questions as we go, you can chime in down here on the comment box. The more general question was:

“I'm wondering if re-applicants are considered less competitive than first time applicants, and whether they will be marked down during the admissions process for that fact alone. I'm considering applying this cycle, but I know I would be rushing it, which is why I ask.”

Ok so, so let’s see. There’s sort of two schools of thoughts on reapplicants. One that says they’re better candidates, one that says they’re worse. Let me talk about the reasons they’re better. Number one, they have learned from their mistakes the first time around. I talk to so many people that have gotten rejected the first time they apply to medical school, and it’s because they screw up the application process so many different ways. They apply late, they return their secondaries late, or they get overwhelmed when writing secondaries and just don’t return a whole swath of their schools. They choose their schools badly, they don’t get a good letter, they don’t get letters of recommendations until late, or they get really generic letters of recommendation. There’s so many ways you can screw up the application process, and a lot of times re-applicants are able to fix those mistakes and as a result they are better candidates for admission.

Here’s the downside. When you apply to a medical school you’ve applied to before, med schools will look at your old application and look at the new application and ask the question, “what’s different?” In other words, why did we reject this person last time? They look at you almost like damaged goods, and unless there is significant growth, either a new number (more grades, better MCAT) or substantial new activities, then you’re unlikely to get into the school that rejected you last time. No matter what reason they rejected you for last time. One of the sort of dirty secrets of admissions is it’s kind of arbitrary. Any given day, if your admissions reader is a little hungry that day, they might not like your application and they might mark you down for reasons that upon, in retrospect, don’t really hold up to the light of day. But, that’s just how the admissions process rolls. So even though you might have gotten rejected for arbitrary reasons, they’re going to look at you with skepticism and find fault in your previous application. So, there’s a solution to this for reapplicants which is apply to new medical schools. Don’t just apply to the same ones you applied to last time. If you look at the tapestry of medical schools in the United States, there’s probably about 150 allopathic medical schools, and half of those take a good chunk of out-of-state students. So, if you applied to 30 schools, congrats, there’s another 45 that haven’t seen your application that you could legitimately apply to and maybe have a shot at. So, that would be my solution there for reapplicants. The other solution would be to change a number, which is easier said than done because that usually involves getting a master’s degree or retaking the MCAT, which is always fun.

Ok, last question that I had in advance which is:

“From the students you've spoken to, would you say taking two years off of school between undergrad and medical school would impact one's academic performance in medical school when compared to taking one year off between undergrad and medical school?”

Medical school is pretty rough. The story that I love to tell is: one of my coworkers, before he started medical school, went and spent three months in an ashram. He came back to the United States with a full beard and looking very shabby and shows up at medical school on day one. and they start going through. In the first week of medical school, they go through all of your biology classes that you are supposed to have taken prior to med school. It is so fast and so he looks to the guy beside him and just sort of... cause it feels overwhelming to him after spending so much time meditating at the ashram. He says are you struggling with this too, and the guy said, “No I have a PhD in biology.” Like deadpan. Nothing, no sympathy there, and so listen: medical schools won’t take you unless you can do the work and catch up. So it is a risk - that you can’t do the work - but as long as you do something to brush up before you go. This is one of the suggestions that my former student had given which is to teach MCAT or do some Khan academy before you go. Just, you know, brush up on the stuff that you may have forgotten so that the first week isn’t so brutal and you don’t spend it catching up with the rest of your classmates.

I see another question from Margaret over here which is:

“How should pre-meds write about their low GPA in the personal statement?”

Every GPA tells a story. So the first question would be: what is the story of your low GPA? Is there a trend? Is there not a trend? Is there a specific cause for the low GPA that might not repeat? So, if you have low grades, med schools are going to be worried that you’re not going to be able to survive medical school, that the low grades will recur and the things that caused you trouble in undergrad will cause you trouble again in med school. So, if you choose to write about low grades, you would need to tell that story in a way that is not evident from the rest of your application. So, first off, only talk about low grades if they truly are low or if there is a really distinct pattern that needs explanation. So, if you just have a 3.4 and it’s pretty much a 3.4 straight across, there’s not much you’re going to say that’s going to sway an admissions committee, but anything lower than a 3.2 you probably ought to mention. If you’re applying to allopathic medical schools and there’s any particular quarter you got more than one C, you should probably talk about what happened that quarter. Some medical schools will allow you to include this in your secondary essays, so if there’s not anything that compelling to tell, like I was immature or I got overwhelmed, that probably doesn’t need to go in a personal statement, but if you had a significant illness that you were dealing with or an important family member died, you might want to tell that story in your personal statement. Not at the top, needs to be down in the middle of the essay somewhere, just because that’s not a reason to accept you, that’s a reason not to reject you.

Alright, well it looks like we have answered all the questions that we have for today. It’s been fun, I’m trying this experiment in Facebook Live-ing. I am a social media dinosaur so I appreciate your patience with me as I try to suss out the format of this new system. I wish you guys the best of luck in your applications to medical school and let’s talk again soon. Bye!

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