My Advice to Medschool Applicants

by Michael Greger, MD and United Progressive Alumni

[ Medical School Resources | Appendices | Discussion ]


Last updated 1/8/96

INTRODUCTION

My name is Michael Greger and I want to help. I applied MD/Ph.D. in '95 and was surprised at how well I did. But I was not what one would consider an especially strong candidate. I did score very high on the MCATS, but had zero clinical experience, GPA under 3.5, and almost no research experience. And nothing like rewards, honors, publications etc. In an attempt to figure out why I did so well when some others didn't, I started talking to admissions people. And then to other applicants, compiling all the tips and advice I could.

I remember when I was applying I wished there was some kind of resource like this, so I decided to create one. My Email address is mhg1@cornell.edu and my phone number is (857) 928-2778. Please call or write anytime for anything. Literally. And if there are other veterans out there who haven't forgotten what it's like to be premed, please send me your thoughts and I can pass them along to others. Please note that much of this is at best anecdotal, but hopefully will help nonetheless.

And MD/Ph.D. applicants have to fill out all the same MD applications and struggle through all the same MD interviews, so this advice should apply to straight MD applicants too.

PREMED PREP

First off consider why you want to be a doctor. Interviewers do not want to hear "I've always wanted to be a doctor." They want to know that you've considered all of the possibilities and have decided for specific reasons that medicine is your calling. This is not just an exercise on how you can psych out the interviewer; it is really important to sit down and really think about your goals and motivations. I know the premed committee tells you to do this and it may sound a tad flaky, but don't try to think of what will sound good on paper or at an interview, just take the time and really figure out what you want from life.

Along those lines do you really know what programs schools offer? Do you know what opportunities exist in the field? For example, I wasn't aware of this when I applied, but many schools have Masters programs like public health that you can do simultaneously with med school. Start early talk to people, talk to me. Find out where you want to go with your life before it is too late.

Assuming you do want to pursue a MD, the following realizations will help you prepare. This is one of my biggies: when I talked to the admissions people asking them why I got in, I was surprised by the homogeneity of their replies. Over and over again: its not MCAT scores, essays, and GPAs that primarily matter (they assume most applicants are relatively similar in these regards). Its letters of recommendation! Even at interviews they would tell me were going to know you for an hour, these people have known you for months or years. It is absolutely essential that you have killer letters of recommendation. What you want is for someone to say that they've known a lot of college students in my day but this one is exceptional. Sorry to stress you, but even for you Juniors it is not too late. Get one this summer. Find a lab to do research in or do some volunteer work or get some clinical experience with a goal in mind of getting a killer recommendation. It will be too late to include in your folder, so what you need to do is set up a credential file at your career center. The recommender just has to then write one letter to your school and then they send it to any prospective schools you want. I have never heard of a school that didn't allow you to send additional letters of recommendation for activities undertaken after initially applying, so do it!

And you don't have to limit your last ditch attempt to your undergraduate institution. If you want to do research, for example, and there is someone doing something really interesting somewhere else in the world, send them a letter asking if you can work for them over the summer. It's not so far-fetched; you're cheap labor and maybe you'll make a good impression.

For those who are getting into this early in the game I'd also like to touch on course requirements. As far as I know there is no school that will not accept two semesters of orgo lab and one of lecture despite the usual premed recommendation to do the opposite. Also, if you're thinking Johns Hopkins, they have a huge (well huge for a hard-core bio major like me) humanities/social sciences requirement; I couldn't even apply. Or so I thought at the time. Just recently I was contacted by Hopkin's admissions and they said that they will consider those not meeting the requirement on a case by case basis. I came across a similar flexibility at Stony Brook. On paper it says that MD/PhDers must have GREs in addition to MCATS, but if you talk (and beg and plead) with them they may waive it (they did for me). In fact for MD/PhDers there is only one school I know of (out of the 27 I applied to) that requires the GRE (Loma Linda). If you're good at taking tests though, (and it sure is easier than the MCAT (more like the SATs in fact)) then maybe you should to augment your application by taking it and offering the scores to schools. I guess the bottom line is that if you really want to get into a particular school and you don't meet the requirements, talk to the person in charge. Maybe she'll let you slide.

In terms of extracurricular activities I don't think admissions people are for the most part impressed by participation in student groups unless it was significant or you played a leadership role. And they'll question you at the interview about your role in the activities you laundry list on your application. Consider volunteering for community based organizations (homeless shelters, inmate counseling, rape crisis etc.) as opposed to school based. Not only might it look better, your time will probably be better spent.

DECIDING WHICH SCHOOLS

The more important question is how many schools you should apply to. In my opinion as many as you can. I applied to literally every school that I could (that wasn't in the deep south). I know what you're thinking, but it turns out to be really not that many. Because of implicit state residency requirements for so many schools, it really is just a matter of applying to the ten or so schools in your state and then another fifteen to twenty private schools around the country. Now this is expensive (Harvard won't even send you an application until you send them 50 bucks), but the number one problem for most people I think is the time commitment. Doing 25 supplementals (or with MD/Ph.D. 50, since there is usually two applications per school) takes lots of time. And I mean lots of time. For example, Yale (although nonAMCAS so one would expect it to be longer) has a 14 page application. And Stanford I think had 9 essays. Now after a while the same essays pop up so its eventually just a matter of cut and paste, but there's always the oddball questions and more importantly the time it takes to just type it up neatly. So whatever summer job you have, make sure to leave August free to do applications ten hours a day. This may also affect how rigorous you want to make your fall semester coursewise. So that you do not think me exaggerating about the importance of applying everywhere, my two housemates applied to med school too. Neither of them even got one interview. So later on they applied to extra schools, but by then it was too late in the season. Of all regrets I hear from those who went through the process, the I wish I applied to more schools one crops up the most.

When I was considering where I should apply I thought about prestige etc. without placing enough weight on environment. Then I spent a summer in Louisiana (racist dark ages in my humble opinion). This is a big chunk of your life; do you really want to live in New York City (in my eyes smelly and noisy) or the Bronx (not one car parked along the street still had hubcaps). Consider weather, social/political climate, cost of living, existence of other schools (more resources for you), etc.

People ask what schools I liked particularly. Although this is almost totally individualistic, I did find a few surprises. I was very impressed with SUNY Buffalo (research, environment, clinical opportunities), Stanford (flexibility up the wazoo), and the city of Boston. I was disappointed with Einstein (the students I talked to did not seem enthused and that one word: Bronx) and SUNY Stony Brook (isolated, again student opinion blah). For MD/PhDers NYU seemed really accommodating, but Columbia was cold. I did not like SUNY Brooklyn and don't remember one applicant I talked to that did. Trivially (and you'll just have to take my word for it until you go there) Mount Sinai has the absolute coolest bathrooms and Stony Brook the neatest looking buildings. Don't let idiots in admission offices or in your undergraduate institutions dissuade you from applying to top schools; you'd be surprised. Its a crap shoot, so don't get discouraged. I got an interview at Harvard but not at Rochester; I got waitlisted at Stanford but not Brooklyn. All the more reason to apply to as many as possible.

APPLICATION PROCESS

Apply as absolutely early as you can. Get AMCAS in at the earliest date. Spin off your supplementals. In fact so critical is timing that I would recommend that if you have a number of invites for interviews don't save the best ones until last (thinking that by then you'll be really comfortable interviewing), jump on them right away. For MD/PhDers this can not be stressed enough. I remember at my Einstein interview someone asked how many of the 11 available slots had already been filled by that time. The answer? 11! Kind of takes the pressure off, but I looked around the room at the other 10 or so interviewees and I couldn't help but feel a little pissed (it wasn't hopeless (in fact I even got in), a lot of people withdraw acceptance). Along these lines I would recommend to MD/Ph.D. applicants at least that they do not take the August MCAT.

For some applications you are going to need passport size photographs. The rationale is so that when you come for an interview they can recognize you. This is, of course, a ridiculous excuse since if that were the case then they would only require pictures after you were invited for an interview. Regardless, if you are going to take my advice and apply to a million schools photos can get quite pricey (especially for MD/PhDers of course because they have twice as many applications). Even if they don't ask for them in the application they'll probably want them at the interview (so that they can presumably discriminate against you later in the process instead of earlier). Call around to camera stores in your area and explain the situation. I found as much as a hundred dollar difference between estimates, so shop around.

For MD/PhD applicants it is crucial to do some Medline searches and find out who is doing work you're interested in at the institution. Preferably do this before you even apply so that you can put them on your application. Phrases like I am interested in X which is being studied by Drs. Y and Z in your department of Q. presumably go a long way. And some schools (like Einstein, Brooklyn, Connecticut, Albany, and NYU) actually make you pick your own interviewers. It goes without saying that you should be able to talk intelligently about her particular subject of interest.

Also for MD/PhDers, just because a school isn't listed as a federally funded MSTP program, a lot of schools have the exact same thing (stipend, full tuition scholarship, no payback), but its just privately funded. So don't restrict your possibilities based on who is officially federally funded. Because there is a lot of money to be gleaned from these MD/Ph.D. programs ($200,000 or so per student), keep in mind the applicants that they are trying to weed out. There are people who apply MD/Ph.D. just to get a free ride (and stipend!) through medical school. So be very explicit in your dedication to carry out research as a primary lifelong occupation. If that is a stretch of the truth, rethink your choice. In fact, on a personal note, I recently rethought my choice and, after being offered three MSTP slots and taking the one at Tufts, I dropped out of the program to pursue a straight MD.

INTERVIEW PROCESS

Interviews are day long events and for MD/Ph.D. applicants maybe two. Surprises may include blind interviews (even though a school may say they don't have them, the particular interviewer may not have taken the time to look over your application so be prepared to answer questions you thought they had the answers to on your application like "what do you do extracurricularly?") or student interviewers (at Harvard HST, Stanford and Pittsburgh in my experience ). Expect a minimum of two interviews per school; you'll probably get three.

The most frequently asked MD interview question was (for me) a question about my application, either something I said in an essay, or details about my involvement with an extracurricular thing I put down (so make absolutely sure that you make copies of everything you send out so that you can refer to them later). Other super common ones ask about lifelong career goals and what kind of medicine you want to go into. Less common were "without clinical experience how do you know you really want to be a doctor" and "what are your strengths?" I got one "what do you think about AIDS?" [Sinai], but was never (and I was interviewed by at least 40 people)asked about my views on the US Health Care situation, but I knew people who were. So let me recommend the most concise and easily readable (its got pictures) resource I could find on the subject (what the current state is, what the Clinton plan entailed, what single-payer is etc.) In my opinion: The National Health Program Book by Himmelstein and Woolhandler published by Common Courage ($12). Also, for analysis of current events in general, you can't do better than reading Noam Chomsky. Likewise I was never asked anything so open-ended as tell me about yourself and I don't remember many "why do you want to go to this particular school?" (before I went on all of my interviews I read up on the school; looking back I think it was mostly a waste of time).

For MD/Ph.D. applicants the inevitable questions are: what research are you doing or have you done (this is number one; they want to know your exact contribution, they want to know background theory, one guy even asked me for references off the top of my head [NYU]) and why both degrees? Also how do you think you'll have time to do everything and what are your research interests.

By far the most important questions asked in an interview are by you, however. Every single interview I've been to invariably ended with What questions do you have for me? So think of some good ones. For example a MD/Ph.D. could ask how well integrated the program is (is there clinical contact during the Ph.D. years...), can one start research in the summer before one matriculates (makes it look like you're raring to go), what graduate course requirements still exist after the two preclinical years (do you have to take biochem twice...), avg. time taken to get both degrees at the school, how am I placed in a lab (required lab rotations?), and with whom can I do research (can I do research at other institutions?). For the MD (and so for the MD/Ph.D. too) questions can include: what research opportunities exist for straight MDs, how much nutrition, geriatrics, spousal abuse, primary or preventative care emphasis in the curriculum (whatever you're interested in), how much flexibility in curriculum (is everybody marching along lock-step?), and clinical facilities (is there a range of opportunities from emergency to veterans to inner city to tertiary). There exists a book produced by the AMSAR people that lists each schools exact preclinical curriculum. So you can use this to decide which schools most interest you, help you phrase questions (Why so little? instead of How much Nutrition?), and probably most importantly help you answer those stupid "Why do you want to go to this particular school?" essays.

Usually you'll be provided lunch (if you have special needs (vegetarian, kosher...) tell them ahead of time, the only thing worse than an interview with no blood sugar is an interview with no sleep and no blood sugar) with students to ask questions to. They usually have no input in the admissions process so you can be frank. I'd ask about housing (how are the dorms), what's the grading policy (pass/fail?), are exams given in blocks or are they staggered (there are advantages to both approaches), how many people per table (euphemism for how many people per corpse in gross anatomy; the lower the better; 4 is about average), why they chose that school, are there free photocopy facilities (you'd be amazed), is emphasis on passing Boards or learning medicine, how tight (socially) is the student body, how they like the city and the school (obviously), curriculum flexibility, are there exams so that one can place out of basic science courses, does one need a car if they go there, is the curriculum lecture-based (or small group based), range of clinical experiences possible, and internet/online Medline access.

I thought about this a lot and I have come to this conclusion: do not be afraid (either in essays and particularly in interviews where you can make sure it is not misconstrued) to voice strong positions or opinions. One interviewer at Syracuse was complaining to me about what he says med school admissions people call "mediclones," which is a rather derogatory term applied to candidates which all look alike. Do not be afraid to stand out. I personally have a difficulty in keeping my opinions to myself; in fact I even had a fight with the interviewer at my first interview (he had the audacity to state that nutrition (he was a pediatrician for heavens sake) was superfluous to human health)[Cornell]. Although I certainly didn't get in there and maybe one other place because of my outspokenness[Buffalo], I can not help but attribute some of my other successes to my controversial (way left of center) views and individuality.

However for interview appearance, conform. If you want, don't think of it as selling out to a culture that prizes superficiality over substance; think of it as camouflage. I had the decision of whether or not to cut my hair (I had been growing it for 6 years). I reluctantly decided to; I am glad I did. I talked to admission people anonymously and they were in agreement: look like a yuppie. As an aside, if you travel to an interview and forget a hair dryer or something, most department stores have very generous return policies. One could, if they were a bit slimy, just buy one and return it the next day for a refund.

I mentioned before about having a lighter Senior Fall semester for applications, but don't forget these interviews; they suck up an inordinate amount of time. One trick (if you're lucky enough to get lots of interviews) is to schedule them all in blocks. For example I interviewed at four schools (all in NYC) in one week (one looonnnng week let me tell you), but imagine how much time/money I saved. Remember you need to have that Saturday night stayover for a sane planefare, so if you can only arrange a Wednesday interview you're stuck for almost a week.

Another trick to at least reduce cost is to ask if you can stay with a student when arranging interviews. Its also a great way (I am told) to ask lots of questions about the school. If you're like me and just want to just relax and not even talk to anyone the night before a day of interviews, I can recommend cheap hotels I had luck with. PS: I am now going to Tufts! (More because of Boston than the school (with which I am disappointed)). So I can answer specific questions about the school and can offer a place to stay for anyone interviewing in Boston.

I was skeptical during my first few interviews that they would get easier as I had been told, but alas it is true. By the last school I interviewed at (the 14th) the hardest part of the interview was to keep from yawning as they ask the same dumb questions over and over. You become an automaton; answers just spill out. The moral of the story: It just gets easier.

After the interviews are over and the whole waiting list game starts, applicants are encouraged to send follow up letters to the schools at which they're waitlisted at. Schools want to know how much you really want that spot.

I would like to apologize for the disjointed nature of all this. I initially wrote it down as a scramble of my thoughts and it hasn't progressed much past that point. I'd really like to hear from all of you and remember, always hold firmly to the thought that each one of us can do something to bring some portion of misery to an end.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I'd like to dedicate this all to my mother who was infinitely supportive of me through this whole hellish process.


Reader's Comments

I just wanted to let you know that I truly appreciate your comments. I have been looking for such advice and am so happy to have finally stumbled upon it. However, this page must be a bit old, as your already in residency, right? I would LOVE for you to put a little addendum... looking back at applying... if you made the right choice. Thanks again!!!

-- Casey Herrforth, July 2, 2003
Add a comment

Related Links

Add a link