Thursday, November 19, 2009

Getting Into Med School

Through the summer and early fall, I helped a young man with his medical school application essays. I hadn't done anything like this before, but because I'm a writer with a persuasive, marketing bent, his parents thought I might be able to help G. out. He hadn't been accepted to any schools the previous year despite good grades and test scores, and pre-med experience. While many similar applicants are accepted right out of college, this fellow got only a couple of interviews and didn't handle them as well as he'd have liked.

G. and his parents chalked up his situation to not taking the applications seriously enough. So they asked me to meet with him. I liked him on the spot: he's smart, charming, articulate, modest, thoughtful, and dedicated to his goal of becoming a doctor. (He's also movie-star cute, not that it matters.) Since graduation, he's been doing full-time research in a hospital lab and has published a few papers. That would help him, too.

We began a late-night email correspondence; he worked long hours in his lab. He'd send me essays and I'd mark them up, add comments, and send them back. The first essay med-school applicants have to submit is a personal statement, discussing their background and their interest in medicine. It gets sent from a central office to all the schools the applicants choose. If their statement is acceptable, those schools send a secondary application with more essays.

G's challenge, of course, was to write an essay that was informative, sincere, and — most important — interesting and original. Imagine all the admissions committees reading thousands of these essays every year. How many of them say "I want to help people!"? G. decided to begin his essay with a short but eloquent list of various medical experiences he'd had through his life, from breaking a bone to volunteering in a hectic ER. It was catchy, dramatic, and unique. He got secondary applications from more than 20 schools. They each had two to six essay questions.

Applying to med school is not for the faint of heart or the disorganized.

G. is a good storyteller as well as a good writer. There were times when I'd rephrase a sentence or correct grammar, but I tried to be judicious so his essays always sounded like him, not me. I never put words in his mouth; his essays were his thoughts, not mine — although I sometimes managed to persuade him to take my approach. And as I read more of his writing, and learned about his past, I was able to ask the right questions and make suggestions that guided him in the right direction.

It's not easy for most people to write about themselves, but that's what med school applications demand. There were times when G.'s essays seemed too modest and a couple of times when they didn't seem modest enough. My job was to temper both, gently. The more I learned about him, the more convinced I was that he'd be a wonderful doctor someday. Helping him get there was an inspiring goal. I felt lucky to have an opportunity to help him. (And, yes,  I was paid, too.)

The best thing about this work was that all I really had to do was help G. write honestly and eloquently about himself. He already had wonderful "material" to work with, and it was a pleasure to help him shape his essays to the point where they were winners because they presented his character, thoughts, and experiences clearly and truly.

Sometimes, my most important guidance was to help G. focus on addressing the actual questions. Often he'd get sidetracked, writing things he wanted the admissions team to know about him, but not providing the information they wanted. I'll bet this happens to most applicants. The questions lend themselves to it; and when you're suddenly in the new habit of writing about yourself, it's easy to go off on tangents. He was asked, for example, to describe how he'd handled the most significant moral dilemma in his life — but it couldn't involve academic dishonesty. He sent me a gripping account of how he'd dealt with a competitive student in a lab class who may have sabotaged his experiment. It was a terrific story, but it was about academic dishonesty, so it couldn't be used.

Many schools ask similar questions, and the temptation is to recycle essays from one school to another. There were often times when portions of his writing could be repurposed for another essay, but we had to be careful that each new essay addressed every point the admissions committee was looking for.

The toughest essay questions were Duke's, which is said to be the best medical school in the country. Judging from the complex, thoughtful, psychologically revealing questions they ask of their applicants, it's clear that they are far more interested in really knowing their applicants than other top schools.

Harvard's application had two essays (4,000 characters max), and in G.'s case, we were stumped. For applicants in his situation — who had also applied the previous year, and did so shortly after graduation — the application is truly confusing. Here are the topics:

1. Briefly summarize your activities since your last application
2. Briefly summarize your activities since graduation.

What’s a candidate like G. supposed to do, since those time periods are identical in his case? Write the same essay twice? After mulling this over, I called Harvard's admissions office and spent 10 minutes explaining the problem to a dim but imperious assistant who eventually got it. She told me I should ask the director. So I called the director of Harvard Medical School's admissions team. Her response was a surprised, “Oh!”

Harvard is getting 7,500 applications annually, and this issue is news? She told me that applicants like G. should complete just the “reapplication” essay. She also told me to keep it to 1,000 characters or so. She said, ”I don’t know who came up with that ‘4,000 characters’ business! Nobody here is going to read much past 1,000 characters.”

I was amazed. This is the toughest school to get into — they accept only 162 people per class and half are always minorities — and they don’t even bother reading to the end of the longer essays? I was appalled. I mean, sure, I'd get pretty darn tired of reading essay after essay on the same subject, too. But it's their job.... Are all admissions teams burnt out? I remain impressed with Duke’s, though; they ask the most insightful questions. I bet they even read the essays.

G. has been keeping me posted as he gets interview invitations. He's received several so far, which is very good, and more may be coming. He's also been wait-listed for one of his preferred schools. And today he told me he was accepted to one of his top schools. I'm thrilled for him. We did it!

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