Remaining Schools

I’ve had to reexamine a lot of my priorities over the past month or so and have had to realize that if I wanted to do the kind of program I’m interested in, I needed to reevaluate a few things. To that end, I sort of altered the way I had been looking for schools to apply to.

I’ve concluded that I’d like to do a PhD in computational biology or biostatistics, depending on the school. I’d like to integrate my interest in math, programming, and quantitative science into medicine. I’ve come to realize that this makes me somewhat incompatible with a significant number of MD / PhD programs. So to maximize my chances of getting an acceptance somewhere, I screened schools in the following way:

  • I created a sortable list of all 130 medical schools in the US and removed all that were in areas I really didn’t want to live for 7-8 years.
  • I went through the MD / PhD program websites and looked to see which had progras in computational biology, bioinformatics, or something similar. I feel compelled to point out that the quality of medical school websites varies greatly. Some are fantastic and give you a great sense of what they’re about. Others, not so much.
  • Some schools make it abundantly clear that they are only interested in the ‘basic sciences’. I’ve learned that this is code for the Holy Trinity: biochemistry, neuroscience, and molecular biology. Once I concluded I wasn’t going to find a home there, I removed them from the list.

That leaves 18 schools, which I’ve listed here. I’ve arranged them in relative order of perference, but until I do more research, I’m not sure which ones will be at the top of my list:

University of Washington School of Medicine
Harvard Medical School
University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A Carver College of Medicine
University of Chicago, Pritzker School of Medicine
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine

Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine
Wake Forest School of Medicine of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine
Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
Baylor College of Medicine

Indiana University School of Medicine
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
University of Michigan Medical School
University of Minnesota Medical School
University of Colorado School of Medicine
University of Virginia School of Medicine

I don’t intend to apply to all of these schools, but I have no idea how competitive I will be for these programs. My undergrad GPA is atrocious and I don’t have a tremendous amount of medical research experience under my belt.

I was shocked to find that Harvard made its way onto my list – but programs like mathematical biophysics have a way of snagging my attention. Anyway, thoughts on any of these?

More Reader Questions on the MCAT

I got an email from a reader today and decided to post my response here:

I read your blog and i find it to be very down-to-earth and helpful. thanks for helping us pre-meds with these tips!

Thanks for the kind words. The last couple of years on this road has changed me in some rather unexpected ways, so it’s somewhat enjoyable to help encourage others along the way. For some reason, the premed world is consumed with bitterness, infighting, and other destructive behavior. I understand competition, and some good-natured competition among colleagues is probably a good thing, but the level of nastiness and general douchebaggery I’ve witnessed over the last couple of years makes me rather sad. One of the hardest things I’ve learned in this entire process is the necessity of being dependent upon others. There is no way I’d have gotten to this point or have had the experiences I’ve had if it hadn’t been for other people along the way. In my opinion, I owe it to them to encourage others along the way.

For more literary minded readers, the parallels between this medical school thing and my blogs namesake are pretty striking. Nearly every obstacle placed in Odysseus’ way on the journey back to Ithaca was only surmounted by the help of others around him. With Poseidon absent from Mount Olympus Athena intercedes with Zeus on his behalf, which ultimately leads to his release from the island of Calypso. After being shipwrecked by Poseidon, the Phaeacians offer him hospitality and ultimately return him to Ithaca in the middle of the night. And even at the end, Odysseus enlists the help of a slew of people in slaughtering the suitors that have set up shop in his home, eaten his food, drunk his wine, and tried to woo his woman. If you’re a premed reading this and think that you have nothing to gain from your classmates or others along the way, you’re a fool.

What do you think about the density of the bio passages for the last MCAT you took? I took one last year and i was so bogged down by the long bio passages and didn’t get to finish, which ended up hurting my score.

None of the biology passages that I’ve seen on either the practice exams or the real one felt all that long to me. Your timing problems could be due to a lot of things, but my guess is that you’re probably focusing on the details in the passage too much. My goal when I read those passages was to understand the experiment, how it had been performed and what the results were. The MCAT absolutely tests your ability to interpret graphs, tables, and that sort of thing. Focus on understanding and ignore the details – if a detail is needed to answer the questions, you can always go back to the passage and find it.

I have taken physiology, anatomy and other upper level bio courses that i think may help boost my MCAT score.

I found physiology and biochemistry extremely helpful. Genetics would have been useful if mine hadn’t been a completely waste of time. I took a full year graduate biochemistry course which really helped me integrate some of the more confusing chemistry concepts I had with my understanding of molecular biology. Upper division courses don’t automatically boost your score anymore than an MCAT prep course.

Do you think reading science journals would help with the dense bio section?

As I mentioned, I don’t think that the biological sciences section is really all that dense. Reading science journals might be helpful, I suppose it really depends upon your background and abilities. Reading and understanding scientific literature is a crucial skill though and something you should probably cultivate independent of whatever ancillary benefit to your MCAT score it might have.

One thing I alluded to earlier is the ability to read and interpret data in things like figures and tables. This is a key skill to doing well on both science sections of the exam – I can guarantee that it will be tested multiple times, so if you can’t read data tables or graphs, you’re going to be in trouble. Reading scientific literature can probably help you develop this skill, but I really can’t give you any firsthand information; I read and interpret data every day at my job. In my opinion, undergraduate science degrees do not teach this skill to students and it really hurts them on the MCAT.

I have way too many MCAT books that i bought that didn’t work (TPR, EK, Kaplan) and i am skeptical about adding TBR to this list. I wanted to see if there is another cheaper alternative out there. Currently i am using Barrons MCAT prep that i picked up in the library. I like it so far. (I know no one uses this but i am finding it less overwhelming to have just this ONE book Vs multiple books at a time.)

I’ve written about this before, but I’ll reiterate it here. For the most part, the materials you use do not really matter all that much. If you sample people that score greater than a 35, they will all have used different materials. A majority will have used Kaplan, with Exam Krackers, the Princeton Review, and all the rest having their fans. The common denominator among those students will not be the materials they used. They WILL share these though:

  • They will have made a study plan that included copious amounts of worked problems under timed conditions.
  • Most will have taken all their courses prior to starting their study plan.
  • They focus on learning the material in those classes, rather than just getting an A. When I took organic chemistry, there was a classmate that used to chide me for making such a big deal about understanding how different things worked. We had similar grades, but she scored a 26. Your goal in college should be to understand basic science and to think rigorously. Since the MCAT tests these, it would be natural to focus on learning those things in school. Sadly, too many students adopt the premed obsession with grades and miss that opportunity.
  • They didn’t take it until they were ready.

I’m not going to rehash all of my advice on studying for the MCAT, since my blog is littered with it. Ultimately, don’t stress over the books you use. The important thing is that you make a study plan, do things under timed conditions, stay consistent, and review.

Also, to those of you taking the exam this Saturday, best of luck. Think positively and focus on your successes.

Recent Thoughts on Application

The last month or so has been filled with getting some projects for work finished and a few other things, as well as working on this paper that I’d like to submit something this summer. The application system opened up earlier this week and I’ve had a chance to peruse it somewhat and look at what I’m going to be spending the bulk of my time on over the next month or so. I may even set this paper aside for a while and focus on getting my application complete. My committee letter process is mostly finished, I just need to interview with a committee member and get the last of my letters of recommendation submitted.

I’ve also been giving a lot of thought to what I want to do in graduate school and, by extension, the types of programs I want to apply to. I’ve more or less concluded that I want to do my research in a quantitative field like genetics, computation biology, statistics, or something along those lines. I’ve got a large background and interest in mathematics and the hard sciences, so it really seems like I’d be ignoring that if I tried to shoehorn myself into a biology lab. I’d much rather spend my graduate school years in front of a computer than a bench. Ever since I started this process I’d been secretly hoping I could do something like that and it wasn’t until the last few months that I began to realize that sort of niche might actually exist in medicine. Perhaps it doesn’t get talked about a lot because most premeds don’t know anything about programming or numerical analysis. Regardless, I do and I’m going to apply to schools that have those types of programs.

The lady has become quite a bit more amenable to the idea of not necessarily moving back to her home town after she finishes residency. My mentor is from Boston and thinks that I should give a lot of thought towards applying to Harvard-MIT. I have a really hard time thinking that programs like that might ever give me the time of day. At any rate, I’m going to expand my list of schools and cast a much wider net I think, giving specific notice to schools that have graduate programs in areas that really align with my own interests and backgrounds. I’ve never had any plans to park my ass in a biochemistry lab hunting for proteins. That’s interesting and certainly important work, but it isn’t what interests me. I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life working with computers, hacking code, and playing with numbers. I’d be a fool to throw all of that away and pretend that it has no application to medical research.

Hopefully I can find a few admissions committees that are willing to roll the dice on that sort of thing.

Another Reader Email on the MCAT

Here are some excerpts from an email I got today and my response. I figured some of my readers that are locked in deadly combat with the MCAT might find them helpful and encouraging.

Hey MSO-
So I’m just two weeks away from the MCAT now. When you were taking your practice MCATs, did you ever have the feeling of “WTF did they get this stuff”? Especially on biology? I took FL5 the other day. What the hell was up with all of the insect stuff?

When I was taking my practice full-lengths, I actually felt like the science passages were all fairly well-written and legitimate topics. I don’t remember the insect passage, but there were definitely times were the material felt like it was beyond the scope of introductory classes. It feels that way because it is. There will be plenty of things which are beyond what you’ve seen in your courses and prep. That’s alright though – the MCAT isn’t testing content knowledge so much as whether you can figure out new things based on what you’ve already learned. The reason I don’t remember the insect passage is probably because it wasn’t asking questions about insects. For example, the MCAT might introduce an incredibly complicated topic from the field of particle physics. It might give you a really intricate explanation about the Z and W bosons, and then show you a plot like this one from CERN, which you have most likely never seen (unless you follow my Twitter feed).

Then, it might ask you to determine which interval recorded the most events per 5 GeV, say 10-100 GeV, 100-500 GeV and so forth. You might not have a clue what is being measured or how the data was taken and the MCAT doesn’t care if you do, because that’s not what it is testing. It’s testing whether or not you can read a plot with labeled axis and draw some very simple inferences from it. That’s a completely relevant skill to medicine, or at least, how I plan to practice medicine. The only reason I bring up CERN is because it was at the front of my mind – rest assured, there will be incredibly obscure topics on the MCAT that you will have never heard of before. The real trick to taking the MCAT is learning to find the simple question that the test writers have hidden among all the advanced stuff you’ve never seen before. If you can do that, then you REALLY know the science.

I remember on the real thing, I got squashed with this ridiculously complex passage that had all sorts of complications. I looked at it, completely befuddled by it, and then went back to what I had told myself for months: find the simple question. Then I realized that the question was really just asking if I could determine velocity and acceleration from a simple graph of position relative to time. I didn’t need to understand what was all over the chart, I just needed to remember that velocity was the time derivative of position. I looked at the chart, identified the quantity in question, circled the right answer, and went on. I later saw in the SDN forums that passage had absolutely murdered other students, but it was incredibly simple, but only if you could see the question the writers had cloaked in all the other stuff. I sort of felt guilty.

I understand your feelings about scoring well but still a little nervous. I am about in the same range that you were (upper 30′s) but still wish I was hitting at least 40, especially since I seem to miss some REALLY easy questions here and there, particularly on the PS if I miscalculate something. Those errors are so easy to make and there just isn’t enough time to double check all of your answers, which is what I am used to doing in class.

As far as scores go, if you’re in the upper 30s, you’re totally set, assuming you’re doing them all under timed conditions. Ignoring verbal, at this point your score is really a statistical fluctuation – it only takes a couple of problems to knock you a point or two and it isn’t something you should worry about. My advice, particularly in hindsight, is to focus on the fact that you’re crushing the practice exams, still have some time to go, and are continuing to improve. Make it about how much you understand well, how solid your test-taking chops are, and how the easiest day will be the day of the real thing. The emotional game of the exam is something that doesn’t get talked about too much, but it’s of huge importance. Second to timing and practice, managing the emotional uncertainty and anxiety is probably the most important thing, and I’m intentionally placing it above content review. All the knowledge in the world doesn’t help you if you’re letting your nerves get to you.

Go back and read my post on the last exam I took – I let a single error ruin me. I had become so accustomed to getting every question on the PS science correct that I let a tough passage burn 15 minutes of my time and absolutely demoralize me. The lesson I learned was to not let perfect become the enemy of the good. It’s really easy to do – you get a 15 on the PS section and figure that you should be doing that every time. Then a rough passage comes along, you get engrossed in it and refuse to let it go. That approach is really natural for people that really know the stuff, but it can absolutely devastate you. The real thing will absolutely have a passage or so in each section that is designed to do this. The writers are laying a trap for you and, if you take the bait, you’ll run out of time on one of the sections and will leave the last ten questions unanswered. I’m glad I tanked that last practice exam, because if I hadn’t, I’d have made that mistake on the real thing and gotten absolutely owned.

I Could Use Some Help Here

I met with the head of the MSTP program at one of my top choice schools today and I have no fucking clue how to take it. I was basically wanting to know whether or not I was wasting my time applying to the program. He spent the first 10 minutes talking about MCAT scores, how competitive medical school admission was, and things like that. Then he started asking me about the research I’ve done. I began explaining about it, describing what I’ve been working on, which is mostly quantitative research, and then interrupted to ask about whether I had bench research. By bench research, he was most certainly asking about whether I had spent time in a biochemistry or cellular biology lab. When I told him I hadn’t, he told me “That’s going to hurt you”. Fair enough. If that’s really what the MSTP world wants, fine.

Here’s the rub. We continue talking and then he starts going on about how he really wants people with a quantitative background. He told me that he thought it was a lot easier for quantitative people to learn the biology and lab stuff then it was for biology people to learn the math. He actually said that. How are those not contradictory statements? At this point in the conversation, I pretty much concluded that I was wasting my time, so I pressed him a little bit and asked him how wanting someone with a lot of bench experience and a quantitative background wasn’t contradictory. He told me that it wasn’t specific backgrounds that they wanted; a generic background was what they were looking for, but in specific areas. Eventually, and I have no idea what point of the conversation we were in, he interrupted to ask, “What other questions do you have for me?” which was clearly code for, “I”m busy, so get the fuck out of my office”. I thanked him for his time, he told me to emphasize my quantitative background on my application and then I got up to leave. As I was leaving, I asked him if I was wasting my time applying to his program and he told that I wasn’t and that I should write about my quantitative background.

I’d like to ask my MD-PhD readers for some insight on this because I have no idea what the hell to think. I don’t know what the fuck an immunoassay is. I don’t know anything about how to do a fucking Western blot, Southern blot, or any other kind of blot. Is the MD-PhD world really so narrow-minded to think that if I haven’t clocked time with test tubes in one hand and cell cultures in the other that I have no business becoming a physician-scientist? I haven’t a clue what to think – was this guy telling me I was completely off my rocker? Do I need to push my application back another year so I can go get my hands dirty in an immunology lab? This was one of my top choice schools and now I feel like I’m just a scrub with a big MCAT score with a shit cumulative GPA that has wasted the past three years trying to become a doctor.

The Quality of Scientific Plotting Software

I’m going to take a minute here to rant a little bit about the paltry menu of scientific plotting software that is available.

This research project that I’m working on has required me to teach myself the basics of multivariate linear regressions and a few other things. I’ve finally gotten something that I think is legitimate, although I won’t know until tomorrow, when I meet with the physician I’ve been working with. I want to make some simple box-and-whisker plots that show the differences between a few different groups. I’ve been using JMP to do my analysis, but I’d like to produce some publication quality figures so that I can start working on our paper. The problem is that the options for generating publication quality figures absolutely sucks. I’ve spent the past six hours trying to figure out the best way to generate a half dozen plots that don’t look like they were cobbled together in Excel and I’ve gotten nowhere. Screw all of this.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this type of frustration. Here are the options I’ve tried, that produce crappy results.

  • Matlab is nice for working with large datasets, particularly if you’re doing things like Fourier analysis or numerical modeling.  The problem that Matlab has is that it can’t produce reliable figures – what you see on your screen is usually not what you get when you generate an EPS or TIF.  Also, what the hell is with medical journals that don’t want vector images?  I was blown away when I found out that the journal I’m hoping to submit wanted GIF or JPG figures.  At any rate, Matlab is terrible.
  • JMP is fine for producing quick plots of various statistical relationships, but its ‘Graph Builder’ is absolutely useless.  Beyond useless.  Honestly, the vast majority of statistical software I’ve used has the most worthless user interface.  It’s enough to make me think that GUI statistical software can shove it.  If I get into a MD / PhD program, I swear I will never use any of this crap – I’ll teach myself to use R and never look back.
  • SigmaPlot.  This piece of crap costs a zillion dollars and the interface is nearly impossible to use.  It’s as if these packages are designed by people that don’t actually know anything about how data analysis is done.
  • Microsoft Excel.  I hate almost everything Microsoft does, but Excel 2003 was awesome.  Of course, after that, Microsoft changed the interface entirely that is completely useless and makes the simplest tasks a Herculean epic.  Of course, there’s the problem of no capacity to export into a usable format.  Worthless

Seriously.  This is infuriating.  It should not be this difficult to produce properly formatted and sized figures.  Even the most expensive programs do an abysmal job.  All I want to do is make a few box-and-whisker plots with well-defined resolutions, fonts, formats, and sizes.  I have wasted countless hours trying to do this and I’m absolutely fed up with it.  Seriously, fuck this.

MCAT Suggestions to a Reader

I get a lot of email from readers asking about my MCAT strategy and I try to respond as often as I can. The last couple of months I haven’t had a lot of time, so if it’s taken me a while to get to your email or if I missed it, I apologize. Anyway, I got an email from a reader earlier today asking some questions about studying for the MCAT and I decided I would just post my reply here. The relevant parts from their email are in quotes.

First off I want to introduce myself, my name is <redacted> and I’m currently finishing a <redacted> program. I really enjoy reading your blog and congratulate you on your recent success (especially with the MCAT!).

Hi. Thanks for reading – I’m glad you like it.

I was hoping to ask you for your advice. I recently made the decision to push back my application until next year for various reasons. The main reason being, I felt like I was rushing my application and I still have yet to take the MCAT (my test is scheduled for May 30th). Right now my plan is to study for the MCAT as soon as my finals are over next week. I’m open to postponing my MCAT in the summer because I would really like a GREAT score especially since my undergrad GPA is not all that stellar (3.0). I wanted to ask you for your advice in terms of my study schedule.

I will make the assumption that you have completed all of the requisite courses by the time you start studying for the exam. If you haven’t taken all of the classes, then you should finish them all first. The folks on SDN commonly tell people that they don’t need to worry about some of them, namely second semester physics and organic chemistry, which I think is a big mistake. Don’t start studying for the exam until you’ve learned all the material. Reviewing for the MCAT should require very little in the way of learning new material.

If you were reading about 18 months ago, you’ll know that I postponed my application a year because I knew I wasn’t ready for the exam. I took two semesters of graduate biochemistry and a semester each of genetics and physiology then started studying for the MCAT again. World of difference.

In my opinion, postponing the exam for a year so that you can study sufficiently for it and have a score reported prior to application is of supreme importance. A lot of people seem to hurry to get their MCAT done and wind up with a lackluster score. Not a mistake that I would recommend people make. I can understand the impatience – I’ll be 35 when I apply to medical school. Again, this is just my opinion, but postponing a year can only help you and in the long run is worth it if it helps you get accepted the first time around. Application is a rough ordeal and it’s something I hope I only have to endure once.

My only other commitment starting after next week is my internship (12hrs/week). I’ve been working since I was 14 at my <redacted> and finally decided to let that go and dedicate myself fully to this test! Without classes and work this would leave me 5 days completely free to study during week (and maybe 4 hours each day the days I have my internship). I have at my disposal all the SN2ed books (as well as the PR science workbook). My Kaplan diagnostic (which i took last year) was a measly 18!!! :(. So i really need improvement. My question for you is what/how would you study in my situation?? I have read the forums in SDN and there are very few who go from 18 to a 35 or above (which is my goal). I’m willing to study during the summer and postpone too with the same time schedule as above.

Couple of thoughts:

  • There is a limit to how many hours a week you can legitimately study for the MCAT. People that say they study for 8 hours a day are not getting efficient work done and are probably only getting a couple of hours in per session. If any of that time is spent at a coffee shop, it’s probably less than that.
  • Also, you should completely purge your mind of that stupid Kaplan diagnostic test. First, it is beyond the scope and difficulty of the real thing by design. Since Kaplan markets their courses and materials as guaranteeing a particular score improvement, they give you a substantially harder exam in the beginning and then an easier one at the end, so that they can deliver on their promise. It’s made them one of the top MCAT prep companies, but that doesn’t do you any good.
  • Diagnostic tests are not just a waste of time, they are counterproductive. Since you haven’t reviewed at all yet, you should bomb the test. The problem then is that you’ll inevitably allow a miserable performance on that diagnostic test discourage you the entire time you’re studying. Put it out of your mind and do not think about. Don’t do practice full-length exams until you’ve finished your content review. I guarantee that if you do this and then, a month out from the real thing, start doing AAMC full-lengths, your scores will be great and you’ll start building confidence that last month. That’s how it worked for me and I heartily recommend it to just about everyone I know preparing for the exam.
  • I found that I could do about 3 hours a day during the week while I was working. The issue isn’t so much the quantity of time you spend, but the quality. People that are “studying” for many hours a day often spend the majority of their time reading. In my experience, this is a very low yield way to study for the MCAT.
  • The key to reviewing for the MCAT is in doing timed practice questions and passages. SDN actually gets it right on this one, although a lot of the people on that board can talk a good game. No question in my mind that the key to success is timed passages. This is the reason that I like the Berkeley Review so much – I attribute much of my success on the MCAT to the fact that I didn’t do a single untimed practice question for four months.
  • I think that a 30 is reachable for anyone – it’s largely a matter of understanding the basics well and having a decent handle on the timing. A 35 is a reach for most people, which is why I think it’s a great goal for people that are willing to work hard at it. I’ve known people that made a 40 or a 45 their goal, which is a huge mistake. Making an almost entirely unreasonable score their goal is guaranteed to discourage you and make studying impossible.
  • Once you have the material wired, the key to getting a 35 is timing and lots of practice. The MCAT does not really test content, although you do need to review it. The primary thing the MCAT seems to test is reasoning and this comes with practice. Learning to take the test and nailing the timing down is something that comes only by timed practice.

The reason I set such a high goal for myself is because after this quarter, I will finish with a 3.65 in my post bacc. Im thinking of taking 2 more classes next year to raise that to a 3.8.

I think a 35 is a fantastic score to use as a target and it is totally doable, but only if you study the right way. A lot of students set high scores, take a review class, and figure that will be sufficient. It isn’t and most of those people are the ones that wind up with lackluster scores. There are scores of people on SDN that do this and then complain about how the test is unreasonable. None of the people I’m aware of that score above a 35 on the exam get there with a prep class. It’s almost entirely done by crafting a schedule for themselves that accounts for their own strengths and weaknesses and then sticking to it. Also, as I’ve mentioned, the near universal comment I hear from students is doing timed practice passages was the key to doing well. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s completely true.

I really apologize for the long email. I’m sure you must be really busy with all your other commitments, so if you get the chance to provide your input/advice I would really appreciate it!

No problem. Couple other thoughts  To get your study schedule nailed down, here is what I would do:

  • Determine your test and count backwards however many months you think you need to study for the exam. If you don’t have a lot of other obligations, three months is pretty good. I worked full-time and did some other things, so I stretched it out to four months and studied a bit less per day.
  • Schedule break days frequently. No one maintains perfect focus and you need to have days you can look ahead to and know that you’ll have a day off coming up to relax.
  • You WILL fall behind – know that in the beginning and accept it. Do NOT think to use your break days to catch up. That type of thing can be seductive, but you’ll burn out and fall even further behind.
  • Be specific in your plan. I mean real specific – I wrote down which passages and sections I would do every day. Making a study schedule took me a full Saturday to get wired.
  • Save all the AAMC full-lengths for the last four weeks. That might sound crazy, but if you’re everything under rigorous timed conditions, you’ll take the first one and you’re timing will already be nailed.
  • Again, as I mentioned, you have to be doing passages and questions under timed conditions. If you aren’t, then you’re really putting yourself at a disadvantage.
  • The SDN study method really hits all the high points and if I were going to do it again, I’d do something very similar. I did not use the ‘hat trick’ technique for a couple of reasons: 1) I already integrate material together fairly well and 2) I had limited time.
  • Review of past material is crucial to improving and fixing the gaps. It’s easy to focus on reading the texts but that is too passive. You learn by doing passages, failing, then reviewing why you missed or didn’t miss questions. Active learning is harder, but high yield. Passive learning is much easier, but very low yield. That’s why so many students avoid active learning.

Anyway, hope this helps.

Alea Iacta Est

I apologize for my long absence the past few weeks. I’ve been working on the application for my committee letter and it’s taken the vast majority of my time over the past month. I probably put something like 150 hours into it since I started working on it in October.


For those that don’t know what a committee letter is, I’ll explain a little bit. Most large institutions, particularly those that are affiliated with a medical school (e.g., Duke University) have a committee that overseas advising and recommendations for the pre-health professions. Students are given the option to submit a single letter of recommendation from the committee in lieu of soliciting letters from individuals. This is important for a couple of reasons. First, a letter of recommendation from a committee can potentially carry more weight than individual letters because the perspective of the committee is likely to be more informed on how best to support an applicants candidacy. Another thing to keep in mind is that, if an applicant goes to an institution that offers a committee letter, but doesn’t attain one, that tends to raise some flags. Finally, the medical admissions world is not very big – gaining a committee letter from an institution that holds applicants to a high standard can set you apart. Of course, the opposite is also true. If you poison the well at your undergraduate or post-bacc institution, you’re probably screwed.

The institution I chose to do my post-bacc coursework at has a rather rigorous committee letter application process. Several months ago, I had to attend a seminar on the process and more or less sign up to start. The application consisted of a few dozen short essays about our life, goals, reasons for pursuing a career in medicine, and things like that. We also had to compile all of our grades, calculate yearly GPA, report scores, and all of that sort of thing. Essentially, the purpose is to force applicants to compile all of the necessary things for application prior to June, when AMCAS begins allowing applications to be submitted. A secondary purpose for all of the writing is to get students primed to work on their personal statements. I’ll start working on my personal statement next week, but I think that one of my essays will probably be the basis for it.

Once all of that stuff is finished, I’ll have a series of interviews to determine whether or not the committee will support my candidacy or not. If they choose to, I’ll have to submit my application before a certain date and then the committee chair will write a letter of recommendation from the committee, which will be uploaded to AMCAS.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, right out of high school I was an awful student and had a terrible GPA. It wasn’t until a couple of days ago that I put all my grades together and figured out what my stats looked like. It turns out that my overall GPA is a 3.254 with an overall science GPA of 3.475. The picture improves quite a bit, when I look at my post-bacc grades: an overall GPA of 3.842 and a science GPA of 3.802. I have no idea how schools are going to look at this – hopefully they have the sense to see that I didn’t get serious about college until 2003 and that I’m actually serious about what I do today.

Caesar Crossing the Rubicon, from “Figures de L’Historie de la Republique Romaine

I’m set to start finalizing the list of schools that I’m going to be applying to. The Doctor Lady and I have had a lot of discussion on it and she’s gotten a lot more comfortable with some uncertainty about the future. I’m tired of being apart from her. I’m applying exclusively to MD / PhD programs and will probably pick around 15 schools – hopefully my lackluster GPA doesn’t hit the adcom too hard.

It’s interesting – writing nonstop for the past few weeks about my interests and goals in medicine has really helped me articulate it better. Things have come into focus for me a lot more than they would have been a couple of months ago. This is another of those hurdles along the way I suppose – it was an interesting experience, but I’m glad that all the writing is done.

My research project that I’ve been working on took a serious backseat about a month ago, so it’s time to dust it off and get back to work on it. Tonight though, I think I’ll crack a beer, cook up a steak, and play some Skyrim.

Oh. To all of you that helped me review my essays and writing, thanks so much. Couldn’t have done it wihout your help and I know you helped me improve a lot of things. Hopefully I did a decent enough job on it to convince the committee to strongly support my application. I’m going to try not to let myself get too worked up between now and my interview, since there isn’t much more I can do.

Death by a Thousand Deadlines

My committee letter application for my post-bacc institution is due this Friday at 5:00 PM.  I was chatting with a buddy of mine earlier tonight and told him how much work I still had left to do on my application and he mentioned how he hated deadlines.  I started to realize that, among the many things I have to look forward to, meeting deadlines is going to characterize the next ten years of my life.  There are deadlines for application.  Deadlines for secondaries.  Deadlines for deciding on where to go if I’m accepted.  Deadlines for everything in graduate school, I’m sure.  Deadlines.  Deadlines.  Deadlines.

I’m glad I see this now and have started learning how to be organized, otherwise I’ll be going insane a few years from now.

Deep in the Throes of Application

I apologize for being so infrequent the last couple of months – I really do appreciate the few of you that keep checking in to see what’s going on in my quest for admission.  Also, given that I’m getting a ton of redirections from the MCAT study forum on SDN, I’d like to say hello to all those of you that have discovered me lately.  Best of luck on your exams!

My committee letter application is due in another week and a half and, while I’ve been working on these essays and the rest of the application for a while, I’m nowhere near close to the end.  This means that I need to leave perfectionism at the door and just focus on getting things done first and then reviewing them later.  I also checked out my first year college GPA…it wasn’t pretty.  My first semester right out of high school I got a 2.56 and the second semester I wound up with a 1.71.  Like a boss.  Luckily, one of my essays asks about my first year of college and what I learned, so I can totally throw myself under the bus and talk about how I’m completely different today (which is true).  Hopefully, medical schools are much more interested in my recent work than in the past.  Not sure how my total GPA is going to look at the end – I seem to remember getting a B- in senior quantum mechanics and I bombed linear algebra.

…and now I just got myself worked up into a fright about my grades and academic record, not to mention that I feel inadequate about every other aspect of my application.  Lovely.  I’ve already begun to hate application season.  And it hasn’t even started yet.