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.

dice_wooden

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.

Advertisements

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.

A Quick Update

It’s been so long since I posted, so I just wanted to let everyone know that I’m still alive.  I’ve just been insanely busy.  A major project at work decided to bite like a cobra, so I’ve been on the road a decent amount and have been working crazy hours for the past couple of months.  I’m also deep in work on my committee letter application and, by extension, my medical school application.  I’m trying to put in an hour or two a night writing essays, but I’m not necessarily getting that in every night.  I have another 7 weeks before my committee letter applictaion is due, then I can start working on assembly my personal statement.  One of the essays I’ve been asked to write is probably going to morph into my personal statement I think.

I’m still working on that research project with a local physician and I’m hoping to have a draft ready by the end of February.  Quite a steep learning curve figuring out some of the statistics.  SAS / JMP works really well, once you know what to ask it for.  If you don’t, then you can stare at the screen for a while and not have a clue.  Luckily, the doctor I’m working with is really knowledgeable of statistics and very patient.

Anyway, hope you all are well.  I check in here every day and I can see that, from my search summary, a lot of visitors are getting started studying for the MCAT.  Best of luck to you all.  I’m also better about checking email these days.  Thanks again for reading guys.  It’s nice to know others are out there swimming against the current as well.

And now, back to work.

An Update on the School Search

Hi everyone – hope you all had a great holiday. Happy Thanksgiving!

I’ve spent the majority of the past 3-4 days researching schools and have whittled the list down to these.  I don’t think I could give numerical ranks to them, so I’ve grouped them into three different tiers.  Some of you have contacted me through email or have left comments and I really appreciate it.  Location is sort of a big deal for me, so if any of you have lived in any of these cities, I’d love to hear what your experience has been.  Here they are in no particular order.

Top Tier:

Stanford University School of Medicine
University of Colorado School of Medicine
University of Washington School of Medicine
University of Minnesota Medical School
Duke University School of Medicine
Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine

Middle:

University of Michigan Medical School
Mayo Medical School
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine
University of Virginia School of Medicine
Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth
Baylor College of Medicine

Bottom:

University of Arizona College of Medicine
University of Kansas School of Medicine
University of Nebraska College of Medicine
University of Utah School of Medicine
Medical College of Wisconsin
Yale University School of Medicine

Thoughts on Schools

Hey everyone.  Hope you guys are all well.

I’ve started down the path to selecting medical schools to apply to and I figured that I had winnowed the list to a thin enough crew to warrant asking for some of your thoughts on schools.  I don’t know a lot of people in the non-blogosphere that go to any of these schools, so I’m hoping you guys can give me some additional insight.

The initial criteria for me is location – if I’m going to live in one location for 7-8 years, it needs to be someplace where I’m not going to go crazy.  I’m not going to live in a tiny 1 bedroom apartment deep in the heart of NYC and I have no plan on living in the deep south.  The Dr. Lady, who has a heavy influence here, has helped me reduce the list of places to apply to the following locations:

Stanford University
University of Colorado
Loyola University
Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine
University of Kansas
University of Michigan
University of Minnesota
Mayo Medical School
Creighton University
University of Nebraska
Darthmouth (she is really not a fan of this one)
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
Duke University
Oregon Health Sciences
Meharry Medical College
Vanderbilt University
University of Utah
Baylor College of Medicine
University of Vermont
University of Washington
Medical College of Wisconsin
University of Wisconsin

I’m strongly considering a dual MD / PhD degree and I would really like to wind up working in academia after I’m finished with everything. I’d really appreciate your thoughts on these locations. Some of these places I’m familiar with, but others are a complete mystery to me. Dartmouth, Duke University, and Vanderbilt are all places that look to have fine academic programs, but I have no idea what life is like there. What do you guys think?

Thoughts on Preparing for the MCAT

I apologize that it’s taken me this long to get a post up on how I studied for the MCAT. I’ve been really busy with work lately and, to be perfectly frank, I’ve more or less forgotten about the MCAT entirely.  Although, last night I did have a nightmare that there was a second entrance exam for medical school that I didn’t know about. The weird thing was that it consisted of fighting vampires and lycans, along with a substantial amount of platforming. I’m not going to lie – I’ve been playing a lot of Castlevania and Deus Ex on my Playstation over the past few months.

As much fun as all of that is, I want to lay out my thoughts on preparing for the MCAT for several reasons. First, I feel somewhat obligated to all those that came before me for sharing their thoughts and experience. In particular, I really should single out the long-running thread on SDN which provided me with the framework I used to structure my study time. Second, I’d like to help others that are going to be taking the exam and hopefully help them avoid some of the mistakes that I see a lot of students make. Finally, one of the things I hope to do is encourage those of you out there that haven’t put the exam in the rearview yet. One of the things that I learned about the MCAT, or studying for any professional school exam for that long, is the huge emotional roller coaster you’ll be on. I’ve got some thoughts on this at the end.

With all that said, let’s dive in. Let me qualify my remarks here a bit – most of this is really oriented for people that will be taking the exam in its current format. The MCAT is scheduled to undergo a major overhaul in a couple of years, so if you aren’t taking it for 3-4 years, not all of what I have to say will be directly applicable to you.

First, some general advice on how to be successful on the exam:

  • Focus on learning the material in the classes. This probably gets mentioned (and ignored) more than any other piece of advice, but it is absolutely true. The worst thing you can do for yourself is obsess about your grade and not learn the material. There will undoubtedly be a couple of topics that you need to learn from scratch for the exam, but if you don’t know anything about physiology and want to prepare for the exam, you have some hard yards ahead of you.
  • Don’t start reviewing for the MCAT until you have taken all the prerequisite material. This is really just a restatement of my earlier comment, but it gets all the time by premeds. There are people that do it, but I suspect that they are less than satisfied with their MCAT scores.
  • Do not take the MCAT until you know you can and will be ready to take it. I have personal experience with this – two summers ago, I was studying for the exam and after about 10 weeks started realizing that I wasn’t read and was having to learn a lot of new material. I concluded that I really needed some time to fill in the holes, so I took a year long graduate biochemistry sequence and a semester each of physiology and genetics. It set my application back by a year, but there is no doubt in my mind that my score on the MCAT was all the better for it.
  • Do not get impatient and decide to take the exam earlier than when you will be ready. A bunch of my classmates did this and wound up with mediocre scores because of it. In one case, a friend of mine scored something in the mid-20s and it completely derailed his application.
  • Do not adopt the attitude of “I’ll take it to see how I do”. MD schools see all of your attempts, so don’t be a fool here. One shot. One kill.

Here’s my opinion on prep courses.

  • They are expensive and, in my opinion, often give students a false sense of preparedness. A lot of students I’ve seen take a prep course during the spring and prepare to sit the exam thinking they are ready when in reality they are not.
  • They force a schedule upon you which may or may not be beneficial. A prep course for me would have been a huge waste of time because it would have spent ages in physics and molecular biology, none of which would have been necessary for me. In hindsight, I could have probably reviewed MCAT physics in a few sessions. On the other hand, I really needed to spend a couple of days on electrochemistry because it was something I had never covered. Prep courses typically do not have the flexibility to do that sort of thing.
  • For some people, particularly those that are not able to rigorously stick to a review schedule, prep courses may make sense. If you cannot discipline yourself to study and review at the appropriate time, a prep course might help you out.
  • One final thought on prep courses. If you take one and it helps you review, that’s great. But it’s only part of the game. You have to do practice exams under actual exam conditions. There were people I knew that showed up to take the exam with me and I was shocked how many of them took a prep course and had only done one practice exam. Unwise.

Now onto prep material. As I mentioned a while ago, I don’t think that the material is really the determinant for doing well. I believe practicing questions under timed conditions and heavy review is the key to success. That said, here are my thoughts on the different review systems out there:

  • Kaplan – Their subject review material is absolutely terrible and riddled with errors. I’ve heard that the material available in their classes is better, but I’ve not seen those. Also, their ‘MCAT in a Box’ is a giant waste of money.
  • Princeton Review – Didn’t use any of this, although their Hyperlearning series is rather legendary from what I have heard.
  • ExamKrackers – I felt their content review was rather cursory and I found myself constantly needing to supplement it, particularly with their chemistry section.  Their verbal review book was fantastic and, as much as I hate to admit it, their Audio Osmosis series helped tremendously with knowing the things which were going to be covered on the exam and what I could safely ignore.
  • The Berkeley Review – Hands down the best review materials I used. The format of their passages is really well suited to timing and learning to think the way the MCAT requires. I will say that their material is far over the top – if you use the Berkeley Review, do not let it get you discouraged when you wind up missing half the questions on practice passages.  I attribute my success on the exam in no small part to the fact that I got hammered on a regular basis by the passages in those books, particularly the biology book.

Now we get to the meat of how to make a study schedule and stick to it. As I mentioned, I heavily leveraged what was recommended on SDN, so if you want more details, check it out there.

  • Register for the exam and know when and what date you will be taking it.
  • Figure out how much time you have to devote to the exam. 3 months is very aggressive if you have a full-time job or other responsibilities. 4 months of studying worked well for me but you need to schedule a lot of break days, or you will get burnt to a cinder. I was ready to be done after about 10 weeks or so. People that talk about hardcore studying for 6 months are lying. Anything more than 4 months and you’re going to be a crispy critter come exam day.
  • Set a tangible and realistic goal for yourself. Some people set their goal to be a 40 or a 45. To me, this is foolish. Something like only 8 people out of 1000 score over a 40 and no one gets a 45. My goal was a 35 and I would have been pleased if I’d wound up with a 34, but a little disappointed. Happily, as it turned out, that didn’t happen. Make sure that your goal is realistic, but not something you’ll be devastated by if you miss it by a point or two.
  • Count backwards about 4 weeks and schedule the 8 practice AAMC exams, leaving at least two days in between to review the exam and do practice questions as review. Also, make sure to schedule a day off every week or so – for me, burnout set in after about 12 weeks and I really needed time to unwind occasionally, or I was going to go crazy.
  • Count backwards another 3 months and fill in your study schedule. I found that doing the practice exams after the review was far more beneficial than doing them once my content review was complete. Not everyone does it this way, but it worked for me.
  • Don’t let the exam consume you.  You could literally spend the rest of your life studying the concepts tested on the MCAT.  Anyone that thinks they understand all of this stuff completely is kidding themselves.
  • A lot of people, after the fact, will look back and say “I really shouldn’t have worried about it so much” or “Put the MCAT in perspective”.  I think that’s a bunch of crap because for 3-4 months of your life, it really needs to be the most important thing under the sun.  That’s a crappy deal, I know, and yeah, it isn’t the only part of your application.  But let’s face it – schools screen based in large part on your MCAT score.  I’m not going to say “I shouldn’t have worried about it so much” now.  I crushed the MCAT mostly because I DID worry about it so much.  I didn’t ride my bike for 4 months.  I didn’t get to hang out with friends much during that time either.  I’m not saying you should live like a monk or anything like that – I drank my share of beer and played a lot of Oblivion – but if you want to give yourself the best chance to do well on the thing, don’t listen to anyone telling you to relax or not worry about the MCAT.  I know lots of people that weren’t worried about their MCAT performance.  I did a lot better than they did.

For studying, I would set a 50 minute timer and focus on getting good work done. After 50 minutes, I would take a 10 minute break, check my email, talk to the Dr. Lady, and get something to eat or drink. Then I’d go back and repeat. I found that studying at the office after everyone had left to be very effective. The only times I went to the coffee shop were when I wanted coffee. There were people there with their MCAT books and I marvel that they were able to get anything done.

Once you’ve gotten started, understand that, regardless of the time you set aside, you will fall behind. You have to keep going. As you start doing more passages and reviewing them, particularly if you adopt a cyclical approach to studying, you will find that you wind up filling in a lot of holes, so don’t get hung up on getting every problem worked or every detail figured out.

If you want more detail on how I actually studied, as in the day-to-day work, check out the SDN post on MCAT studying or feel free to ask in the comments or in an email.

The emotional part of the process is what I really wanted to talk about. I was unprepared for the constant ups and downs of the process. I remember missing questions, not understanding a particular concept, or making mistakes and I realize now that I let it negatively affect me when it came to working passages or taking the practice exams. Probably one of the most important things to learn is confidence and it only comes with time. This is part of the reason why I recommend against practice exams prior to review or a ‘diagnostic exam’. The last thing you want the day of the exam is to be thinking about all the questions you missed or the mistakes you made on practice exams.

I had planned to write a lot more about my thoughts on preparing for the exam, but ultimately I think each person needs to tailor something that will work for them. I was pleased with the approach that I took and how the results turned out.

On a personal note, I really need to say thanks to a few people.  First, the Dr. Lady.  She help me keep going when I scored below the multiple guess rate on a set of biology passages (yes, the Berkeley Review is that hard) and reminded me of good performances when I needed to hear it.  My buddy Little Ben for making sure we got together for a beer once every month or so, lest I forget that life exists outside of the exam.  And lastly, I really need to say thanks to all of you guys for the encouragement over the past year.  Knowing that all of you were waiting for practice exam results made it a lot easier to struggle through all those practice passages.  Hopefully, the application cycle will work out alright and I’ll find myself looking back with another milestone in my rearview.  Thanks!