April 26, 2010

Mission M.D.

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I can spot a Cornell pre-med from a mile away. They trudge across campus with a constant black cloud hanging above their head, chugging Seattle’s Best with one hand and gripping the stylishly orange and white Paula Yurkanis Bruice Organic Chemistry textbook with the other hand. You know the type well: Social activities revolve around prelim schedules; campus involvement is jam-packed with scientific research and clinical volunteering; and “oh man, I’m screwed” becomes an acceptable form of “hey, how’s it going?”

The cycle repeats itself semester after semester. After 8-cycles of grueling laboratories, science classes with 30-something exam averages, hours of research and volunteer work and one big monster of a standardized test, pre-meds at Cornell face one final hurdle: applying to medical school.

When I applied to medical school last June, I was nervous of not making it. As Cornellians, we’re trained to think of the worst-case scenario as Plan A and the ideal scenario as Plan B. What would I do with a degree in biology? I let my mind wander. I wanted to become a physician and I wanted to start that career path as soon as possible — that was my ideal scenario; that much I knew. I also knew the sinking feeling in my stomach when I opened up U.S. News & World Report and stared blankly at acceptance rates. Weill-Cornell? 4.5 percent admitted. Georgetown? 3.1 percent admitted. Stanford and Mayo Clinic? Let’s do ourselves a favor and not go there. Undergraduate admission suddenly didn’t look as selective as it once did to my then 17-year-old eyes; even Harvard College accepts three times the number of people as the Georgetown School of Medicine does.

During the application cycle that just recently came to a close for me, I’ve had conversations with nervous, nail-biting pre-meds at various stages of their journey towards a career in medicine. These conversations ranged from stats to activities, interview questions and the hypothetical “ideal applicant.” To alleviate their concerns (and those of all the pre-meds at Cornell), here are the five major things I learned when applying to medical school.

1. Apply early. Every flyer, advisor and former applicant approves this message. Really. Do it. Submit that primary in June and complete a secondary every 1-2 days. An earlier completion date equates to an earlier spot in the queue which equates to an earlier interview invite which … well, you get the point. By the end of the summer, not only should you have your credit card number memorized, but you should also be completely finished with sending in applications.

2. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. One “application cycle” lasts from the summer before matriculation until the summer of matriculation. That’s one full-year of writing application essays, waiting for interview invites, traveling to interviews, interviewing, waiting for a post-interview decision and, as the case may be, writing letters of intent and waiting for waiting-list decisions. That’s a lot of writing and waiting (not to mention driving!) on top of being a full-time student. Don’t make the time pass any slower by stressing out over misplaced commas or misspelled words in essays after you’ve clicked “submit.” One simple mistake on a secondary application will not cost you an interview invite. You’re human. Don’t ruminate over interview responses that could have been slightly better-said. The interviewer knows you’re on-edge. Instead, learn from each typo and each interview slip. As the process continues, you’ll grow stronger and more confident.

3. Be honest with yourself. We’ve spent the last three (or four) years scrambling to fill our minds with reactions, formulas and delta-somethings — going through every possible exception to some big shot’s theory in preparation for the most heinous of prelims. Why are we doing all this? The answer involves a tired, hopeless “if I don’t do well I won’t get into medical school.” Well, why do we want to pursue a career in medicine? This is a standard question you’ll be answering in 5300-characters on paper and in a minute-long sound bite during an interview. It’s alright if you have to sort out your goals, motivations and reasons behind the “Why…?” as you’ve likely never been asked. In fact, it’s almost better that you don’t have an answer. Entering a field as complex as health care requires a lot of thought and introspection. After all, you’ll be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an education in the years to come.

4. Relax in the interview. On the “interview trail,” I’ve seen so many jittery hands and bleak looks as applicants waited to be called for their formal interview. Even though an invitation to interview means the school already has a major crush on you, they don’t want to propose marriage until they meet you in person. Seems legit, right? While simple in theory, this part of the process provokes the most anxiety among applicants as it is made up of factors that are completely out of their control. Think about it — an accomplished physician or Ph.D. who you don’t know is interviewing you. What if the interviewer is having a bad day or, in some cases, a bad career? What if this school is known for giving “stress interviews?” As mysterious as the situation seems to you, an interview is nothing more than a dialogue between two individuals; you won’t be the only person talking, and your interviewer won’t be the only person listening. So, practice, practice, practice. By “practice,” I don’t mean rehearsing your responses to common questions. You’ll sound robotic. I mean practice by starting to talk more, starting to (actively) listen more and, of course, starting to learn how to smile for 30-minutes at a time. You’ll be surprised how pleasant and conversational interviews tend to be.

5. You’re in good hands. Cornell is well-versed in the medical school application process. The hard-working faculty and staff that make up the Health Careers Evaluation Committee (HCEC) were sending people to medical school since before any of us were alive. Trust that they have your best interests at heart.

So, relax. You’re not screwed. Take your cup of Seattle’s Best outside, sit on the quad, ponder “why medicine,” practice smiling (and listening and talking) and breathe deeply — inward through your nose for 6 seconds, hold for 3 seconds and outward through your mouth for 12 seconds (scientifically proven to have a calming effect!). Take pride in the fact that you’ve made it this far; not only do you have the ability to succeed, but you will succeed.

Original Author: Marc Halperin