Med school application: tips from a former Yale Med admissions committee member

medical school admissions strategy writing
By Mary S.

What do medical school admissions committees look for? How can an applicant truly stand out? Below are tips with specific examples on how to craft a successful application from an insider’s perspective. 

Your story

This is one of the most, if not the most, important aspect of a medical school application. It is also one of the best ways an applicant can stand out from others who have similar scores, grades and extracurriculars.

What does it mean to have a story? It means to put together a coherent narrative about who you are, what matters to you and how you arrived at where you are today. No one starts at the same place and some applicants have extraordinary backgrounds and experiences that make them who they are and as a result, a more attractive candidate because they can bring a unique perspective to the class. Here is an example of a unique story:

Jessica grew up homeless and lived in various shelters with her family. From a young age, she witnessed the detrimental effects of food insecurity and homelessness on mental health. Through helping a close friend from the shelter battle substance abuse, Jessica witnessed the “revolving door” of a broken behavioral health system in which society’s most vulnerable cycle through streets, hospitals, prison and back again. Determined to not let these individuals fall through the cracks, Jessica began helping out at a substance abuse treatment center, where she ultimately became inspired to become a physician specializing in mental health and addiction medicine.

As a former admissions committee member, I have had the privilege of meeting individuals like Jessica who have overcome immense odds and challenges to be where they are today.   

However, if you are like a large proportion of applicants and have never faced significant adversity in life, do not despair! You are NOT at a disadvantage in the application process just because you have been lucky enough to not have to face major hardships. If you fall into this category, I recommend focusing your story on “why medicine”. In fact, this is a question for which EVERYONE should have a well-thought-out answer. The key to formulating a compelling “why medicine” story is to use your ENTIRE application—from extracurriculars and personal statement to letters of recommendation. Here is an example:

Markus grew up in an academic family and caught the “science bug” early; he had wanted to be a scientist until college, when he volunteered and shadowed at a local cancer hospital. There, he witnessed the arduous journey of transplant patients, the detrimental effects of chemotherapy and the current knowledge gaps in treatment. Inspired, he joined a lab studying new therapeutics for CLL. While his work culminated in a Nature paper and a patent, pursuing science alone never truly fulfilled him. Markus started a leukemia awareness group on campus, raising money to help those who could not afford treatment and leading campus-wide Be The Match events, ultimately enrolling thousands of students into the Bone Marrow Registry each year.

As you can see here, the major ECs that Markus participated in helped shape a compelling “Why Medicine” story. If your ECs seem unrelated or disparate at first glance, do not stress. It is also ok and to be expected if not all ECs can be woven into this overarching narrative. Putting this all together is no small task and requires intensive introspection. I recommend starting early and bouncing ideas off of friends, family and teachers/mentors. Take time to think about how you can connect some of your activities into your own Why Medicine story. The admissions committee likes to look for supporting evidence. Make it easy for them by having a theme. 

Extracurricular activities and hobbies

Aside from ensuring that your ECs are crafted as supporting evidence for your story, it is also important to be tactical about how you write this section. You are given very limited characters so keep it concise. Provide specific examples. For instance, do not just say that you tutored underclassmen in organic chemistry. Instead, provide examples of how you helped them succeed—did you help boost their final grade, help them pass the class, inspire a new love of the subject? Be specific. 

Something that many premeds put on the back burner is the hobbies section. EVERY single application MUST have a hobbies section. This is where you can stand out and make yourself more well-rounded and personable. Often times, this section is what we use as conversation starters for the interview. 

Your advocates

The LORs are another key way to help you stand out. They are an extremely important part of your application, and while almost no one writes anything negative in a recommendation letter, it is very easy for the admissions committee to read between the lines and pick up on nuances to determine how truly excited this recommender is about the applicant’s potential. Therefore, pick wisely.

After you’ve picked your letter writers, I would write down a list of characteristics, skills and attributes you would like for them to emphasize. When you hand them your resume/personal statement/application, I would also ask them to highlight 2-3 of these key points in their letter. Distribute these key points among the letter writers so that your letters can highlight various characteristics/skills and make you appear more well-rounded. 

I recommend having at least one person who you would feel comfortable making phone calls for you to the medical school. This is a common move in residency applications but is not unheard of during medical school admissions and can help an applicant get another look or tip her/him into the accept pile. This is a tactic you must employ wisely and sparingly. Use them only under two circumstances: 1) It is mid interview season and you really want an interview at X school but have not received it. You can ask a mentor to reach out. 2) After interview and before acceptances are sent out, feel free to have a mentor reach out to your #1 choice ONLY.  

Do not ask mentors to reach out to multiple schools because medicine is a smaller world than you think and institutions most definitely talk. 

There are obviously many aspects to a successful medical school application. The above are the three most important gleaned from my personal experience as an applicant, medical student and finally an admissions committee member.

Mary is a resident physician in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and an incoming Stanford dermatology resident. She received her MD degree from Yale School of Medicine and her BS in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology from Yale University.

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