By Jon Ek MD
When it comes to making yourself memorable and interesting to a medical admissions committee, it is all about how you tell your story. By the time people are reading your essay or interviewing you, you have already made the cattle call of prospective doctors–your GPA and MCAT scores are in the acceptable mass of students wanting to get into med school. So how does anyone–especially someone in the middle or lower end of scores–make themselves stand out?
The typical admissions essay is conservatively written and often boring to those reading similar essays over and over . . . I volunteered at this nursing home, I worked in this research lab, I really want to help people . . . all good things, but nothing memorable. What stands out is an interesting personal story.
The essay that got me interviews did not start with “I did research at the Arctic Studies Center in Canada, I enjoyed the valuable experience of working with research scientists.”. Rather, I painted a picture of standing in the frosty air on the roof of the lab, watching the Aurora Borealis as polar bears wrestled in the distance. I described the excitement preparing to go on the tundra with wildlife biologists and study the bears–then I connected it to metabolic studies that could be applied to humans, and my personal interest in clinical research. When I went to interview, they would say “Hey, you’re the polar bear guy!”. They remembered me from the interesting story I told.
The interview is an excellent opportunity to make yourself memorable. Once you are face to face with an interviewer, the scores on the paper are less important. If you can capture someones interest in that moment, the impression can carry weight beyond mediocre numbers. A common question asked is, What do you like to do outside of school work? What they really want to know is, who are you? Everyone interviewing is an overachiever, everyone has done the extra studying, the volunteer work, the expected extracurriculars. How can you stand out?
When I interviewed, I did not say “I like to exercise, I recently ran a marathon.”. I explained how at one point I was a non-exercising cigarette smoker. I felt miserable physically, and decided to make a change. I started jogging, and it changed my life. I stopped smoking and immediately felt better. I discovered self-discipline by running daily and increasing my mileage. I entered a 5k and then a 10k race. I set my vision on completing a marathon, and worked hard for months to extend my mileage. I wasn’t sure if I would make it, but I completed my goal and had a life-altering experience. Working hard on a daily basis, and pushing my body and my mind to the limit, I learned much about myself. I learned about inner-strength, but I also learned I was not unique. I gained an experience to share with others. One of the physicians who interviewed me chatted about running for an hour, and said he was inspired to train for a marathon himself. Do you think he remembered me at the admissions committee?
The interviews I’ve held that are most memorable are those with intriguing stories. The student with polycystic kidney disease, who instead of succumbing to self-pity, joined a research lab. He talked about his passion to conduct clinical research on the condition that had taken the lives of his family members, and the awareness that his own clock was ticking. Or the older student who revealed being homeless for 2 years before entering college. He talked about riding trains and eating in soup kitchens. He said it allowed him to have a connection with all types of people. He relayed a gripping tale of working as a cook while staying at the Salvation Army, and getting into junior college. He earned straight A’s and transfer to a university. He wanted to help with the suffering he had seen in the world. He used homelessness as a story of perseverance, strength, and compassion for others; and I remember his story to this day.
Again it is not necessarily the specifics of your story but how you tell it. If you volunteered at a nursing home, tell about the time you spent with the 30 year old man in a wheelchair from a head injury. How he had a 3 foot straw for his drink because he was a quadrapelegic. How the drawings on his walls were fading from a family who rarely visited. Describe how you decided to visit him weekly, and it taught you how to be grateful for life, how to understand that not everything can be cured, but compassion and respect can allow a person to live with dignity. This creates a memorable picture of who you are, and allows you to stand out from the other applicants.