Dr. Michael Harrell, an ophthalmology resident, talks about ophthalmology, landing an ophthalmology residency, and med school & residency admissions.
- [01:29] Michael’s Education and Why He Chose Ophthalmology
- [08:21] How to Prepare for a Career in Ophthalmology
- [10:43] Writing a Good Residency/Medical School Application
- [15:31] What to Avoid in a Residency/Medical School Application
- [18:14] How COVID-19 Impacts Admissions Processes
- [22:17] How to Deal with Setbacks and Rejection
- [26:34] The SNMA and NMA
Dr. Michael Harrell is an ophthalmology resident at the Boston Medical Center at Boston University. He is also on the admissions committee for the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and is involved in residency admissions and admissions for a pathway program for matriculating from college to medical school directly. He shares why he chose ophthalmology, how to prepare for a career in ophthalmology, tips for writing medical school and residency applications, as well as his leadership experiences in the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) and the National Medical Association (NMA).
Dr. Harrell earned his MD at BUSM, under scholarship from the Navy, and was later deployed to Europe. He has since left active duty, and is engaged in ophthalmology training at BU. He fell in love with ophthalmology due its variety. According to Michael, if you talk to three different ophthalmologists about their day, each would give a completely different answer. He also enjoys the instant gratification that ophthalmological surgery brings. Many eye surgeries yield results in a very short time span. He fondly recalls doing eye muscle surgery on a teenage patient with double vision, and witnessing the patient’s ability to see clearly for the first time in their life. In terms of lifestyle, ophthalmology has high satisfaction ratings and few emergencies.
Launching a Career in Ophthalmology
Ophthalmology does not often come up in medical school, and requires that interested students take initiative and look for opportunities on their own. If you know early on that you want to pursue ophthalmology, be sure to strategically plan electives and rotations. Apart from standard ophthalmology clinical rotations, Dr. Harrell recalls doing his Quality Improvement rotation with an ophthalmologist, and also presenting his final project for his neonatal intensive care rotation on retinopathy of prematurity. Like Dr. Harrell, students can creatively and persistently structure their experiences to do more ophthalmology. Your volunteering, clinical rotation or research plans may have been impacted by COVID-19, but Michael emphasizes that there are so many ways to continue to engage, for example through virtual programs, webinars, and Zoom calls.
Tips for Medical School and Residency Applications
Having spent time participating in residency and medical school admissions teams, Dr. Harrell has several key tips for students. First of all, have strong letters of recommendation, which should exceed the required number. These letters should not include lots of “fluff” but should be glowing and substantive. The letter should reflect that this person knows you and has worked with you in a clinical, research or community setting. It should convey that the recommender would like for you to someday be their colleague, or that they would trust you with difficult and crucial tasks.
Besides strong letters of recommendation, a good application should include activities outside of medicine that are truly meaningful to you such as community service, or being in a leadership position. Do not include activities just for the sake of the application, but demonstrate that you are truly invested in the activity. It is better to have one strong extracurricular, than ten bland extracurriculars. To illustrate, Dr. Harrell was actively involved in the Student National Medical Association, which organizes and supports black and underrepresented medical students. He describes first attending an SNMA conference as a medical student at BUSM, and then purposefully working his way through the ranks because he was passionate about the cause and wanted to have a voice. Through Michael’s involvement in the SNMA, he discovered his passion for organized government and learnt how to fundraise, run a nonprofit and engage in corporate development.
In terms of what to avoid on an application, Dr. Harrell cautions against dishonesty. Additionally, if there is anything unfavorable on your application, be upfront about it, take responsibility, and demonstrate that you have matured.
How to Handle a Rejected Application
If your residency or medical school application gets rejected, then there are three things that you could do:
- Give up
- Keep trying
The worst option is to give up. The program that you are pursuing might not be the best fit for you, in which case pivoting might be a viable option. On the other hand, after speaking to your support system, which includes mentors, family and friends, you might choose to keep trying. Everyone has setbacks, so it is important to be able to quickly recover and to get back on track.