Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Freefall – Applying to Medical School

Luke Burns

For my eighteenth birthday, my sister bought me a voucher to go skydiving. I remember sitting in the tiny airplane as it rose into the sky, feeling the distance between myself and the ground steadily growing. I tried my best to recall everything from the brief training video I had watched just minutes before, but in truth I felt utterly unprepared. When the door opened I shielded my eyes and squinted, desperately hunting for a glimpse of my family standing somewhere in the expanse below. But apart from the taciturn instructor strapped to my back and the strangers lining up to jump behind me, I was utterly alone. When the signal came, I grasped the frame of the door, leaned out and leapt into the abyss.

A few years later, as I sat in front of my computer and hit that ‘submit’ button on my AMCAS application, I couldn’t help but feel a strange sense of déjà vu. With what felt like minimal preparation, in the company of strangers and with my family supporting me silently from the sidelines, I leapt into my application year and waited, terrified, for my parachute to deploy.

Many of you may be experiencing your own freefall right now, except instead of an exhilarating 60-second drop, the journey will likely take almost an entire year. Should you have retaken the MCAT? Was there a hidden typo in your personal statement? Will they notice that one bad grade from your first semester? It’s easy to be consumed by these fears, to be anxious over your application and pour over every detail as you sit and wait for news.

The best course of action is to not sit and wait. While those just finishing college will already find themselves busy, many will just now be embarking on their ‘glide’ year (sometimes called a gap year), a year or few years after college when almost anything can happen. This is a perfect time to pick up some extra classes, earn some money or continue volunteer, research or shadowing activities. The important thing here is stay busy. Many medical schools provide space in their secondaries for you to describe how you have been spending your time since finishing college, and this topic came up in every single one of my interviews. It’s hard to fill these blank lines and answer these blank stares when you have nothing to talk about. Later in your glide year, you may also wish to send periodic ‘update’ letters to medical schools. Having plenty to say makes these emails much more effective and easier to write. Your glide year is also an excellent time to be creative. Is there a volunteer project you have always wanted to create, or a leadership position you never had time to fill? Without the pressure of MCAT preparation or science courses, you finally have the free time to pursue these goals.

Your glide year should not, however, only be about enhancing your resume. This is one of your last opportunities to do the things and see the people you love. Twenty-four hours after completing my MCAT I was on a bus in Guatemala with my best friend from high school, with thoughts of medical school and my application hundreds of miles away. I allowed myself a few weeks of respite before returning back to the US and an inbox steadily filling up with secondaries.

Of course, at some point these secondaries do need to be tackled, and it is important that you treat them with the gravity they demand. Within days of submitting your AMCAS application, you will be inundated with emails from medical schools asking for even more information. There is no way of getting past this: writing secondaries is a full-time job. While it is true that many prompts resemble each other and certain themes repeat themselves, slightly different wording and varying character lengths mean that simply cutting and pasting is often out of the question. Instead, learn to identify which of your common ‘themes’ you should employ for each prompt. For example, is the admissions committee looking for your ‘diversity’ essay, or for your inspiration for medicine? Do they want to hear about your service to your community or your plans for the future? Most prompts will be based around one of six or seven common themes. Mark down which anecdotes and experiences you use in each case and reuse them when different medical schools ask for similar answers.

Staying organized during this time is also important. I have friends who searched online for medical school secondary prompts even before their applications were verified, allowing them to pre-write their responses. When they actually received the secondaries they could respond and turn them around within a few days. As you have probably heard before, when it comes to applying to medical school, earlier is almost always better. While these students will certainly have an advantage, the general rule of thumb for returning a completed secondary is within two weeks of receiving it. Keep an Excel spreadsheet that tracks when you received each secondary. This will allow you to prioritize responses and keep track of time.

In a few days I will begin medical school and my glide year will officially end. As I reflect back on the past twelve months I realize what a misnomer this term is: the past year has been anything but a ‘glide’, but rather a clumsy freefall as I careened down to Earth, frantically pulling straps and watching the ground rush up to meet me. I am far from a perfect candidate, and there were times when I would glance up at the holes in my parachute, at my unremarkable MCAT score and those B’s in general chemistry. I would feel doubt creep in. But then I would have an inspiring interaction with a patient or a supportive conversation with a family member or friend, and the positive experience would provide the updraft I needed to just hold that little bit longer. Do not lose faith in yourself during this time and do not give up. This summer, as you step out into the abyss, keep sight of your goals and remember that your journey is only just beginning. It won’t be long until you open eyes and once again find your feet on solid ground.

About Luke Burns

LukeBorn in Hong Kong to a British mother and German father, Luke spent most of his childhood following his family around the world. Luke studied Politics & Sociology at University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, graduating in 2008.

He returned to the United States in 2011 and enrolled in the Mills College Pre-medical Post-baccalaureate Program in Oakland, California. Luke loves to work with kids, and has been an active volunteer at both the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the George Mark Children’s House, the first pediatric palliative care center in the US. He is also co-founder of Camp Kitchen & Harvest, a non-profit organization that teaches children in urban communities how to plant, grow and cook their own food.

Today, Luke is an M.D. candidate at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. He hopes to continue working with children and to one day serve them and their families as a pediatrician.

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