Every premed path is different. Every acceptance story is unique.
And this one, in particular, goes to show that sometimes we have to eat our words.
There are many forums and ‘knock you down’ websites that lead students to believe the only way into medical school is having a 3.7+ GPA and score a 520+ on the MCAT.
And that your MCAT must be taken super early in the cycle to apply before July of that year.
I will caution you to carefully read The Ultimate MCAT prep guide to help you create the best plan FOR YOU, and the proceed accordingly.
However, even the best laid plans can be modified as life demands.
While I don’t want you taking this interview as ‘permission’ to speed through your preparation, I want you to realize that you don’t have to be ‘perfect’ to be a doctor. You just need the heart, drive, hard work, and yes, the best academic record you can manage.
Meet Jennifer, who didn’t follow my advice in her timing, and yet not only got multiple medical school acceptances, she also has a presidential scholarship to OHSU and will be starting medical school in the Fall of 2017
I go by Jen.
I am twenty years old and like you, I am an aspiring physician. I was born in Mexico, but grew up in Portland, Oregon.
I graduated high school in June 2014 with a few AP classes and dual-credit college courses, and headed straight to college in the fall.
College and Pre-Reqs
I attended Portland Community College (PCC) for many lower division pre-reqs and enrolled in a University as needed for the next classes.
I’ve taken the maximum number of credits (eighteen) each semester and maintained a pretty high GPA (3.89).
I’ll graduate early from the Honor’s College in Portland State University in July 2017 with a Bachelor’s in Psychology, a minor in Chemistry and Spanish.
Experiences for My Application
I loved tutoring in the Student Learning Center, but that’s as far as my “job” responsibilities have gone.
I volunteered at a Providence hospital for almost two years and have worked as a receptionist at a doctor’s office for three summers.
The lead physician gradually trusted me and allowed me to shadow her, but was not the sweetest doctor around.
She often gave me sound advice about the reality of medicine:
“It’s not easy,” she would say. “If you really want it, you’re going to have to work hard for this. Even when you get in, it won’t be a walk in the park – the battle is just beginning.”
I don’t have any certifications.
I thought about becoming an EMT or CMA. While these were tempting, money and time pursuing these would interfere with my intense school schedule.
I decided to prioritize school and grades.
Prepping for the MCAT
Early on I decided to graduate in three years and not take a gap year.
Therefore, in order to go to medical school immediately after graduation, I had to study for the MCAT during the summer break between my second and third year.
I started studying for the MCAT in late June 2016 and planned to take in August.
I was very unaware of practical details.
I attended one of Leah's MCAT prep workshops. Leah advised against taking the MCAT without at least three months of study.
She also discouraged taking the MCAT this late in the cycle!
She explained how testing after July would cause my application to be considered “late” and substantially lower my chances of getting in.
Leah’s Note: Full application cycle details in The Ultimate Prep Guide, Step One.
This created a big conflict in my head and I wondered what the right thing for me would be.
I figured since I had just taken almost all of my pre-reqs that year, I might as well go for it.
After all, I hadn’t pushed myself that hard to finish college in three years only to take a gap year! Otherwise I would have taken my time.
So, I went online to see what the available dates. I created a plan.
I tried my best to stick to it.
Instead of August, I took the MCAT on the second to last 2016 test date: September 9th.
Life During MCAT Prep
I didn’t take any classes or have a job. I live at home with my parents, so I didn’t have any major responsibilities.
I do have an eight-year-old sister whom I take care of most of the time, more like a daughter.
I would go to support her as she took summer classes at the local Parks and Rec Center.
Occasionally, I would spend the entire day with her even if it put me behind.
I knew she needed to know I was still in her life, even if I spent most days locked up studying.
My schedule was very, very ambitious and demanding.
I was scared of burn out, but felt I wouldn’t have enough time if I didn’t push myself.
I studied nine hours a day, Monday through Friday. I rested Saturday and Sunday.
Leah’s note: Don’t burn out, learn how to create a custom MCAT Study Schedule in Step 4 of the Ultimate MCAT Prep Guide
Is It Worth It?
While I was excited most of the time, there were many moments I wondered, “Am I good enough?”
“Is this worth it?”
I knew I wanted to be a physician, but I wondered if I was doing the right thing by pushing myself so much and setting my expectations so high.
I didn’t have as many volunteer or research opportunities as others – time just didn’t allow it!
I hoped and prayed that admissions counselors would see beyond this.
I hoped they’d notice I had purposefully pushed myself to be prepared for the high academic demands of medical school.
Others Thought I Was Crazy
A lot of my friends would tell me, “What’s the rush?” and “Why are you working so hard?”
A teacher went as far as to say, “You do know there is a disadvantage to applying so young, right?”
Talk about discouraging.
I would smile and pretend it didn’t affect me.
I would tell them my personal reasons for wanting to get into medical school quickly and get started with an already long career.
But more than once their remarks floated around in my head, making me question if I had what it took. I thought maybe I was wrong trying to finish so fast.
Each term brought a new challenge, and by the end, I always told myself, “Never again!”
Then the next term I would sign up for just as many classes, if not more. In a way, I turned their words into motivation.
Courage and Power to Stay the Course
First and foremost, my relationship with God encouraged me. I am a Christian and have always felt that God has a plan for my life.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it was all His doing; I definitely had to do my part and work hard.
But I do think making time for my relationship with Him was important and helped tremendously: studying the Bible, attending and having a support group with my church family, and having faith that no matter what happens, He is in control of the outcome.
Secondly, when I was feeling unmotivated, I thought about why I chose such a heavy course load:
- It would make me unique and give me unique experiences.
- It would prepare me for the rigor of medical school.
I realized that in the worst case scenario, I wouldn’t be admitted.
Just a minor setback. There would still be steps forward.
Maybe I would then take a full gap year to analyze and perfect my application: involve myself in extracurricular activities, get a certification, shadow some more, etc.
MCAT Prep Resources
I used the 9th edition of ExamKrackers, Leah4sci videos, AAMC and Nextstep practice exams. I used Khan Academy only towards the end.
I really wanted to join the Leah4Sci MCAT Study Hall, but it was just way out of my budget.
Leah’s note: It's not for everyone, but I do offer a new, budget-friendly option: MCAT Study Hall Essentials
I couldn’t afford to get the new 10th Edition prep books, so I had to use the 9th Edition.
Leah’s note: It’s not about having the perfect resources, rather about utilizing them in the right way. Read more in The Ultimate MCAT Prep Guide Step 3: Assemble Your Resources
Reading straight from the book definitely didn’t work for me.
I have a hard time just sitting there and reading. I would take the end of the section or end of chapter quizzes and not score very well.
I learn a lot more from making mistakes and fixing them so I don’t make them the next time.
Videos were also more helpful for me.
I tried Khan Academy very early on but some videos were old with so-so quality. They seemed repetitive and time consuming.
However, about a week before the exam, I put the videos at 1.5x or 2x speed and used them as review.
I really liked the idea of checklists and the way they give you little rewards (badges of completion) for watching a certain playlist.
It helped me push through and watch another one.
Combining Books with Video
I looked at the bold words or main ideas from the chapter, and looked up videos that explained the information a lot faster than I could have read and comprehended it.
Most videos give examples, and I learn extremely well with examples.
Details, Details: Practice Tests
My initial target score was 510.
My dream schools had an average accepted score of 31 (510-512) 29 (507-508).
I took a risk. I set my target score a little lower than the average.
I knew I didn’t have very long to prepare, but I knew my GPA was strong.
Yet, I didn't want to set the goal so high that I felt overwhelmed.
I took a total of four full length practice exams listed most recent to oldest.
AAMC Unscored Retake:
I didn’t think I was ready.
If I’m being honest, I did not feel as prepared as I had hoped.
It wasn’t the content; it was mostly lab techniques and the way questions were asked. They were so tricky, and I kept running out of time.
I knew that if I gave myself months to study, it wouldn’t be realistic.
I’ve asked many med students who have taken the USMLE, and they said they never got to a point where they felt they knew everything.
That’s not the way medical school works. You aren’t given unlimited time to prepare yourself.
You have to learn a lot of material really fast and the stakes are high.
This makes the circumstances to be as realistic as possible.
I considered voiding it.
But I told myself that I had gotten this far. This isn’t the advice Leah would give, but I wanted to show what I could do.
It was definitely a risk, but I knew I had put in my best effort.
Even if I scored poorly and would have to retake it or explain my score to admissions officers, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
I ended up scoring better than I expected.
I think that in medical school, you never feel completely confident that you have mastered the material.
I Scored a 505 Overall
I was initially surprised and happy because I expected to get below 500, although I prayed this wouldn’t be the case.
Leah's Note: Most students do not jump 5 points above their AAMC practice test.
I was disappointed but with my limited study time, I hoped a 505 might just be enough.
On CARS I scored in the 90th percentile but in Psych/Soc, I scored in the 55th percentile!
Psychology is my major!
I had used Khan Academy to study for the Psych/Soc section and thought I grasped it, but I scored the worst in this area!
I felt the MCAT was NOT representative of introductory psychology and sociology courses.
Leah’s note: Psych/soc requires ‘special’ preparation. Read Tyler’s story to see how he scored a 132 in this section.
Applying to Med Schools
I submitted my application on October 16, 2016, applying to five schools total.
I received secondaries from all 5 schools within 2 weeks!
I decided not to fill out the UCLA secondary because it was too long and it was my second to last school of choice. USC rejected me.
Prepping for Interviews!
I received two interviews in early December: Loma Linda and OHSU.
I was very nervous for the Loma Linda interview because it would be my first interview. Plus it was my top choice school!
In preparation for the interviews, I read a couple of books/articles and watched videos before my interviews.
I searched “medical school interview tips” on YouTube and watched many of these.
My favorite was Andrea Tooley’s “Interview Tips for Pre-Meds, Pre-Dental, and Medical Students.”
Leah’s Note: Dr. Ryan Grey of MedicalSchoolHQ.net recently published The Premed Playbook Guide to the Medical School Interview: Be Prepared, Perform Well, Get Accepted. My students highly recommend this before tackling interview prep
Medical School Interviews
At Loma Linda, my first interviewer was an oncology surgeon (I was taken aback in admiration).
He was late by seven minutes.
It felt longer in the waiting room. I grew very nervous!
When he started with, “So tell me about you,” I literally went blank.
I started with, “My name is Jen… I am…”
and stayed quiet for about ten seconds.
Then I gave some very elaborate, and out of order answer. Definitely not the strongest start!
He was very nice but very formal. He wore a suit and tie.
As the interview went on, I felt more comfortable.
He didn’t have my application visible. But I knew he had read it because he kept asking questions about it:
“I remember reading in your application that…” “So I know you mentioned in your essay that… but how do you think…?”
I remember a specific question from this interview:
“What do you anticipate being the hardest part of a career as a doctor?”
I answered, “Understanding my limitations as a physician.”
The doctor was taken aback, and asked me to explain.
I elaborated and said I have the tendency to take things personally and to want to fix people. I need to understand that as a doctor, I can only give recommendations. I can’t make them take their meds or follow their plans.
The interviewer was genuinely and pleasantly surprised. He said that many pre-meds don’t understand this concept and are disappointed once they start practicing.
The second interviewer was a more relaxed and didn’t even wear a tie.
He was also from Oregon, and had attended the same elementary/middle school I had!
He had my application in his lap, making highlights and taking notes as I spoke, yet he helped me feel more at ease. He even said I was a great interviewee (off the record, of course)!
Both interviews were meant to be forty-five minutes, but ended up being an hour each because we had great conversation going.
My experience at OHSU was a bit different because they had multiple mini interviews!
I don’t remember much because it was all a blur.
I didn’t like this style of interview.
I prefer to talk about what I’ve written in my application, not random ethical questions.
I feel that as unbiased as the interviewers might try to be, they definitely have their point of view. If mine differs, then there’s an issue.
I must have done well though, as you’ll read below.
Post Interview Thank You Cards
In order not to forget, I immediately wrote a detail, something that stood out to me about each physician who had interviewed me in my phone’s note app.
I wrote thank you cards and mailed them to my interviewers.
I heard from Loma Linda two days later.
I got a phone call from the Admissions Dean saying that I had been accepted and congratulations!
I also heard back from OHSU on January 5th.
They informed me that I had been accepted and had received a full ride presidential scholarship!
It’s hard for me to say what led the schools specifically to choose me.
I like to think it had to do with my drive to finish college early (big course load while maintaining plenty of extracurriculars on the weekends).
I’d also hope they saw maturity through the hardships explained in my personal statement, despite my young age.
The schools had a chance to hear my story and see what I had overcome:
Why I am who I am.
I don’t think my MCAT score was very appealing, but Loma Linda’s average accepted MCAT is 507, so I wasn’t terribly far off.
OHSU’s MCAT average is 509, but I am an Oregon resident and they give preference to Oregon residents.
My Advice to You
1) Have a very strong answer to “Why do you want to be a doctor?”
My interviewers didn’t mess around.
They straight out said, “I know you want to be a doctor because you want to help people. Everybody does. But why a doctor? How does this differ from a nurse or police officer who also helps people?”
Don’t think you can get away with “Because I want to help others.”
2) If you see yourself struggling to balance life with MCAT prep, but you also can’t see yourself doing anything beside medicine… I would suggest to eliminate as many busy details as you possibly can.
If you can’t eliminate anything, come up with a feasible plan.
Ask your family or friends to help with some responsibilities. Try to prioritize.
It’s crazy what you can do if you really set your mind to it.
3) I definitely attribute my success first and foremost to God. I have strong faith in Him and I know that without His help, I couldn’t have gotten anywhere.
4) You know yourself better than any MCAT expert. You should listen to what they say, but ultimately you evaluate your efforts.
If you have honestly put your best effort forward, you may not perform better with more time.
Leah’s note: Amen to that! Always ask yourself, ‘Do I understand why they said what they did, how does this apply to me, what do I personally and ultimately make of this advice?’ After all, no one knows YOU better than yourself.
5) The MCAT is just a part of the application.
I've heard this over and over but was skeptical because I thought it was the biggest deal.
But now, having gone through it, I really think it IS only one part of it.
As long as you have a within normal score, you WILL NOT get accepted or rejected based ONLY on the MCAT; it may be the determining factor if other parts of the application are weak.
Some people may just score better because they are better test-takers, not because they are smarter or a better candidate.
You shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t get the 515 or 520 you wanted!
If you know you're a great interviewer or if you know you have strong unique qualities to your application, the MCAT score can suffer a little.
Of course, the better school you're trying to get to the better score you'll need. But don't underestimate the other aspects of your application.
It's worth a shot.
I never wanted to go to an Ivy League school, and I don’t feel bad about not getting a high score.
I think a doctor is a doctor, regardless of where they go to school.
The intent of helping and serving others is there, whether I get my training from Loma Linda or Harvard Medical School.
I am not in the slightest interested in research, and I see no reason I would want to go to a fancy medical school.
I know that others want the prestige and/or the challenge of getting accepted into a coveted school; that’s simply not the case for me.
I think experience and decisions ultimately shape who we are as people, and therefore, who we are as doctors.
I am super excited to get started with medical school and be one step closer to my dream of becoming a doctor.
One Year Later: Follow-up!
I CAN'T BELIEVE IT has been a year since sharing my experience with you! It has been crazy intense. So much more than I've ever anticipated! I am alive and well though; surviving one day at a time. We're currently on spring break, but will be jumping right in and continuing our cardio-renal-pulmonary block on Monday.
If I'm being 100% honest I haven't learned to balance everything yet. I am too focused on acing my exams (although my school does a pass/no pass for didactic years). I think the reason why I'm focusing so hard on school is because we have the big USMLE Step 1 board exam at the end of didactic so I feel like I can't let my focus wane. I have a lot of friends that are great at putting those thoughts aside and are having a great time balancing everything, but that's not me right now. Despite that, I love it and wouldn't change it for anything! It has been awesome!
I'd love to hear from you
Are you putting too much pressure on yourself because of the MCAT? Are you working on building up the rest of your premed experience/background? let me know in the comments below