We had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Sahil Mehta, CEO of MedSchoolCoach and discuss the med school interview and med school admissions process. You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript that follows. Enjoy!
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Note: Rush transcript — please forgive a few errors.
John Rood: Hi! This is John Rood from Next Step Test Preparation. We’re here tonight with Dr. Sahil Mehta of Med School Coach.
Sahil, welcome to the program.
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Thanks, John. How are you doing?
John Rood: Good. Doing really very well. Thanks for joining me. Sahil’s got a pretty fantastic background and he is going to help us today just tell a little bit about the admissions process. He is undergrad at Columbia then attended University of Chicago, Pritzker School of Medicine, is training at Memorial Sloan Kettering and now as a Radiology resident, so pretty much all the best places to go to school. And with that kind of a record, what I’d love to kind of share with our listeners tonight is just a little about how that process works.
So, if you wouldn’t mind, you know what, I’d love you to kind of kick off by giving some thought to, as we’re recording this, since the beginning of December. For someone who wants to apply to medical school over the next year and who would then start in probably at 15, what are the steps that that student should be taking now as they’re ready?
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Yeah. So, I mean great question and I think one of the most important factors in all of medical school admissions is basically starting early and getting your application in as early as possible. And so along those lines, planning early and figuring out what are the exact steps that one has to take is super important. And I tried to fast forward backwards because the, if you look at the MCAT application, which is a centralized application that goes to all the different Med schools around the country, for MD school, that typically opens up in early June. And you really want to be submitting your application as early as possible and that means early June. Now, schools have deadlines sometimes as late as almost next January, but that’s way too late. They fill up way before that. So, if you’re aiming for next June, believe it or not, it’s important to get started, I say, almost 6 to 12 months ahead of time to start thinking about your application and that includes thinking about your personal statement, your letters of recommendation, your activities and of course your timing of your MCAT. So, I would say that for students who are looking to start in 2015, we’re now coming up on approximately 6 months, 7 months before the application is ready to be submitted. So at this point, I think the things that people should start working on are certainly start brainstorming and thinking about topics for their personal statement, certainly think about who their letters of recommendation writers are going to be and maybe even start approaching some of them early, letters of recommendation are things that often fall through at the last minute. So it’s great to have them lined up early or at least thought about early. And if you don’t have everybody that you need, may be you need another science professor or an English professor, you have an opportunity if you start thinking about it now to go get that over the course of the next few months.
So, biggest things I would say is, number one, start thinking about your personal statement, number two, start thinking about your letters of recommendation and then number three, if you haven’t already registered for the MCAT or started preparing for the MCAT even, definitely the time to do that is now.
John Rood: Okay. Yeah, that’s outstanding advice. And that’s one of the kind of broad tips that that everyone I would guess is apply early, but I love that you’ve broken that down and talked about, here’s all the individual parts of that and when they have to get done. I just want to make sure that and real clear on what the goal is. And so, you said that we want to make sure that we get applications in June when the MCAT opens, but everything has to go only at that point including the finalized letters and the essays for the first rounds?
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Yeah. So, good question. So, the way that MCAT works is that basically whenever somebody submits an application, it has to go through a verification process, and that process can take anywhere from 2 weeks to almost 2 months depending on when you are submitting. So, the idea of submitting early is that you’re in this queue in order to get everything reviewed as fast as possible. So if you submit it as early as possible, you’re in a smaller queue and everything will be reviewed in about two months, now the primary MCAT, sorry, about two weeks, so that you can be one of the first people to be reviewed by the school. Now the primary application consists of a personal statement, your transcripts and your activities. And the other things that you mention, letters of recommendation as well as sort of secondary applications for each individual school, are actually do a little bit later than that. So once medical schools gets your primary application, they’ll then send you the secondary application and typically that can take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks as well and so not everything is due on June 10, but really it’s your responsibility to have your things done on June 10. And that means the personal statement, the activities and the transcripts all in and ready to go. The letters of recommendation can usually come in about 2 to 4 weeks after that and you still be plenty early in the process.
John Rood: Perfect. Perfect. So, for our students that plan ahead, that’s perfect, but one of the calls that we get dozens of mails, I mean hundreds of every year students that for whatever reason are a little bit later in the process. And when they call out lots of times is because they either plan to take the MCAT a little bit later than maybe it would have been ideal or it is just the MCAT wants them didn’t get the score they wanted to have take it again. So, we almost went early for sure, but for a student that plans for the competitive to good schools and so maybe not necessarily Harvard or Stanford, but really, really fantastic medical schools. When do you think it’s too late? And when does it become so late in the season that it’s probably better just to wait for the next year?
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Yeah, and that’s a good question. There’s a lot of things that actually you can do to sort of mitigate your damages so to speak, if you’re applying later. And it’s a common situation that comes up for you guys as well as for us. So people come to, people take the MCAT, let’s say, in March or in May and they get their score back in June and then they realize, I need to take the – I need to take the MCAT again, I need to get my score up or they have delayed it until their semester ends because they have a lot of classes and just have, didn’t have time to study and so they think, okay let me take it over this summer, let me take it in July and I’ll still be okay. Well, yes and no. I don’t necessarily set a hard date on when it’s too late to apply, but I would say that if your entire application isn’t sort of complete, at least your entire primary application and that includes your transcripts, your MCAT, your personal statement isn’t complete by September, it might be better to wait for the next cycle. Now of course this is very dependent on everybody’s personal situation. And like I said, there is other factors that go in and there is things that you can do to sort of mitigate those damages. You can submit your application and while it’s being verified, you can take the MCAT again and then so the last thing that’s out is just your MCAT score and then your application is verified and goes to all the different schools. You can even start working on secondaries while you’re waiting for these things. So if you’re waiting for your MCAT score and it’s coming back in four weeks, you can basically start working on secondaries, get those ready to be submitted and then as soon as your MCAT score comes out, submit everything. So there is ways to get around the fact that if you’re getting a little bit later in the application season, but in general, I would say that if you’re not going to be complete by September, October and certainly by November, and probably it’s going to be better for you to wait until the following year because a lot of classes are full and certainly interview slots are being offered as early as August and sometimes even earlier and those are getting full everyday.
John Rood: Perfect. Yeah, that makes total sense. Do you think that those deadlines get pushed back a little bit for students that are considering DO programs or do you think that timeline there is similar?
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Definitely the timeline is a little bit pushback while we love for students to get everything ready as fast as possible for DO schools as well. And just as MD schools, it’s great to get everything submitted as early as possible in June, which is also about the time that DO applications open up. DO schools typically have later deadlines and have a more relaxed approach to their application deadline. Therefore, really if you’re looking towards DO schools, September or October, even November, I mean we’ve had students apply as late as February, March of the following year and still be able to get it. So DO schools definitely have a more relaxed timeline overall.
John Rood: Perfect. Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And that’s pretty lean. I don’t think I’ve seem a student that’s been February or March, but yeah great for the student. So, as we think forward on that process a little bit, I mean obviously the two areas for students always know that they need to be competitive are, the MCAT score and in their grid point average. But looking beyond that and there is a whole host of things that that come into a grid application, but what do you think are maybe the, after MCAT and GPA, maybe the two most important factors that medical school admissions committees are considering?
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Sure. I mean, I think that the number one most important factor after MCAT and GPA or possibly even before MCAT and GPA, is going to be your personality. And that’s why medical schools put much more emphasis on the interview than any other professional schools do. Business schools and law schools might have interviews, but the emphasis is nowhere as great as it is on medical school and that makes sense in a lot of ways. Listen, at the end of the day, you’re going to be a doctor, taking care of patients and if you can’t relate to your patients, if you can’t talk to them, it’s going to be a problem. You have to be an actionable human who sort of is compassionate and emotional and able to connect with their patient. So I think it’s very important above all that your personality really shines through. And I actually, it’s hard to get to interview stage, but once you get there if you can show that, it’s going to go a long way. So I think that’s definitely after MCAT and GPA, going to be very important because you can have all the extracurricular in the world, but if you get to the interview stage then you come across as a robot or you come across as stuck up, whatever these things may be, it’s going to hinder you.
Now, before you get there, obviously there is a lot of other things you need to do extracurricular wise. And you always hear research, community service, shadowing all these things are super important and there is not one thing that’s going to put you over the top compared to another. What I like to see in applicants is a true passion for something and it doesn’t have to be even medically related. If it’s a true passion for teaching and they’ve done Teach for America, if it’s a true passion for sort of international work and maybe they’ve come aboard and taught English or whatever it might be, it doesn’t necessary always have to be medically related, but I want to see people who are truly passionate about what they do, become leaders in what they’re passionate about rather than just spread themselves across 100 different activities because they think it’s going to look good for medical school applications. A lot of people join clubs like AMSO which is great, but if you’re not a leader in that club and you’re not really utilizing the resources and you’re not sort of doing something that you can talk passionately about on the interview then that’s going to be a real problem. So, in my advice is always, don’t pick your activities just because medical, you think medical schools are going to like them certainly part of that you have to choose some of the right activities but I think the bigger thing to do is, really pick something that you’re passionate about and go full force with it. And I’ve seen applicants being passionate about all kinds of different things, bioinformatics, all the way to dance. And all these things are powerful when it comes to writing essays and interviewing and all the things are going to make an impression on your interviewer and the people reading your application at the end of the day.
John Rood: Yeah. I think it’s a fantastic insight because one of the things that we hear from virtually every premed student is just how much time is it a premium especially as they’re working through kind of such as sophomore and junior year and then going into when it’s time to get the application then, because someone who is in the right place in the application process, but now here again at the beginning of December, they’re thinking about studying for the MCAT and doing well on that and then all other persons are getting their applications ready. That student start think about the rate of GPAs, so they’ve got finals, they’re probably taking several very challenging science courses and they’ve also got their activity in addition to everything else. So, always you’re talking about you don’t have time for job shot everything and the club leadership position and always other things. So, in your early life that you could have said, hey, from the admissions committee perspective, is it probably not there is no more, one or two activities and do really well in those. I wonder if is that you mentioned is that when they right that personal statement, but maybe those passions come out, as the student starts to think about what a great personal statement is, is that kind of the personal introduction starters by thinking through some of the, some of them what may have done kind of passion about the study of medicine so far?
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Yeah. I mean the personal statement that has, can take all kinds of forms and I think that there is no one correct rubric for a personal statement. If there was, that would be out there and everybody would write the same thing. Obviously, everybody who’s reading the personal statement is going to have a little bit different flavor of what they want to hear and what they want the applicant to convey, but I think you cannot go wrong by conveying what you’re passionate about and what are the things that are important to you along with of course, sort of what led you towards medicine and in general just making a personal statement a more readable, more approachable almost more fun writing piece than your average college essay would be.
John Rood: Yeah. Well, that makes a total sense. And one of the things that I think that students often don’t think about is that, their essay is not only the document that they have to write, but its something that someone actually then have to, has to go read and it’s not that their essays are going to be read in a vacuum instead as that. Their essays even read along the hundreds and hundreds of others. So, in general, whatever kind of graduate professional school you’re looking at, what really makes sense to write an essay that’s going to standout a little bit in a positive way and so often times, I’d like to make sure that that, when I think about this and to have some sort of thought that to make it little bit more interesting as an essay so that they’re not just that the applicant has done doctor shadowing and has a 3.8 GPA and a 31 MCAT that’s grossing that person’s test, necessary in application cycle?
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Yeah. Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more, I mean, we see literally hundreds upon hundreds of admissions essays every single year with the students we work with. And they range from really bad to really great. And I’ll tell you that the really great ones never follow a very generic pattern. But you’re absolutely right when admissions committee member sits down and reads these essays, he’s reading not yours but he’s reading about 10, 20, 30 maybe even 50 other applications on that one day and deciding to give you an interview or not. It’s extremely difficult for that person to be excited about your application if you follow a very generic sort of formula and just kind of go through the fact that you shadow the doctor and wanted to be a physician ever since you’re young and wanted to help people et cetera, I think sometimes it’s better as you said to take concepts. Maybe you write something that’s a little bit more creative and maybe one person out of 50 says, you know what, I don’t really like this creativity but the other 49 out of 50 will say, wow this is a different essay that I read in any of the other applicants today I want to meet this guy. That’s what you have to do sometimes and I think that’s especially true of borderline candidates, candidates who sort of need that personal statement to get them to the next level. If you have a 4.0 GPA and a 42 on the MCAT you could probably get away with the fairly generic personal statement and be okay, but if you’re struggling on the MCAT have an average GPA, you need to get, you need to do something to bring you over the top. And I think the personal statement is one of the first places that you can do that in, it’s one of the few places in your application where you really get a free form it’s where your voice gets a standout, it’s where you can write pretty much whatever you want and taking a chance in that is sometimes is very helpful in the process.
John Rood: Yeah. I think that is fantastic advice for that marginal student. And I think that students as they’re selecting the list of schools to which they apply, they’ll apply, sometimes they’re making a mistake of either not applying to enough or not kind of taking some of those risks, because like you said, someone who is graduated from a top undergraduate program with a perfect GPA and a fantastic MCAT, he’s got interviews pretty much everywhere and a student who has terrible numbers who is going to get interviews pretty much nowhere, but for the student who is sort of an average student who could be admitted, which actually means that you’re really a top student if you’ve got 30 to 32 MCAT and you’ve got a pretty good GPA. You want to go top schools in America, but your average in terms of medical school admits. So the way people are thinking out from that is I think exactly what you said, you’ve got to think about of that pile of people that got – that has really similar numbers, what are kind of the spreads that you can use so that when the admissions committees are together and making decisions, you have some of the contents go back for you, kind of say, oh, okay this candidate from average university with average scores, and here is the reasons why this person is getting interview whereas someone with similar numbers maybe should not. And as I think about this, I’d be curious if he’s gone over probably thousands of admissions let’s say to this point, of course you’re not going to details that what are the kind of the themes or overviews or a couple of the top essays that you’ve seen over the years?
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Well, I think the bottom line is that the best essays are very personal and anecdotal in a lot of ways. They, I like essays that often start out painting me a picture. So you can start out an essay and say something like, I spent four months in India and then go on and talk about your time in India and how you want to be a doctor or you could start out an essay and sort of painting a picture of India. Painting a picture of the colors that are around you, the rickshaws that are going around, but also the extreme poverty that you might be seeing and in the hospital that you volunteered at where there was one bed, one rickety old bed and 14 patients clamoring outside and so when you sort of paint that picture in the first paragraph that gets me excited and that gets me wanting to read more. And I can’t tell you how important the first few sentences of a personal statement are, because when you’re shifting through 50 of these, you want to read those first couple of sentences and you can tell from the first paragraph where an essay is going to go very well once you’ve read a few of these. You can tell from that first paragraph that this is going to be a very generic essay and you’re not going to learn a lot about the applicant or if this is something that’s interesting and going to go somewhere where you want to keep reading. And like I said, there is not a perfect theme and there is not a perfect formula, everybody has different success, everybody has different ways to get to the successful end point, but I think one way to definitely consider doing that is really painting an anecdotal picture in that first paragraph, really giving me something exciting to make me want to keep reading.
John Rood: Yeah. And that makes sense. As you were talking, one of the things that I picked out was just, the kind of the visual descriptive nature of the story that you’re painting. And it does seems extraordinarily effective just engraving the attention, the reason I’m even either talking about it is thinking, this is an interesting story that I would begin to read to the end of as opposed to I always want to become a doctor since I was three years old, et cetera, et cetera. So, yeah, I mean that’s I think apply little too and I love that you’re giving me advice that this is really something one you’ve been just kind of open the formula that you left in abroad. This is something where you probably got to spend something, because as I’m thinking about it and then editing it to make sure it represents you.
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Yeah.
John Rood: As, let me get back at you, obviously the personal statement, it’s a relatively short document compared with the school papers something like that. But probably the people or how do you recommend the students think about a timeline on for constructing a great personal statement?
Dr. Sahil Mehta: So, I often recommend to students to start thinking about this really, really early. And it’s not because it’s due and it’s not because you have deadlines, but because when you can start writing in a very non-pressured situation ideas flow freely. So often I tell students listen, if you wake up in the middle of night and have an idea that you think would make a good personal statement start, just log onto your computer and start writing. I don’t care how bad it is, I don’t care how incoherent it is, but I think it’s really important to just get those creative juices flow. And I tell them to do that multiple times and because I like to have sort of creativity and when the idea strikes the student just start writing, it’s great to start doing this a few months in advance, 6 months would be ideal, but even if you can start doing it 3 months in advance that’s great, because those first few drafts are typically going to be sort of all over the place and that’s okay. A great personal statement is not something you sit down and write in an hour and suddenly have the perfect personal statement. It’s something that I think takes a lot of time to create, you have to melt, multiple ideas. Sometimes writing a completely new personal statement is great because you can take a completely new approach and then you realize what works in one and what worked in the other and combine it. So I think for a general timeline, I would say, as early as possible like everything is great. If you have any ideas, if anything strikes you, if something if you come across something as you saw on clinic that they where you’re volunteering, or came across a particular person who inspired you think about that and put it down on paper and start writing about it because that will be immensely helpful later on. I would say the latest you really want to get started is probably a month before the personal statement is for due because that allows you at least a little bit of time to shift your ideas and make changes, but I would say a month is almost in a pressured environment. Two, three, four months more than that would be great. Everything is done better when you have more time to sit back reflect if you have some writers blog sometimes it takes a couple of days just to get your mind out of it and when you only have a couple of weeks left before your personal statement is due that’s often hard to do that.
John Rood: Yeah, that makes sense. And, one of the things that I love about that is that it avoids in my mind, one of the biggest problems that students have is writing personal statements which is that they kind of think about it as, okay I’ve blocked out, 60 minutes driving my personal statement. So, this is not your attractive theory, get your team, if you’re on classical music and you startup your Word Processor and there is like a blank screen and then you say, now what do I now. But, if you do it exactly as you just say, you kind of thinking about that you’re quite hard to actually have to turn that in as and then start generating some ideas, then you can come and look at them and say, okay, seriously here is a list of 10 ideas that I saved in a Google Document or in Evernote or something like that and now I’m going to pick one or two and then write a statement about that as opposed to just having blank sheets of paper, I think is a massive, massive benefit. As we think about that we only got a couple of minutes left in our program, Med School Coach is a company that we work with very closely for a number of years. I know that you guys do a fantastic job with the entirety of the Med School admissions process and what’s your process in terms of Med School Coach for going over a personal statement of student? So, a student comes to you, they sign up for one of your consultation packages, what do you do for the student?
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Sure. So, what we have is the group of advisors who are actual physicians who have been on the admissions committees, who have gone through this process and also edited hundreds of essays and read hundreds of admissions essays. And so they really have a good grasp of exactly what medical schools are looking for. And so when we first sit down with a student, we get students in all phases of their process. So some students come to us and say, I have no idea where to start and we get, we help them, we help them brainstorm, we look at their activities, we think about it, okay, what are the important things and what are your motivations for going into medicine and how can we create a personal statement out of that. So, we help them brainstorm, we help them come up with the ideas for their personal statement. Other people come to us with an initial draft that they say, hey I think this is done, can you just check it for grammar. And the vast majority of the time we look at it and say, I know you thought this was done, but this is actually nowhere close to done. This is a very generic essay. This is not going to bring you over the top and then so we help them and we come up with ideas of, hey, maybe you can expand this section and cut down this section and what about this other activity that you have on your resume here, I think that would make a great addition to this part. So, we help students with their personal statement packages basically at any point that they might be in, from all the way from the start where they have no idea and we sit down with them via e-mail, via Skype, via telephone and come up with what they’re going to write about, all the way up until the end where it’s a final grammar check and we’re dotting all the eyes and crossing all the keys, but really I think the vast majority of our health is not in the grammar, is not in the spelling, anybody can do that. It’s really in coming up with the creative content, coming up with the ideas that’s going to, that are going to put you over the top when it comes to medical schools evaluating your entire application.
John Rood: Well, fantastic. As I mentioned, the Med School Coach is the company URL, MedSchoolCoach.com. Is that the best way for students to find out about you and to learn about your program?
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Absolutely. There’s all kinds of information online. We offer free consultations. We’re always happy to talk to you. So, just go online, email us, follow us, signup for free consultation whatever it might be, we’re happy to help.
John Rood: Well, perfect. Thanks very much Dr. Sahil Mehta and thanks so much for joining us, I think it was really informative. I love to do it again.
Dr. Sahil Mehta: Great. Thanks, John.