Spring Primary Preparation

Spring is in the air! The trees are blooming, and the weather is warming. For those of you preparing to apply to medical and dental school, however, spring signals the beginning of a long and stressful application process. This checklist will help you prepare your primary so that you can start strong and take some time to relax and enjoy your spring.

Before planning, it is important to understand the application cycle. Medical and dental school applications contain three sequential parts. 1) the primary, which is the centralized and universal online application that is delivered to all the schools to which you apply 2) the secondaries, which are the school specific essays, and your committee packet containing your letters of recommendation 3) and the interview. Medical and dental school admissions is rolling, and applications are evaluated as they are received, so the timing of your primary matters. Aim to be ready to submit in the first few weeks of June by completing the following steps this spring.

  1. Take the MCAT/DAT. The MCAT is an important component of your primary application, and in most cases needs to be taken by May. Since the scores take around thirty days to post, a May test date allows you to submit the primary after you have your score but still within our recommended timeline of the first two-three weeks of June. Many applicants find it too stressful and time consuming to complete their courses, study for the MCAT, and prep their application materials. If you feel too burnt out or you have not had enough time to study, don’t hesitate to postpone your test date, and your application. You will feel better and be a stronger applicant if you have given yourself adequate time to study. The timing of DAT is more flexible, but you should generally try to complete it by June to ensure a timely application.
  2. Work on your personal statement. The personal statement is the first opportunity schools have to get to know you and your motivations for medicine. Get a jump start on it by spending a couple of minutes each day writing about your experiences in college and your reasons for pursuing medicine in a journal. Once you have a draft, submit it to your advisor for review.
  3. Choose your schools. Your school list needs to be decided by the time you submit the primary. Many factors go into choosing schools, from location, curriculum, cost, class size, and culture. Use the Medical School Admissions Requirements or the ADEA Dental School Explorer as well as Penn’s statistics to get a sense the range of schools you might apply to, but recognize that MCAT and GPA are only part of the application criteria. Have your advisor review your school list if you have questions or concerns.
  4. Plan for your secondary essays. Once a school receives your primary they will send you a secondary applications to complete. Depending on the number of schools to which you applied you could be faced with a busy July and early August. Set aside some time in your calendar to tackle these essays in a timely manner.
  5. Mark your calendars. Familiarize yourself with the deadlines for Penn’s committee letter process. Meeting these deadlines will ensure you can request your committee packet early. If you have questions about the deadlines and requirements for the committee letter, reach out to our office.
  6. Take care of yourself and each other. Make time to do whatever relaxes and energizes you. Go to the gym, have lunch with a friend, spend an evening re-watching your favorite show. Check in with your friends who are going through the process.

The application process is stressful. There are a lot of moving parts, and completing them well and in a timely matter is important. I hope this helps you prioritize your tasks, so that you can start the application season off right, but don’t forget to take some time to enjoy the nice weather!

Passion and the STEM PhD Statement of Purpose

Caroline Wilky, Associate Director

Many applicants to STEM PhD programs assume that they must convey their passion for their research subject in their statement of purpose. They are convinced of the importance of demonstrating to the admissions committee that they are obsessed with their field of choice and have been for a long time. This often results in statements of purpose that begin with anecdotes about how an applicant has loved science since she was a little girl, and spent her childhood raising tadpoles or reading anatomy textbooks. These passion anecdotes rarely if ever work and often have the opposite effect on readers. Moreover, they waste the little space that you have to convey what the committee is really interested in: your research interests, research experiences, and your case for why this program and department is the place for you to make contributions to the field.

The instinct to demonstrate passion is not, however, wholly misguided. They way to do it is through your description of your research, which should be sophisticated, informed by current scholarship and methodologies, and engaged with the concerns, questions, and problems the field you hope to join is interested in solving. It is not enough to describe what you did in the lab. You must show that you understand why you were doing it and where your project fit in the lab’s goals and the field’s priorities. The goal is not to come across as a precocious science student, or a competent research technician, but rather as an intelligent, motivated, and creative thinker capable of contributing new knowledge to your field. In other words, your passion comes through in how you understand and describe your research, not from your personal motivations for research, however meaningful and true they may be to you.

Overcoming Common Pre-Health Personal Statement Obstacles with Journaling

The prompt for the medical school and dental school personal statement is deceptively simple: Why do you want to be a dentist or a doctor? Yet many applicants struggle to answer the question authentically and effectively. A great deal of the consternation applicants experience results from misunderstanding the prompt. The personal statement is not a persuasive essay designed to convince the admissions committee that you really want to pursue medicine or why you will be a great dentist or doctor. It is an opportunity to share how your experiences have shaped you and to give the committee insight into what kind of student and ultimately professional you will be.

Even applicants who understand what the admissions committee is really looking for can find the personal statement difficult to write. Some people are naturally more comfortable and more skilled at introspection, and thus find reflecting about the experiences that have affirmed their desire to pursue medicine easy. However, it is fine if you are not one of those people; you will just need to devote more time and more effort towards constructing a compelling personal statement. For applicants struggling, journaling can help.

Whether you are worried that your experiences might seem too generic or you generally have trouble reflecting on them, journaling as a pre-writing exercise can make the process of writing your personal statement easier. If you are struggling to get started, spend five or ten minutes each day free writing about your experiences at Penn—coursework, clinical volunteering, research, extracurricular activities. Think about how these experiences helped you grow intellectually, emotionally, and professionally. Reflect on moments where you felt moved and motivated or confident and excited about your future profession. Ponder your personal strengths and how they have manifest themselves in your work at Penn. Describe specific experiences vividly and articulate your emotions as clearly as possible in writing. Set a timer and give yourself permission to stop after your time is up. No one will ever see this document (you do not even necessarily need to re-read it yourself to benefit from it), so allow yourself to reflect unselfconsciously. You will be amazed by how much progress you can make and how close you will be to a good topic for the personal statement, with relatively little effort and stress. Starting early and with a low-stakes and low-pressure form of writing may seem silly but for applicants intimidated by the personal statement, it is easier than attempting to craft the essay from scratch. And as always, if you need assistance, feel free to meet with your pre-health advisor by scheduling an appointment.

Graduate School and Career Exploration

As an advisor working with students and alumni considering master’s degrees and doctorates in science and engineering, I frequently encourage advisees to schedule an appointment with one of my colleagues on the College of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences career counseling teams. Careful career exploration should precede and accompany graduate school consideration, and it is helpful to view graduate school not as an end in itself but as a means to an end. Before you decide to attend graduate school, you should be as clear as possible about why and how it fits into your career plans. While what you study as an undergraduate can have little relationship to your career, your graduate course of study can have a more direct impact on your career progression. The connection between career and graduate degree is clear for certain degrees (e.g., MD and JD). It is perhaps less clear for non-professional master’s degrees (MA and MS as opposed to MBA, MPH, etc.) as well as doctorates, which can seem merely like an extension and deepening of your undergraduate course of study, but are designed to prepare you for a career in research.

The first question to ask yourself if you are considering a master’s or PhD is what type of position you envision yourself in after you complete the degree. If you are looking for an academic research position, talk extensively with your faculty advisors, who are in the best position to help you choose a graduate program and navigate your nascent academic career. If you are considering a career outside the academy, engage in extensive career exploration by working with our career counselors and talking to Penn alumni who are employed in fields you want to pursue. Career exploration is essential for helping you determine if, when, and what type of graduate program makes sense for you. For many of the students I advise who are interested in careers in biomedical sciences, engineering, or computer science, a master’s or PhD, especially immediately following the completion of your undergraduate degree, might not be the most straightforward path to the career you desire. It can be more strategic to work in industry for a period of time before pursuing graduate work, in part so that you can gain confidence in your chosen career trajectory. Moreover, the decision to attend graduate school can have significant financial implications—even though most doctoral programs in STEM fields provide tuition scholarships and stipends, for example, they can still influence your finances in terms of lost wages and deferred career progression. Career Services can help you explore these considerations.

Your career goals and professional ambitions can and should change and develop throughout your working life, and even the most clearly professionally-focused graduate degrees do not limit you to a single career or even a narrow career trajectory. You certainly do not need to have everything figured out before you attend graduate school, but in most cases it is a mistake to view the decision to pursue graduate study outside of larger professional or career considerations. So take advantage of the resources available to you and fully explore graduate school as part of your more holistic career development plan. There is a reason the Graduate and Professional School Advising team is housed in Career Services!

Getting to Know You: The Purpose of Medical School Interviews

by Caroline Wilky, Associate Director

Congratulations on your medical school interview! To secure an interview, you have likely devoted countless hours to study and preparation. With the goal you have been working towards for so long so close, you might be tempted to over-prepare.

Over-preparing, however, is more often than not counterproductive because medical school interviewers truly want to get to know you as a person. If you have been invited to interview, the admissions committee is confident in your academic ability. Consequently, the majority of interviewers are not interested in poking holes in your research or grilling you about the intricacies of the Affordable Care Act. They want to know whether you have the personal qualities, such as maturity, sensitivity, empathy, and self-knowledge, as well as the communication skills needed to be a successful (and happy) medical student and future physician.

If you over-rehearse or prepare a script or sales pitch for your interview, you risk turning what should be a conversation into an awkward, and ultimately self-defeating, performance. In an effort to stick to your prepared script, you may fail to listen to your interviewer’s questions or read his or her body language. Your interviewer might be left wondering how you will be able to communicate with patients if you cannot communicate effectively in an interview setting. This is not the impression you want to make.

That said, you do not what your interview to be the first time you talk about yourself and what has led you to pursue a career in medicine. There are things you can and should do to prepare.

First and foremost, practice discussing out loud personal anecdotes and experiences that influenced your thinking about science, medicine, patient care, or life in general. Talk about your academics, research, clinical experience, and extracurricular activities (medically related and not), but in a way that emphasizes their impact on you as a person. Do not just describe your research. Talk about what you liked about it (such as working as team, for example, or adapting to surprising results). Interviewers are less interested in hearing you describe what you did (that information is on your application), than how what you did shaped you as person.

Finally, schedule a mock with a member of our staff. We will help you prepare enough to feel confident and come across as the well-rounded and personable person you are.