The Secret to Getting into Professional Schools

by Peter Stokes

In an interesting interview on the web site Poets and Quants, an online community for those interested in graduate business education, Derrick Bolton, Director of Admissions at Stanford Graduate School of Business, refuses to answer some questions about the minutiae of admissions decisions.  When pressed, he explains why he is stonewalling: “There is a lot of information that applicants want that has no value to them in the [admissions] process.  I think the more they focus on how we make the sausage, the more of a disservice they do to themselves…If they are focusing…on what is happening here, what is the black box, what is the secret sauce, I think all that time comes at the expense of sitting down with the recommender and talking about what their dreams actually are.  Or sitting down and thinking about what they want to do.”

The generally rather broad range of GPAs and test scores of those accepted at professional schools shows there is much more to admissions than those numbers.  So what do you have to do beyond classes and a test?  Well, there is no secret, simple formula for getting into professional schools.  If there were, everyone would follow it.  In the end, nobody would stand out in the applicant pool.

A potential pitfall lies in believing that there is a specific profile that a school looks for.  Generally speaking, schools are looking to put together a class of people with a variety of different backgrounds, strengths, and interests.  What they are looking for is people who actually have real interests—who have explored and figured out what they really like to do.  A real understanding of what you really care about, and why you are applying in the first place, can set you apart.  You should understand how the degree program you are applying to will help you progress on the course where your true interest lies.

The central question, then, should not be what schools are looking for, but what you are looking for, and if, and how, the graduate or professional school you have in mind will help you find it.  An MBA, or an MD, or a JD, (or MPA, MPP, MPH, and so forth) is not a reward for having done well, it is a qualification for a profession—usually a highly demanding one.  Simulating an interest in the profession, even if it worked, would not ultimately do the school, the profession, or you any big favor.  So you should pursue opportunities to develop yourself, to experience something like the profession you have in mind and even some alternatives, and try to come to understand as fully as possible what is important to you.

But what should you write in your admissions essay?  Director Bolton dodges this question instructively too: “I have a point of view on what they shouldn’t write.  They shouldn’t write things that they think we want to hear.”  The most effective essays will be those that show that you really have thought through what you want to do, and know why you are making this commitment.  The essay still won’t write itself, you have to craft it, and we can help you with that.  But if you’ve explored the profession you want to go into and have kept in mind the big picture—not just getting in, but what the degree leads to—then you’ll have a good head start.

Clinical Exposure: The Unwritten Requirement for Health Professions Applicants

Health professions schools expect applicants to have had some exposure to clinical situations before applying. I often advise applicants not to expect interviews or offers of admission without it. Why!? Because it isn’t hard enough to meet the official requirements? And what is clinical exposure? What are schools looking for and how much is enough?

Reading about dentistry on the outside of the dental school isn't clinical exposure for this Penn pre-dental gargoyle.

For starters, this pre-health advisor sympathizes with the puzzlement over the term “clinical exposure.” I don’t care for it much and it always makes me think of those paper dressing gowns at the doctor’s office. If you come to Career Services for an advising appointment (and we hope you do), you are likely to hear someone use an elegant description like, “getting around sick people and doctors.” Working in a lab is not clinical exposure.  Even if the lab is at the hospital.  Even if someone in your lab is sick.  Clinical research might be clinical exposure.  If you are reviewing patient charts (which is a fine research opportunity, by the way), then no. Administering tests to subjects or recruiting subjects in the ER, then yes.  Examples of ways to obtain clinical exposure include volunteering or working as a: hospital volunteer in a patient area, EMT, hospice volunteer, clinical researcher interacting with patients/subjects, or volunteer in a rehabilitation or mental health care facility. Shadowing a physician, yes; however, while shadowing is great, few applicants gain many hours shadowing and taking a more active role as an employee or volunteer is recommended in addition to shadowing. Volunteering in high school?  Super, but you will want more recent experiences to put on your application. Eating a cheeseburger at the hospital cafeteria…no. Measuring your roommate’s gum recession…no. Dating a third-year med student…nice, but no.

So, why do schools expect this? What is the best thing to do and how much clinical exposure should you have? Health professions schools invest a great deal in their students’ training and they want people who are committed and have a very good idea of what lies ahead. They want applicants who are thinking beyond “getting in” and have considered their motivations, abilities, and general “fit” for the field. By spending time around patients, you demonstrate your curiosity about the field and, hopefully, gain a sense of the real rewards and challenges of working in health care. Most likely, either you will confirm your interest in the field and gain insight into the aspects you like the most or you may find that health care is not for you. Certainly, there are people who, through their clinical volunteering, considered alternatives to a medical or dental degree and are now happily working both in and out of health care.

As for how much, I am not sure you can have too much clinical exposure and it’s a good idea to think about it early — not as you are filling out your application. It takes some time to arrange clinical opportunities. Every applicant is different and some people will have years of clinical exposure and some will have months and they may end up as classmates at the same graduate school. Truly, I think the best clinical exposure is one that reflects your interests and where you made the most of your opportunity to help others and learn about the field. Whether you are asking patients to step on a scale, restocking bandages, or administering a questionnaire to a study participant, you will want to take in everything going on around you and reflect upon what you do and see. Your level of mental and emotional engagement will contribute to your thinking about your career. Also, the more you take in, the more you can share in your application essay or interview in a truly personal and reflective way.  So, expose yourself!  (In a legal, professional, and medically relevant manner.)