Why do you want to be a doctor, and how do you know?
As a pre-health advisor, I’ve been asking premed students this question for over a decade. I used to find it surprising how often students couldn’t answer this question beyond, “Because I want to help people,” but not anymore. It seems like the simplest of questions to be asking of someone who is bending their life, education, and will toward what will most likely be a lifetime career choice – although, it is most definitely NOT unheard of peeps going the medical school distance (and racking up the hefty ~$200,000 debt that goes with it) to only find themselves NOT where they want to be and changing career paths. (And just to be fair, this doesn’t just happen with premed students. It happens with pre-dental students, too. It can happen in any career field.)
I’ve got to say, I think I’ve heard it all. But one of my comical favorites is when students come into my office and launch into their whole excited speech about how they watch Grey’s Anatomy (or Chicago Hope, or … insert the name of any medical drama on TV), and, “Like, ohmigod! I so want to be a doct’r!” said with a Valley Girl accent and all. The excitement is wonderful and promising, but at the same time, this scenario raises the question of whether the student wants to be a doctor, or an actor playing a doctor in a drama.
One of my most shocking pre-health experiences related to this topic was listening to a student on YouTube giving how-to interview advice immediately following his MMI interview – the confidence he portrayed – all the while explaining how the one question that stumped him – the one he didn’t see coming – was when he was asked why he wanted to be a doctor. I don’t even know how he got the interview.
But so, above, I said, “I used to find it surprising, … but not anymore.” Well, the reason it’s “not anymore” is because I’ve been watching the journeys of student all these years, and I understand how easily it happens. Oftentimes, it starts with the basics: an interest in science + liking helping people + needing an educational outcome that will result in a job = pursuit of healthcare. But that’s not really enough. Yet, with this shaky formula, students hop on the wheel of get done, and they start pounding through their pre-reqs, taking on research, volunteering wherever the other students have told them to volunteer, and next thing you know, they’re sitting in my office trying to figure out what to write about in their personal statements.
So I ask them, “Well, why do you want to be a doctor, and how do you know?”
And they look at me all happy and say, “Because I want to help people!”
“Fantastic,” I say. “But why do you want to help people with the use of medicine: medical practices and techniques?”
And that’s when I get the confused look of “What?” from them.
Here’s the thing. Each year, about 50,000 students apply to medical schools (AMCAS applicants. There are also stats for AACOMAS and AADSAS), but only about half (less than half, really) get in. There’s a review process called holistic review. In a nutshell, it’s how medical school admissions committees examine your readiness for taking the next steps toward becoming a doctor, specifically, medical school. Most schools like to review your whole package in an attempt to build as full of a picture about you as they can before deciding whether to invite you for an interview (and then subsequently, whether they will offer you a seat in their program). How each school weights each element of your application package is entirely up to them, but generally speaking, the personal statement carries a LOT of weight.
As a side note, I also saw a YouTube video in which it was being reported that the personal statement is 30% of your package. I can’t emphasize this enough: PLEASE BE CAREFUL CONSUMING INACCURATE INFORMATION ON THE WEB. Reasonably, the personal statement potentially counts for 30% of your app at some schools, but which ones? Be careful of blanket statement facts when it comes to the holistic review process. Schools decide how they want to value your information, and it varies from school to school. So the most that can be said, is that the personal statement is usually a big deal. And here’s the reason why:
As part of the holistic review process there is E-A-M: Experiences-Attributes-Metrics. Metrics are your numerical stats: cumulative GPA, science GPA, and MCAT scores, along with your grade trends over the course of your academics. But there’s more to you than just numbers. What kind of communicator are you? What has been your distance traveled? What are your values and beliefs? What kind of healthcare experiences have you engaged in and what have you learned? Do you have leadership skills? Can you work effectively and collaboratively in a team? And this list of questions goes on and on. Your reviewers need more from you than just numbers. They need answers. They need an explanation. They need your story. They need to know why it is you want to be a doctor, and how you know. And that’s where the personal statement comes in, your experience descriptions, letters of evaluation, and sometimes certain prompts from your secondaries can add to that pictures, and if you get an interview from all of that, then your interview will build out the remainder of your picture that you are providing them with to judge your readiness.
50,000 applicants getting whittled down to less than half is a lot work. And many of those students will never see an interview. So certainly, it seems reasonable that when committees are reviewing applicants and red flags pop up, it gets easier to dismiss them as not being ready. For instance, red flags can be things like lower than average grades or MCAT scores or even a student who fails to articulate why medicine is the right pursuit for them.
So if I may, I encourage you to figure out why it is that you want to be a doctor beyond helping people. There are lots and lots of ways to help people, but doctors help people using medical practices, methodologies, etc. Things like drugs and surgeries. Why is that your cup of tea?
And understand, you have to be able to articulate this … with substantiated examples. Like perhaps that time when you were volunteering at hospice and an experience with a patient moved you mind, body, and soul. Why? Why did this experience impact you the way it did? What did you learn about medicine? Patient care? Yourself? Etc.
So perhaps you can begin to see how having an interest in science and liking to help people is just the beginning. You use your choices – your experiences (volunteer, research, work, travel, etc) – to investigate who you are and what you want, and why you want it. And when you do that during your journey to determine if you want to be a doctor, you will build the answer within yourself, so that when it comes time to write your personal statement, you will have a story about you that includes your experiences, attributes, and values … and your self-understanding reasons for wanting to be a doctor.
Best wishes to you for your happiness and success!
Mary Kate :0)