Getting into Medical School: Which patient care experiences make me a more competitive applicant?
When I ask students why they want to be a doctor (or a dentist, or any other kind of healthcare provider), without hesitation, they respond, “Because I like to help people.”
This is fantastic! Helping people is great! … But there’s a significant deficiency in this response, and it’s a deficiency that if left unanswered, it will keep you out of medical school (or dental school, or whichever healthcare profession you are interested in).
There’s a lot of ways to help people. For instance, I help people get into medical, dental, and other healthcare schools. I teach math. I teach writing. I tutor. I mentor. I help people find and build their happiness and success, both personally and professionally. But I don’t prescribe drugs. I don’t have scalpels and gauze in my toolkit. I don’t problem solve illness or injury. Because I’m not a doctor, nor do I want to be. … But you do. So, the more exact question is why do you want to care for people using the methods and practices of the healthcare professional of your choice? Why do you want to help people by listening to their health concerns and problems, then diagnose those problems (sometimes involving diagnostic medicine), and then offer solutions via drugs, surgeries, and other medical methods? … And moreover, how do you know? What have you done to experience this kind of helping people, and how has it led you to the choice of becoming a doctor (or dentist, etc)?
It’s at this point that I get the blank stares. The “Uh, I guess I hadn’t thought about it like that.”’s
And, well. That’s a problem, especially as a lot of students put off talking to a pre-health advisor or coach until it’s time to apply … usually because it’s time for them to write their personal statement, and they don’t know what to write about that will make them stand apart – stand out – stand up and shine.
They don’t know that what they don’t know can hurt them and their chances of getting in.
So, let’s NOT let this happen to you. The first thing you need to know about your experiences (patient care, clinical, or otherwise) is that they all NEED to be a part of your journey. Not a pre-planned-from-day-one-without-adaption-to-life-experience-and-change list of things to do. You come to medical schools with a list of I-just-did-stuff-to-make-me-competitive, and you’ll find out fast just how uncompetitive you’ve made yourself.
So what then? Let’s start with the wrong question, and the reason why it’s the wrong question.
The Wrong question is: What do other people do?
This question won’t help you, because you aren’t other people with their likes, dislikes, interests, goals, motivations, etc.
What is the Right question? … The Right questions is: What should I do?
And this question should be followed by: What are my options?
To answer this let’s talk about patient care. What is it? How do you demonstrate it? How do you give it? Who do you give it to?
The simple answer is caring for patients with the practices, methods, and procedures consistent with healthcare, whether it be mainstream medicine or CAM (complementary and alternative medicine – practices such as chiropractic, massage therapy, acupuncture, etc).
There are so many options for you to learn about who you like to help and how you like to help, and under what circumstances you like to help – you just have to choose some to try and see what fits and what doesn’t.
For instance, do you like to help everyone? Like in a family practice setting? Or maybe you like working with children or the elderly. Or maybe you have a special calling to help cancer patients. Or even hospice and palliative care. … This list goes on for quite a while. And generally speaking, when you first start off on your pre-health, pre-med, or pre-dental journey, the idea of helping people is carrying weight in your thoughts, but you don’t KNOW who or how … not really … not until you give it a try and actually see what resonates with you – what calls to you. And even then, it’s not unusual for pre-med peeps to decide their actual specialty until they get into 3rd and 4th years (when they start doing actual rotations). Nonetheless, it is still on you to try out the patient care world and investigate clinical settings … and learn about the career field you are seeking to engage.
When you write your personal statement and when you interview, you will need to talk about your journey and your choices. What led you to them. How they guided you to medicine. What moves you. What inspires you. What limitations you’ve seen, and how you might handle them in your future practice. Etc.
Your journey must be yours and yours alone. It needs to flourish as you grow, learn, investigate, develop, and figure out who you are and why this is important to you.
So where do you begin? Again, this depends on you. But if you have no clinical exposure under your belt, a good place to start is shadowing and gaining clinical exposure. You should shadow peeps doing what you think you might want to do. Family practice. Specialty. CAM. Etc.
When shadowing, you NEED to be observant and reflective. Ask lots of questions of the practitioner you are shadowing. Things like:
What do you love about your job? Why?
What’s the hardest part of your job? Why?
If you could go back in time and do this all over again, would you? Why or why not?
What do you feel I need to know to help me understand this practice as a future career choice? Why?
When taking care of your patients, what are you thinking? How do you go about helping them? What’s important to you when you are helping them? Why?
Are they in a private practice? Or are they in a hospital? How does their practice environment influence the care they are able to provide?
… Getting the picture?
When you shadow, you see. You listen. You observe. You then think about all that you are seeing and hearing and ask yourself if this is you?
Another important thing about clinical exposure and patient care is making sure you get to see blood. Make sure you can handle it. Make sure you can handle “the cut” in surgery. Make sure you can handle broken body parts. Sometimes students think they can, but when it happens in real life, they find they can’t. Or they don’t like it. These things can influence your journey and path. You might decide to find another path, or you might find you are ever more convinced that you are pursuing the correct journey for you and for your future patients.
Only your experience can guide you.
So you’ve been shadowing, and you are freaking loving everything you see, or at least important certain parts, and you want more. You’re ready to try on actual patient care. How do you do that?
Where do you get this experience?
Again. Options. Sometimes, students get offered positions from their shadowing experiences. Their performance impresses the doctor, and next thing you know, the doctor offers them a more involved role. And this role can provide on-the-job training, with growth and patient-care skills to develop. For instance, you could become an assistant to the doctor. And this can be a tremendous opportunity!
This is another reason why I’m always telling my students to always give their best. You just never know what kind of opportunity is waiting to knock on your door when you prove yourself dedicated, competent, and caring.
In addition to these kinds of awesome opportunities, you could volunteer in places like:
Ronald McDonald House
Hospital or clinic volunteer
Medical mission trips
Maybe you want more skills and certifications, so maybe you seek out becoming a certified phlebotomist, EMT, medical assistant, or scribe.
Choices!!! You have to begin your path with your foundational interest and see where it takes you, what it teaches you, how it influences you and guides you to make new choices about what your next steps are.
And all the while, you want to be developing your personal attributes and skills, lessons learned, and values established and gained.
Clinical exposure and patient care are MUSTs on your experience agenda. Which ones you do depend on you, your likes, your dislikes, your values, your goals, your interests … etc. And once you get started you might find that something you liked or thought you disliked might just surprise you and turn out to be the opposite. You won’t know until you try.
As a whole, the point is to answer the question of why you want to be a doctor (someone who helps people with healthcare) and how you know. You’ll need to be able to discuss your journey; the personal attributes and skills you’ve gained; the lessons you’ve learned; the values you’ve gained; and you’ll need to talk about why this is all important to you and how you know (which means talking about your actual experiences and your specific journey).
When you can do this – when you can show medical schools how your journey has led you to the practice you desire, then you will have chosen the patient care and clinical experiences that make you a competitive candidate!
Big Hugs and wishing you happiness and success in your patient care and clinical experiences!
Mary Kate :0)