Applying to medical or dental school?
…when pre-health advisors give bad advice
Read this true story! Know what to do if it happens to you.
So I just got done interviewing one of my current students about her undergraduate advising experience – it’s something I like to do with my students to understand what led them to me. This way I get a better feel for how their previous advising was helpful and/or deficient, and this guides me to a deeper understanding of how I can help that student and future students even better.
This student, who I will call Jillian, cuz it’s like one of my favorite names. :0) Well, she told me all about her visits with her pre-health advisor – all 2 of them – and how demoralizing it was to hear this advisor’s “advice,” until she ran into a peer-volunteer at Mission of Mercy, an intensive dental patient care volunteering experience. This co-volunteer, who is a previous student of mine, who is now in dental school, recommended Jillian to me.
“She told me how demoralizing it was to hear this advisor’s “advice.”
So when I asked Jillian about her 2 visits, she told me that during these visits, her pre-health advisor:
- provided her with the timeline for the AADSAS application
- gave her advice on how to get letters of recommendation
- and then after a quick glance at her transcripts, suggested she pursue a Master’s degree, because she wouldn’t be very competitive with her current GPA
Let me just state right up front, Jillian got in. With her current GPA. Without pursuing an unneeded Master’s program! Was her GPA a little low? Yes. Did she have other redeeming and qualifying factors to make her a competitive applicant? Absolutely!!! But only if you take the time to get to know her, understand her strengths, weaknesses, motivations – who she is and what she has to offer … and then actually help her highlight and showcase all of her amazing goodness in her application and subsequent interviews!
This is the point of Holistic Review, which is the process by which most medical and dental schools review applicants when considering their competitive status for their programs.
Ugh, just ugh!
When I hear about advisors taking a quick look at transcripts and dealing out judgements on competitive status using only this metric, the GPA, (or even along with either the DAT or the MCAT scores), I get very frustrated, but not surprised.
I mean, I used to be a pre-health advisor at a Big Ten school with a very large pre-health student population. And I can tell you this, at the time, I was 1 of 2 pre-health advisors. We were always booked 6 – 8 weeks in advance. We were encouraged by our supervisor to essentially hurry it along. Hurrying it along encourages snap decisions, which is why I wasn’t very good at doing my job by this standard. I spent at least an hour with each student, each time. I always saw students during my lunch hour. And I helped all day long, from the moment I arrived to the moment I left. I knew the only way I could really be of help was to get to know my students, ask meaningful questions, listen attentively, and figure out what guidance they truly needed to achieve their success. (And why I eventually went out on my own to build better relationships with my peeps!)
PLUS – the bottom line is: We are advisors, not admission committee members participating in the team actually responsible for making decisions about whether you get in or not.
Many of us have informed insight into what makes a competitive applicant, but even with this insight, we do not have the power to decide, and therefore should be very careful with recommendations and judgments.
I’ve seen students with great GPAs and MCAT/DAT scores not get in. And vice versa, I’ve seen students with low GPAs and low MCAT/DAT scores get in. There’s simply more to it than numbers. Thus, the Holistic Review process.
So let’s talk about this Holistic Review process for just a moment. When you apply to medical or dental school, generally, they will review your whole application (thus holistic review) prior to making a decision about you. So for a pre-health advisor to simply take a cursory look at your metrics (aka your GPAs and your MCAT or DAT scores) and deliver a judgment to you is in my honest and informed opinion a massive disservice to you!
And you should never rely on this judgement.
You should always get a second opinion from someone who is willing to dig deeper with you. Someone who knows how to help you showcase your strengths and minimize your “un-strengths” (as I like to call them.). Someone who cares about you and your success, and who is willing to help you find a way to succeed!
Let’s even go back to Jillian’s pre-health advisor visit, when she asked about the best way to get letters of recommendation. I was fully floored by the superficial advice she was given. Her advisor told her to seek out professors who knew her best and ask them. Not that that isn’t helpful in some manner. BUT there is so much more you should be doing to ask for letters of recommendation to ensure you get the best ones you can. Ones that, again, help truly highlight your strengths and defend and/or discuss how your un-strengths have made you a better person.
When I work with my students, I have a whole checklist of items for them to prepare and have ready for their meetings with prospective letter writing professors. Furthermore, it’s not about going back for letters (unless it’s currently too late to do anything else). A good pre-health advisor, who has access to you from your first inklings of wanting to be a doctor or a dentist, should be sharing with you this helpful and vital insight (and even if it’s you going back for these letters, they should still share at least this basic overview with you):
The formula for a perfect Letter of Recommendation is Personal, Glowing, and Backed by Credentials.
The more your reviewer demonstrates a meaningful, insightful, personal connection with you, the more value the recommendation will have. The more your reviewer can share your awesomeness and discuss and/or defend your un-strengths, the better your letter will be. The more respected your reviewer is, the more powerful your letter will be.
The take home message for letters of recommendation: Build positive relationships with mentors who are respected in their field. Let them get to know you for real. Show them how awesome you are.
And to make this formula come true, I suggest my students follow my checklist. Here are some of the info you should provide your reviewers with when asking for letters of recommendation:
- Your resume (with excellent descriptions of your experiences)
- Your personal statement (if you haven’t written it, then a summary of your highlights, strengths, motivations, reasons, experiences … anything that will help them understand why this is important to you)
- Answers to questions you would like them to discuss about you in the letter
- Highlights or important points you want them to discuss
- Point out what un-strength you have that you would like them to defend or discuss as to how it helped you grow, if they are the right person to share this insight for you
- Essentially anything that can help guide them with what you feel is important to you and will support and/or expand on your personal statement and experience descriptions
You want your letters of recommendation to add beautiful, supportive color to the picture your application is painting of you. You want your prospective schools to see you in your best, shiniest, bright light. You want to look shiny, golden to your admissions committees, so they will pick you to interview!!!
And back to Jillian’s advisor’s “help.” By never taking the moment to engage her in a personal discussion about her dreams and goals, what she had accomplished, what her challenges were, what her experiences were … without that … there is no way she could actually know whether Jillian had a chance at being a competitive applicant. It’s more than grades and standardized test scores.
It’s all of that, plus your academic trend over time, plus your personal statement (now call by medical schools “Personal Comments essay”), your letters of recommendation, your choice of schools, your discussion and descriptions of your work and activity experiences … it’s everything! It all comes down to a holistic review of your entire application with the focus and emphasis on any of those individual factors being at the discretion of each school you apply to.
So … with my long story, being long, the short of it is this … YOU ARE MORE THAN A CURSORY LOOK AT YOUR GRADES … YOU ARE WORTH MORE THAN A SUPERFICIAL TIME LINE AND A NEAR USELESS INSTRUCTION FOR HOW TO GET LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION.
You are an amazing and unique person who wants to be a doctor or a dentist, and you have reasons for this. Those reasons need to be heard. Felt. And shown to your prospective schools through all the goodness you’ve accomplished. Through your growth and development. Through everything that has brought you to this point.
Don’t let inadequate advising keep you from achieving your dreams. Don’t let it demoralize you. Get the help you need to succeed! To find the path for you! To help you showcase your awesomeness. So you can Stand Up, Stand Out, and Shine! And be the competitive applicant who gets in! To be one of our healthcare providers of the future!
My very best wishes to you for your happiness and success, always!
Big Hugs, Mary Kate :0)