Exploring the Medical School Myth

By Michelle Finkel, MD

Insider Medical Admissions

The following piece was written by Dr. Michelle Finkel. Michelle has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is a former Harvard Medical School faculty member. She is the founder of Insider Medical Admissions.

Those of you who have faithfully followed my Varsity Tutors blog entries know that we’ve covered a lot of application topics including letters of recommendation, personal statements, interview tips, and more. Please check out those entries if you are interested in professional help on any of those topics. Today I’m going to switch gears a bit to look forward toward your career in medical school.

Getting accepted to medical school is one of the many hoops you’ll have to jump through as you pursue your medical career. Once you have matriculated, however, you may be so overwhelmed with the quantity of work that you don’t have time to strategize about how to best position yourself for acceptance into residency and a fruitful career thereafter.

Additionally, you may find – as I did – that during your early years in med school, you have little mentorship regarding your career path. I remember wondering why other first-years were spending so much time in the lab when there was so much coursework to manage. I did not understand until much later that early lab work was necessary for those students interested in highly competitive fields.

I wish someone had taken my hand and given me some much needed guidance. So, here we go:

I’d like to start my advising by addressing what I call the “medical school paradox.” During medical school, we are encouraged to broaden our horizons, explore different specialties and topics, and keep our minds open. Although I strongly agree with this philosophically and intellectually, the data, unfortunately, does not support that that is the optimal strategy for getting into residency years later – especially if you are seeking a competitive specialty like dermatology or plastic surgery. Let me explain what I mean:

In 2012, the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP®) published their Program Director Survey. The goal of the review, which surveyed the directors of all programs participating in the 2012 Main Residency Match (the system that places applicants into residency slots), was to clarify the factors that program directors use in selecting applicants to interview and in ranking applicants for the Match. The results of the NRMP® survey are very useful for getting a good idea of what residency directors really want in candidates.

The survey results include a graph that rates from 0-100 the percentage of residency director respondents who cite different factors in picking whom they will interview. Factors listed in this graph include personal statement, volunteer experiences, visa status, perceived commitment to the field, demonstrated involvement, and interest in research, as well as many other factors.

What’s interesting and surprising is how important “perceived commitment to the field” is to residency directors. Sixty-three percent of respondents said it was a factor in selecting which applicants they interview. That’s more than honors in clinical clerkships (62%), evidence of professionalism and ethics (55%), and honors in basic sciences (45%) – all of which one might think would be more important to residency directors. 

So, we can see that demonstrating commitment to your chosen field is critical, but it’s hard to show early, strong commitment when you’re told to explore all specialties during medical school. I’m not suggesting you need to enter medical school knowing you want to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. But, fortunately or unfortunately, it does help to demonstrate dedication to your future chosen specialty, and the earlier you can do that, the more accomplishments and activities you will have under your belt to show that commitment to your chosen field.

Of course, if you know early in your medical school career that you want to pursue a field, getting started as soon as possible with research, publications, volunteer work, and a faculty advisor is wise. But if you are not one of those students, how can you show commitment to a field when you may not know what you want to do? 

We’ll review some explicit strategies for how you can get ahead in my next Varsity Tutors blog entry. Stay tuned.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.