What things were you looking for while searching for a graduate or professional program?
I was looking for a place where I felt comfortable with the curriculum and the atmosphere of learning. I was also looking for a place that would set me up well to apply to residency, a school with a good reputation and clinical sites. In all honesty, my decision came from a gut feeling that the program and the environment of collegiality at the school fit me the best.
What advice might you give to an undergraduate about their graduate or professional school search or application process?
The best advice I received was to not sell myself short, or to be shortsighted about my goals. I would also advise applicants to consider the hospital attached to the school. The most formidable part of your training will be there and having places to train with good faculty, residents, and variety of cases will offer a much stronger preparation for residency programs. Also, when applying to residency, your home institution will be very important for a "safety" or backup option, so it's important to have a place you would feel happy and comfortable.
What opportunities did you take advantage of to help prepare yourself for graduate or professional school?
I did a few semesters of research which was helpful because I can still put it on my CV. I also taught in the tutoring center, which was a very easy way to make some extra spending money and is another experience I continue to put on my CV. I also think it helps to cement your understanding and communication skills. If you have time during your senior year, take the cadaver anatomy class which was extremely helpful for preparation. This is probably one of the few classes that really carries over into medical school.
How did you distinguish yourself from other candidates applying?
I think there are three main things that helped me distinguish myself. The first is GPA and MCAT; you don't have to be the top scorer, but you do have to cross a threshold to be considered seriously. Secondly, I think it is important to have a meaningful experience, that you can really draw on to prove that you've explored medicine. Whether its research, shadowing, a volunteer experience, or a work experience, just pick something that highlights your dedication and why you are pursuing medicine. Lastly, I think my application was balanced and well-rounded. I had medical and non-medical experiences, teaching, some research - a little of everything. That's not to say you HAVE to have every element, but I do think it's important to have a balanced application.
What were the main factors you considered important when comparing grad/professional schools?
This is cheesy, but I think the most important factor was my "gut feeling", especially when it came down to comparing schools of similar caliber. I picked based on where I felt people were supportive and relaxed, and it would be a less stressful learning environment. I really appreciated when schools broadcasted their concern over work-life balance, and how they supported students with healthy lifestyles. Secondly, I think that reputation and caliber of the institution was important when comparing schools.
Was there a process or strategy that you used to narrow down your top three schools of choice?
I started narrowing down my choices based on the reputation of the school and the hospital attached, and then tried to decide based on my perceived "fit" there. I think I would have been happy at a few places, but I made my decision based on curriculum, strength of programs (hospitals) there, and collegiality/support of the institution. I also looked for a place that cherished work/life balance, even as a first year medical student.
What approaches and techniques did you use to prepare for a standardized test? How often? Did you find that successful?
For the MCAT, I think the most helpful thing I did was as many practice tests as I could. I did do some reading of sections of material (I used exam krackers), and tried to assign myself certain sections and questions on those sections daily. However, I saw my practice scores jump the most when I was getting used to questions and the way they were asked. To be completely honest, the best thing to do to prepare is to work on the material during the actual classes. If you want to retain earlier material, doing some tutoring can be helpful as well (I tutored organic chemistry so I really didn't have to study this).