Since its last major overhaul in 1992, the MCAT has included four sections meant to examine a test taker’s ability in verbal reasoning, biological sciences, physical sciences and writing. After completing the multiple-choice questions and composing writing samples, medical school applicants hope for the best. They know that, while this isn’t the only piece of the application puzzle, if they perform well, they are much more likely to be admitted to medical school. They also assume that a high score means they will do well in the various classroom and clinical challenges awaiting them. After further examination, however, medical educators and physicians have realized the current MCAT isn’t enough. They believe that critical evaluative factors, currently left out, will be a much better predictor of a test taker’s effectiveness as a future physician. As a result, new sections in the 2015 MCAT will stress the psychological and social dimensions of medicine as medical schools want more well-rounded applicants from a variety of backgrounds.
And the MCAT is not all. In an age when residency programs have been urged to pay closer attention to resident competencies in interpersonal communication and professional behavior, it is no surprise that medical school admissions committees are looking more closely at these qualities as well. “Future professionals need to have clinical skills and they need the science,” said Andy Ellner, co-director of the Harvard Center for Primary Care. “But they also need to understand organizations, how to work in teams, be leaders, manage people. They need to think about complex systems and make them work more effectively.”
But how do you best express clinical intuition, communication skills and bedside manner in the personal statement, meaningful experiences, supplemental essays and interviews? Crucial to consider, your soft skills and how you present them could mean the difference between an acceptance letter and a denial notice.
Be Specific: Think back to some of those unforgettable moments you had in your undergraduate studies. Why were they so memorable? Was there a time you will always remember that put you on the path to pursue medicine? As long as you are not applying to medical school just to please your parents, you are sure to have a compelling collection of memories you can mold into words. Brainstorming is the first step and there are not limits at this stage. Take the time to recall all the details. You will soon see that the details of a situation and the descriptive insights you developed as a result is what is going to allow the admissions director to get to know the person behind file #38461. Use colors, emotions, smells and reactions to bring the reader in, right at the moment you learned some of the most important lessons of your life.
Failures and Weaknesses are OK to discuss: It is in times of failure you learn the most, so don’t be afraid to discuss weaknesses or failures in the application. Admissions directors really want compelling applicants, rather than perfect ones and, most of all, they want to see that you are human and self-reflective. The important thing to remember when handling weaknesses or failures is that it is a four-step process. First, discuss the failure or weakness. Second, address the result of that failure, ideally a particular scenario in which you can provide specifics. Third, talk about steps you are taking to improve and finally, talk about the results of your improvement action plan. What are the positives that have resulted from your ability to recognize a weakness and work towards a better solution?
Intellectually Curious: Most likely, at this stage of your medical education, you have not achieved grand things on the research bench or saved many lives in the developing world. And that’s ok. What’s important are your insights about what you observe, your intellectual curiosity and your willingness to get involved and learn as much as you possibly can, even if it means unpleasant circumstances or difficult patients. In every research endeavor or clinical experience, take notes. What questions do you have at this moment? Why did shadowing that particular physician have an impact on you? What about this research process leaves you bewildered? Why? It will be much easier to compose entries demonstrating intellectual curiosity if you can refer back to the specifics of what you were curious about.
Go Beyond Your Research and Clinical Experiences, But Remember What They’re Looking For: While clinical and research experiences are certainly important to discuss in your application, don’t limit yourself. Just remember the qualities admissions directors are looking for, transferrable skill-sets that will be applicable when you are a resident and practicing physician. For example, there are probably numerous ways to discuss your ability to emotionally connect with and influence others in your various teaching, community service and employment experiences. Through these kinds of examples, you will also be able to show you are a well-rounded student who has been able to expand her perspective in a variety of areas.
Social Media: You may assume your first impression to an admissions officer will be contained entirely in the memorable and polished application package you’ve been refining for months. However, in the age of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, this just isn’t the case. Therefore, it is important to be cautious, not only about the material you post online through social networking sites, but also about the information posted about you or others with the same name. A profile that lacks solid judgment may be looked down upon and create a disadvantage for you in the medical school application process. However, a well-written profile highlighting personal and professional achievements could help you stand out from the crowd.
If attending physicians are looking for more from their residents and patients are looking for more from their doctors, experts have decided that one of the first places to go, for a possible solution, is medical school admissions. Applicants have always been more than test score and a transcript but now, more than ever, an applicant’s interpersonal ability and professionalism are moving closer to center stage.