How I (By Grace) Got into Medical School

By Carmelle Tsai '08

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Carmelle at the Houston Rodeo

If you read part one of this three part post, you learned about how I decided to pursue medical school. As up and down as that experience was, that was the easy part. Getting into medical school was another ball game. I'm going to offer some tips here (and my mishaps that resulted in coming up with these tips), and share with you my little miracle that landed me in the Texas Medical Center.

Tip #1: Prepare early

The first thing I had to tackle as I began to prepare to apply to medical school was keeping track of all the pre-requisites. By the time I really began to commit to the application process I was already a junior, and Olin did not offer all the chemistry and biology classes often enough for me to fit together a schedule that allowed me to graduate on time and also finish all requirements (I think this has since changed!). With some finagling, cross-registering, and an intensive organic chemistry course taken at Harvard over the summer, I figured I would be able to apply during my senior year and therefore have a year off between college and med school. There are many ways to get everything done, but if you at all think medical school might be in your future, it couldn't hurt to get a start on those courses early just in case. You can always drop them or not continue finishing them if you figure out medicine is not for you. Trying to fit them all in last minute is a little harder given the number of requirements that there are.

Tip #2: Be prepared for a very non-Olin style of learning

I barely passed organic chemistry, and even biology that I took at Wellesley proved to be a challenge for me. Why? Because we had to take tests. Closed book tests. Where we had to memorize stuff.

What? Yes, I know. I said the same thing. Memorize what? Isn't the engineer mantra "why memorize when you can just look things up?" Well, the pre-med mantra would be something like "memorize everything so you can get 100% and get into med school." And well, the med school mantra would be "memorize as much of this clinically non-useful information so that you can be licensed to practice medicine." Sort of. Regardless, the point is, that I found that the memorization skills necessary to succeed in pre-med classes were a completely different skill set from what I was learning at Olin. I almost felt blindsided by what an adjustment that was for me. There isn't much to do about this but practice. You'll get better as you go. Medicine is full of memorizing stuff. Just be prepared for a change.

Tip #3: Know yourself when you take your MCAT and plan accordingly

Like I've said before, I'm not actually very type-A, but I often try to pretend to be. By my junior year I had finally committed to taking the MCAT, but didn't know myself well enough to make a realistic study plan. I looked online and read all these forums with all kinds of study plans of all different lengths and varieties. I attempted to study for this test a total of three times before I took the darn thing thinking I had much more self-discipline than I really did.

Plan 1 - it sounded like a great idea to study the appropriate MCAT topics as I was taking the associated course (i.e. study MCAT biology when I was actually taking biology). Good in theory, but not in practicality for someone like me who tended to bounce from being absorbed in project to project at Olin. I thought I would have the discipline to study during the school year and reasoned that if I studied a little bit every weekend over an entire semester, that I could get through all the material painlessly. Instead, each weekend I slept in, ate a fabulous omelette from Johnny in the dining hall, and then spent the rest of the day furiously working like a chicken with my head cut off trying to manage the various Olin projects I had. Therefore, when it came time to sign up for the MCAT at the end of my junior spring semester, I had only gone through five sample questions and knew I would bomb it if I tried.

Plan 2 - I then decided I would spend the eight weeks of the subsequent summer studying for the MCAT while working a part-time internship at Genzyme. This also was a great plan in theory. I knew it was a shorter amount of time, and with just a summer job, I'd be able to focus only on two things. What actually happened was I found myself quickly overwhelmed when I wasn't progressing as fast as I wanted to in my studying, and easily made excuses for myself at the end of a work day, leading to pushing the studying off later and later...until it became almost never. The difference this time was that I had actually signed up to take the MCAT at the end of summer, hoping that it would light a fire under my you-know-where, but somehow it didn't. I ended up having to withdraw from that test altogether and forfeited the several hundred dollar exam fee. Oops. (Don't worry, getting licensed as a doctor costs thousands, rather than hundreds of dollars. Get used to it now!)

Plan 3 - I needed a little extra time to finish out my pre-med requirements since I made the decision to apply relatively late. By this point I was a fall semester senior and was definitely feeling the pressure. Having figured out from plans 1 and 2 that I don't handle MCAT studying + something else very well, I knew I needed several uninterrupted weeks to devote to the test. My only option left was the four weeks we had for winter break. I signed up to take the test the first weekend of my Spring semester and optimistically made an ambitious study plan that gave myself a few days off around Christmas and New Year's. Again--I didn't quite study the way I planned. I don't know about you, but when I come home from an Olin semester, I'm usually rather sleep deprived. I therefore slept copiously the first few days I was home. Then it was Christmas. Then it was New Year's. Then I finally started studying--this time the terror of it being my last chance to actually follow through and take the test finally set in, and I was thankful to be able to study very, very intensely for 2-3 weeks.

So, in summary - know yourself and your self-discipline (or lack thereof, ha!) and plan accordingly. Don't worry too much about what everyone else is doing. I get asked about optimal MCAT timing often by pre-meds, and my answer is always to take the MCAT as long as 1) it is soon enough to receive your score before June of the summer you apply, and 2) you are able to schedule a study plan that works with YOUR style of studying.

Tip #4: Don't pay attention to the other people

If you are a pre-med reading this, you probably know about the infamous studentdoctor.net. It's a great site with a lot of useful information. They also have these forums where people post about their MCAT scores, applications, interviews, etc. etc. This is all well and good and helpful until you start playing the comparison game. I wasted far too much time getting sucked into reading forum posts about how so-and-so had this many interviews, and it was because s/he had ____ score and ____ GPA and saved the lives of ten orphans, too. This is just a quick reminder to y'all--it's the internet. Yes. People actually do exaggerate and lie. And what do you know? When I showed up to med school, some people's "student doctor" alias's became unveiled and we all began to understand that really, we were all in the same boat. So use the resource for what it's worth, but do NOT freak yourself out over it. Especially as an Oliner! You have a unique story and a lot to offer coming from such a special institution, so by default your story will not fit the mold. And that's fabulous!

Tip #5: Be humble

A lot of compassionate, qualified, wonderful people want to get into medical school. Competition to get in continues to get tougher each year. This process will be a lot less stressful if you remember to be humble enough to recognize that this is not a guaranteed shot for anyone. There are a lot of people who I believe would be wonderful doctors who do not end up getting in. So just remember that at this stage of education--where choosing the best of the best of the best has happened many times over--all opportunities are good ones. Apply broadly and widely, don't expect anything, but be hopeful for everything. I applied to over thirty medical schools and chose a wide range including some of the "big names" and all my state schools and many other private schools. I'm glad I did, because there seemed to be no pattern to what type of schools seemed to show interest in me. I yielded seven interviews and ultimately three acceptances, and I am so, so thankful. Remember--one is all you need to attend and become an MD!

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So now that I've rambled far too long about little tips...let's segue back into my story, just because the ending is rather fun.

After a long and crazy application season, I received twenty three rejection letters and seven last minute (as in, the second-to-last interview slots). May 15 aka "decision day" for medical schools came and went. I accepted a spot at one of the two medical schools I had been accepted at. I was waitlisted by Baylor College of Medicine (BCM)--the very school that I knew had piqued my interest the most. In fact, I remember a time back when I was a sophomore in college, reading the Baylor website and thinking "there is no, freakin way I will ever end up at this school." So despite the waitlist, I kept some kind of simple crazy hope alive that BCM would become my school.

At the end of May, I traveled to Houston to see my cousin Tiffany graduate from BCM. For some reason, I still could not let go and kept thinking perhaps I would get off the waitlist right before Tiffany graduated so that we could all celebrate some awesome "passing of the torch" with her graduation and my acceptance...or something. Call me a dreamer, but that's how my mind works, haha. The several days leading up to her graduation, I was practically glued to my cell phone. I was on edge every moment, hoping that at some point I'd get that magical phone call of acceptance from Dr. Greenberg, our dean of education.

Tiffany's graduation came and went. No phone call. No magical whatever. The day after her graduation, Tiffany and I were sitting around her apartment as she was packing up and getting ready to move. I'm sure she could tell I was still on edge about this whole BCM thing.

Seeing my uneasiness, she suggested, "Why don't you call the admissions office and see if you can't talk to Flossy? (Dean of Admissions at the time). See if maybe you can meet to talk about your application?"

So I did. I called the admissions office. To my surprise, Dean Eddins (Flossy) agreed to meet me the following day, at 11 AM! I went to bed that night just praying and hoping that I would have right words to say the next day.

The following morning, Tiffany dropped me off at BCM. I walked up to the admissions office, and Flossy came up and introduced herself.

"Carmelle, it's nice to meet you! So, something important came up, I'm really sorry. But can you come back instead at 2 PM?"

Great. I was terrified at this point. I had another three hours to wander around BCM aimlessly while freaking out about what I would have to say. I had this idea in my head that I would have to come up with some crazy fancy speech about how awesome I would be at BCM and would have to state my case and not mess up this one chance I had to make a great impression and convince them to accept me.

Needless to say, I had a rough three hours.

Finally 2 PM rolled around and I went back downstairs to BCM admissions. Dean Eddins showed me into her office. I sat down and tried to be calm and collected, but couldn't help noticing the monstrous pile of manila folders on her desk...all looking suspiciously like med school application files. She made small talk, asking me about how my day was, how the graduation ceremony was.

Then came a knock on her office door. Some old guy in a suit opened the door. I figured he was a colleague of Dean Eddins who needed to hand her something.

"Carmelle, this is Dr. Greenberg, our Dean of Medical Education." Dr. Eddins introduced me. My stomach fell out onto the floor. I stood up to shake hands with him. But even still in that moment, I thought perhaps he was just doing business and Dr. Eddins was introducing me because it seemed like the courteous thing to do.

The next few moments all happened in slow motion.

"Nice to meet you Carmelle. I've got a letter for you. But I couldn't afford the stamps to mail it to you in California, but heard you were in town. So here you go." Dr. Greenberg handed me a white envelope with the Baylor College of Medicine logo printed on it.

I took the envelope. Opened it up. Read the first line of the letter.

"Dear Carmelle. Congratulations and welcome to the class of 2013 at Baylor College of Medicine."

I screamed. Then I fell right back down into the chair I was standing in front of. In pure shock.

"Congratulations, Carmelle. Welcome to BCM." Dr. Greenberg gave a little smile and walked out of the room. Dean Eddins was beaming at me, pink lipstick and pretty southern blonde hair and all.

And that, my friends, is how I ended up at Baylor College of Medicine on this crazy journey called "becoming a doctor."

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White Coat Induction Ceremony

Grace, peace, and blessings,

Carmelle

Read From Olin to MD Part Three - how Olin prepared her for this journey.  

Posted in: A Different Path, Alumni Speak, Careers in Healthcare