Ross University Blog

ADVICE CORNER: How Your Past Experience Can Boost Your Medical School Application

September 15, 2015

Recently, we sat down with Carey James, associate dean of admissions at Ross University School of Medicine (RUSM), to chat about one important piece of your medical school candidate profile: your past experiences. These can help an institution’s admissions officers look at more than just your MCAT score and grade point average to really understand who you are—both as a person and as a prospective physician.

“To us, that’s really interesting stuff,” says James. “It helps us see beyond the statistics and understand you better as a person who is  more than just numbers on an application.” In fact, in select cases, your past experience can actually outweigh how you performed during your undergraduate studies, he says.

Though he emphasizes that there are many options out there for a medical school student who wants to get some extra experience in the field, James pinpointed three main methods: Shadowing a physician, your work history in a medical field, and your volunteer history.

Why It’s Important: Shadow a Physician

Shadowing a physician is a common, generally safe way for you to get some experience in the medical arena without participating in direct patient care. Shadowing is all about observation: You’ll likely be following a physician over the course of a typical day at work, watching that person interact with patients, and gaining a greater understanding of the practice of medicine. Think of it as a test drive.

“It protects the student, and helps them gain empathy as to what it’s like to be a practicing physician,” James adds. “It helps them imagine being in that role, and broadens their understanding of the realities of daily life in practice.”

That’s an important point, says James: Shadowing a physician is less about  developing practical skills in medicine and more about seeing what it’s really like to be a practicing physician—and if being a doctor is really right for you.

“Before you apply to medical school, it’s important for you to ensure that the job is the right fit for you before you commit,” James says. Shadowing a physician can help you make that decision.

Action steps: If you know a physician, that’s one of the first places you should start on shadowing—just reach out and ask! The Association of American Medical Colleges suggests that you can also try asking your teachers, pre-med advisors, or professors about shadowing opportunities, as well as hospitals or practitioners in your area. When you do your research, think about finding a shadowing opportunity in a specialty that’s interesting to you. If you’re interested in children’s healthcare, for example, see if you can find a pediatrician to partner with.

Why It’s Important: Medically Related Professional Experience

What if you’ve been working in an actual medical profession, though—like as a physician’s assistant, nurse, or emergency medical technician? That type of experience should absolutely go on your medical school application, says James. In fact, depending on how long you’ve been working in the medical field, this type of experience can even outweigh how you performed as undergraduate student.

“While a student may have been one type of person ten years ago as an undergraduate, they’ve had a decade—years, a large portion of their life—that they’ve spent out in practice, helping patients, gaining experience, and really developing an understanding of the responsibilities healthcare providers have for their patients,” James says. “That becomes their story, and it helps us understand who they are.”

Having this type of student at RUSM tends to elevate the work of everyone around him or her, James says.

“It’s fantastic what these types of students bring to the table,” says James. “They’re great people to have in your study groups, they’re great to have on campus, and they’re great in hospitals during clinical rotations because they already know the protocols. I consider those with past medical experience to be very mature and prepared students.”

Action steps: Having medical experience becomes very important with “nontraditional” medical school students who decided to pursue medicine later in life than most, but it’s just as important if you’re still working toward your undergraduate degree. If you’re still in college, check with your institution to see if they have their own ambulance service or medical program. If they do, see if you can participate.

Why It’s Important: Volunteer Experience and Non-Medical Experience

Volunteering at a healthcare facility is a little like shadowing: You probably won’t participate in much direct patient care. This makes sense, as volunteers are generally neither paid nor trained. However, unlike shadowing, many volunteers are encouraged to interact with patients, which can give medical students an edge when it comes to the patient-doctor relationship.

Don’t be afraid to pursue multiple volunteer opportunities—even non-medical opportunities. The AAMC points out that volunteer experiences of all kinds can make you a more well-rounded person, help you develop leadership abilities, and network with others who share your interests.

But what if you’ve volunteered for a cause that isn’t directly related to medicine? Put that on your application too, says James.  

“Volunteering for an organization—like Habitat for Humanity—isn’t strictly necessary for medical school, but that sort of experience is part of who you are,” James says. “If that’s how you spent your summers, doing something for other communities, and you got something out of it—if it made you feel good—then that says a lot about who you are as a person. And we pay attention to that.”

It’s important for admissions officers to see the whole picture of who you are, so even if your work experience isn’t directly related to medicine, include it.

“Sometimes, it takes a lot of prying for us to find out you’ve been spending 30 hours a week working at your family’s business,” James says. “But that actually becomes very important, because it tells us what you’ve been doing with your time. It helps us understand how you budget your free time, and what you choose to do with it—which becomes very important when you become a practicing physician.”

And don’t forget about the “fun stuff,” he adds.

“If you play on a pick-up soccer team or cricket team on the weekends, make mention of that,” James says. “It’s often really interesting stuff, and it helps us frame you as a real person, not just numbers on an application. Sometimes, it serves as a great icebreaker for the interview and helps us understand where your passions are.”

Action steps: Check with local hospitals to see if they accept volunteers. Some run free clinics or satellite offices that allow prospective medical school students to participate.

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Tags: Admissions , MCAT

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