Q&A with Dr. Suzi Schweikert, Ob-Gyn and Medical School Admissions Expert

As a physician, I have worked in private practice, academic medicine, research medicine, and community health. I currently work in a non-profit community clinic, where I treat patients, supervise nurse midwives, and train providers on electronic health records. At Accepted, I advise students applying to medical school, residencies, fellowships, PA, NP, MPH, nursing, midwifery, and other healthcare-affiliated programs. I enjoy working with traditional and nontraditional applicants alike and believe that healthcare is at its best when providers come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

1. Can you tell us what it was like applying to med school and becoming a doctor as an English major? What led you to your interest in medicine?

As an undergrad, I realized I wanted to do more than write about issues, so I started volunteering. I worked at a school for the blind, then I tried coaching. When I found a position in a health clinic, I knew almost instantly that I had found my comfort zone. I loved the fast paced “anything can walk in the door” feeling. Yet, when I was with a patient, time slowed down and I learned how to truly be present. From the elderly man who recited poetry to me, the doctors running from room to room, and all the patients who were waiting to be seen, I knew this was the job I wanted.

However, getting to be a doctor was another story. Nobody in my family was in the medical field, so I had to figure it out on my own. I met other premed students in my classes, and they gave me advice on how to apply. I was grateful for their help and offered to edit their personal statements in exchange. So you could say that I’ve been editing medical school essays even longer than I’ve been a doctor. Once in medical school, I found myself just as capable as any science major. It’s the ability to learn new things that is important, rather than the specific knowledge itself.

2. How did you prepare for med school? Did you pursue a postbac to help bulk up the science side of your education?

I started off as a political science major, then switched to psychology, and finally settled on English. Luckily, I had been taking premed courses from the beginning, so I was able to extend my undergraduate schooling an extra year to complete all the requirements. I almost gave up being premed after a poor grade in chemistry. But then I took biochemistry and loved it, which led to one of my best letters of recommendation. I always tell the medical school applicants I work with that one bad grade does not make or break you.

3. What was it like to serve on the admissions committee at UCSD?

I volunteered for the admissions committee because I had been interviewed by an unprepared student, so I wanted to make a better impression on incoming applicants. I also wanted to make sure that UCSD accepted a few more non-science majors! However, when I began interviewing, I realized that one’s major in college had very little impact on whether an applicant would be accepted. Their attitude and behavior towards people was the biggest factor. When we discussed applicants at meetings, the one thing that often came though was: “This person is really compassionate and dedicated. I can see them caring for my patients.” When the admissions committee can imagine trusting you as a colleague, you have a good shot.

4. How did that admissions experience contribute to your current career?

I think advocating for students led naturally to my current role as a medical school admissions consultant with Accepted. Now I teach applicants to advocate for themselves and to make the best possible impression on everyone they meet on interview day.

5. In your opinion, why is the med school personal statement so important?

It’s a window into who you really are, a snapshot of you in real life, as opposed to the story told by your test scores. Your past actions tell the admissions committee how you will behave in the future, so you need to show them your human side. You do this by sharing what you care most about, how you handle unexpected situations, and how you interpret the world around you. That’s a lot to convey in a short space. Do it well and you will have the admissions committee rooting for you.

6. Can you share some of your experiences as an OB-GYN resident at USC-Los Angeles County Medical Center?

I didn’t even know what an Ob-Gyn did until the end of my 3rd year of medical school! At that point, I was pretty convinced that I wanted to go into Family Medicine. But then I did a 4th year sub-internship at USC, which totally changed my perspective. I had always wanted to see patients over their entire life-span, not just a single interaction, and I realized that I could still do that as an Ob-Gyn. By the end of my sub-I, I had delivered hundreds of babies and was even allowed to do a cesarean section on my last day, which really sealed the deal. I chose to go to USC for my residency because getting lots of hands-on experience was important to me. I’m glad that medical schools are giving students the chance to do clinical rotations earlier now, because you need to spend several weeks doing something every day to know if it’s the right field for you. Doing sub-internships at other hospitals is another great way of seeing what is out there.

7. What motivated you to then pursue an additional degree in Public Health? How has this degree contributed to your career?

As a young physician, I found that the media and pharmaceutical companies were interpreting medical research for us, and as a front-line physician, I was becoming more uncomfortable with this. Several big studies have come into question in the past few decades because the researchers did not interpret the data correctly. I was trained in clinical research and did independent research studies during medical school and residency, but I was still at a loss as to how to combat the rampant misinterpretation of research. I was also being asked to prescribe hormone replacement therapy to my patients and, according to some studies, I was preventing a host of age-related diseases, while according to others, I was risking my patients lives. It was by doing an MPH that I finally learned the many ways in which research can be poorly designed or interpreted to be biased in favor of certain outcomes. By understanding and looking for all the types of potential bias in study design, collection, and interpretation of data, scientists and doctors can know how and when to share results with the public.

I think every physician should spend a few years in the research world, with their main goal being to protect the public when disseminating research findings. When a patient asks for my advice on a new drug or therapy, I now feel confident that I can give them options and risks in terms of their individual situation, rather than simply the numbers reported by a research study.

8. What are some of the differences between working in a private practice and a non-profit community clinic?

The main difference I have noticed is that in the community clinic, I have learned to rely more on my clinical skills than I ever did in private practice. Many of my patients have minimal or no insurance, so I need to focus on my history and exam and order only those tests that will best serve the patient, rather than taking a shot-gun approach and ordering a lot of tests at once. I think this has made me a better clinician and more willing to really listen to my patients’ symptoms. Of course, I still rely on technology, as it plays a huge role in saving lives and preventive healthcare. But like anything, too much technology has a downside for the patient, including risks of procedures, loss of time, discomfort, and stress. A good history and exam will often lead you in the correct direction so that you can put your patients through less testing, which most patients think is good thing.

9. What do you find most fulfilling in your role as an Ob-Gyn?

Teaching people how to take care of themselves has always been my number one reward. Whether showing a patient how to recognize pregnancy complications or talking about normal aging or how to cope with illness, I always enjoy the moment when a patient says, “Thank you, nobody ever explained it to me like that before.” When I give a patient the ability to take control of her own health, I feel like it will have a more lasting impact, and she will be able to pass that self-knowledge down to her children.

The ultimate goal for me is that my patients feel in charge of their own health. My job is just to be a support along the way.

10. What do you find fulfilling in your role as an admissions consultant? And how do you juggle this role with being a physician?

It’s easy to juggle my role as an admissions consultant and physician, because it’s fun and recharges me. It also gives me hope for the future of medicine. Sometimes it’s not clear what kind of physician an applicant will become, but by the time they are done writing their essays, they discover something new about themselves. It’s in the process of searching for the right words that they find out what they really want to do and why.

For the writer, it’s like soul searching. For me, it’s like reading a wonderful book and then finding out there will be a next instalment in the series. I’m constantly filled with optimism when I read my clients’ essays and can’t wait to find out where they will go and what they will accomplish. I think mentoring my clients, as I guide them through the challenging medical school admissions process, is one of the most important responsibilities I have in my role as a physician.

11. Do you have family obligations as well? Can you share your experience on managing the work-home balance?

I’m married and have two kids, ages 8 and 12. Luckily, my husband works in the same school district, so he can usually pick the kids up. I coached both my kids’ soccer teams for several years, but now they’ve found different sports, so I’m just a spectator. I think they prefer having me all to themselves. Whenever I can, I pick one of them up from school and we just hang for a while. I love hearing them tell me how they see the world and what they are most concerned with (for my 12-year old it’s global warming and for my 8-year old it’s all about Minecraft). I’ve learned the hard way that overscheduled kids get too stressed. I found that by not over-scheduling them, we also have time for great conversations, so I try not to miss out on that.

12. What is your work schedule like?

I think it’s important to have balance if you want to keep enjoying your job. It took me several years to put my foot down and stop working 90 hours a week. I now see patients about 30 hours a week and on the other days, I train providers on electronic medical records, work to improve efficiencies in charting, and prepare educational talks for my department. Several physicians in my group spend most of their time in the hospital, while others like myself are more clinic based. There’s always the potential for an emergency in an Ob-Gyn office, so I’m grateful that my patients are understanding when they wait longer to be seen. I’m hoping that, as technology improves, we can see more patients through video-conferencing, to alleviate all the driving back and forth.

13. Can you walk us through a typical work day?

My favorite time of day is the early morning hours that I spend reading and editing medical school personal statements for applicants. I have no trouble getting up early for that, as I always enjoy helping a new story come to life. Then reality sets in as I get the kids ready for school and head to the clinic where I see patients, take calls from midwives, and discuss cases with colleagues. At lunch, I often take a walk to give my mind a break, and then it’s back to seeing patients in the afternoon.

At the end of the day, I review my schedule for the coming week, then I go home to hang out with my husband and kids and take our dog for a walk. Of course, sometimes I get home too late for all that. In the evenings, I work on editing. If I’m too tired, I have learned to read an essay and then sleep on it. I always have new and better insights the next morning.

Sleep is the best brain food I know, so I make getting enough of it a priority.

14. What advice do you have for those seeking to go into OB-GYN specifically? What traits are critical in this specialty?

OB-GYN has always been the yin-yang of medicine. It’s the one specialty where you can do surgery one minute, and out-patient care the next. You are a specialist and a primary care physician wrapped up into one. However, there is so much to learn that no one person can be an expert in all areas. Many Ob-GYN’s these days are choosing a more limited path. They sub-specialize in perinatal medicine, infertility, oncology, family planning, or uro-gynecology (an area which we have a huge need for). Others are becoming OB hospitalists, which increases the safety for our obstetric patients. And yet others, like me, focus more on women’s primary care. I think this could be a specialty all by itself, because it requires a combination of training in internal medicine, family medicine, and gynecology. But until we find a way to establish another new field, we will just keep inventing it as we go.

As for the trait that is most critical, I think it is the ability to respect your patient’s autonomy. Your patient is calling the shots, so you must let go of your need to be in control all the time. Often there’s limited research on a medication or condition, especially during pregnancy. So, while we can make recommendations, we then have to ask our patients which treatments resonate with them. We partner with them, but ultimately we respect their decisions.

15. Do you have any tips on reducing stress?

Physical activity has always been my life saver. In high school I played competitive sports (soccer, basketball, softball, volleyball), and kept this up for the first two years of college. Eventually I grew tired of the injuries and had to spend more time studying. One day, I started taking long walks after school and found that I could study while I walked, which allowed me to memorize tons of information. When I got to medical school, I was surprised to find that we had intramural teams with names like The Grateful Med and the Med Heads. I loved playing on these non-competitive teams because novices and athletes all came out to play. We didn’t care about winning and just focused on giving everyone a chance to hold the ball. It was the most fun I’d ever had in sports and gave me a sense of what team sports should be like for kids.

In residency, my classmates introduced me to hiking, which we did whenever we had time. Later, I met my husband who took me to camping and backpacking. I call these the ultimate stress relievers, because when you spend all day thinking about wild animals and where you will sleep, you have no time left for your other worries. It’s like survival meditation. I’ve tried actual meditation over the years but could never seem to get any results from it, mainly because I got bored and stopped too soon.

A few years ago, I discovered the health benefits of doing yoga. Having to focus on keeping my balance keeps me from thinking about other things, and the results are amazing. When I’m at work and feeling immediate stress, I do some quick stretches that remind me of yoga, and I feel the stress melting away. On a tough day, I still like to go for a walk. I think walking is the best stress reliever on earth.

16. What do you know now that you wish you would have known before starting med school?

I wish I had known how to slow down and enjoy all the little human interactions. Each person has things they can teach us, whether about health, illness, or life. As students and interns, and even as practicing doctors, we are often moving too fast to stop and pay attention. When I remember to slow down, I am given a huge dose of joy, gratitude, compassion, awareness, or some other amazing experience. Patients value our time and our presence with them much more than we realize. Try not to find yourself looking at your phone when you should be listening. Above all, learn to say “no” to obligations that look good on paper but do not serve your purpose in life. That way, when a patient, friend or loved one needs a few minutes of your time, you can say yes.

17. What advice would you give your pre-residency self? What do you wish you would’ve known then?

Medical school was all about not losing things: not losing my way around the hospital, not losing my stethoscope, not losing my midterm grade, and not losing my sanity. Residency took it up a notch and became all about not losing a patient. It felt like a four-year war to keep patients alive, with each day being a new battle. I would put on my uniform, get covered in blood, sweat and tears, eat whatever food happened to be around, and eventually pass out on a dirty couch. Then, I’d wake up and do it all over again the next day.

When my four years was finally over, I expected life to go back to normal. However, as any veteran knows, it never does. You are changed forever and end up with a kind of PTSD that you can’t get rid of, for better or worse. You will always be hyper-alert for middle of the night emergencies, worried about the worst possible outcome, and filled with dread at the sound of a plummeting heart rate.

What is different after residency is that you can draw the line on how much time you spend in the fray and how much time you prepare for and recover from it. You learn to advocate for yourself and find your own life balance, which is different for everyone. Otherwise, you risk getting burned out. I’ve seen plenty of doctors go through this and it’s sad. When I finally stepped back from my career and stopped seeing every day as a battle to be won, I was able to go to work and find joy in the daily interactions with my patients, staff and colleagues. These little moments remind me of why I’m doing this.

Yes, I still feel the stress sometimes, but I’ve learned to see the silver lining. It’s no longer a war, but more of a way of living. If I could go back and tell myself one thing it would be this: Your career and life do not have to be all-intense and all-consuming to be rewarding. Find your balance.

18. What obstacles did you encounter during med school? How would you advise other students who may be working through some of those same challenges?

Find a med student group that you can share your ups and downs with. This can be a formal support group or just a bunch of students who are friends. The key is, they must be willing to share honest and often painful truths with one another. The fact is, stress and fear of failing makes people behave badly. We can hold it inside and take it out on those closest to us, or we can share our stories and see our human side for what it is. When I get together with my med school classmates (we still see each other often), we tell each other the good, the bad and the ugly. We laugh until we cry, both at ourselves and each other. We find comfort knowing that we are not the only one who feels a certain way, and that even the smartest and best doctors we know can be driven to insanity by a certain situation. If we take ourselves off those darned pedestals and admit that we are subject to the same emotional meltdowns and self-doubts as anyone else, we can find a way to cope.

This is not unique to doctors, although we may be more reluctant than others to admit our weaknesses. Teachers, lawyers, social workers, bus drivers, parents and magazine editors all have their own dark humor that they share with their tribes. We all need someone to teach us how to laugh at ourselves. Start early and laugh often.

19. What would you say is the biggest problem in healthcare today?

I think we need to start focusing more on the body-mind connection. All the medication in the world won’t help a person who is suffering under excessive amounts of stress. There are too many traumas being lived right now, by children, young women and men, parents, grandparents, people living with abuse and poverty. It’s not just obesity, substance abuse, and mental health conditions that are brought on by stress. Our immune system weakens, and we have less ability to fight cancer and infections. I think our government focuses too much on how to pay for healthcare, and not enough on what people need, which is relief from excessive stress and better ways of coping than our “go-to” addictions like eating, drinking, smoking, shopping, etc. Of course, you could say that this is not really a healthcare problem. The problem is that healthcare is trying to solve it.

On the flip side, I think we are heading toward a new era in personalized medicine, which may prove to be the answer we’ve been looking for all along. If we can show that an individual’s stress threshold has been crossed, whether by inflammation, diet, genetics, carcinogens, medications, infections, etc, perhaps we can start listening to this data and making changes in how people live. If we can measure stress, in terms of what an individual can tolerate, then perhaps we can learn to minimize excess stress burdens on patients. That would be my dream solution!

20. Can you share your top 3 tips on applying to med school?

1. Choose classes and activities that are truly enjoyable for you, not just because you think they look good to med schools. The activity itself doesn’t matter as much as how enthusiastic and genuine you are about it.

2. Start early. There is not much benefit from adding a last-minute volunteering or research experience. True commitment to an experience is what schools value, and what you yourself will get the most value from.

3. Write your true story. This is harder than it sounds. We tend to see doctors as super-humans who can do it all, but life just isn’t like that. Most physicians took a circuitous route to get where they are and have come to value the twists and turns that taught them something. The interesting aspects of your life make for a better story and will certainly make you a better doctor. Show how you took some side roads and got yourself back on track. Show your human side. No one gets into med school without being human first.

About the Author

Dr. Suzi Schweikert, MD MPH, is a former UCSD School of Medicine adcom member and admissions consultant at Accepted, the top-tier admissions consultancy that helps you unlock your competitive advantage. For over 20 years, Accepted’s highly credentialed, experienced admissions experts have helped hundreds of medical school applicants gain acceptance to over 135 allopathic and osteopathic medical schools.

Christy Crisologo

    Christy Crisologo is SDN’s Editor-in-Chief. She earned her BA in Communications from Asbury University and lives in Texas with her husband (and primary connection to the medical world) and their two young children. 

    Christy Crisologo has 138 posts and counting. See all posts by Christy Crisologo

    Discussion