By Monya De, MD, MPH
Unsuccessful medical school applicants face a quandary. What to do next?
A popular option has been the master’s degree in public health. Students figured it was a way to spend a year doing something “health-related.” They could take off for medical school interviews, maybe write a paper or two. But the MPH is too easy a route. It is not enough. Here is what the MPH telegraphs: “I sat down for a year in easy to moderate difficulty classes and passed. I have a broad overview of public health.”
Note: none of this says “I have a new skill” “I have distinguished myself” or “I have made a significant sacrifice”. And the admissions committee already knows the student can pass easy to moderate classes—that is what a college diploma with a respectable GPA is for. The MPH is a *great* degree to get during residency or fellowship, when the program is paying for it, when it creates a needed break in residency, and when it can extend loan deferment in a time of financial need.
As a former admissions committee member at my medical school, I was well aware of the reality of application readers. These are tired physicians with young kids running around. They grab a few hours at the end of a long day, glass of wine in hand, to read students’ applications. They are looking for something to surprise and delight them, not “I took some more classes that were not that difficult.” [I have an MPH, but did it during residency].
They are looking to be impressed, to be startled out of the haze that settles over them after reading too many identical applications. And doing that does not have to involve $60,000 in tuition money, two years, and weak hamstrings from sitting in the library. There will be plenty of that later. If medical school is your goal, there are many ways to strengthen your application without taking two years of your life and adding significantly to the amount of debt you accumulate.
Applicants should figure out where the weak spots are in their applications. Weak science grades? Take one-off classes in physiology and biochemistry at the local community college instead of paying for another degree that is highly unlikely to be used enough to justify its expense. (The rare exceptions to never using your MPH include preventive medicine and running epidemiological studies as a faculty member).
Not enough volunteering? Unique opportunities abound. Teach ESL at a community center and learn Spanish yourself as you get to know the people there. Coach a sport in a low-income school district. Teach art in an assisted living home. Become a court appointed special advocate (CASA) for foster children.
Application too boring? Take up competitive bodybuilding. Then write an essay about lessons in human performance, discipline, motivation, and pushing your limits to be the best you can be. [Or: work in the office of a local congressperson fighting for access to healthcare].
Not enough medical experience? Become a medical scribe and see patients every day. Or do patient intake at a high-volume rural clinic or ER. The patients are guaranteed to be fascinating, and the experience will be impressive to big-city admissions folk.
Need to make money? Become a waiter or bartender. Write a personal statement about serving people from all walks of life, balancing multiple orders and keeping them all straight in your head (if you don’t think being a hospital intern is exactly like being a waiter, just ask any physician), and staying professional in the face of upset customers.
Admissions is a numbers game, and success means doing something the rest of those numbers are not willing or able to do. Applicants need to have an application unique enough that readers say, “Oh, yes, I remember the one who did…”. Find it, do it, and the chances of success increase markedly.
About the Author
Monya De, MD MPH is an internal medicine physician, journalist, and speaker in Los Angeles. She has been a reporter for the ABC News Medical Unit, a commentator for the television show “Hopkins,” and a script consultant for shows including “Harry’s Law”, “The Ghost Whisperer”, “Brothers and Sisters”, “House”, “The Firm”, and “black-ish”. Dr. De attended Stanford University and graduated with distinction from the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. She is the co-author of the 2016 book Minerals:The Forgotten Nutrient. Find her on Twitter @medjournalist.