I can vividly remember going through the medical school application process approximately three years ago. While the process ultimately went in my favor, I can still clearly remember the confusion, the anxiety, and sometimes the paranoia that settled in for months as my application was in an unknown space. Soon, I found myself searching Google to see if there was any more information that I could glean somewhere out there in the vast internet, despite some of the concerns I heard from other students or my advisors about relying on such resources.
Social media and networking sites like SDN represent a new age of obtaining information on things like medical school admissions. The opportunities and challenges presented by these sites are unique, and it is important to know how you can most wisely use a resource like SDN. Thus, if I may, here are my words of wisdom about how to maximize the value of SDN and similar sites during the application season:
Applying to medical school is taxing—mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically. The greatest part of this forum, when used properly, is that it can bring together a group of people who actually understand the stress you are under and the nuances of the situation you are in better than many others in your life.
While this time is difficult, know that there are some great moments of success along the way. As each of you waits to hear about secondary applications or interview invitations, take the time to celebrate when good news comes around for any of your new colleagues. Again, the message boards on SDN are unique because they are a place where you and many other hopefuls can unite to cheer each other on through the chaos.
If you can view SDN and other networking sights in this light, you may be able to form lasting friendships. I ended up meeting many of the SDN users who I talked to online during in-person interviews, and I still keep in close touch with a handful of them today as we go through our MD/PhD journeys.
Be aware of bias in posting—and don’t sweat the numbers.
In my experience, one of the major reasons that I was cautioned away from using SDN and other similar resources during college was because it can so easily contribute to anxiety, particularly around scores. It is sometimes tempting to worry when you see people freaking out about an MCAT score of 515, knowing that you have a 505, for example. You begin to doubt that you will ever be accepted to medical school and you feel like everyone else is doing better than you.
However, this mentality is quite dangerous! It is important to remember that not everyone who views SDN will post their scores. In fact, more often than not, those with the highest scores are those who are more likely to share their scores publicly. Those who are not comfortable with their scores may not share them for fear of being judged. Those who have average scores may feel that they do not have anything “meaningful” to contribute by sharing their score. Remember that the people sharing do not necessarily represent everyone, and those who give advice back also do not always say what the majority may be thinking.
Thus, while SDN can be useful to learn more about the weight and meaning of a score in some contexts, the exact numbers that people share on SDN must be taken with a grain of salt.
Avoid comparisons in general
This point also predominantly involves test scores and GPAs, but it dives a bit deeper than that. It’s important to remember that no applicant can be directly compared in a virtual webspace—even if you were to know everything about the other student, which you most likely do not. Therefore, even comparing yourself to someone who seems to post the same stats as you and wondering why they received an interview invitation that you did not will only lead to disappointment. Every applicant is different. There are many more factors to the process than what can be seen on paper or online. Additionally, each school to which you will apply will place a different weight on every single one of these elements. None of this can be captured by simply comparing your “on paper” experience to someone online and wondering what went wrong at your case.
And again, remember that these are your future colleagues, and work purposefully to keep any jealousy in check. The application process is frustrating for everyone. Good news for one student, even when it is not you just yet, means that future patients will benefit by having a great physician to take care of them! That is the ultimate goal and definitely a reason to celebrate.
Know that schools can figure out your identity fairly easily
One thing that I think surprises applicants is that a school can, if they so wish, fairly easily track down the real-life identity of an SDN user. Your identity can be traced in any number of ways. Perhaps you’ve shared your exact GPA and MCAT scores. Maybe you used a username that you have used on other forums or that relates to a hobby/interest of yours that can be gleaned from your application. Maybe you posted about what you wore for your interview or specifics of the date/time of your interview. All of these small breadcrumbs can lead a school straight to you.
As a result, it is important to maintain the utmost professionalism on sites like SDN at all times. Avoid bashing any school (regardless of whether or not you had the chance to interview there—you don’t want to burn future bridges for any reason) or simply saying anything that you would be embarrassed to have associated with your name. The best way to do this is to ensure that you have taken a step back before posting anything with raw emotion. As always with the internet, assume that anything you post will exist forever.
In fact, my current medical school knows who I was on SDN and what my username was, likely before I was aware that they did. However, I have no problem with this because I think my online personality matched the values I hold in real life. As a result, this was actually kind of a unique way for my program to see the real me before I ever stepped foot on campus.
Treat SDN as A resource, not THE resource
One of the benefits—and disadvantages—of SDN is that it can provide immediate answers to almost any question you have during the application season. It can be easy to feel like you can use SDN alone for all of your questions, even when your personal circumstances do not fit exactly what was asked. Be careful of this. You may not actually know whether you are talking to a student, an interviewer, a program director, etc, or if their views are representative of an institution.
So use SDN—but also consult your school’s pre-med advisor if you have one. Try to go to conferences hosted by medical schools if any are in your area and meet program faculty and staff. Reach out to current students or friends of yours who may have graduated before you and are now in medical school. Finally, the most accurate and up-to-date information will usually be found directly on a school’s website. Be sure to consult these sources and tools that help you navigate through them—such as the Medical School Admissions Requirements (MSAR), provided through the AAMC—for the most accurate information about individual programs.
Ultimately, SDN is a supplement, and an amazing one at that. As with any major decision, however, it is wise to utilize multiple resources to ensure that you are getting the most accurate information and are not missing valuable perspectives/input.
Whether you choose to stay in close contact with SDN and other members, or whether you just check it for advice every now and then, I hope these tips are useful in maximizing the value of what the forums can offer.
And if you are currently in the process of preparing your medical school applications: I have been in that scary space, and all I can do is wish each of you the very best of luck! May the forces of AMCAS, MSAR, SDN, and all other application-based entities forever be in your favor.