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Questions Med School Applicants Are Afraid to Ask



College students planning to apply to medical school must consider several factors in selecting the schools to which they apply. Quality, cost, location and academic environment are some of the considerations.

Medical school applicants want to make the best possible impression on admissions officers, and as a result may hesitate to ask certain questions and get the facts they need to make a reasoned decision about which medical schools they will apply to.

Potential applicants should consider a brief telephone or zoom meeting with a member of the med school admission office to ask some of the following challenging questions.

1. Am I aiming too high to get into your school?

Students don’t want to draw attention to their weaknesses, but applications and interviews with medical schools are expensive. Most applicants don’t want to waste their resources on schools unlikely to admit them.

Ask this question in the late spring or early summer, when the prior year’s admission season is over and before screening new applications starts. Med school admissions offices are calmer, and most make time for potential applicants to discuss their plans.

Besides providing GPA, MCAT scores, volunteer activities and shadowing experiences, send some of your research or show your unique qualifications. Be sincere about requesting a truly honest answer.

2. What is the average student debt of your graduates?

What has the school done to assist med students with the financial burden? Nationally, the average debt of graduating medical students is an astounding $200,000 – ranging from $0 for those in certain scholarships programs to more than $400,000 for some students with unique needs. Add that to any debt from undergraduate studies, and the burden paying it back will be with you for many years.

A small number of medical schools have programs that are tuition-free or that substantially reduce costs for particularly talented students. The National Health Service Corps offers a limited number of students the opportunity to receive tuition and a cost of living stipend in exchange for after-residency service in an underserved area.

3. How rapidly has tuition increased at your school?

Along with the trend in pricing at a particular med school, ask how the school helps ease student debt. These two questions go hand-in-hand, and you may find the school is talking out of both sides of its mouth. However, there are some like the University of Toledo College of Medicine, whose dean has committed to keeping the tuition flat.

Observe tuition increases over the last five years. If there is no leveling off, expect the increases to continue on that trajectory. Try to explore this thoroughly if you are going to be the one responsible for getting yourself through school, and revisit the topic one on one after acceptance, asking what your scholarship and grant opportunities will be and what the average student debt is at graduation.

4. How many hours of shadowing are preferred and do you prefer a variety of specialties?

This information is often vague on the medical school’s website, and you may need more specifics, especially if you don’t have very many shadowing hours and your shadowing happened to be in one super-subspecialized area.

5. Will a minor misdemeanor or alcohol infraction hurt my chances of acceptance?

Ask this question if applicable to you and listen carefully for the pause before they answer. Admissions staff will likely ask for more information, and you should be prepared to provide accurate detail if you want a realistic answer.

Medical schools now generally run a criminal background check on applicants they’re considering admitting, so honesty is the best policy. One student answered “no” to a question about criminal convictions, thinking she could get her conviction expunged. She was very distressed when she called the office to say she had lied.

It is not advisable to spin the truth. Why apply to a school if its policy indicates that past actions will screen you out?

6. What are your school’s weaknesses?

All schools have strengths and weaknesses. Just like the applicant who could be asked a very similar question, the admissions officer will need to pause and thoughtfully reflect before answering.

Some programs won’t want to answer that clearly, but if they really care about continued improvement, they will give you a thoughtful response. If you are a competitive applicant, it will be important for you to have as much in-depth knowledge as possible to make your decision.

7. Do your admissions teams look at applicants’ social media?

Yes, they do. It’s not all the time and not on every student, but it happens frequently enough that if you have an embarrassing or otherwise negative social media profile, you should clean up whatever you possibly can.

If there is something you have been unable to eradicate but that has a reasonable explanation, try to figure out a way to manage the repercussions. How to handle such a situation if it is brought up to you may be a question for the admissions dean. Professionalism is a very serious piece of the medical student selection process.

Anyone you’re connected with on social networks should have the same serious perspective on that quality. If they don’t, this isn’t the time for them to be on your page. We are known by the values others perceive in us or those on our social media profiles.

8. How do you hope students will manage their avocations, hobbies or sport activities once they are in med school?

Some elite student-athletes plan to continue competing while they are in med school. It is very challenging, sometimes requiring these students to take an extra year. This reminds me of the variety of ways students have handled hobbies on their applications. Be careful about the advice you get on this topic and how you handle hobbies on your application.

If you’re short on volunteering and have not done things consistently over the years – only in small quantities of 20 hours or 35 hours here and there – putting thousands of hours on a hobby even though it has been over many years may not be optimal.

On the other hand, some applicants don’t list hobbies in their activities list at all and then talk about a long history of swimming, rock climbing, vast collections, computer game championships or other such things in their essays about stress relief. If the screeners are paying attention to a shortage of volunteering on this type of application, they will know how you are spending your time.

Perhaps this is a time to consider whether your values and the school‘s values are in sync and whether you need to know this before you apply, in which case you would ask this question in the spring. On the other hand, if you would go to that school and be willing to reduce, perhaps even dramatically, the amount of time you spend on the hobby, then postpone asking and be willing to make the sacrifice.

If you’re a re-applicant, definitely ask in the spring if your previous application appeared to have too much time spent on hobbies, fraternity, sorority, personal fitness or gaming. Then, think about the balance of activities the med school might want to see.

9. What did your med school and its students do to support the community during Covid?

A strong school with creative students will have come up with many solutions under the umbrella of the school or in separate ways. They may have been involved in research, creation of medical devices, support of the vaccination process or other activities. I would be hesitant if all I heard was that they hunkered down and waited it out.

10. What is your school’s policy on justice, equality, diversity and inclusion?

Ask if the school has observed changes over the past few years in the student body and faculty involvement with the community. If you are someone who wants to change the world, and they have not grown much with the culture, you should be concerned.

You may want to ask how the school and students responded after what happened to George Floyd. These are very challenging questions, and depending upon the receptivity of the school, you may want to ask them after you’ve been accepted. On the other hand, if you’re not worried about going to that school, if they don’t share your beliefs, I would ask it at the time of the interview.

11. What are my chances if I have to reapply?

Ask how you can improve your application if you do not get accepted this year. No one wants to be in that situation, but some good candidates will be. Realistically, chances for admission the next year are not very good, certainly much less than the 42% acceptance rate for first-time applicants.

The reasons for failed applications matter. Some students have aimed for unrealistic schools, considering their qualifications. Sometimes they applied late in the cycle, didn’t have good counseling or applied to too few schools. Ask for advice to increase your odds for success and then do those things. Med schools do compare the applications from one year to the next.

I remember spending time with one applicant and going over interview assessments. Interviewers didn’t believe he showed compassion for others. We talked about volunteer efforts to demonstrate he was willing to make sacrifices for others. Instead, he chose to increase the time he spent video gaming and did not fare any better the next year.

Recommendations will vary from candidate to candidate. Some might include more undergraduate science courses, a postbaccalaureate program, a master’s degree in an area of interest, research, more volunteer effort, more shadowing or something else.

If you ask too late, you won’t be able to squeeze in what is needed. Keep in mind that good doctors take constructive feedback, are constantly seeking to improve their skills, learn from their mistakes and build rewarding careers because they are continually learning.

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