Who am I? I am a 21-year old, Cuban-American, first-time applicant to medical school from South Florida.
For the past few years, my ultimate goal was to be accepted to an allopathic medical school in the United States. I entered the University of Miami with this dream in mind after having just completed my first shadowing opportunity with Dr. Bruno Bastos at Cleveland Clinic Florida. Dr. Bastos, a medical oncologist, mentored me in the basics of patient care, cancer treatments, and professionalism in medicine. He left me with a great impression of the field that motivated me to pursue a career in medicine and strive to be the best student I could be.
The following is a general outline of the immediate years prior to applying to medical school. It’s not a recipe for success and is not all-inclusive; it is simply my overall experience at my university and in my community.
Freshman Year (2012-2013)
Overview: My priority when school began was simple: learn how to study effectively and perform well on exams. I was enrolled in the “Advanced Program for Integrated Science and Math” which allowed me to establish close relationships with faculty and fellow students. This program would continue for the rest of my freshman and sophomore years at the University of Miami.
Credit from AP Classes: Biology, Biology Lab, Economics, Calculus, Intro to American National Government, Intro to Psychology, Intro to Biobehavioral Statistics, Spanish
Fall Semester: Biology, Biology Lab, Chemistry, Chemistry Lab, English Composition, and Introduction to American Studies; GPA: 4.0
My chemistry knowledge from high school was limited which led me to attend extra tutoring sessions to stay on track in class. On the other hand, taking AP Biology in high school facilitated and expedited learning the topics in biology I did not have a great grasp in. It’s important to remember that focusing on academics is not everything, and because I wanted to gain medical experience, I took a metro trip to the medical school to check it out for myself. I began volunteering at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center first as a patient transporter and then as an assistant in the chemotherapy unit. This experience provided me with insight into the duties of the nursing staff in the chemotherapy unit but also gave me an opportunity to relax away from school just by talking to the patients. Lastly, I became involved with the American Medical Student Association and Relay for Life chapters at school by attending meetings and volunteering at their events.
Spring Semester: Biology, Biology Lab, Chemistry, Chemistry Lab, English Composition, and Spanish; GPA: 4.0
I decided to terminate the housing contract, move back home, and commute to school with the primary reason being a financial one. The town I reside in is just about the tipping point between deciding whether it’s worth it to commute to school or not. A commute longer than the one I had (average 1 hour each way) may have been detrimental to my studies, especially since I was driving to and from Miami every day. Sacrifices were made because of the commute, but life is full of opportunity costs. I was surprised to see my grades from the previous semester, so the focus from here on out was to maintain status quo. I applied for various summer programs at top universities through SMDEP (Summer Medical and Dental Education Program) but was not fortunate enough to obtain a spot. However, Florida International University’s medical school accepted me to their Doctors of Tomorrow program, a one-week, mini-medical experience during the summer. At the end of the semester, I applied to be Physician Shadowing Coordinator for AMSA, which I was granted by the people.
I obtained a clinical research position as a volunteer in the Department of Psychiatry at the university’s affiliated medical school. I was an assistant for the Healthy Living for Better Days program: “a community program aimed to combine exercise intervention and healthy eating education to improve overall and cardiovascular health status among those living with HIV and of primarily low socioeconomic status”. My responsibilities included training the HIV+ participants at the wellness center three times a week, attending the weekly nutrition classes, and translating for the Spanish-speaking participants in the group. I continued to volunteer at the chemotherapy unit in the mornings up until the end of the summer. I also attended the Doctors of Tomorrow program at FIU where I was introduced to their new medical school.
Sophomore Year (2013-2014)
Overview: This year revolved around trying to make the best grades possible with the lack of sleep that came with the situation. I remember many nights per week where I’d stay up late doing homework until 2 am only to have to wake up at 6 am to drive to school. Towards the end of the year, I applied to two 7-year combined programs (BS/MD) at the University of Miami and University of Florida. Long story short, I interviewed at both and was ultimately rejected at both.
Fall Semester: Cellular & Molecular Biology, Organic Chemistry, Organic Chemistry Lab, University Physics, College Physics Lab, and Introduction to Research Methods; GPA: 4.0
University Physics was the most difficult class I took at my university. I don’t like physics. I wasn’t good at physics. It also didn’t inspire me much. What did I do to make sure I did well in the class? For both physics and organic chemistry, I met with two classmates two or three times a week to discuss the topics. I was better at chemistry than the others, and they were better at physics than me (that worked out). I remember walking out of my physics final just relieved that the class was over, but I wasn’t looking forward to taking Physics 2 in the spring.
Spring Semester: Neurobiology, Organic Chemistry, Organic Chemistry Lab, Computer Science, University Physics, and College Physics Lab; GPA: 4.0
An admissions representative from the Miller School of Medicine came to about the Medical Scholars Program (MSP) they host at the medical school. Basically, only Miami undergrads are eligible to apply and those that are accepted can start medical school at Miller directly after their third year if they complete the graduation requirements. It had always been my dream to attend the Miller School of Medicine, and matriculating through this program had actually been one of my goals when I started at the university. I managed to obtain letters of recommendation, with difficulty, and put together an application for the program. Around the same time, a lady from the University of Florida came to speak to AMSA about their Junior Honors Medical Program (JHMP). JHMP is similar to MSP although it does not require the student to take the MCAT and is an integrated program unlike MSP. An important feature of the program is that if accepted, I would have done my third year of undergrad at Florida and then continued on to its medical school. I think that the reasons why I was not accepted to these programs came down to two things, in my opinion and as far as I know: my interview skills were not great and my research experience was not substantial enough. Things do happen for a reason, however, and in hindsight I am glad I was not accepted to either program…
Summer 2014 (MCAT)
I thought I was going to be accepted to the program at the University of Florida. In fact, I would have bet money on it. As soon as I found out I was not accepted, I enrolled in a Kaplan MCAT course as there was no way I could bypass the exam now. While studying for the MCAT, I realized I had a solid foundation of the sciences but not of the Verbal Reasoning section. Actually, my Verbal Reasoning scores sucked. A cycle began where I would take a practice test, perform poorly on the Verbal Reasoning section, get frustrated, take another test, perform poorly again, etc. My practice Verbal Reasoning score averaged around an 8, maybe even less, by the time I took the exam on August 15th, 2014. I received my first MCAT score on September 16th, two days before my birthday, and I scored a 28: 10 on Physical Sciences, 6 on Verbal Reasoning, and 12 on Biological Sciences. The 6 in VR translated to a 27th percentile. Let’s just say I didn’t enjoy my birthday that much. Up until now, I’ve probably told about five people about this score. It wasn’t something I was rushing to tell people, anyway.
Junior Year (2014-2015)
Overview: Third year was the year I sought advice from many different advisors, friends, and professors about my application to medical school. I went back-and-forth about whether or not retaking the MCAT would be a good idea. My application was great other than the exam score, and if I did retake it, how would I improve the verbal reasoning section? The MCAT was also changing and new subjects were being added: biochemistry, psychology, and sociology. I ended up deciding to give the MCAT another shot during the summer.
Fall Semester: Genetics, Evolution of Rock, Neural Mechanisms of Disease, Intro to Philosophy, Intro to Theatre, and Intermediate Research Methods; GPA: 4.0
This semester I acquired a research position in a cancer biology lab at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. Two-three days a week I was conducting experiments on a histone methyltransferase called SETD2 implicated in renal cell carcinoma. I learned how to run agarose gels, perform PCRs, and clone plasmids in bacteria. This was the research experience I felt medical schools were looking for, and I was glad I was able to research among great scientists in a field of interest. I had classes twice a week, from 8:00 am to 6:15 pm, which made for very long, tiring days.
Spring Semester: Biochemistry, English Literature, Neuroscience Lab, Cellular & Molecular Neuroscience, and Psychobiology; GPA: 4.0
I was very close to graduating; all that remained was one semester. I was pretty much a pro at figuring out how to study for all of my science classes by this time. Dr. McCabe, my psychobiology professor, was the best instructor I had during my undergrad years. I continued with the research from the previous semester and created a poster to present at my university’s poster conference. I solidified my plans about my medical school application and the MCAT. I would repeat the MCAT and apply to medical school via AMCAS during the summer.
Summer 2015 (MCAT and AMCAS Application)
Why would you re-enroll in a Kaplan course if it didn’t work out the first time? They say that Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Sure, I re-enrolled in a Kaplan class and yes my instructor happened to be the same person. However, the test had changed. My neuroscience major provided me with a good foundation in the science topics and a few topics in the psychology section. Having the same instructor worked out because we got along very well and he understood what my weaknesses were (shout out to Robert). I enrolled in a speed-reading course which helped me pick up the pace and do much better in the Verbal Reasoning section (now called CARS). Lastly, I made sure to incorporate exercise a few times a week, something that I did not do properly the previous summer.
Along with studying for the MCAT, I also had to submit my primary application to medical schools via AMCAS. I had the 28 MCAT score to go by which led me to apply to many low and mid-tier medical schools. I spent a few thousand dollars on the applications alone to medical school. Here is my MDApps page which lists all of the allopathic medical schools I applied to: http://mdapplicants.com/profile.php?id=31272
Gap Year (2015-2016)
I got my second MCAT score on September 8th and scored a 512: 129/127/129/127. I was ecstatic. It was time to add Dartmouth, Brown, Northwestern, UCSD, and UCLA to the list. It was unfortunate that I was adding these schools late in the game, but I had no idea I would improve my score. I was very happy I was able to improve not only the total score, but the Verbal Reasoning section as well. Interviews started flowing in and now there are too many to keep track of. I loved visiting different cities during the interview cycle such as Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and New Haven. I didn’t actually interview at NYC or Boston but I found ways to visit them anyway. I interviewed at Yale School of Medicine on November 16th and at Dartmouth on November 19th. I was accepted to Dartmouth on January 11th while the decision for Yale is still pending (date set is March 10th).
Pursuing a career in medicine is a lesson in delayed gratification. The hard work now will pay off when you are practicing a career that you love. It is a long road as a pre-medical student if done properly. As you can see, the MCAT was a hiccup in my journey towards medical school but luckily I overcame it and I now have great options for my medical education. If you are an aspiring physician, I wish you the best of luck and I hope you also have success with your application.