I spend about a third of every single month thinking about medical school and what I have to do to get in. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if I were to be diagnosed with medical school admission O.C.D. (obsessive-compulsive disorder).
We all know the chance of an international student getting into medical school in the U.S. is razor thin. My friend Mike (at his request, I’m not using his real name), a fellow Nigerian who attended Bates College, is one of those who has done it. He will be matriculating at Harvard Medical School this fall.
I talked to Mike to find out how he got in and what advice he has for me, and for other prospective international medical students.
1) Be prepared and certain
Mike says that the difficulty of getting into an American school prompted him to take two years off after college in order to be sure this path was really what he wanted, and also to acquire more experience before applying to medical schools.
“I wasn’t sure of medical school,” he told me. “It was always a rollercoaster. I didn’t know whether I was best suited for medical school or a graduate school, so I decided to take two years off to solidify my experience.”
Finding that experience was no piece of cake. Mike wanted to spend his gap years in an immunology lab at Harvard Medical School. But he sent more than ten emails before receiving an encouraging reply. After his first of two years at HMS doing research and getting clinical experience, Mike says he felt ready to finally face the heat of applying to U.S. medical schools (aka holy of holies).
2) Cast a wide net
Mike’s strategy was to apply to as many medical schools as possible that would accept international students, including MD/PhD programs. “I had to call the admissions offices of all the schools I applied to before I sent my applications, just to confirm they accepted F-1 students,” he said.
Mike applied to 18 medical schools in total (half MD, half MD/PhD) through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), which allows you to submit your application to one place and have it distributed to many schools (like the medical school version of the Common Application).
3) Apply early
AMCAS opens for applications in June of the year before you would plan to matriculate. “It takes one month for applications to be verified by AMCAS [before they are sent on to be reviewed by the schools], so I sent my application three weeks after applications opened” Mike said.
He added that applying so early meant that “they check your application with the initial few hundreds, and it is usually less competitive then. Fewer spots are available late in the application cycle.”
From his initial AMCAS application, Mike received 15 “secondaries,” which are follow up applications that ask for materials specific to that school (whereas the AMCAS application is very general), and completed applications to 14 schools. Some schools extend secondaries to all applicants and others only to a selected number.
Mike was eventually asked to interview at eight schools, and was offered spots at seven, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Yale and Dartmouth, with great financial packages.
4) Emphasize fit and personal story
What does he think is the secret? Mike says anyone with a 3.5 GPA and 30 on the MCAT stands a chance at getting accepted, but ultimately, he said, “It’s the fit. A 30 on the MCATs will make them read your application, but the most important thing they look out for is the fit.”
Obviously, he is not talking about looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger – it’s about being able to explain why you belong at that school.
“I painted a story about myself and what I hoped to do in life,” Mike explained. “So during my interviews, most of the questions were based on my activities and story.” Mike had worked with underprivileged minorities during his undergraduate years, so he says it was logical to emphasize his passion for healthcare equality in his application, showing how that related to his medical ambitions.
5) Build a good support network
He clearly had the grades and the story to go with it, but Mike also credits a huge chunk of his success to supportive mentors and advisers. He says he had strong recommendations from professors and mentors he came to know during his time at Bates and working at Harvard. And he had advisers who helped him understand the reality of getting into medical school and were willing to guide him no matter which route he decided to take.
“They knew the stakes of medicine and they still supported me no matter what I did or what the data showed,” Mike said of those who helped him along the way.
Mike’s story is rare, but not unique. He’s not even the only African student I know who will be matriculating at Harvard this fall. A friend from Zimbabwe will also be joining him. That friend followed a more traditional path, applying to medical school straight after undergrad.
Mike says he knows another African friend who will be matriculating at Dartmouth. She also took a year or two off before applying to broaden her experience.
It is certain that though the road may look so bleak, there can be hope. Mike’s story is one that truly exemplifies the truth that we are all architects of our individual journeys. To sail far, we need to be prepared. And if being prepared means taking a year or two off, well that should be done with no regret.
As our conversation came to an end, I asked Mike for a concise piece of advice for F-1 pre-med students. His response?
Be motivated. Go for what you want no matter what. Develop a good relationship with your advisor.
Follow Promise’s med school journey on his personal blog, The F-1 Medical Case.