Story Selling and the MD Admissions Process
January 28, 2014
A medical school application must be a story. During the MD admissions process, each admissions committee looks for talented students they can groom into outstanding physicians who will then honorably represent their institution for decades to come. The purpose of your application is to sell them on you, so you need to get good at story selling. They are not only looking for community service, an exciting research job, and a top MCAT score — there are 10 candidates with these credentials for every 1 spot. Should you even be lucky enough to have started an NGO or won a prestigious scholarship, if your application does not present a compelling story you are at best underperforming and at worst jeopardizing your candidacy. The truth is that most students with these standout experiences continue to enter the halls of their dream schools because they have discovered the importance of story selling. No admissions committee actually gets to know anybody before offering acceptances. All they see is an application — you are an AMCAS number, perhaps a picture, and about 25 pages of application materials. Anybody can plug and chug through an application, but getting interviews and acceptances requires you to pull all that information into a story that move an admissions committee to vote for you.
The importance of story selling became clear during my interviews this past winter. A few months ago, I interviewed at Vanderbilt Medical School for the class of 2013. I enjoyed my first interview with a critical care anesthesiologist. We talked about ski racing, one of my AMCAS “most meaningful experiences,” and how it could relate to the intensity of his work with very sick patients in the intensive care unit. I left our conversation confident and excited. However, within minutes of sitting down for my second interview I was on the defensive. My interviewer was a pediatric general surgeon in his seventies and intensely curious about the timing of my experiences. He pulled up an interactive timeline the admissions office had made of my application and asked why I had not done anything directly medically related during the past 15 months and if I was committed to medicine. The truth was that I had recently begun working on a clinical research trial that was not reflected in his timeline. I quickly explained this, but I never felt that I quite recovered from that initial uncertainty. Perhaps he was being tough, or looking for something to nitpick, but his questioning revealed some doubt about the authenticity of my story and hence my entire application.
Last Friday I attended Penn Preview, a meet and greet event for new students. At an evening cocktail hour I found the faculty member who interviewed me in the fall of last year. She gave me a huge hug and then marched me around the room to meet other faculty and administrators. Just before the event wrapped up, she pulled me aside to tell me how inspirational she found my story. She even remembered going home the day of my interview and telling her daughter about me. Although I remembered my interview with her as one of my best, I was surprised to hear how she recalled our conversation. My GPA did not stand out, nor my research, nor extracurriculars — the only thing she remembered was my story and my story selling.
Each page of your application is precious. You have the opportunity to sell a compelling narrative about where you are from and where you are going. Whatever this story selling does for your reader, whether it excites, bores, embarrasses, or captures, is what they will remember about you. All accepted applicants chronicle themselves strongly, but the most successful applicants, which may not be the best students or future doctors, are experts at story selling.