Understandably, many medical school applicants worry about their prospects for admission. Premeds typically apply to a strategically selected swathe of schools chosen for their location, numbers, and at times, reputation. However, a very important—and sometimes overlooked—facet of the application process is researching and finding the school that is the best fit for you, which is usually done through visits.
What are the best ways to optimize school visits? In contrast to the undergraduate application process, it is less common for students to visit medical schools prior to applying and/or interviewing, usually due to time and financial constraints. However, if you have the means to do so, it can be particularly advantageous to visit a medical school before diving into the admissions process.
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When visiting a school, there are some important things to keep in mind:
• Immersion in student life: In considering the amount of time and investment required in this process, it would behoove you to immerse yourself in a day in the life of a medical student during your visit to get a sense of how you would feel in his or her shoes.
Many schools offer opportunities (particularly for underrepresented minority applicants) to be hosted overnight by a current student and/or to attend classes. For confidentiality reasons, however, it's unlikely you would be able to shadow a student on clinical services.
• Etiquette: Researching and interviewing for medical school is akin to interviewing for a job, as you are under a similar type of scrutiny. While everyone knows to be cordial to current students and faculty, it's also important to be aware of your interactions with administrative staff, even if just on the phone or over E-mail.
At many schools these staff members have more influence than you might think, and many interactions—even off-the-cuff remarks—made in their presence have been remembered and mentioned in many admissions committee meetings.
• Timing: Visiting outside of admissions season is less common, but it means more time for you—and students—to interact and discuss different aspects about the school. It also affords you the opportunity to visit schools at a time that students are typically more relaxed and when they aren't necessarily in recruitment mode.
Regardless of when you visit, this does not mean you can be similarly relaxed; though you want your personality to shine during a visit, the same etiquette guidelines apply.
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Since many applicants apply to anywhere between 10 and 20 medical schools, your initial visit to most schools will happen during your interview. Many of the same principles apply to visits in terms of etiquette and immersion; however, there are additional things to consider:
• Preparation: In contrast to a more informal visit before the application process, a visit during admissions season, and particularly one surrounding interview day, is remembered much more frequently.
Even in more casual interactions with students, it's important to know basics about the school's curriculum and at least a few other opportunities available to students.
Students, and even faculty, don't expect you to know everything, and even like applicants to ask questions (they see it as a sign you're interested), but you should make sure you don't ask something easily found in the school's literature or on its website.
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• Extracurriculars: If you're invited for an interview, your chances for acceptance at that school are substantially higher; in this instance, it's important you examine the intangibles associated with going to that school beyond the faculty and the curriculum.
The visit may be your only opportunity to not only see the school's educational and clinical facilities, but also to see how you fit in with the students, broader school community, and the city in general. Even medical students have free time, so you should be sure you make an informed assessment of where you might be spending the next four years of your life.
Visiting schools requires a substantial amount of time and investment, both in terms of energy and finances. As a result, preparing yourself beforehand is crucial in maximizing your yield from each visit and making the best decisions for yourself.
Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How To Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.