Highlight Compassion in Your Medical School Application

Develop strong listening skills to demonstrate compassion in your medical school applications.

Medical schools want students who will provide attentive and compassionate care, regardless of a patient’s attitude or demeanor.

Top-notch medical school admissions committees look for multi-dimensional people to enroll in their programs.

Medical schools know the best physicians care for the entire patient – both body and mind – and want students who are smart and understand the value of compassion in their medical education and professional lives.

Beyond academic achievements, extracurricular activities are examined very carefully and provide good fodder for interview questions. Applicants must have participated in activities, which they can speak enthusiastically about.

Prospective students should go beyond saying "I volunteered at my local hospital," and explain what the experience says about them as potential physicians and as people.

Compassion includes empathy, concern, kindness and benevolence. We have road maps from scientific journals and guidelines dedicated to the identification and treatment of particular diseases or conditions. But there is no road map for compassionate care. This must come from each individual.

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There are a variety of ways a student can focus on developing compassion and show admissions committees that he or she will become a compassionate physician. Volunteering, for example, teaches valuable lessons, creates connections to others and builds a sense of self-worth.

Growing compassion hinges on good listening skills. This is a critical ability to successfully practicing medicine. A potential diagnosis may be found in a patient's words, so careful listening without interruption is imperative.

Imagine if every few seconds your doctor broke your train of thought by asking a question. Instead of saying, "Please tell me why you are here today" and quietly listening to the response, doctors often start by asking a barrage of questions, such as "Where does it hurt?," "When did it start?"or "What medicines are you taking?" By listening first, a doctor demonstrates concern and begins building trust.

Prospective medical school students can get a head start on developing good listening skills. Check to see how often you interrupt someone during a conversation. Keep a tally, and then listen closely to the person allowing them two minutes to talk uninterrupted.

Learn to relax into this practice in a non-medical situation. Next, apply it when you are volunteering and notice the difference in the communication exchange.

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Smile, and look people in the eye when you speak with them. Put away your smartphone when talking to people and give them your undivided attention. Don't hold the phone in your hand as if you're waiting for someone to text or call, much less look down to check.

Another way to grow compassion is by "walking in another's shoes." Patients come in all varieties and may frequently look and sound different than you.

You may often find that patients do not do what you perceive to be in their best interest. But all patients are vulnerable, and it's our duty as physicians to provide the best possible care every time, regardless of their demeanor, attitude or choices.

With difficult patients, this can require an inordinate amount of compassion. This is the difference between a smart physician and a smart, caring one.

Aspiring physicians should volunteer in a hospital or medical clinic, or enthusiastically donate time to organizations that are personally meaningful.

A highly accomplished physician with little ability to connect to patients is perceived as being rude and uncaring. An appropriate touch or a kind word can do wonders to uplift the spirit and start patients on the road to recovery.

A compassionate bedside manner is important, and it's never too early to practice random acts of kindness. For example, since it's always cold in the hospital, provide an extra blanket for a patient. Practice as a volunteer, and then add these skills to your medical training.

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Many medical school applications look alike on paper. Let your uniqueness shine through. Use your personal statement to highlight the experiences that have helped you come to the decision to be a physician.

In order to move from the application pile to the accepted pile, demonstrate attributes that show why you would be an ideal medical student. The admissions committee's goal is to seat a class of interesting, well-suited students who will contribute to the field of medicine in meaningful ways.

Keep in mind that compassionate people make compassionate doctors.

Sylvia E. Morris received her M.D. from Georgetown University School of Medicine and her Master's in Public Health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine and a community health advocate. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.