Burning Questions about Med School Applications? Jaina and Sayo have the answers!
Updated: Jul 15, 2020
By: Felicia Ho, PRISE, Harvard College '23
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Be mindful about building your team, and stay organized,” shared Dr. Pamela Jean Gaddi, Assistant Director of Research and Fellowships on key tips for success in the medical school application process.
Over the next hour, nearly fifty fellows tuned in to listen to two recent Harvard graduates and PRISE alumni share their experience applying for medical school and answer audience-submitted questions on everything from details regarding applications to career path questions.
Jaina Lane AB’18, who concentrated in Chemical and Physical biology with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy, now attends the University of Virginia School of Medicine. She was a PRISE fellow in 2015 and a program assistant in 2017. The summer after her first year at Harvard, she researched fetal hemoglobin expression as a sickle cell therapy; the year after, she worked on service projects and studied for the MCAT; the summer leading up to junior year, she worked on her senior thesis on cancer immunotherapy. During her time at Harvard, she was an active member of the Kuumba Singers Choir, Harvard College Faith in Action, and the International Relations Council. Lane has been interested in pursuing medicine from a young age and hopes to become a surgeon in plastic and reconstructive surgery.
Sayo Eweje BS’19, who concentrated in Bioengineering, now attends Harvard Medical School on the Health Sciences and Technology MD/PhD track. He was a PRISE fellow in 2016 and an Amgen Scholar in 2018. He notes research as one of his primary and most influential activities during his time at Harvard, as well as his involvement in the Society of Black Scientists and Engineers, the Kuumba Singers Choir, and service work in tutoring and mentorship programs. Interested in problem-solving and designing new treatments and therapies for patients, Eweje hopes to integrate his passions for research and clinical work through the MD/PhD.
The following questions and answers have been edited for clarity and are general paraphrases of responses. Additional resources regarding pre-med advising at Harvard and contact information can be found at the end of this article.
Q: Can you share some tips or strategies on how to navigate writing a senior thesis while applying to medical school?
Jaina: The most difficult part of the process was definitely during the fall, when secondary applications were coming back from medical schools, and I was also writing my senior thesis. My biggest recommendation to avoid one of the problems I had in managing everything at once is to apply as early as possible and get the secondary applications done (ideally in the summer) before starting to write your senior thesis.
Q: How did you decide to go straight through to medical school over taking a gap year?
Sayo: Knowing that I wanted to pursue what would be an eight year track of getting MD/PhD, I wanted to get started sooner rather than later. Having said this and looking back, it would have been good to give more thought towards taking a gap year because it is a challenging transition to go from graduating to having a one month long break before diving right back into dense courses. I may have enjoyed having more time to do something not as coursework related, maybe doing lab work or giving myself a longer break.
Jaina: For me, the two months between graduating and heading to medical school were just enough time to chill, relax, and get back into the right pace. There was nothing else I really wanted to do that would be worth taking another year off for. I had already built up a momentum in how to learn and study from the last two years at Harvard, so it was important for me to keep going with that momentum if possible and start medical school soon.
Q: What are your thoughts on choosing MD/PhD over MD only or PhD only?
Sayo: I was originally applying for only MD, but in April - around a month before I submitted my application - I made the decision to apply MD/PhD. Getting a PhD will give you the depth of research experience to start off a research career, but without the MD, you would lack the clinical grounding and understanding of the human body necessary to guide research questions. With an MD alone, you would have this knowledge, but you would not have the dedicated time to dive into the research field in depth, so you may not have that level of expertise and experience to launch a research career. Having both degrees gives me more options that are available for integrating research and clinical experience.
Q: What are your strategies on balancing everything and persevering throughout the process?
Jaina: My time wasn’t prioritized in the way it should have been during my first two years at Harvard, so the summer after my sophomore year, I took the time to re-evaluate everything. I ended up cutting down on commitments to extracurriculars - and that even meant turning down leadership positions at clubs I was passionate about - and focusing more on my coursework. I also switched my concentration from bioengineering or physics to chemical and physical biology. Overall, I prioritized my time and was conscious of aligning my interests with my concentration.
Sayo: I would say that a very detailed to-do list and a calendar are super helpful for keeping me on track and helping me prioritize everything.
Q: What does the application process look like, and how do you choose a medical school?
Jaina: I applied to twenty-one schools, largely based on their regional location, and I separated them into tiers. I interviewed at seven schools and went to three as I had already been accepted into a school at a higher tier than some of the schools who had reached out for interviews. I chose UVA School of Medicine because I really enjoyed the interview and second look experience. I felt like I was leaving home when I came back to Harvard. They were also very receptive to medical students in the clinical community, something that is very special as many schools often see medical students as low on the totem pole. My host also served as a wonderful role model for me as a black woman going into plastic and reconstructive surgery residency there. Overall, I really learned how to advocate for myself - that meant everything from sending update letters to these schools, meeting with the House pre-medical adviser, and finding advisers and “sponsors” on campus who are willing to support you throughout the process.
Sayo: I applied to seventeen schools in total based on region as well, and I focused on finding schools that had a funded MD/PhD program and a strong bioengineering department. I received offers from eleven schools for interviews and did six interviews. Overall, I really liked the interview process, and I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for thorough self exploration and a great learning experience for understanding how to clearly articulate that you want to do something.
Q: How did you find shadowing opportunities?
Jaina: I did forty hours of shadowing, and I actually wrote about my shadowing experience with a hematopathologist for my personal statement. I found the experience through the Harvard Premedical Society program offered at the time to shadow Massachusetts General physicians and watch surgeries there. I strongly recommend doing shadowing in the field that you are interested in.
Sayo: I did sixty hours of shadowing, and I had two main opportunities - one from a connection my PI had with cardiologists, and another through a connection in my hometown area. That being said, after one year of medical school, I will say I am back at square one for knowing what specialty I want to pursue; though, I agree with Jaina in shadowing fields that you are interested in.
Q: Who and when should I approach faculty for letters of recommendation?
Jaina: My academic letters came from classes I did the best in and my research advisers as well as a community member part of Harvard College Faith in Action. Ask them for a recommendation letter right after your experience with them.
Sayo: My PI in my lab, my PI from a student exchange program, the main postdoc I worked with in the lab, my expos teacher, and the head of an after school program I was involved in wrote my letters.
Q: Any tips for preparing for interviews?
Sayo: Take the time to get to know yourself. I grouped questions into common interview questions and developed responses to these, but I always made it my goal to maintain authenticity in any of my responses.
Jaina: Know who you are. What do you want the interviewer to leave your conversation knowing about you? The fact that you were offered an interview already means that they see something positive in your application, so give the committee more tools or things to say that are positive when they meet in committee.
Q: What are supplements like? Are they similar to college application supplemental essays?
Sayo: I would say they are longer. I had some that required five, six essays around 500 words each. The most difficult part is that they all come at once, and there is some pressure to get them in within two to three weeks upon receiving them.
Jaina: I highly recommend turning them around in two weeks - a quicker turnaround means a quicker interview offer - and the most frustrating aspect was the different word or character lengths for each essay. Try and get them done over the summer if possible, and group them into general categories.
Q: What should I think about if I am not sure about applying to medical school just yet?
Jaina: Understand the life of the doctor - mostly through shadowing. Have an idea of all the specialty options available, and consider if you are interested in dedicating your career to pursuing that interest.
Thank you to Jaina and Sayo for a wonderful talk on medical school applications, and to Dr. Gaddi for moderating the discussion.
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*Greg shared his ice cream making recipe (which he pasteurized eggs for): Ben and Jerry base recipe, ⅓ cup of orange juice concentrate - an easy way to make ice cream without a super fancy machine!
OCS Applying to Medical School: ocs.fas.harvard.edu/applying-to-medical-school
OCS Pre-Med Advising: ocs.fas.harvard.edu/premedical-health-careers-advising
House Pre-Medical Tutors and Pre-Med Committee
Jaina Lane’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sayo Eweje’s email: Feyisayo_eweje@hms.harvard.edu