Becoming a Holistic Applicant: How Collecting “Unfair Advantages” Can Make You a Better Medical School Applicant
You may have heard the term “holistic” being thrown around in the context of medical school admissions, usually in the context of becoming a better, more attractive medical school applicant. I recently participated in a pre-med interest group Q&A where one student remarked: “We keep hearing that we should be more holistic. But what exactly does that mean?”
Does this mean you should be into crystals and incense? Essential oils? Not exactly. Although that could be interesting.
It means that med schools are looking at more than your grades and MCAT scores. They want you to have good grades and scores, obviously, but they want to see that you’re a well-rounded person, with a variety of experiences and interests outside of your studies. They want to see you devote time and attention to every area of your application. And it’s in your best interest to be unique.
Think of it as building a “personal brand” as an applicant. You’re not just trying to do all the traditional pre-med activities. You’ve got to find a way to leverage your unique talents, interests, and abilities to stand out to the admissions committee.
This is where the idea of collecting “unfair advantages” comes in. The goal is not to over-extend yourself by collecting quirky hobbies, but rather to build upon talents and interests you already have and look for ways you might leverage them for gaining admission to medical school or residency.
A Few Examples of “Unfair Advantages” That Can Help You Become a More Holistic and Better Medical School Applicant
- Becoming a certified medical Spanish interpreter. If you are fluent in Spanish, or any other language, consider getting certified to be a medical interpreter. This could lead to some unique volunteer opportunities and job opportunities, and makes you immensely valuable as a medical student or resident. Language barriers are often difficult obstacles to overcome, so having someone on the team who can advocate for the patient and who understands the medicine is huge. For Spanish, this would mean passing a written and oral fluency test, and taking at least 3 credit hours of medical Spanish or 40 hours of training in a course. Listing a second language on your application can certainly help make you a better and more attractive applicant to medical schools and residency programs.
- Yoga or meditation techniques expert. Whether you are a certified instructor, or just really experienced in the various methods of stress reduction, your ability to contribute to the overall wellness of your classmates is a major bonus and a great contributor to making you a more holistic medical school applicant. I served on the Wellness Committee at my medical school, burnout is a big issue and it isn’t going anywhere. Any interest you have in building resiliency and teaching others to take care of themselves would be viewed favorably during the admissions process.
- Photography. Guess what? Medical Schools and Residencies are extremely cheap. There will be so many opportunities for you if you: 1. Have a camera, and 2. Know how to use it. Whenever the program wants to have events documented for its website or social media, they will often inquire whether anybody enrolled can help them out. Building these skills shows your creative side and could certainly lead to interesting opportunities in the future.
- Social Media. I know that historically there has been some commentary about avoiding social media as an applicant. But both as a medical student and now as a resident, I have had opportunities to serve on committees dedicated to managing my program’s social media presence. If you want to effectively recruit and manage your reputation as an institution, you have to play the social media game. If you have a track record of a clean and healthy social media presence, I think it’s a marketable skill these days and can help boost your medical school application, making you a better applicant.
- Technological prowess. I’m lumping a few things into this category, and there are many more I’m omitting. Still, familiarity with tech is a skill that the young disproportionately possess and it often leads to unique opportunities. Have you heard of Dr. Will “Glaucomflecken” Flannery? He used to get paid by the hospital he trained to teach older physicians how to use Epic. Being familiar with web design, filmmaking, video editing, and many other similar skills will make you a highly coveted applicant. When COVID hit and everything transitioned to virtual interviews, programs went running to their students and residents for help developing materials for recruitment. And it looks like the virtual world is here to stay, so those materials will need updating frequently. So I’m sure having experience in this realm will help you stand out.
- Public speaking. This is something that you will use every day in medicine. Communication is central to what happens in the care of patients. Bad communication often leads to mistakes and drama. If you have the ability to communicate ideas clearly in public, you’re already ahead of the pack. This also lends itself to finding unique opportunities within advocacy. I had a classmate, with possibly the most solid med school application I’ve ever seen, who toured around the state speaking with community leaders and educating the public about Medicaid expansion.
- Musical talents. Musicians are a rare breed in medicine. And all the ones I’ve met were very impressive. Discipline, focus, diligence. All these attributes are associated with musicians. And there are lots of opportunities within hospitals to share your talents with patients and provide a service that is quite unique.
- Stats experience. This is something that will serve you very well in medicine. In medicine, we wear our “evidence-based” badge of honor everywhere we go. So any skills you have in the research process are automatically desirable. With every research project I applied for in medical school, the first question I got asked was “do you have any stats experience?” If I had, I definitely would’ve gotten more research projects. Take some stats classes. If you get involved with a research project, try and be a part of the data analysis efforts.
Becoming a holistic applicant is about more than just getting good grades and scores. It’s about building a personal brand that showcases your unique talents, interests, and experiences. By leveraging your existing skills and interests, you can create unfair advantages that make you more attractive as an applicant. Do well in your classes, yes. But don’t forget to explore your passions, learn new skills, and live an interesting life.