I wanted to update everyone on how my application process turned out. The short answer is, I'm going to Harvard.
The longer story, of course, starts a while back. It is admittedly an embarrassment of riches, and so, for those of you who are in very frustrated places within the application process, this may be irritating. I'm working in a lab where several wonderful people are waiting on waitlists, and it pains me how brutal this process is and how arbitrary; that makes me all the more thankful for all that I've received in this process.
Anyway, I'm posting this story for those who are earlier in the process who want some sense of how the process works, and how at least one person made decisions within the process. I hope it's more helpful than annoying!
When I was first starting to apply, I applied to a huge number of schools (I think 21 on the AMCAS) because I was trying to match cities with my partner who was applying to Ph.D. programs at the same time. Then she dumped me (and also stopped applying to Ph.D. programs, but I of course didn't care so much about that!) and though the bad news was that I was more miserable than almost any other time in my adult life (I moved to DC from my beloved San Francisco in part because of her! And I had really wanted to make a life with her), the good news was that I cut out a lot of schools that I'd been applying to because of her.
I chopped out:
schools not on the west coast or east coast except for one Chicago school, (sorry, OPM southerners and midwesterners!);
any schools with grades in the first two years; and (my lab job was really demanding, and also I was completely depressed because of my girlfriend leaving, and so I was totally overwhelmed at this point)
any schools with secondaries that were too long and frustrating.
I threw out Hopkins both because of the grades thing and because they wanted some epic secondary typed on a page, and I thought, if they can't get it together to make my life easier with an electronic application, I don't need them. (I'm sure they don't need me either!) I threw out U of Chicago because they wanted my SAT score and I couldn't find it and I thought, this is ridiculous–any school that wants my SAT score is dumb. For Case Western, I wrote an essay about chicken tikka masala, a dish served in many Indian restaurants; they asked applicants to write about something they were interested in outside of medicine, and I liked the essay so much that I almost applied there just so I could say I got into medical school with an essay about food, but I decided I didn't want to live in Cleveland. (Sorry Kim!) At this point, obviously, I was looking for excuses not to send in secondaries, and probably made some decisions that were not entirely rational. However, the good news is that this left only schools I was reasonably excited about–a list of nine, though I was working on getting some more secondaries in later for schools that didn't need them until January. Though at this point, this strategy was not without risks, I was a) reasonably confident that I'd get into at least one school, and b) figured that if I didn't get in anywhere, my NIH fellowship was actually a two-year gig if I wanted, and I could reapply without a huge amount of disruption to my life.
So, at this point, I was applying to:
UCB/UCSF Joint Medical Program (a small MS/MD program emphasizing social issues and student research)
and I was planning to send in applications to
the UCLA/Drew program (a program which emphasizes urban medicine).
I got into Stanford in early December. I really liked Stanford: they were incredibly warm, their dean of admissions called me personally to tell me I was accepted, and their interviewers (unlike any other interviewers but one later in this process) had read my file in detail. Plus, they had a lot of support for student research–they seem to emphasize producing academic physicians, which I intend to become–and their financial aid was great. I didn't like Palo Alto, but San Francisco was not so far. All in all, it seemed like an excellent place for me, so I cut the Albert Einstein and Drew secondaries that I hadn't sent in, and eventually, two California schools that I got interview invitations for: I felt like I'd be wasting their time and mine, not to mention my airfare, because I knew I'd go to Stanford over them.
So, by early 2002 the score was:
Stanford: interviewed, accepted
Cornell: interviewed, accepted
UCD: interview invitation, withdrew
UCLA: interview invitation, withdrew
And obviously I was feeling pretty good at this point. Cornell was attractive because it is in Manhattan, but I kept just having a better gut feeling about Stanford versus Cornell, so though I kept thinking that I should take Cornell more seriously, in the end, I never really did. In the meantime, I was totally depressed about living in Washington DC and feeling very lonely. I was missing San Francisco like crazy, so the interview I cared about most was UCSF.
First, though, I interviewed at Harvard. The experience was a peculiar one, and left me with really mixed feelings: both very positive and very negative. Because I'm going to go there, I'm going to save some of my most mixed feelings for anonymous forums like interviewfeedback.com. The most easily-expressed metaphor for these feelings for me was that the library is closed to all but Harvard students, whereas at UCSF homeless people come in to this beautiful library and read medical literature about schizophrenia or just sleep on the chairs. I studied for the MCAT in that library. It is truly a public institution. And Harvard is most emphatically not. On the other hand, I met with a great researcher at Harvard who's doing the kind of work that I want to do, and with whom I really hit it off. And though the students were quite young (I'm 32, and the oldest student in last year's class was 32) they seemed nice, and certainly bright. And the presence of the public health school and the main campus seemed to offer me a lot of options academically that I found attractive. Still, the elitism of the place bothered me, and I missed San Francisco so much; I decided that I'd rather go to UCSF.
I interviewed at UCSF as well as the UCB/UCSF joint program. Going back there, I loved UCSF in particular; I knew four people in their first-year class, all of whom are great people, and all of whom were happy there. It seemed like a place for me–a place that reflected my values and also, not incidentally, was in a city that I love more than just about anywhere else in the world. My interviews seemed to go well; one of them was absolutely wonderful, a conversation that I genuinely really enjoyed. So, I expected to return home.
In the end, the UCB program looks like they've rejected me–I haven't heard from them–and UCSF waitlisted me. This was highly frustrating for me, as you can imagine. A theory that another school's faculty member advanced was that they actually have tight restrictions on the number of UCSF employees that they can admit–which would explain some of the puzzling decisions they've made with other friends of mine too. I'll keep trying to check this out–it would have been nice if they'd told me that before I took those jobs, though! I've also had all kinds of other speculations about the reason for this decision on their part, but in the end, they're all speculation.
I also was rejected without interviews at Northwestern, Yale and Penn. Yale had been the place, earlier in this process (last year, for instance) that I'd thought would be my first choice, but now I wouldn't have chosen it. The others I didn't care much about, and evidently the feeling was mutual.
Though I sti
ll may get into UCSF–and who knows, maybe I'll change my mind–in the end, I decided that, from the point of view of trying to become a researcher that it would be better to be away from home, and away from the small world of San Francisco AIDS researchers in which I first came to the decision to start this process. Going away will make it easier for me to come back for residency and faculty positions; and hopefully, will give me something unique and not-San Franciscan to offer. Also, I think I'd been waiting to go back to San Francisco because I thought I would be happy just for being there, but as I keep reminding myself, I've done the experiment: it is possible to be miserable in San Francisco too. Happiness is something we create for ourselves, and I think I can create and find it in Boston, too.
I made a big effort not to let my frustration with UCSF's attitude towards me get in the way of this decision, and I hope I haven't. I guess I'll know more if they eventually do admit me. In the end, as I sat on the UCSF waitlist, I've come to feel that Harvard, despite its various shortcomings, is not just the world's finest safety school, but in fact, is the right place for me personally.
I'm glad to answer any questions about this saga.
Joe, a Haaaaavaad man - as I recall Boston from a brief visit you now must drop all r’s that are within words, and add them to the ends of any words ending in a vowel.
Congratulations on making a great decision for yourself and on choosing a great safety school
I guess I’m wondering when/how Stanford fell out of the equation - but I understand if you don’t want to share all here - you can PM me if you prefer, but I really am interested.
It's a good question, which took me a long time to answer. There were a couple of things that made me choose against Stanford.
1. It's small, and there isn't an affiliated public health school.
2. It's in Palo Alto.
3. It's lecture-based.
In brief, the first two would mean that to do the kind of research I wanted to do, work with the people I wanted to work with, and get the kind of training I wanted, I would have had to drive a lot, perhaps even take a signficant amount of extra time off. I would have been more on my own. The third meant either a lot of class time or a lot of time spent skipping classes, neither of which I wanted.
I felt like Stanford had a lot of really great things going for it, and if I was just slightly less driven about my academic/research career, I would have been very happy there. The financial aid was better and there are more older students there, too, neither of which are trivial matters. But, in the end, I felt like I wanted to stretch myself as hard as I could, and work with the best people I could in my areas of interest, and I feel like Harvard is the place for that.
I did a lot of research and spent two days on each campus talking to students. It was not an easy decision. In the end, I think if clinical training was my only priority, I might well have chosen Stanford; it is more for the research and training available at Harvard that I chose it. And, even there, this is pretty specific to me; if my interests were different, Stanford might well have been the right place.
Joe, congratulations on thinking yourself through to the best possible decision for you. Your description of the process that led you to decide on Harvard is surely going to be very helpful for some folks - well, put it this way, it SHOULD be helpful because IMHO you have sketched out exactly how it should be done.
Note to everyone else: your list doesn’t have to include Stanford, Harvard and UCSF to apply the careful deliberations Joe has described here. It’s really easy when you are desperate to just get INto medical school to tell yourself that you can’t be too choosy. But you still have to make a decision that you can live with every day for the next four years - only apply to schools you’d actually go to (seems obvious but we’ve heard stories of people doing otherwise), and be an informed consumer when you’re at interviews and beyond. Don’t be swayed by USN&WR rankings or “name brands.” Really pay attention to your own feelings of what feels right for you.
Way to go, Joe!
That's okay about Cleveland…but you have to let me read the essay sometime!!! From chatting with you off list and reading your post here, I must say that you have made me look further beyond my original thinking concerning medical school. I think sometimes I was concerned about monetary costs of a particular school vs. the type of medical school experience I was looking for and I think that really hindered my perspectives. For example, I really didn't consider CWRU because of finances but now since I have spoken with an admissions rep visiting my university, opportunities to visit there and possible attend their MMEP program next summer have presented themselves. I was also contacted by the head of their Primary Care Track program to trey and schedule an appointment with him to discuss my medical school plans whenever I'm able to set up a campus visit. There are also CWRU School of Medicine alumini working at the hospital I'm employed by that have discusses the possibilities of attending theree with me as well so, I guess the moral of the story is to never short change yourself without looking at ALL of the possiblilities. Thanks for enilightning me to that point my friend and, you'll definately bring A LOT of class and sensitivity to Harvard-they should be honored to have you as a member of the Class of 2007!!!
Congrats to you! I use to live in Boston and worked for both HSPH and the med school (dept of social medicine to be exact). Loved it there. You must be so excited. I am in awe of the choices of schools you had. Could you tell me your background and any obstacles you had to overcome academically. Of course if you don’t mind. Thanks.
I hope to be spending a lot of time around the dept. of social medicine soon… There’s a woman who works there who I’ve been meeting with whose work I really like… so our paths almost collide…?
Anyway, go to my homepage (there should be a button at the bottom of this message… but it’s http://www.mindspring.com/~jmwright ) and then click the “me” link, then the “becoming a doctor” link; you’ll see my AMCAS personal statement, which should give you more of a sense of where I came from. If you want even more specific info, email me offline (email@example.com) and I can give you another link to my CV, which is more detailed; or any other info that’s helpful to you.
I did not have a science background, and science was initially not easy for me. Especially difficult was anything math-related; and anything that required a lot of grinding rote memorization. I think the main way that I helped myself succeed with this stuff was to make sure that I had the time–worked less, lived on less money, didn’t load up on classes, etc. Also, of course, persistence helped. One story of this period in my life is at
I can’t emphasize enough that there were other people around me who got better scores and who had more raw science ability (i.e., ability to grasp concepts more quickly and retain scientific information more easily) who did not have the same choices I did. My advantages and the way I distinguished myself were all outside of the classroom: I’d been doing health education work, first for a community organization, and then as a community liaison for an HIV vaccine research group. As part of that, I’d ended up doing conference presentations, writing articles, etc… all of which added up to a strong med school application. Even more so, again with the theme of making time, I volunteered some interesting places, worked on a great research study, and then moved across the country to the NIH to work in a lab here.
The NIH itself also took a bit of a road to get to: I took an independent study (did a lit. review paper for a lab, which I then later presented at a conference) and a graduate seminar in immunology. Along the way I learned about the work of the woman who became my mentor, and really loved what she was doing; and wrote to her (several times–I had to pester her) to get her to let me work in her lab, and then moved across the country to do that once she agreed. (Again, I had to make some financial sacrifices: the pay of a pre-doctoral fellow at NIH is… not so great! Still, it was cool to get paid at all for doing something that has been such a great training experience for me.) I think that this last part was a really important part of me being taken seriously at the schools where I interviewed; especially when I was able to talk fluently and enthusiastically about the work I was doing there. In the end, this also added up to something else: I was a public health person and a basic science person, and had done well in both; so that when I said in my personal statement that I wanted to do interdisciplinary research, I think I could say it with some credibility. I also have a sense of what my mentor wrote about me in my letter of rec, and I would imagine that her endorsement of me was important.
So, all in all, I think that though my MCAT scores were good (very high verbal and writing; fine but, for these schools, slightly below average science scores) and my grades were good too, it was that other stuff that was probably most important in helping me have choices, and good choices at that.
It’s hard to know what’s in the minds of admissions committees, so I can’t say for sure, but I think the most important thing, at least for the kinds of schools that I was interested in and that were interested in me, is to be very very good at being you. That is, be passionate about things; and then take them to their logical extreme… you like a certain kind of science, go study with people who are really good at that kind of science… you like a certain social approach to medicine, go work with people who are really good at taking that approach… you have things to say, say them in public (at conferences, getting published even in non-academic publications, etc.) You know what I mean? It’s not that you have to do what other people say you need to do (to the contrary) but, rather, that you approach what you do do in that way, which I can call either passionate or obsessive depending on the day.
Feel free to email me off the list if you have more questions.
Just thumbing through some old posts here to read these fascinating and inspiring stories. Does anyone know if Joe has a new webpage? That Mindspring link doesn’t work.
thanks for the kind words