Getting Closer to the Start of Medical School!

As the start of medical school approaches, I can feel the excitement continuing to rise! This is going to be such an amazing journey! I know it will be very challenging and will stretch me in many ways. I am going to give it my very best effort, knowing that my family, friends and God’s strength will help to sustain me through the upcoming long journey!

Since my last medical school update, we have managed to get a lot done:

  • Take Basic Life Support class (CPR and AED): Done! Very useful course that I think everyone should learn!
  • Update immunizations: mostly completed. Pending 2 reports following a chicken-pox titre test and chest X-Ray. Two more tetanus shots will be done in August and February.
  • Financing my medical education: meet with the bank (done, credit-line approved!), apply for government financial aid (done, waiting for my application to be processed) and scholarships (done, and I’m happy to announce that I received a scholarship that will go towards part of my first year of tuition!)
  • Look for a second-hand car to commute 5o minutes downtown: done! We got a fuel-efficient 2012 Toyota Yaris with only 13,000 kms on it for less than half the price of a new car!
  • Register for classes: Registration opened yesterday! It’s so thrilling to see what courses I will be starting off with (trying not to be fazed that the number of courses and credits are almost double what I did per semester during my undergraduate degree. I have been told medical school is like trying to drink water from a fire hydrant!!)

So all in all, things are falling into place and I feel truly grateful to God for this amazing opportunity to study medicine and hopefully make a difference in the lives of my future patients!

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Registering for my medical school courses Fall 2016!!

 

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Ten Tips to Excelling on Your Interview

The interview does not have to be a daunting step in your journey to getting into medical school or to getting that desired job. With the appropriate preparation, you can face it with confidence and boldness, knowing that you have worked hard and have the ability to succeed!

The medical school interview has evolved in recent years from the more traditional one person interview to an amalgamated set of interviews known as the multiple-mini-interview (MMI). This involves a series of about 10 interview stations, 10 minutes each in length with different interviewers. The format of each interview can consist of traditional interview questions, role-play (acting), logic/calculation questions, writing, team-work (collaboration) and more. You can read more about the history and format of the MMI.

The main purpose of this post is to give you some tips to prepare for the MMI and how to handle yourself on the big interview day. Many of these tips apply to other interview formats:

  1. Practice, practice, practice: This is the most important way to prepare and you can start months in advance before you even receive an interview invite. I started with just one question a day (there are plenty of sample questions online). Once I received an interview invitation, I ramped up my practice to about 2-3 questions per day.  I also recorded myself to evaluate my body language, tone of voice and to obtain feedback from others. Practicing in front of the mirror, on Skype, or in person with people from different backgrounds will also get you used to formulating your thoughts quickly even when faced with unfamiliar material. Constructive criticism from those you practice with is vital for improving your line of thinking and delivery. Practice under timed conditions so that you get used to speaking under pressure and learn how to stick within the time limits. A solid foundation of interview preparation will give you more confidence on the big day.

    job-interview
    Image courtesy of grafhamwalbancke.com
  2. Be yourself: I realized the importance of this particularly with role-play questions. Although there is some level of acting required, it is important to react to the situation the way you normally would, in keeping with your personality, and not pretend to be something you are not. It will be very obvious if you are not being authentic.
  3. Be confident: I went into my interview knowing I had prepared and worked hard. I was in a positive frame of mind, confident that there was no room to doubt my abilities. Enter the room with a smile and give a firm handshake. Recognize how hard you have worked and how far you have come in obtaining an interview. Keep that momentum going!
  4. Be clear and concise: In my view, less-is-more when it comes to an interview. Meandering and rambling speech will make it difficult to bring your points across. Try to keep your response relatively short and to the point (about 2-3 minutes in total and then allow time for follow-up questions).
  5. Check your body language and attire: This may seem like a no-brainer but you would be surprised by the things we do with our hands, face and body when we are talking. During one of my practice sessions, I realized that I tap my feet repeatedly, sometimes roll my eyes and clench my hands. Evaluate your body language and make adjustments if anything seems inappropriate or distracting. Remember to maintain eye-contact with your interviewer or role-play partner and maintain good posture. Ensure that you are dressed appropriately.
  6. Answer the question: You will have about 2 minutes to read and absorb each question on the MMI. Make sure you have noted the salient points of the question, that you answer what is being asked and do not go off on a tangent. Only interject personal experiences if it is relevant to the question.

    job interview 2
    Image courtesy of careerealism.com
  7. Listen attentively: It can be tempting to want to talk non-stop during the interview particularly on the MMI where you only have a few minutes to make an impression on each interviewer. However, being a good listener is also an important skill. You can demonstrate this during role-play scenarios by pausing at appropriate moments to allow the other person to speak and by asking questions to stimulate conversation.
  8. Explain your thought process: For logic questions, explain your line of thinking as you go along rather than waiting to find the solution in your mind before presenting it. Even if you run out of time or do not arrive at the correct answer, you will have at least demonstrated how you think and tackle problems.
  9. Be engaged: Even if you are unsure of how to answer a question, be enthusiastic and engaged with your interviewer. Your passion will come across in your tone of voice and body language. In role-play scenarios, imagine that this is a real situation and throw yourself into the role.
  10. Have fun and don’t dwell: At the end of each interview station, don’t dwell on how you could have done it better but forget about it and move on to the next station with a clear, fresh mind. One station has no bearing on the next station. (Personally, I felt that I fumbled two stations but felt fairly confident about the rest). I have to say that the MMI was the most fun and challenging interview I have ever done. It really stretched me! Try to remember that although the interview is an important part of getting into medical school, you can also relax and enjoy the day through the different scenarios and the people you will meet. I made some great friends and was very inspired by the people I met on interview day.

Whether it is for school or a desired job, many of the above tips will be applicable in different contexts. I hope these tips help you feel more prepared and confident for your interview day. You can do it! If you have further questions, feel free to contact me. I would be happy to help.

Ten Tips to Be at Your Best on MCAT Exam Day

You’ve studied. You’ve given it your best. And now exam day is nearly here. I would like to share with you some tips that helped me to be at my best in the lead up to the MCAT and finally on the day of the exam itself.

  1. Start getting to bed early and slow down on studying: Because the exam is now about 7 hours long, there are no options to take the exam in the afternoon. Therefore you are going to have to be at the testing center by about 7:30am at the latest for the exam that starts at 8am. Training your body to get up early will help to ensure you get a full nights rest before the exam and give you the stamina to get through the exam and ace it! Depending on your philosophy, taking a day-off from studying the day and night before the exam could be a good way to give you a small break before you take the actual exam.
  2. Psychological factors:  I drove to the testing center location (which was 30 minutes away) two days before the exam, scouted out the parking options and went right into the testing center to see what the layout looked like. This had a profound effect on my frame of mind the day of the exam because I knew exactly where I needed to go. I wasn’t worrying about it the night before the exam. Not everyone has the luxury of going to the testing center beforehand. But in my situation, I found it to be a big psychological help to have been to the testing center before the actual exam.
  3. Take a deep breath: Before I started each section of the exam, I would take some deep breaths and try to get focused before diving into the passage and questions. It’s true that you have to be fast on the exam, but you can probably afford 5-10 seconds before the start of each section to regroup your thoughts.
  4. Test-taking strategies: You may have developed a strategy for answering questions as you went through the practice tests. Mine was not to linger on a question for more than 1 minute. If I was stuck, I marked it and came back to it at the end of the section. Also, if a passage had a lot of dense information, I did not read the passage word for word. I breezed over it quickly for the general idea then looked at the questions to determine what was really needed from the passage. This will save you time as a lot of information on the passages is extraneous.
  5. What is the basic science? As you have probably already gleaned from the practice tests, there are some passages where it will seem like you have no idea what the passage is about. The material will be disguising itself under a veil of the unknown. Try to remind yourself that the MCAT generally only tests the fundamentals of science you have studied. Try to tease this out from the passage and apply what you know.
  6. One answer is more “correct” than the other: There will be some answer choices that both seem “correct” however you have to ask yourself whether the answer is addressing the question being asked. Pay attention to key words like “Except”, “Most likely”, “Explicitly”, “Implicitly. This will guide you to the truly correct answer.
  7. Carry snacks, lunch and water: Its important to keep your energy up so carry enough food and water to sustain you throughout the day.
  8. Breaks are shorter than you think: Depending on the number of examinees and the level of security at your testing center, allow 2-4 minutes total to be “processed” in and out of the exam room every time you leave for a scheduled break. The 10 minute breaks in particular go by very fast so be quick if you need to go to the bathroom and have a snack. Psychologically, you don’t want to end up feeling flustered because the next section started before you got back to your seat.
  9. Finish a section and then forget about it: From my own experience and from other MCAT takers I have spoken to, it is difficult to judge your performance from how you feel. Therefore, I decided that no matter how I felt about a section, I was not going to dwell on it once it was finished. I was going to give the next section my best shot no matter how discouraged or unsure I felt about the previous section.
  10. Don’t give up: By the time I got to the last section of the exam (Psychology), my brain was exhausted. I had a hard time concentrating on the passage and was finding myself unhelpfully re-reading it over and over. I stopped reading, looked down at my desk, said a prayer for strength, took a few deep breaths and kept going. Don’t get discouraged. The MCAT is a marathon but you can make it through to the end! Taking a few seconds here and there to regroup your thoughts can be helpful in renewing your focus.

I wish you the very best as you prepare for your exam. You can do it!

Related posts:

How to Achieve Success on the MCAT…Lessons Learned from Two Retakes

Ten Strategies to Avoid Burnout While Preparing for the MCAT

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

Ten Strategies to Avoid Burnout While Preparing for the MCAT

spongebob mcat

I received a question from a reader about how to handle burnout when preparing for the MCAT. How does one maintain stamina while studying for this important exam? I would like to share with you my tips on what helped me get through those months of preparation. There were certainly moments when I felt exhausted so I knew I had to find ways to attain balance in my life.

Everyone’s situation is different, be it as a student, being employed, having children or other family members to take care of, among other scenarios. Some of the tips below may or may not be applicable to your situation but hopefully there will still be something you can take away from this post that will help you handle those intense months of studying without burning out.

My situation is that I was working full time during my first two takes of the MCAT (in 2005 and 2008) and then on maternity leave during my third take of the MCAT (2015). All these scenarios required effort to maintain balance. Below you will find my suggested tips for keeping your head above water as you prepare for the MCAT:

  1. Draft a study schedule: On my first two takes of the MCAT, I did not have a clear idea of my study plans. I simply opened books and started reading. The result was that I started to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material and I ended up running out of time towards the end to complete all the material and to practice questions. On my third take, I created a flexible study schedule that gave me an idea of what chapters to study each week. This put me in a good frame of mind knowing that I would eventually cover all the required material and still have time for practice questions.
  2. Strategic studying: It is tempting to put in hour and hours of studying at a time for the MCAT. I have fallen into that trap and it was not the most efficient because our brains only have so much staying power. I found my recall and grasp of material to be much better when I broke up my studying into blocks of approximately 1-2 hours then took a break for about 15 to 30 minutes. A regular change of pace helps to get the brain back in gear for studying.
  3. Rotate subject areas: At some point, you may get tired of reading from the same subject area. When I set up my study schedule, I alternated subject areas on each day, for example, Mon-Chemistry, Tue-Biology, Wed-Physics, Thurs-Psychology, and then threw in a verbal reasoning (CARS) passage 1-2 times a week. This kept things somewhat fresh and helped to keep me motivated. Develop a study format that works for you.
  4. Take care of yourself: Exercising, eating healthily, getting enough sleep and perhaps engaging in one of your favorite hobbies will help you feel more active, physically and mentally strong. Even just a brisk 15 minute walk in the fresh air can do wonders for your frame of mind. Taking the time to pray, meditate and clear your thoughts can also help to renew your focus.
  5. Take an extended break: Depending on your situation, you may or may not have the luxury of taking a break but if you are starting to feel really burnt out, stop all studying for a few days and if you are using a study schedule, adjust it accordingly. Trying to study at the brink of burn-out may make things worse.
  6. Be creative with studying: If you are starting to feel a little overwhelmed with how much material there is to cover and you have limited time to study, look at ways to sneak in some additional study time. I listened to Khan Academy videos while washing dishes, cooking or folding laundry. I had flash cards taped to the elliptical in my basement as I exercised, I had flow-charts taped to my bathroom mirror as I brushed my teeth. I also always had flashcards in my handbag to whip out if I was out somewhere and I had to wait in line etc. Yes, you may look a tad bit nerdy but you are on a mission to conquer the MCAT!
  7. Let some things go: As a mother with young children at home, I learned to let some things go so I could focus on my studying. The house was not as clean and tidy as it could have been, the meals I cooked were a bit boring for a while but I kept in mind that all this was temporary and my husband was on board and understood that there were sacrifices to be made.
  8. Get help if you can: I used to be very poor at delegating and wanted to do everything myself. I learned the hard way that this can lead to burnout in many situations so I enlisted my husband’s help and was very specific about what help I needed. Depending on your situation and your responsibilities, if you can get some help to offset some of the other pressures in your life, this can help you to feel less overwhelmed so you can focus on the MCAT.
  9. Write or talk about it: Blogging has become a therapeutic way for me to deal with the pressure of the whole medical school application process. I have found a wonderful support group in the blogosphere and I remember receiving many words of encouragement. If you prefer a more personal approach, writing in a journal can also be therapeutic. Talking about your stresses with others can also alleviate some of the pressure and allow friends and family to give you the support you need.
  10. Be confident: Recognize the person that you are, an individual full of potential who has made this important decision to pursue a noble calling. The MCAT is certainly an important exam but take some of the pressure off of yourself by realizing that there is more to you than the MCAT. You have unique life experiences to bring to the table and the MCAT is not the end of your story! Be confident in your overall ability and uniqueness!

Don’t give up! You may be feeling fed-up and frustrated with preparing for the MCAT but you will overcome it. Be confident and stay positive! You can do it!

Related post: How to Achieve Success on the MCAT…Lessons Learned from Two Retakes

How to Achieve Success on the MCAT…Lessons Learned from Two Retakes

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me for some tips to prepare for the MCAT. I would be happy to share the techniques I used and in particular what I learned from having sat it 3 times over a period of 10 years! I didn’t feel my scores on the first two attempts were competitive enough for medical school and hence my decision to take it a third time. The retakes are so far apart in time because of some unexpected life circumstances and our decision to start a family before medical school. I was very happy with my final scores from my 3rd attempt which are a definite improvement compared to the first two attempts.

Take 1, 2005: Score 27P

  • Study duration: Approximately 3 months during the summer (while working full time) after I graduated from university.
  • Resources: Examkrackers (EK) and Princeton Review (PR)
  • Strategy: Content review and practice questions from EK and PR.
  • Lessons learned: I focused too much on content review, memorization and not enough on understanding the concepts and practicing questions. I did not have very good test-taking skills and ended up running out of time on the exam, leaving several questions unanswered. I also had not practiced the writing section much.

Take 2, 2008: Score 28S

  • Study duration: Approximately 3 months while working full-time.
  • Resources: Examkrackers (EK) and Princeton Review (PR)
  • Strategy: Content review and practice questions from EK and PR, 2 full-length AAMC exams. I also did a writing sample question every lunch-time at work.
  • Lessons learned: My strategy had not really changed much from the first time around aside from the full-length exams and working on the writing sample. Although the writing section is now obsolete, my point in mentioning this is that regular practice improved my writing score from a P to an S (the highest you could get is a T).

Take 3, 2015: Score 512 (roughly translates to a 34-35 on the old MCAT grading system)

  • Study duration: Approximately 4 months of informal reading (it was something to do while breastfeeding and changing diapers around the clock!) and then 4 months of serious preparation while on maternity leave with baby number 2 (at least 15-20 hours per week during those last 4 months)
  • Resources: Khan Academy, Examkrackers (EK), 101 passages in MCAT Verbal reasoning, Examkrackers 1001 questions in MCAT series (Chemistry, Physics, Biology), AAMC online official guide (120 questions), AAMC question pack (720 questions), 2 AAMC full-length exams (old MCAT version), 1 AAMC full-length exam (new MCAT version),
  • Strategy: Since my score had not improved significantly the second time around, I knew I needed to revamp my entire approach to the MCAT. I first combed the internet for various tips on preparing for the MCAT and the general principle I found was understanding the fundamental concepts rather than rote memorization, and then…PRACTICE!PRACTICE! PRACTICE !

Take Home Lessons:

During my 4 months of concrete MCAT preparation, this was my approach:

  • I drafted a study schedule for the entire 4 months leading up to the exam. I think this step is key because although it can be difficult to know how long each chapter will take, you need some idea of what you are going to study when so that you do not run out of time at the end, especially since the latter months are crucial for practicing questions.
  • I spent the first two months studying. I would read a chapter for leisure as if I was reading a book and then re-read the same chapter and answer the questions at the end of the chapter to make sure I understood the principles. This was also the period when I prepared flash cards, formula sheets and other short notes. The material to study for the MCAT is voluminous so I wanted to narrow the concepts down to something I could leaf through fairly quickly during my final review.
  • During the first two months, I would also listen to Khan Academy videos while performing other tasks. It can be an efficient way to study if you have to commute, do house chores, breastfeed etc.
  • During the last two months, I mostly practiced questions and noted down any problem areas to be reviewed later. I also wrote down some of the questions I had gotten wrong so that I could attempt them again later. I also reviewed flashcards periodically to refresh my memory.
  • Key point when practicing questions: I would time myself strictly. Whatever set of questions I was doing, I had the goal of completing it in 1-2 minutes. If you calculate the number of questions on each section of the actual MCAT (53-59 questions) and the time you have to do it (90-95 minutes), you really only have 1-2 minutes to answer each question (some will take longer, some less).
  • The AAMC practice resources were critical to building my confidence because I became so familiar with the MCAT testing environment that I did not feel intimidated on exam day.

I hope this post has been helpful to any aspiring doctors planning to take the MCAT. There are many approaches to prepare for the MCAT. This is just what worked for me (the third time around, that is!). In a subsequent post, I will provide strategies for you to be at your best on exam day. Happy studying and good luck!

Additional reading: MCAT 2015: Is 508 the new 30?

Image courtesy of anankkml at freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy of anankkml at freedigitalphotos.net

The Medical School Journey Continues…A Family Adventure!

“Mummy, is this the paper that will help you become a doctor?”

My son Caleb had discovered my stack of practice interview questions on the dining room table. The cover sheet had a picture of a stethoscope on it. I don’t know how he made the connection but it was a powerful moment for me as I contemplated the fact that my son is now old enough to understand that I am pursuing a dream to become a physician.

“You’re right Caleb.  I don’t have an interview yet but mummy has decided to start practicing early. Either way, it’s fun and gets my mind whirring!”

No matter where this med school journey takes us, even if we have to move, I’m so grateful and excited to be facing this with my family. My husband continually amazes me with his unwavering support. He wants to test me on at least one interview question a day. Last night, after a long day at work, he still managed to muster some energy to practice some interview questions with me. He didn’t go easy on me! When I was tempted to giggle, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “pretend this is the real interview day, no joking around!”

So here’s to a new phase of the medical school journey. It will be some months before I know if I have received an interview invite. But no matter the outcome, I’m enjoying the process, especially having family go through this with me! It really feels like an adventure!

Image courtesy of iosphere from freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy of iosphere from freedigitalphotos.net