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Here's the perspective of one interviewer in an article from the Medical Post.


July 05, 2005 Volume 41 Issue 25





Overachieving keener seeks med school spot


Today's candidates are impressively well-rounded, but some resume-enhancing activities shouldn't carry so much weight


By Maria Hugi


For some reason, probably random chance, I was selected to interview some of this year's University of British Columbia medical school applicants. On one level, it was a depressing four days because it dashed my hopes for getting my two sons—currently teenagers and very normal—into medical school. On another level, it made me feel good about our profession; that it still has the clout and cachet to attract students who are among the best and the brightest.


The candidates were all stunningly superb and perfect human beings. During the four days of interviewing one stellar candidate after another, I felt like an interloper and found myself wondering how I ever got into medical school.


In order to be eligible for an interview, a medical school applicant—in North America anyway—clearly has to be an Einstein, a super athlete (many of the candidates had competed in the Commonwealth games), a concert level musician, lean, fit, good-looking and Mother Theresa all wrapped up in one!


Volunteer work drops off


The comparison to Mother Theresa is, of course, a reflection of the head-spinning volumes of volunteer work the applicants perform to look good on their application. The interesting thing is that studies show all volunteer work drops off to nothing the moment the candidates hit medical school. Granted that could be because of the rigours of the extremely demanding curriculum or because they now have to switch gears and start brown-nosing like mad to get a good residency spot.


I must say that the emphasis on volunteer work in the medical school application process bothers me. In order to volunteer among the poor in India or AIDS patients in Equatorial Africa, you have to be bankrolled, usually by affluent parents who pay your way to these far-flung areas and take care of your living expenses. I worry that the student from a poorer background who has to work to pay tuition and room and board does not have the time or the luxury to do volunteer work. Certainly most of the volunteer work in society is carried out by wealthy people. The poor can't afford to volunteer.


I am reminded of my friend, Heather, an ER physician in the U.S., who had to financially support her hippie parents while they were busy finding themselves and she was struggling to get herself through undergraduate and med school. She had no time for volunteer work and had to work in Hooters-type restaurants for the great tips.


Wrong side of the tracks


One of the best residents with whom my husband, an ER physician at a huge teaching hospital in New Orleans, ever worked, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in a housing project. Against all odds and through sheer grit and brilliance, he managed to get into an Ivy League medical school. He tells a cute story of how he satisfied the admissions committee's volunteer/music requirements. He, of course, had no time to volunteer and had to spend every spare moment, when he wasn't studying, working. A mean piano player, he supported himself by playing in sleazy strip joints that were fronts for prostitution. So he told the committee he played piano in the entertainment business and worked closely for many years with prostitutes.


At the end of the four days of interviewing at UBC, we were invited to comment on the process.


As a former bottom-feeder who had to face the difficulty of affording volunteer work, I suggested to the admissions committee that it should weigh work experience just as much as volunteer work. Otherwise, medical schools are discriminating against those who have to scrimp, save and work to get through university.


Maria Hugi is an emergency physician in Vancouver.

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this person makes a good point.


some people will stop at nothing to get in, doing some volunteering stints that very few people could never get a chance to do. i do know that in my work experience, i've learned a lot of valuable things that i dont necessarily get volunteering, so maybe, work experience should have as much merit as volunteering.



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Guest Jochi1543

I so agree with the "volunteering among the poor in India" thing. I don't have the luxury of paying several thousand dollars for an airplane ticket to go there and then pay my living expenses as well. I volunteer in my area and I do things I like. I especially enjoy my work at the hospital and the clinic, and it's only natural that I'd quit that when I'm in medical school - I will be exposed to that environment daily, and definitely not for pay! And since I'm living alone and my parents will not support me, if I do decide to pursue some activity during meds, it will have to be a paid one, like breaking horses or teaching people to ride - I enjoy horseback riding. But I think that it's ridiculous to expect people to devote 10 hours a week to volunteering in medical school when there's so much talk about MARRIAGES falling apart because of the stress. I will be devoting time to myself, thank you very much - I can contribute to the community when I graduate. The study about people stopping to volunteer once they hit med school is pointless.:x

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Guest adduction

Good article!


I also agree with the volunteering in med school part. I think the article was accurate in that a drop in the amount of volunteering by med students could be a reflection of the demands of the curriculum. I personally don't know how I'd be able to volunteer as much of my time during med school.


Touching on the part about 'volunteering with the poor in India...' What really bothered me as a premed wasn't the fact that only those who are bankrolled have this or similar opportunities, but rather that for the majority of those who did go overseas - the driving force behind it was for something that 'looked good on the application'.


Naturally there are people who truly extract much from the experience, however during my time as a pre-med I couldn't count how many people i knew who spent all that money and time travelling for the sake of adding that extra line in the extracurricular category on their application...

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Guest Kirsteen

Hi there,


There can often be other sorts of fortunes or fortune-related experiences which can arguably advantage an applicant re: the seeming relevancy of items on their medical school application. One that comes to mind is the medical work that some folks have done--enabling them to gain a decent bit of experience of the life-o'-medic--via their family connections.


When I interviewed medical school candidates at U. of Calgary this year, I was paired with a clinician. We reviewed our applicants' files together prior to the interview sessions and he pointed to one application where the interviewee noted that they had worked in a doctor's office for a number of years. The doctor noted that this person had probably worked in their mum or dad's practice. During the interview, this emerged quickly as being the truth, and the applicant spoke at length of their experience in this setting, and how they benefitted from their broadened understanding of the Canadian health care system and issues surrounding Canadian medical practice. In all the applicant spoke quite introspectively and impressively about their experience in that milieu. This is also an experience, that, like exotic volunteering, is directly correlated with good family financial health, and more holistically, a source of financial bias in the medical school application process.


However, I'm not sure that Canadian medical schools remain oblivious to this. For one, some schools informally state that volunteering--no matter where--is not an absolute requirement to gain entry to medical school. Also, it might be for this source of financial bias that schools such as UBC are relatively wise. That is, that although experiences such as volunteering or medical office work can add checked boxes to an application reviewed, the degree to which they do can be small or just as large as other types of experiences on which an applicant can talk thoughtfully and sensibly during an interview or within an essay. I would argue that the ability to communicate about your experiences, to demonstrate maturity, diverse and worldly knowledge, and sound reasons for wishing to enter medicine, on paper and in person, are valued much more highly than a checkmark in a box for exotic volunteer work completed.




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Guest physiology



That article was great - considering that the writer and her husband are both physicians. I think they're having the "underdog" (the people who can't afford to spend time volunteering) in mind.


I hope Maria Hugi passes this article onto the admissions office.



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Guest leviathan

That article hits very close to home for me, as my parents, though reasonably well off, do not support me financially at any length. I live far from UBC, so I have pay for not just tuition and books, but the costs of rent and food and other expenses of living on campus.


Unfortunately, this has lots of effects on my application success which seems to indirectly exclude those with less income to their ability to become doctors.


For example, during the summer I work full-time which limits my ability to volunteer. After working 40 hours/week and studying for the MCAT (and also having some existence of a social life) it leaves me little time to volunteer, though I still do spend most of my weekends doing so, and one late night during the week.


Also, it certaintly bars me from having the opportunity to do those overseas excursions that so many others who are better off get to do to pad their applications, as I both can't afford that, nor have the time (because of work).


During the school year, having to work part-time also limits my time for volunteering, and probably also affects my grades a little, though I think it probably doesn't as it just drives me to work a bit harder and leaves me with less free time.


Overall, I'm not really complaining about my situation in itself, as I think in the end I'll be proud that I accomplished everything on my own, that I was financially independent and didn't need any handouts. The thing that gets me is that it IS leaving me with a lot less opportunity to fill out that meds application with lots of ECs. For me, other than doing one evening / week in the ED of a hospital, all my time is spent volunteering for St. John Ambulance, which I do contribute quite a lot of time to, but I don't end up having a long list of activities on my application.


I just hope that the ADCOMs can see the situation that myself and many others face, and that if they aren't focusing on the whole picture already, that they change in the near future (preferrably before I apply in fall ;) ).

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Guest Hickboy

Hey leviathan. I have been throught exactly the same situation as you, having to pay for my entire education on my own, which left me very little time for "flashy" volunteer work. Last year I was interviewed by UBC and Queens, but rejected by both and it was pretty disheartening. This year however, I made it a point to explicitly state on my application that I had worked through my entire undergrad, and that I had little outside financial assistance. I was accepted to UBC this year, so I think that putting those details on my application certainly helped. At the very least, it couldn't hurt!

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Guest petiD

I too, have paid my way through school... room and board included. I was glad to see the issue in this article being brought up. I do think that the adcoms is aware of this to a certain degree, though... I know a candidate who had that exact flashy volunteer experience abroad, her dad was a doctor so she also had excellent local hospital experience, and she had great marks... so why didn't she get an interview? She was told it was b/c she had no work experience.

Anyways, it's good that these issues are being discussed. Oh yeah, and about the whole volunteering abroad just for the resume... I have a hard time believing this... I mean, if I could afford it, I would do it and it wouldn't be just for my resume... I'd be stoked on the adventure, on the chance to help, to travel, and to see and feel new things...


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