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Cracking medical school admissions: Stanford students use their expertise to help others

In an effort to help those interested in going into medicine, fourth-year Stanford med students Rachel Rizal and Rishi Mediratta have written a book: Cracking Med School Admissions.

Thousands of high-school and college students are anxious about getting into medical school one day, and Rachel Rizal and Rishi Mediratta, both fourth-year students at Stanford, know what keeps these aspiring doctors up at night. For the past several years, Rizal and Mediratta have acted as admissions counselors for their many pre-med friends and acquaintances and offered professional admissions consulting - and now they've written and published a book, Cracking Med School Admissions, based on their blog.

I had the chance to sit down and speak with the friendly pair outside of Stanford Hospital one breezy spring day. Both are moving into new career phases: Rizal is broadening her knowledge of business through an administrative position in Stanford Health Care, and Mediratta will be completing his pediatrics residency at Stanford. They credited their co-authors of the 100-page book, Devin Nambiar and Stanford student James Xie, who weren't able to join us.

They told me the most popular entries on their blog have been ones that focused on common application mistakes, acing the interview, and that ever-vexing question, what to wear. And the takeaway message from all? Hopeful students need to be humble, empathetic, and above all, good communicators.

How did Cracking Med School Admissions come about?

Rizal: We're a team of med students who love advising to the point where we were exchanging emails and asking, "Oh, how do you advise this person for letters of recommendation, how do you advise this computer science major?" So we thought, "Let's write a book!" We wanted the book to be fun and very readable, so we did it in a Q&A format. If there's a question where we have different perspectives then we give different examples. We have checklists, and we have sample essays from people who got into great schools.

Mediratta: We've been advising undergrads and high school students for a long time [and] every fall and spring we speak to post-bacs who are applying to medical school. There are so many questions that they ask after a presentation [that] you get a sense of what common questions are, and common difficulties.

What are some important insights about admissions? 

Rizal: Most med schools in California are turning more to this Multi-Mini interview process where it's speed interviewing... Instead of speaking to two people for thirty minutes to an hour, it's like a round robin and every ten minutes you get a different interviewer with a different question... It's a lot of fun. I sometimes sit on the reviews for Stanford and we have that process.

Mediratta: I think medical school admissions are going to start favoring students who can think on their feet, see two sides to an issue: 'These are the pros, these are the cons, and I would choose this approach.' It really forces students to think for themselves... People will learn the medicine, but if you get people who are already strong communicators... it makes for a really strong doctor.

How do academic and extracurricular experiences fit into the application? 

Mediratta: A lot of people will write more about the hospital or different organizations they worked at, but they don't write about what they've learned from the actual process... Lots of times their experiences come together and point in a certain direction, and it's often when you reflect on it that you realize that.

Rizal: One question we get asked a lot is, "So I have all this clinical experience, but I also have this hobby of biking around the world [- and what should I about that]?" One girl we advised last year really loved fashion and created her own clothing line and then had to figure out how to market it. It's important to highlight that in your application because it makes you interesting... More importantly, it really shows different aspects of your personality that could relate to medicine. For example, there are a lot of students who do teaching before they go into med school, and in order to be a teacher in a class you have to have patience and great communication, and really be able to understand - and although that's not really medicine that's very applicable to time in the clinics.

Mediratta: We have friends who have majored in both the sciences and non-sciences. It's all about taking a step back and figuring out what your passion is. If you're passionate about public health, did you pursue work in college or after college? Did you take some time off? That really demonstrates passion for that career.

So a strong application is one with an overarching narrative, stating what you care about in the world?

Rizal: Yes! Create that narrative or themes within your application... One of the biggest mistakes I see is that someone will write a laundry list of their activities on their personal statement.

How do you advise students on pursuing other interests after college?

Mediratta: I think sometimes people are rushing into medical school. In our class almost half the people who entered took at least one year off after undergrad. Med schools are going to stay around for a long time; I recommend taking a year to hone in on your passion and what you're excited about in medicine, because a journey in medicine is a long one... One of our friends worked at UCSF coordinating a clinical trial for breast cancer. I took three years off; I studied public health and anthropology, and I lived in Africa for a year.

Rizal: I did a global health Fulbright in the Philippines, and then I spent another year doing health-care consulting. Some people do Teach for America.

Is the field of advising something you want to pursue further?

Rizal: This has just been naturally what I've been doing my entire life... It's what I like to do. It's a side project when I think about medical school, but I definitely see myself doing this as I get older.

Mediratta: I've been really thankful for my mentors and friends when applying to college and medical school, and [I would like to] repay that forward. I know how difficult it is, and I've learned a lot, so I feel like it's important for me to share what I've learned.

Rizal: We also found out that a lot of big universities didn't have strong pre-med advising programs, or programs at all, so that's why we wanted to give a medical student perspective, like, "Hey, we just went through the process, we'll give you all these tips." In our book there's a chapter where we list 60 common interview questions we've compiled through the years. It's super current.

Previously: Future MDs and PhDs: Follow your passion - or don't, Stanford's Senior Associate Dean of medical education talks career paths, admissions, Encouraging alternative routes to medical schoolStudent "flu crew" brings no-cost flu vaccinations to the community, Discussing a new way to choose medical students and The rise of the medical school Multi-Mini interview
Related: Student wins new scholarship to encourage work in global health and Mary Duke Biddle Scholar Profile: Rachel Rizal

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