The Journey to Medical School
By Joshua Foromera, Medical Student, Harvard University
For me, making the decision to go to medical should have been easy because I have always wanted to be a doctor but many challenges that I faced when I was growing up forced me to re-evaluate my goals. Instead of becoming a man inside the doctor's room, I thought I could be "out there." I wanted to teach people about AIDS and safe sex, about basic hygiene and about simple but effective procedures like boiling water to kill cholera. I was getting more interested in research too, though I never departed from HIV related work because of personal-public reasons that many of us from Africa know.
After a few meetings with my advisors, who are all doctors, I thought it was good for me to study medicine. Almost everyone wanted me to pursue the MD/PhD path because of my passion for research - I agreed. My last significant meeting before I applied was with the director of pre-health services at my school. He is a tall man with a broad smile that makes anyone feel at easy. We combed through my grades, research, clinical, research and extra curricula engagements and the man gave me an assuring smile. Then I dropped the bomb. "I'm an international student sir, what are my chances?" I asked hesitantly. The broad smile became grim and I waited for the next word with trepidation. His harangue was a cocktail of both vivid enthusiasm and downright pessimism. There was a reason for every word; I commend him for choosing each one of them so carefully that when I walked out of his office, I had a perfect combination of dos and donts even wants and needs for the long and scary voyage that awaited me. I hope that at the end of this essay, you will find yourself in the same place.
Let me clearly and realistically answer the main question: what are my chances as an international student? Well, for an international student, getting into medical school is extremely challenging therefore we all have to honestly evaluate ourselves and decide if we want to take the route. But tell me what is easy? Even among Americans, it is not uncommon to see many premeds dropping out after Organic Chemistry debacles or merely because the demands of being premed are a thief of youthful indulgence and college fun. I remember standing among my friends on the first week at Duke University when everyone was premed and dreamt of graduating with a 4.0 GPA. That is only possible in utopia, the reality is that many of those friends have changed their minds and they are honorable in doing so given the "un-utopic" world that we live in. To those of you who pass this first and critical test, I have a few more things to say.
Possibly the most daunting test that I have ever taken in my life. In my opinion, taking a class helps but for most of us, the cost may be limiting. I only took the class because of a family that volunteered to pay for me. However, I learned most of the material on my own through practice tests. Fortunately, those tests can be purchased separately and they are very affordable so I would encourage you to consider that option. There are also many free resources that are almost just as good as purchased products.
The small story behind my recommendations is that I was very fortunate to meet people who were interested in me. They invested their time in my success so they eagerly recommended me. My dean, Lab Principal Investigators from Duke and Harvard, My host family and teachers from Zimbabwe all wrote letters for me. You should also find people who know you very well, and who are excited about your success. Do not take chances. Your recommendations, especially from faculty and physicians go a long way to boost your application. In my interviews, I was asked a couple of times about my letter writers because some of them are big names. I actually shared a mentor with one of my interviewers; it made the conversation much better!
Extra Curricular activities
These activities make the bulk of your application so they define you. Basically, you have a chance to prove that you are personable, compassionate and you have good leadership skills. There is always the problem of spreading oneself too thin. You can only do so much during the four years of college and admissions officers seem to understand that. However, find your passion and follow it. For me, it is HIV/AIDS. I did HIV research, Volunteered in a HIV/Infectious diseases clinic, and Cofounded an AIDS awareness organization at my school. My involvement in all these projects was voluntary and active. I did not participate in any of the organizations in order to fulfill premed requirements but to follow my passion and my interviewers noticed it. I was doing what I love so it was easy for me. If you have a passion, be it teaching, writing, athletics or anything else, use it for your advantage. Do not waste your time doing things that you hate, it's not worthy it at all.
Choosing the school to apply to
This is where most of us encounter our first real challenge after the MCAT and application writing. Here is the basic breakdown: Most if not all state schools do not even look at an application from an international student. They are limited by the rules stipulated by the states and federal money that they rely on. Some private institutions will accept your application and if you get accepted, they want an escrow account with hundreds of thousands of dollars before you can get a visa. For most of us, that will mark the end of the dream. However, a handful of big private schools accept international students and they have funds – grants and institutional loans-to support their foreign students. Those are our major targets mainly because of affordability and in many cases, because they are quality. Always read each school's financial aid policies for international students carefully before applying,
The smartest advice that I was given was to be calm, collected, listen and be myself. I have nothing much to add, except that sometimes you have to think on your feet. Practice will make you perfect. Role play with a friend and get your answers together. You may know all that you want to say but articulating can be a challenge especially when English is not your first language. However, do not also write down and memorize answers because anyone who has interviewed another person can distinguish between a genuine and well-thought response and a regurgitated paragraph from Macbeth!
Finally, get accepted and celebrate. Please remember your fellow applicants on the waitlists, be kind to them and withdraw from any school as soon as you are sure that you will not be attending it. If you are on the waitlist, write letters of interest and intend. Tell your interviewers that you are very interested in coming to their school, only if you seriously mean it. If that year fails, wait for the next cycle, strengthen your application and give it another shot! Never give up.