Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Interviewing at Yale Medical School

When I applied last year I had a folder where I put everything I learned about schools during the application year. By the time the interviews rolled in I had compiled a decent amount of “intelligence” on each of the schools I was interviewing at. So here it is, the notes from my book on what I learned about schools while applying in 2008.

I’ll start with Yale, one of my favorite medical schools!


What did I like about Yale?
Heavy focus on research: research thesis is not only encouraged, but required in order to graduate. It does not have to be in basic or clinical sciences. It is my understanding that an acceptable thesis has to represent an original undertaking by the student, in whichever area they chose.

Enormous graduate school right next to medical school makes it easy to collaborate with colleagues in basic sciences (you can use their equipment, attend research seminars and poster sessions, and receive peer reviews on your work). Yale university campus is rather like Rome – it’s built on several hills. They call the graduate school location “The Science Hill”, and a hill it is indeed.

Wealth of research funding opportunities for medical students (you can learn more about it here: This amount of funding options for students is rather impressive for any medical school.

I researched and found at least three labs in neurophysiology that I would be happy to join. I started researching this question here: and read more about each lab that caught my fancy in more details. I learned a lot about their recent work by studying their most recent publications – PubMed PI’s names to get the list.

Yale has a special supprt system for women in sciences and medicine. Among other things, it allows you to meet with very famous, successful women in an informal setting. If you are trying to do something unusual with your career I think there is no better place to start than to ask another person how they did it. You can read about the support program here: as well as here: Realize that this information is not exclusively useful to the female audience – I think a male who expresses admiration for Yale’s mission for diversity in sciences can only get kudos from the interviewer.

Yale system allows students to have a lot of flexibility with their time – for me this was important because it meant I could spend serious time on research. The Yale system is meticulously described on their website, so I am not going to say much about it. It did not rank high on my list of reasons to come to Yale. I think you must be self-motivated no matter where you go in order to succeed. Yale makes it more explicit, I guess.

Yale boasts an incredible anatomy lab. It’s brand new, brightly lit with huge windows and mobile computer terminals suspended from the ceiling on swinging arms. While you’re doing a dissection, you can refer to these terminals to help you learn about the body you are working on. Each terminal is equipped with a self-assessing module that generates questions for you. You can type in your answer and immediately get feedback on it. You can also see diagrams and virtual images of the organ you are working on, as well as related histology slides. Very neat idea! I wish Harvard had that.

While I was touring the anatomy lab under the supervision of a student guide, a younger student yelled out to my group “Hey you guys wanna check out this guy’s heart?!” Our guide respectfully but firmly pointed out that this behavior was disrespectful and inappropriate. I was pleased to see this level of awareness and mutual respect among the Yale medical students, as well as thoughtful care for their profession.

Fun facts about Yale
Harvey Cushing, the nation’s first significant neurosurgeon, went to Yale for undergrad. In 1890 he was tapped for Scroll and Key. I know he also played baseball for Yale and was vehemently competitive. He received his medical degree from Harvard, but spent most of his life practicing at Johns-Hopkins. Cushing returned to Yale at the end of his life with an honorary degree to teach. After his death, Yale inherited his immense collection of rare medical editions (you can check on Ebay – his collection could have paid for all of my medical education several times!). When touring the Cushing library you will go past a circular dome with a flat metal circle on the floor. Stand on this circle and whisper to yourself. The walls of the dome are built in such a way that sound waves are reflected back to you greatly amplified. To you it sounds like your voice is BOOMING. To everyone else it sounds like you’re being spooked by your own whisper. It's fun to watch other people doing it!

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Yale medical school used to be quite weak and poor. So was Harvard, by the way. Ironically, neither Harvard nor Yale pursued medical research as a major reputation-building factor. Everything changed in the mid-1900s, although I’m not quite sure what triggered the change in mindset. Perhaps it was the competitiveness with Hopkins, where all the brightest research minds were collected.

If you have a chance to walk around the Yale campus (it’s very pretty), you should walk through the cemetery. I was fascinated to discover the tomb of Josiah Willard Gibbs, the very Gibbs that discovered the “delta gee” (Gibb’s free energy).

Friday, July 24, 2009

How To Ace Your Medical School Interview: Smart Practice Pays Off!

Receiving the much coveted interview invitation is a little victory. You got your foot in the door with the school. Now it’s up to you to ace your interview.

Early applicants (AMCAS submitted in early June, secondaries completed by early August) typically receive interview invitations starting in late August-early September. I received all interview invitations by email.

Scheduling an Interview
Most of my interview invitations arrived in September. I scheduled my interviews for October, figuring it will give me a month to prepare. I knew that my interview performance would play an important role in the admissions decisions, since my grades and MCAT scores were average (I did have a killer essay).

I was so excited to receive an invitation from Yale, that I made a huge mistake of scheduling it for September 15th. This left me with less than two weeks to get ready. I would recommend against doing this! A number of things went awry on my interview day and I was not well-prepared to deal with them. But I will get to that later.

Try to schedule your interview on a Monday or Friday. If time and money permits you to stay an extra day (before your scheduled interview) – definitely do that. Walk around the medical school complex (it’s usually pretty enormous), figure out where the admissions office is located. Most schools are pretty bad with giving you directions to their admissions office. Once you’re there you will receive the most detailed beautiful maps and friendly explanations from the office staff. But you’re on your own getting there… Walking around is also useful for gathering strategic information. Make notes about the cool things you find. Walk through buildings and note names of authors on posters that appeal to you. Note loyalties to local sports teams.

A great thing to do is to email one or two current students in advance and ask them for a tour. You will gather a lot of otherwise inaccessible intelligence this way. The admissions office will send you a list of contacts if you wish to stay with a student. You can use this list to find a student willing to show you around. Take your student guide out to lunch and be very nice and appreciative!!! You are doing all of this so you can have some unique, interesting things to say about the school. Interviewers always ask you “What can I tell you about our school?” Ask them about something you learned while walking around (even if you already know the answer). You won’t be taken aback by an unexpected question like that.

Practicing Questions For Your Interview
I discussed this item in detail already: see this post

Dressing For Interview
You have to get a business suit. If you’re interviewing in December/January you will also need a long dark professional-looking jacket. Don’t wear open-toe shoes, don’t wear jewelry, and don’t smell like anything. Don’t do make-up and don’t paint your fingernails. I actually thought that men looked very professional everywhere I interviewed. Sadly, I cannot say the same about women.

Free your hands. Don’t have Gucci bags with flashy buckles. I really liked that most men showed up with a dark leather folder. I lugged around a bulkier version of that, which was silly and useless. All you really need for your interview is something so squeeze in your hands and something to hold personal cards with. That is, a pocket in your pants would suffice. Have a pen, too.

In most places you will have to do a fair amount of walking, most of it indoors. Some schools will take you on a tour around campus. Make sure you don’t wear stilettos – you’ll be clacking indoors and falling over outdoors. Pants are way more comfortable than skirts (in my opinion) for this reason.

If you’re interviewing in North Carolina in October, you are likely to encounter 90-degree weather. Your suit will kill you. I have no suggestions to improve this state of affairs, but do bring an extra shirt and go for a dark suit.

Do not change back into your normal clothes until you leave the school!!!

Your Interview Day
(This applies to most schools, but NOT HARVARD!) You will show up at the admissions office and greet the people who work there. The staff are so friendly and nice -- it makes you feel much more relaxed. Most good schools study your file in great detail. You will be surprised by how much they remember about you! At Yale, I was casually greeted “Hi, how is Schering-Plough stock doing?” – I work for SP. Be prepared for that!

You get your name tag and proceed into some conference room where you will meet with the dean and (at some point) a financial aid representative. There is typically a one-hour introduction by the dean, and an overview of events for the day. You also get your interview day packet.

Open the packet immediately and look at your interview times. Most schools conduct two interviews. Boston University, notably, has only one. Of the two interviewers one could be a student, or both could be done by faculty. If both of your interviewers are faculty members, you just landed a jackpot. I’ll say more about interviewing with a student later. I got lucky like that only twice: at Harvard and at Yale. You will never have two student interviewers.

Your first interview tends to be in the morning. Once that’s done there is usually lunch, a student tour, more information sessions, and then another interview.

Some common things that can go wrong:
  • Your interviewer does not show up (make sure your cell phone is charged and you know the admissions office telephone number)
SOLUTION: Call the office, you will get a replacement interview. Insist that you do get one!
  • Your interviewer is on the other side of town and you get lost getting there
SOLUTION: Spend money and get a cab immediately. Call the admissions office.
  • Your first interview is running late, and you realize you won’t be able to make it to your second one on time. But your interviewer is talking and talking…
SOLUTION: Before you begin your interview politely (and with a smile) mention “they” scheduled your interviews very close together

I should mention that at Harvard, interview day does not proceed according to this neat plan. The school does nothing to convince you of its grandeur. I wrote in some detail about my interview day at Harvard here:

There is no reason to feel competitive during your interview day. That is not the nature of the interview. There is a very real chance you might be meeting some of your classmates on this important day. Cutting each other off and running in front of each other in lines does not help you get in. Be nice – it’s the smartest play by a long shot!

I suggest that during the one month before your interview you obtain a video camera and tape yourself answering questions. You will discover (hopefully) a lot of embarrassing and funny things about yourself and will promptly correct them. When you tape yourself dress up just as you would for the interview. Suits are so uncomfortable to sit in! Practice every single day until you reach a comfort zone answering questions like “Why should we accept you?”

Read, read, read. The more you read, the smarter you will become. The smarter you feel, the more comfortable you are at your interview. Nothing makes you perform worse than being nervous. It’s alright to be a little nervous – keeps you vigilant. Make sure that you have followed the news for at least one week before your interview. I suggest some good reads in one of my previous posts:

When you meet your interviewer, shake their hand and introduce yourself. Smile and be friendly. Remember your trip around the school and maybe mention something funny about it. In general your interviewer will be incredibly friendly.

Interviewing with a student is tricky. To succeed with a student interviewer, follow these general guidelines:

1. ACT VERY PROFESSIONAL - err on the side of seeming boring. We naturally relax around our young peers. An interview setting is not appropriate for that.

2. TALK ABOUT WORK AND RESEARCH - ask them about their work and their research. Prepare some questions in advance. For example, "Did you consider doing a combined degree program?" or "What do you think about the five-year medical scientist training program? Do you know anybody who is doing it?" Have at least five of those questions ready.

3. BE SOMEWHAT COOL - students will ask you what you do in your spare time. I suppose they could be evaluating how you would fit into their community. You want to sound interesting, but don't say "I party all the time until I'm blue in face". Don't say anything you would not say to your mother-in-law. Interesting activities could be collecting pho recipes, traveling to see ancient images of Caduceus, or enjoying political posters. Something edgier than gardening…

When you interview with a faculty member, look around their office. Do you see books that you’ve read? What journals do they have on their desk? Use anything you can as a conversation starter. Say you read that article last week and what do they think about this and this point in it? Take charge. Don’t wait for them to ask you questions. If you’re lucky and they have a cultural item in their office that you recognize then ask about it (if it can lead to an interesting discussion). Pay attention to what your interviewer says about themselves! It adds a wonderful personal touch to your thank you notes if you say something specific to indicate you cared about your conversation. “Good luck with your residency at such-and-such hospital” or “Congratulations on your recent submission to such-and-such journal”.

At the end of your interview ask for their card. It’s actually quite useful to have their email in case you have to update your application. If you’re interviewing at a non-rolling school you will have plenty of time before any decision is made. Lots of things could change. A contact on the admissions committee is very useful.

Interviews are stressful, but they are so much fun! I have the fondest memories of my interview season. I’m very grateful to have visited so many wonderful medical schools.

In my interview preparation I used some techniques mentioned in this article for managing stress and remembering material: "Who Wants To Be A Cognitive Scientist Millionaire". If you're curious to know more about the research Ogi does go here:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Academic Societies at Harvard Medical School: Student Communities and Society Masters

Harvard Medical School class is rather large, about 140 students including both New Pathway and HST programs. It’s not as big as Boston University’s (180 students), but sizably larger than Stanford’s (80-90 students). To foster closer relationships among students and faculty our class is divided into five academic societies: Cannon, Castle, Holmes, Peabody and London (or HST). All HST students naturally end up joining the HST society. The rest of the class are randomly assigned to one of the remaining four. I’m happy to report that in a Harry Potteresque fit the sorting hat put me in Cannon together with my newly made friends!

My society is named after Dr. Walter Bradford Cannon (image borrowed from, a Harvard-trained physiologist. He studied swallowing in the 1920s using early X-ray technology. It does not mean that everybody in Cannon is fascinated with esophageal mysteries. Other than HST, societies are not ordered by themes or interests. The placement really is random, although admittedly siblings usually end up in the same club. All societies are roughly the same and offer no unique benefits (although it is rumored that Peapody sometimes has free breakfast?). Each society has their own House – all five open into the main atrium in the TMEC student center. Those who interview at HMS will have their lunch at the atrium and will see the societies.

The Master of my society, Dr. Gordon J Stewler, is a professor of endocrinology and studies molecular factors affecting tumor metastasis. Dr. Katharine Treadway, one of the four Associate Masters at Cannon, teaches “Introduction To Profession” – a two-week course that starts my first year at Harvard. The role of society masters is to support and supervise the students, and to help them achieve their professional goals. They act rather similar to academic advisors. I can’t wait to learn more about them!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Information Technology at Harvard Medical School is Amazing!

On Wednesday incoming HMS students had their first official introduction to information technology. Two years ago the president of HMS promised to invest whatever it takes to make HMS the world leader in education technology. I was genuinely impressed with the integrated system they have since built for the students. Here are just some of the features we were introduced to.

All lectures are taped and broadcasted at twice the speed. Video feed is digitally modified to correct the pitch of the speakers’ voices. Lectures are available in podcast format compatible with iPhone, Blackberry and iPod, of course. All lecture materials can be downloaded and viewed with any eBook reader, notably the Kindle. In fact, a new pilot is being developed right now that would have a wireless auto-update of class materials and other resources.

Class and exam schedules can be downloaded and combined with Google calendar. This in tern is readily synced with your iPhone or Blackberry. This is enourmously useful to me, a Blackberry user. Students get access to their academic information through a single consolidated portal – My Courses. In addition to academic information, My Courses also features live links to department updates. You can pick and choose what departments you are interested in. For example, I am interested in the latest advances in neural prosthesis. I can easily stay in touch with the latest news at HMS in this area.

My Courses offers easy access to the most popular educational resources: New England Journal of Medicine, Journal LiveWatch, Journal of American Medical Association, and many other professional publications. Amazingly, each of these also exists as a mobile version. You can read your favorite medical news on your PDA. I tested all of this out on my BlackBerry -- it works like magic! So cool!!!

You also get easy online access to Virtual Laboratory where you can view pictures of histology slides in high res. Virtual Anatomy Lab is astonishing: it features a 3-D image of a body that you can zoom in/zoom out on. You can peel off layers of tissues and see what is underneath. High res images of slides really are high res: a single slide we looked took up 16GB, you could zoom in to see individual cells in high resolution.

Harvard email is set up to work with any PDA. You can also forward your email to Gmail and check it on your PDA. Email updates sync easily with Google. I noticed that in less than a week I received three financial aid offers for small scholarships to help pay for tuition. I’m definitely going to look into some of them.

In short, HMS has the single most integrated and easy to use IT system I have ever seen. It is specifically designed to work with all of the most popular devices that make our lives easier and more productive. I really can’t wait to start my life at Harvard!
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