Episode 21: Where To Apply? Where To Go?

Two newly-minted second-year Pritzker students, Marcus Dahlstrom and Melanie Odeleye, talk with us about factors involved in selecting medical schools to apply to and in choosing which school you’d like to attend once you’re accepted. They also discuss some of the things that initially attracted them to Pritzker.

If you have questions for us, please send them to pritzkerquestions@gmail.com.

[Music: Stephen Asma – Check It]

Episode 21 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Hello, everyone! Welcome to another episode of the Pritzker Podcast. Today, we are fortunate to be joined by two first year students who will be talking to us about factors that go into deciding where to apply to medical school, the lists of schools you should compile when you’re getting all your applications set, and also the factors that go into where to attend medical school once you’ve got some acceptances under your belt. So I recorded this interview a bit earlier with these two first year students, Marcus Dahlstrom and Melanie Odeleye. And let’s jump right in.


BF: Hey Melanie! Hey Marcus! How’s it going?

Melanie Odeleye: Hey!

Marcus Dahlstrom: Hey, Ben.

BF: Yeah. I guess I should specify or clarify that you guys are second-years now because you’ve just finished your final final exams of first year. So congratulations about that. I’m sure it feels nice to be done.

MO: It has gone well. The test was done.

MD: It’s awesome. We’re talking over each other. Anyway, at 11:30 this morning we became second-years so it’s kind of been a big day for us.

BF: Just to jump into this discussion. I think as a matter of providing some context for everybody and some background on why you made the decisions that you did, can you both talk briefly about sort of your individual backgrounds? Where you went to college? What you did in between college and medical school? Maybe what you studied in college? And sort of how you first got the sense that you wanted to go to medical school? How you sort of came to that decision? Melanie, you want to start?

MO: Sure. Absolutely. I am coming from Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was born and raised there and I went to University of Michigan for undergrad. I studied biochemistry and at I guess the beginning of my senior year I realized that I wasn’t quite ready to start the application process for med school. So I decided instead to doing a year of service with Americorps. So I went off to Philly and worked in the Philadelphia Public Schools on some after-school programming and community outreach programming that was free with the community. And so during that year with Americorps is when I decided to apply for med school. And now here I am a year later after finally deciding on University of Chicago.

BF: How was it that you first decided on medicine? Was it sort of an epiphany for you or was it more of a gradual realization that it was something that you wanted to do?

MO: Yeah. You know, it’s something that I’d thought about for a really long time. My dad’s oldest sister is a physician. My dad’s from Nigeria and his sister was practicing there. When I was in elementary school was when she came to the US and did some research and I was just enthralled, captivated with her stories of her day, which were obviously distilled down to elementary school level for me but it just seemed really interesting. And so from that point forward, I volunteered in hospitals and did other sorts of extracurricular activities to get a sense of what it would be like to be a med student and a physician eventually. It has been something that’s been important to me for a long time. Up until actually applying, just trying to verify that interest in lots of different ways.

BF: Okay. And Marcus, what about you? What’s your story?

MD:Yeah. I feel like I’m in my medical school interview right now. I’m from Arizona, born and raised. I was born in Phoenix and I went to school at University of Arizona in Tucson. I majored in molecular cellular biology and I’m pretty much a cookie-cutter med student. I’m straight out of undergrad and went straight into med school. I’m pretty much humbled by all of my colleagues who have done incredible things like Melanie. And after listening to Ben on the Pritzker Podcast in undergrad, here I am today.

BF: Yeah. That’s a required prerequisite as far as I’m concerned. Marcus, how was it that you decided to come to medical school? What was the decision process for you like?

MD: You know, I was always asked this question and I really don’t know if there’s one crystallizing moment. I think it’s more of an accumulation throughout my life. I was born on an Indian reservation and even though it was only 30 miles down the road, witnessing the dramatic healthcare disparities brought me to really want to be a part of fixing that inequality. And I think medicine is just one of the best careers to do whatever you want because I have a pretty short attention span and I want to keep on changing what I’m doing throughout my career. And I really thought that something like academic medicine, which allowed you to teach and do research as well as well as practice, really allowed the best outlet for me.

BF: Melanie, what were some of factors if you can recall you were considering when you were considering medical schools, what medical schools to apply to? Were there a list of things that you were sort of looking at in a school? Or was it a more overall sense of the school? How did you decide where to apply?

MO: Sure. I think that I definitely looked at the options that I would have after med school in looking at what school that I wanted to go to. And so, Marcus sort of got at this as well, but I’m also interested in disparities and international medicine. And so the schools that I primarily applied to were those that had a broader outlook on the practice of medicine and that it was not something that you just do on an individual basis although that is a big part. But there are also larger systemic things that play into the care of a patient and what makes people healthy and sick. So those were some of the characteristics that I looked at. I wanted a school that had a service-oriented mentality and recognized the broader components of health. Geography was also something important to me. Having spent a year in Philadelphia far away from home and far away from the people that I knew best, I realized that I wanted to be accessible to the people that I love and mean a lot to me. So that was another thing I took into consideration. Yeah, I think those were the two big things for me.

BF:What sorts of resources did you used to learn about this stuff? Was it websites? Was it school brochures? How did you sort of glean all this information off of these schools and put it all together?

MO: I started with the classic resources, the MSAR. I started on the website–MSAR is Medical School Admission Resource book. So I started there. I did the catalogs. Michigan also has a career center that’s pretty helpful and can link up Michigan grads and premeds. So, I was able to get in touch with Michigan grads who were at the schools that I was looking at. And of course I had some friends who had gone straight to med school from my class. So those were the places that I went to try and get a sense of the spirit of each school. And then of course once I went on interviews. Talking to students was a huge huge asset in trying to determine what that culture of the school was like.

BF: Right. Okay. And how about you Marcus? What sort of factors were you looking at in medical schools? And how did you go about sort of informing yourself about those?

MD: I started looking at the map and I want to find the absolute coldest place possible.

BF: And that’s coming from Arizona.

MD: Coming from Arizona, I was like you know, I’m tired of this heat.

BF: Yeah.

MD: I really want to experience what a winter coat is. But I think I based my main decision on the Medical School Admissions Requirement book, like Melanie was talking about, the MSAR, and that really gave me a good basic groundwork for different schools like their GPA, MCAT, and there were some course requirements I remember that limited me from applying to certain schools just because I didn’t take like a random humanities class in undergrad.

BF: Sure.

MD: So that was helpful to just get a basic sense of that school. And also then you can read the mission statement and student body breakdown, which was helpful. But I think as Melanie and I kind of joke about but I think it is serious: Where you want to live is probably the most important thing you want to look at because you want to be close to family and friends. And I have family here in Chicago and it’s been really nice to just like take a break and go see them. So that’s always been nice. And I also did the whole annoying pre-med thing and look at the rankings and that really got a good sense like where I plotted out–I applied to 15 schools and I kind of broke it down into reach, middle, and kind of safety schools. And that gave a good sense as to like where each school would be. But I think the most important thing for me was talking to my parents and my friends who had applied. I remember sitting with my dad on the couch one day looking through the MSAR. And my dad said, “Oh, Marcus, you absolutely have to apply to University of Chicago,” and that really made me look at it more. So it was helpful just to talk to people that maybe you’d think about a school they thought of that you really didn’t think about.

BF: Now, you brought up the rankings and I know this is sort of a hotly-contested topic among premeds and medical schools and medical students. Do you guys think that rankings are accurate or important things to consider when you’re choosing schools or is it just sort of more bunk than it is useful?

MO: I think it may be a good place to start to search but I think that at the end of the day you should base your decision not upon ranking but on the sense that you get at each school and how well you feel like you fit at a particular place. And again taking into consideration the things that you’ve already established that’s important–for me it was geography and the culture of the school–once you’ve taken those things into consideration and got a sense of where you fit best. I think you have to rank the schools yourself and not use the US News & World Report ranking.

MD: Yeah. I know there’s people out there right now like saying, “Oh, they’re just saying that,” but I had the same philosophy, like “No, the rankings are the most important thing ever.” But now that we’re here, I don’t even know how you can differentiate between 8 and 9. I mean it’s such a ridiculous concept when you talk about education. It’s where you want to be and where you’re going to have fun. You have four years of your youth, you don’t want to throw it away just because a ranking system being somewhere where you don’t want to be, where you’re not happy. That seems absolutely ridiculous right now. But I know there’s people listening that will disagree with me. But once they got into that school, they’ll see as well that the rankings are pretty much meaningless.

BF: How many schools did each of you apply to?

MD: I applied 15 schools. Like I was saying, I kind of used the rankings and MSAR to sort of get a sense of where along the spectrum I would apply because I didn’t want to apply to all safety schools, I didn’t want to apply to all reach schools because you want to have a good balance. And I know a lot of people applied to a lot more. And I remember once the secondaries start coming in, that extra click on another school turns into a lot more work for you. So you might want to be a little bit conservative. If you don’t really want to go to a school, I wouldn’t necessarily apply and shell out your extra hundred dollars.

MO: Yeah. I think I was in that same range. I can’t remember specifically, but I want to say about 12 was how many I applied to and you definitely have to take into consideration like it is expensive. And so you have to be realistic with yourself. Marcus talks about reach schools and safety schools and so you just have to sort of think about a balance between those two things and compose a list of schools that you want to apply to accordingly.

BF: Okay. Once you started getting some acceptances to schools and you were in this situation where you said okay, I need to sort of pick and choose amongst these schools and start to rule some out and start to focus more on others, were the factors that you considered when you were picking schools to apply to the same as when you we’re deciding where to attend or were there different factors that came into play after the acceptances came in? Melanie, you want to start with that one?

MO: Sure. I definitely think the factors were different at the beginning of the application season versus at the end when you’ve got a few to decide between, mostly because by the end of the season you’ve already got the sense of what schools stood out to you positively and what schools didn’t really resonate with you. So I think that when I started my application process, of course narrowing down to 12 schools that I wanted to apply to was a little bit of a challenge. But it was more straightforward than actually now picking at the end of the application season, like which one of these schools do I like the best?. I can’t say that there is a perfect med school for every person. I think that there are certain things and that’s why making your list of important things is so important just because at the end of the day you’re going to pick from how many schools you’ve been admitted to. And you got to pick based on what’s the most important and so that will vary by person. For me, I’ve already said what those things were but they are much different than theoretically saying, “Oh, this school sounds good on paper!” versus I’ve been to this school, I’ve talked to the people. I know how I felt when I was there.

BF: Right. That’s a bit more tangible, I guess.

MO: Sure.

MD: So I got the happiest phone call of my life from Sylvia Robertson, one of our admission’s deans saying that I’ve been accepted to Pritzker pretty early in this season. And that was nice because then I don’t have to go to interviews that I had lined up because Pritzker was basically my top choice and I was quite excited to get in. And the interview day impression that you get, you’ll get a pretty good feel for the school and the faculty when you interview. But I felt like a lot of your decisions on how much you liked it was on how well your interview went and that’s a pretty limited contact with maybe one or two faculty people. So I felt like some schools that I had really good interviews at, I went on a second-look weekend. And I noticed that some of the things that I was really excited about weren’t really as prevalent in the first-year class that I had thought. So I think second weekend is really the most important thing to get the real sense because on interview day, you’re really hyped up on adrenalin and you don’t really get an accurate sense of your future classmates. So I think second-look weekend was probably the best. I mean that really confirmed that Pritzker was where I wanted to be.

BF: Sure. So Marcus you just mentioned some of the curricular aspects of the first year. Melanie you’ve mentioned the overall mentality of schools. Did any more detailed things that would come into play like the cost of school or the grading system or other sort of finer aspects of curriculum for you or did either of you really just not pay attention to that as much?

MD: I think speaking of grading systems, I think the most important thing for me was pass/fail. I don’t know that I really appreciated it as much in undergrad. I mean it sounded cool to be pass/fail, but the difference in environment just at a school-wide level is just incredible. Everybody is so willing to help each other just because there’s no grades, so if you get a 99 or a 70 you’re going to be the same. And really you’re just driving yourself to learn information, which I think is so great. If you know you’re really interested in one topic, then you can focus all your energy or most of your energy on that. And it’s just self-driven so it’s really a great thing. And I think that’s been one of the most surprising things. I know it would be nice, but I didn’t realize how much of an impact it would be. Another thing that I really lucked out was the difference between a problem-based learning school and a lecture-based learning school. I kind of felt like I was leaning more towards the lecture-based curriculum just because that’s what I was familiar with and I didn’t really know how I’d like a problem-based school. So that was a big emphasis and I think that also turned out well for me. But I mean the accessibility of the faculty I think is the most important thing at Pritzker itself. I mean pass/fail is nice but the faculty have been incredible and just the ability to go talk to any one of them has built a great education beyond the classroom.

MO: Yeah. I definitely agree with that last statement in that the resources within the institution were a big motivating factor for me for coming here to Pritzker. I think that all of the schools that I ended up applying to or at least considering highly in my primary analysis had very similar sort of statistics in terms of grading systems, curriculum problem-based versus lecture-based. And so for me it was definitely it was the feel of the institution. It was about proximity to people outside of medicine. It was really important to me to be able to stay sane and be able to escape med school when I felt like I needed to. And also, I mean Chicago is one of my favorite cities in the country. So being in a city that I already love and is very accessible in terms of getting around by car, getting around by public transportation, getting in and out of the city, even trying to fly in and out. There’s a lot of easy options and some of the places that I was looking didn’t have those same quality-of-life considerations that were going to help me be a real person outside of med school.

BF: What advice do you guys have for people who might be applying to medical school now? What sorts of things do you wish you had known when you were applying that you didn’t know at the time but you sort of realized after the fact?

MD: My undergrad advisor gave me really good advice as well as some take this incredibly arduous application process. He said, “You really want to go somewhere where you will be with people that you want to become yourself.” And I think looking around, you really get a good sense of who you can see yourself as in the future. And I really think that that was very helpful for me. But overwhelmingly, I mean I think any med school in the country, you’re going to get a fine education. The rest of it is just gravy. I think one of the big differences for Pritzker, which I didn’t really see before, was being on an undergrad campus because we can–Melanie was talking about this, not going insane–I think the ability to just walk over and talk to undergrads or just go to random events that they have is really helpful in maintaining–and there’s other grad schools too such as the law school and different conferences that you can go to and be a more broad individual than kind of being pigeon-holed into this medical superspecialist when we’re still young in our education. I think it’s nice to have a broad view of the world still.

MO: Yeah, I agree with that. I think that the other things that I would say and I’ve sort of touched on this already but just to say it more explicitly is just actually write down the things that are important to you to be and the experiences to have while in med school. Those four years are not going to be solely about school. They will be to a great extent, but when you’re not in school, when you’re not studying, what is going to make you a whole person? And so the big advice that I would have is to make that list and so that when you have a few acceptances in your hand you can say, well this school ranks like this in terms of the things I say are important. And this school measures like this in terms of these things. So that would be the other big advice. And then, I can’t emphasize enough talking to students at the school that you’re considering because they have the insight. They know what it’s like to be there.

BF: Well great. I think that’s great advice from both of you and I think everything that you’ve said today has been really insightful. Hopefully it helps all of the premeds and other folks who might be applying to medical school right now. Melanie and Marcus, thanks so much for joining us on the show.

MD: Thank you Ben.

MO: Thanks for having us.


BF: So thanks again for listening to the Pritzker Podcast. To hear more visit iTunes or pritzkerpodcast.libsyn.com. We also hope that this is an informative resource for you and if is, we’d love for you to send us an email to tell us about it. You can contact us at pritzkerquestions@gmail.com. And also, you can comment on our podcast page directly in iTunes telling us how we’re doing. We’d also love for you to submit questions of your own so that we can address them on the air for all of our listeners. Chances are, there are many people out there with the same question. Also, if you want to hear more about a certain topic in depth in the future, don’t hesitate to write in. Take care.