What I learned from medical school scholarship and award recipients

As a faculty member, I’ve encountered many medical students excelling inside and outside of the classroom. Students can be recognized for their contributions through scholarships, awards, and grants. Whenever I can, I try to direct students to these opportunities. It’s been a great joy for me to help students win scholarships, and here’s what I’ve learned from award recipients.

1. Your ability to develop strong relationships with faculty mentors is crucial to maximizing your chances of winning awards. Many scholarship and award programs require applicants to submit one or more faculty letters of recommendation as part of the application. This can be challenging for students, especially during the preclinical years, when contact with faculty may be limited to lecture halls.

Effort and initiative are needed to begin and cultivate a relationship that will lead to a strong letter of recommendation. Once a mentor-mentee relationship has been established, the mentor can direct students to awards and grants best suited to the student’s interests, credentials, and background.

“The first award I received was the ASCP Academic Excellence and Achievement in Pathology Award,” said Dr. Alexander Gallan, a pathology resident at the University of Chicago. “I worked hard during my second and third years of medical school to spend time with and develop relationships with the pathology attendings at my institution. One of these attendings heard about this award, encouraged me to apply for it, and even wrote me a letter of recommendation.”

2. I know you’re busy but you can find time in your schedule to search and apply for scholarships. Time is a major barrier that prevents well-qualified medical students from searching, finding, and applying for these opportunities. I share with these students the same sage advice I received shortly after joining the faculty. When I asked one of our senior clinicians, with over 250 publications, how he managed to be so productive despite long workdays, he simply told me that he schedules one hour every day for himself. During this time, he works uninterrupted on whatever he wishes. By keeping up with this routine, he has managed to keep moving forward, even if it’s a little bit at a time. Medical students can embrace this same approach.

3. Errors are surprisingly common on medical school scholarship and award applications, and are used to screen out applicants. Students sometimes ask me to review their scholarship applications prior to submission. In reviewing these applications, I’m often surprised to see misspelled words, grammatical errors, incorrect or omitted information, and failure to follow directions. Since scholarship programs receive so many applications, it’s common for programs to discard those that fail to meet basic requirements.

“Applications that contain more than the specified number of pages or letters will be rejected out of fairness to candidates who adhere to the guidelines,” writes the Triangle Community Foundation, which sponsors the Gertrude B. Elion Mentored Medical Student Research Award. “In addition, applications that are not properly organized or that do not include all of the requested materials will be rejected.” The details matter in the scholarship application process and your ability to be detail-oriented will help you avoid the mistakes that so many applicants make.

4. You don’t have to be an academic superstar to win. Although class rank or GPA are factors for some merit-based awards, many awards are based on community service, leadership, or research. There are also awards for teaching, writing, mentoring, and advocacy. A surprising number of awards are very specific. Interested in a career in anesthesiology? You can submit an essay for the C. Ronald Stephen, M.D. Anesthesia History Essay Contest.  Do you like to create videos? Then consider applying for the JustHomeMedical.com Health Care Leaders Scholarship, an award given to a student for the best video answering the question “What are your long and short-term goals as a future health care leader?” Grades are not used in the selection process for many of these scholarships.

5. Finally, you should realize that the benefits of winning awards and scholarships extend well beyond the money. Winning can provide a major boost to your residency application, and set you apart from your peers. Awards can be placed in the application, MSPE, and letters of recommendation. I’ve found that interviewers often ask about awards during residency interviews.

After Brian Caldwell, a medical student at the University of Arkansas, won the Dr. Constantin Cope Medical Student Research Award from the Society of Interventional Radiology, Dr. William Cup, his mentor had this to say. “I am so pleased that he won the national SIR award because his participation in the conference introduced him to national leaders in interventional radiology and will help jumpstart his career.”

Samir Desai is an internal medicine physician and author of Medical School Scholarships, Grants & Awards: Insider Advice On How To Win Scholarships and founder, The Successful Match

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