How to help your child succeed at applying to medical school


An excerpt from Raising Doctors: The Med School Admissions Success Guide for Parents of Future Physicians.

Let’s look at how you as a parent can help your child succeed at applying to medical school.

Legitimacy and verifiability matter

Applying to medical school, I learned what types of activities, accomplishments, and qualifications were valued and what weren’t.

For example, medical schools may restrict the types of publications that applicants list on their application to only include certain categories of publications that are well respected by the profession.

That said, it takes practice and experience to do research and write articles that academic journals will publish. Submitting written work to be published through a variety of channels (newspapers, blogs, anthologies, etc.) can help your child develop the skills needed to write well and have their work accepted for established publications.

Note that medical schools may require roles/jobs, experiences, and other achievements or activities to be verifiable, meaning that there must be a person or an organization who can confirm your child’s involvement or the work they did. For example, I had a Bronze Cross from the Life Saving Society of Canada; there is a database of all award-holders on the internet that anyone can access to verify this.

As another example, established institutions such as The Royal Conservatory can confirm whether an applicant has achieved a certain level of education in their music training.

If your child attains a high level of mastery in any skill, the organization that oversees their training should be able to verify their achievement, but you may want to check to be sure. Many smaller businesses, for example, do not have a database that keeps track of individuals’ accomplishments. If your child trains for only a short period of time, if there is high staff turnover at the organization, or if your child cannot locate the people whom they worked with after many years, there may not be anyone who can verify their participation.

For that reason, for the purpose of a medical school application, it’s better to stick with certain activities and organizations for a long time and continue to advance in a few areas, rather than dabble in many different hobbies or interests that cannot be verified.

I have undertaken several unsupervised projects, but always ensure that I find legitimate ways to present or prove my work. I submit abstracts to present original work as posters or presentations at conferences or find organizations to partner with who can verify my projects. I have even had some projects featured in the media, which I have been able to cite as proof of my work.

One example that I could not include in my own medical school application was a certificate of bilingualism that I received from my school board at the end of high school for having completed the French immersion program. When I contacted the school board, they had no database or record of who had received this certificate. After 13 years in the French immersion program, the only thing that I could include in my application related to my training in French was one university-level French course, which appeared on my transcripts.

For titled roles or jobs, your child should maintain an up-to-date curriculum vitae (CV). It’s also important to have a separate file or notebook that includes the following basic information:

  • Position start and end dates
  • Hours worked
  • Name, location, and contact information of organization
  • Name and contact information of immediate supervisor
  • Job description

It’s a good idea for your child to write a short memo about the role or job, including what they learned, what they would have changed, and the ways in which they found the experience impactful. This will help them remember the experience more clearly, even years later.

One of the small businesses I worked for 20 years ago no longer existed by the time I applied for medical school. All I had was the name of my supervisor. Fortunately, I was able to track the individual down on social media. They still remembered me!

Long before I applied for medical school, I had donated all my medals and trophies to a charity to be recycled. I kicked myself when I realized I no longer had proof that I had received a specific award because I had given it away. Unfortunately, the school didn’t keep records of who had won that award!

Luckily, I had an old photo in an album that showed one of my teachers presenting me with the award. I scanned the photo, looked up the teacher on the internet, and emailed them the photo asking them whether they would verify the award for me.

With this in mind, I recommend taking photos whenever your child receives an award. It also makes sense to write down the name of the teacher who presented it.

Once capable enough to maintain and update a CV, your child should continue to document:

  • Research or science activities
  • Original published work (prose, poetry, articles, academic papers, books)
  • Dates, locations, and titles of presentations
  • Certificates, medals, trophies, or other awards
  • Evidence of grants or scholarships
  • Media appearances or features (e.g., in blogs, magazines, newspapers, podcasts, or videos)

Managing collegial relationships with potential verifiers is essential to the process of applying to medical school. If your child is having trouble getting something verified or getting a reference on time, encourage respectful persistence in any query.

If a referee is not replying or cooperating, then it may be time to ask someone else to write that reference. In my case, a payroll employee would not reply with the information I requested. I eventually had to seek out and talk to this person’s supervisor to be assured that they could verify my employment with them.

Spend time with doctors

In medical school, a large proportion of medical students have a family member who is a physician, whether a parent, sibling, spouse, or a more distant relative.

On one side of my family are both doctors and pharmacists. Although many of my relatives have passed on, I found myself spending more time with doctors on my husband’s side of the family after I got married. One of my best friends is also a doctor. Although I never specifically intended to befriend doctors, as it has turned out, I now enjoy the company of many.

For the purpose of applying to medical school, spending time with doctors can come with many advantages.

Recognize that doctors are people too

When you are surrounded by doctors, the idea of being a doctor becomes very normal.

From spending time with doctors, your child will come to see that doctors are normal human beings. They are not perfect, and they have their faults. They do normal things like playing sports or video games, doing housework, cooking, shopping, and spending time with their families.

Getting to know doctors may also help your child see that “ordinary” people can become doctors if they work hard. They can gain an understanding of the reality of being a doctor, and see first-hand how a medical career progresses. Your child may be able to ask questions and get an inside look at the profession in terms of job satisfaction, work-life balance, and the financial side.

Gain comfort with what doctors do

Many medical students whose parents are doctors seem more comfortable doing the job of doctors. Over their lives they have watched their parents administer first aid and care for family members, or might have learned some medicine from them.

Not everyone is cut out to take care of people who are sick or deal with medical emergencies. But having a doctor-figure present earlier in life can help young people learn about what doctors do on a day-to-day basis.

After only a year of medical school, I found myself more at ease explaining the human body to my son, and answering questions like, “Where does pee come from?” I practiced physical exams on my kids, and after going over the exam routines and maneuvers dozens of times, my son would start to prompt and remind me of things that I forgot to say.

Pretty soon, my daughter, who was two at the time, would instruct me to sit on the couch so she could examine me, toy stethoscope around her neck. She would say, “I’m going to be a doctor. I’m going to take care of people.”

Kids are impressionable. Having positive role models and experiences related to the medical profession early on can prime them for a career as a doctor.

Joan Lee Tu is a medical student and author of Raising Doctors: The Med School Admissions Success Guide for Parents of Future Physicians.

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