It was one of Montreal native Carl White Ulysse’s first days working in the hospital as a part of his second year in McGill’s medical program. The patient was lying down on his back as Ulysse manoeuvered the smooth, stainless steel of the laryngoscope through the patient’s vocal cords. He watched on the screen as the view shifted to the glottis—the space in between the chords—and the cords flapped open and closed. A year and a half after his acceptance into the program, he was finally performing hands-on work as a part of his path toward becoming a physician. It seemed like only a few moments ago he had submitted his application in anticipation of the hopes he would hear back positively from McGill.
For Sophia Bachilova, a second-year medical student at McGill from Massachusetts, she first fell in love with medicine when she spent a summer at a hospital undergoing physiotherapy for a broken arm. Although Bachilova was only four years old, this experience left an enduring impression on her that remained as she explored other aspects during her education.
“I always kept other options open to myself […] but I guess it was really as I was finishing my undergraduate and started volunteering at the Royal Victoria Hospital [when] I realized I wanted to apply and take the necessary time to [attend medical school],” Bachilova recalled. “Even though I didn’t get accepted at McGill the first time and got accepted to some schools in the States, I wanted to work in Montreal.”
Bachilova’s ‘aha’ moment resonates with many students who have clung onto their childhood aspiration to become a doctor. For others, medicine took a backseat in comparison to becoming a princess or going to outer space.
“I did a degree in evolutionary biology, which is not really applicable to medicine at all,” said Katherine Cole, who is currently in her second year of medical school at McGill and originally from Alberta. “I didn’t know that I wanted to be in medicine until quite late. I think in my first year of university, I started to figure out that this was where my skill set and interests were best suited. When you’re in high school, you like math; you like science; but to be able to formulate that into a career can sometimes be tough.”
Nebras Warsi, a first-year medical student from Saskatchewan, also found that his desire to become a doctor was a gradual process—something he discovered through a multitude of experiences.
“It was very gradual, and in my opinion, gradual is one of the ways to make sure,” Warsi explained. “It’s really quite difficult to say, ‘I want to commit to four years of medical school, and six years of residency, and education until I’m 35’ in one split second [….] Many of [my] experiences tied together. It’s kind of your own little story.”
At a university like McGill, which has of the most reputable life sciences programs across Canada, medical school is a goal shared among many. Considering this environment, anxiety runs rampant in the undergraduate community. The ugly beast rears its head each time exams approach and students fret over whether their grades will be good enough to make them competitive candidates for medical school.
In addition to this monster of anxiety is the elusive 4.0, all-rounded, perfect medical candidate. This is the student that scores near perfect on exams and is involved in 10 different clubs. He or she finds time to sleep, eat, and see friends, all the while shadowing physicians and conducting leading research in the laboratories.
“It’s definitely a competitive environment,” said Howie Guo, a U2 Cell and Anatomy student. “Aside from maintaining respectable grades in a full course-load, students now have to balance extra curricular activities in an effort to stand out from their competition [….] Coupled with the fear that they may be rejected despite their best efforts, students nowadays constantly experience high levels of stress, which is completely ridiculous when you consider how young many of these applicants still are.”
McGill’s current medical students sympathize with the tough competition that they too faced during the application process. However, they emphasize that there is no secret formula to success—nor are students required to tick off an involvement checklist.
“People will [talk about medical school] from all perspectives. Some people will say you need to do the X, Y, and Z. I kind of did the X, Y, and Z, but then others will say it is too cookie-cutter and too simple [for the application],” Warsi said. “There is really no one way. We have in our class people who have done all sorts of things.”
“I remember people saying to me, ‘Why are you [volunteering with such similar organizations]? It makes your application look less varied,’” Cole added. “And I said, ‘I really enjoy doing it and it makes me feel very fulfilled.’”
While all three of these students embarked on different paths that led them to their current medical studies, they share an underlying passion that drove them to shape their education and experiences around their interests.
“You want to do what you are interested in and passionate about,” Cold said. “If you don’t, you almost act like a drone in some senses andww you just go through the motions, and that is a tough way to be—you miss out.”
Warsi added that periodically reflecting on himself and why he wanted to go into medicine drove him to shape his undergraduate education around his passion for neuroscience.
“There are a lot of ways you can get the skills to be a good leader, a good communicator, and someone who wants to care for people,” Warsi said. “There is no formula for it. Do whatever interests you; if you are passionate about doing something, then do it, and that’s what will get you in.”
Despite the diversity of students accepted into McGill’s medical program, this does not demean the difficulty of the application process. According to McGill’s medical school admissions website, “Successful applicants tend to have a degree GPA above 3.5 (average approximately 3.8). Applicants with a degree GPA below 3.4 are rarely considered competitive.” However, Warsi stressed that it’s not a magic GPA or a list of achievements that gets students admission into the program.
“What I’ve seen from my class is that we’re a set of very driven, very passionate people who want to make a difference in people’s lives as physicians,” Warsi said. “I think that the process is very competitive, but that this is really the main thing you need to have to get through it. GPA, MCAT, and whatever are all numbers, but what really makes an applicant stand out is their passion for what they do and for going into medicine.”
Even when meeting the academic requirements, it is difficult for students to stand out among the crowded field of applicants. However, all three of these medical students emphasize that having a story—a unique reason why you want to become a doctor and experiences that back it up—helped lead to the success of their applications.
“You can say to anybody that you want to be a doctor and that you want to help sick people, and that’s fantastic, but everyone will say that,” Bachilova explained. She encourages pre-med students to avoid volunteering in the hospital and shadowing physicians only because it seems like the necessary requirement for medical school.
“I think, if you don’t get in the first time, you can learn from that,” Bachilova added. “It’s just a year—you have the rest of your life to be a doctor [….] Take it as a learning opportunity. Most medical faculties don’t have a problem with you calling up and asking, ‘What don’t you like about my application?’”
Whatever the motivation, the medical school application is more than a series of numbers, grades, and lists of accomplishments. For the successful applicants, it involves a story—a story of developing a passion for medicine and discovering this passion throughout their experiences.
Check out mcgilltribune.com for a profile of each of these students and more on their application process and advice.