Our guest today is Dr. Suzi Schweikert – a former English major at UCLA who decided she wanted to be an MD. She did so at UCSD, specialized in OBGYN at USC-Los Angeles County Medical Center, and after completing her residency, added an MPH to her credentials.
Suzi, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk!
Can you tell us a little bit about how you went from being an English major to being an MD? [1:20]
It’s a bit of a long story. I’ll start with my first year of college, when I got a C- in Chem, and I gave up being a premed. I thought I was done for. The next year, I retook it and got a B-. I didn’t have any doctors or nurses in my family – I really didn’t know what it took. After a couple of years of stumbling around, I transferred to UCLA, and they only had room for me as an English major, so that’s what I became. It was great for me – a break and balance with my science classes. And I realized it gave me a unique expertise – all my premed friends asked me to read their essays. I think reading all those essays helped me learn to write my own.
So I think it’s important to major in any subject you enjoy and learn your learning style.
Did you need to do a postbac? [3:05]
I continued my undergrad training for a fifth year, so I sort of did a postbac within my undergrad.
I think postbacs are great! A lot of people don’t do great in their first couple of years because they don’t know their learning style, and postbacs can help.
How did your learning style have to change to master the sciences? [4:00]
That’s a good question! I had to work hard at test prep.
I found I learn best by copying and recopying my lecture notes – in different colors. And I memorized better when I was moving around. It helped me with my MCAT, too. The way to get something deep into your brain is to do something that comes naturally to you.
How did you choose OBGYN? [5:50]
I’d thought I wanted to go into family practice. I did a sub-internship in ICU and found I liked critical care situations. Then I did another sub-I in OB, and I withdrew my apps for family med and applied for OB.
Sub-internships give you an entirely new perspective on the specialty.
And why did you also decide to pursue an MPH? [7:18]
After working in private practice, I missed working with underserved populations. I’d always wanted to serve people who fell through the cracks. Private practice wasn’t fulfilling my personal mission, and studying public health gave me a path back to that original passion. I ended up working in a community clinic, where I still work today.
When you were on the UCSD admissions committee and reviewing applications, what surprised you about the students being admitted? [8:27]
I was always surprised by how nice they were. The adcom was looking for people they could imagine caring for their own parent or child – the quality they were looking for was kindness.
Kindness is a hard quality to prove, but it shows in how people talk about themselves, and how they treat others on interview day.
Even if out of insecurity you’re not acting nicely to people you interact with on interview day (the receptionist, the bus driver, etc) – that reflects badly. And if you’re aloof when meeting other applicants, that can work against you, too.
Part of the interview is that they want to see how you act under stress.
What mistakes did you see applicants make? [12:44]
Acting overconfident in the application process. If you start talking about things you don’t know much about, they’ll catch on. Show you’re eager to learn.
What’s the difference between a residency personal statement and a med school personal statement? [13:45]
The residency personal statement builds on the last four years of med school, but it’s still about what makes you tick. Be honest in your essay – you don’t want to end up in a program that’s a wrong fit for you. There’s a lot of variation in programs – some are very large and expect you to jump in right away, others are smaller with more guidance.
When you go on interviews – how happy do the residents seem?
Is another difference that the residency personal statement should focus much more on why you’re choosing your specialty, rather than why you want to be a doctor – since you’re already a doctor? [16:30]
You should definitely highlight specific cases that drew you to that specialty. But it’s still about you on a deep level – what makes you tick?
Do you have any advice on how to choose a specialty? [17:15]
Do a sub-internship. Talk to residents – ask why they chose it, what they like about it. And a lot of people do a transitional residency year, which gives them more time.
What advice do you have for those seeking to go into OBGYN specifically? What traits are critical in this specialty? [18:05]
A lot of people who have trouble choosing between primary care and surgery are attracted to OBGYN since it incorporates both. Because of that, residency directors take your scores and letters of rec very seriously.
In terms of traits – you need to love teamwork, and be willing to pitch in when help is needed. You need a high tolerance for sleep deprivation. You need strong communication ability – OBGYNs give patients a lot of information in a short time to help them make big decisions (such as an emergency c-section). I’ve explained genetic testing to patients who didn’t really know what DNA is. You need to be able to communicate clearly. Another trait is humility. OB residencies want people who are ready to learn and willing to learn from their mistakes.
How has advising applicants changed your perspective? [22:15]
I remember as an applicant, I felt like I had to come across as perfect. Now I think that on the one hand, you’re trying to package yourself as a great student, and on the other hand, you have to show you’re not perfect and you know it. Medicine requires respect and humility – to earn patients’ trust, you have to show a lot of respect.
Perfection is not the key – it’s more self-awareness.
Do you have advice for applicants planning to apply in 2019 or later? [24:00]
It’s so helpful to get started early – the best essays take shape over several months. I suggest people start journaling – knowing they won’t use most of what they write, but it helps to get in the habit of self-reflection.
You get through a first draft and you think it’s a lot of words without direction, but you may find a sentence of two that ring true – and that’s where your real essay begins, that’s where you find your theme. The real question is not why you want to become a doctor or how badly you want it, it’s whether you’re willing to give so much of yourself to others. And you can show that by giving a lot of yourself in your personal statement.
You mentioned journaling. What would I be writing down? [26:00]
You can go through your past – start writing about the experiences you’re thinking about for your application. Write about what you learned, mistakes you made, etc. A lot of what you write you might not use, but it really gets you thinking.
What’s your advice for those who are applying right now? [28:00]
Do not waste precious space talking about what other people have done.
In secondaries, don’t spend too much time describing the school’s programs. They already know about the wonderful programs they offer. Focus on how and why you’re a great fit.
Remember that everything you write in your secondaries is fair game for interviews!
What do you wish I would have asked you? [29:45]
Stress reduction is such a hot topic right now. I actually took a stress reduction class when I was in med school, and it was great. It’s one of the most valuable things I’ve learned (and am still learning).
Whatever relaxes and recharges you, make time for it. The application process is stressful, but it’s not going to get better. So learn how to deal with it. It’s important for yourself and your patients.
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