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Adcom Advice #3 – Don't Make Excuses

When you fill out your application, you want to put your best foot forward. You want your file to be flawless, free of typos and grammatical mistakes. That is why you must avoid making excuses!

You should never make excuses of try to explain your shortcomings. A lot of people try to justify their weaknesses on their application. Their grades are poor because they didn’t have the right mindset in freshmen year. I had a course overload along with a full time job, so I performed poorly on the MCAT. My mark in English class may seem low, but I was one of the top students in the class. Other than medical reasons and drastic life altering circumstances – which should require a separate letter to explain – on your application, never shoot yourself in the foot.

Doing so is not beneficial to you. Your application won’t be marked any more leniently because of your rant. You are not the only applicant with flaws. We have to be fair (you want us to be right?) and so we mark applicants the same, regardless of their circumstances (save for those exceptions mentioned above – but that should be an extra letter). Instead, the effect is quite the contrary. When you try to defend yourself, it sounds desperate. You are drawing my attention (as an admission committee member) to your flaws and I might mark you negatively for it.

You would be better off if you did not mention your shortcomings at all. I’m not saying you should lie, again, rule #1 is that you should never lie! If you have a criminal record, you will have to disclose it to medical schools. You cannot fabricate your GPA and MCAT scores. Don’t even try creating phony extracurricular activities.

Always think positively. Trying to rationalize your shortcomings is pointless. If you don’t have any research background, don’t feel obligated to explain yourself. Show me what you HAVE done instead and despite your setbacks. If your grades are low because you had to work part-time during school to finance your education, highlight the positive aspects of your work and turn it into a positive factor. Explain what responsibilities you were given and how you grew from the experience. 

Don’t make excuses! So when you are asked if there is anything else relevant the admission committee should know, if you don’t have anything good to say, say nothing.

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  1. salix caprea
    salix caprea June 2, 2010

    hello “m”,

    This post is particularly striking a note for me after a recent conversation with my TA (for a pre-req) to whom I was attempting to provide biographical information. This was in the context of an evaluation (of me, one of many to be used later in a combined L.O.R. from the university).

    Soon after I had requested this TA’s evaluation, she detailed what her “recommended range” was for premeds for a certain set of exams. Since my numbers were a few points below this range (only a few, but it would be noticed nonetheless), I wanted to find out if this would mean she would not complete my evaluation. When I indicated there were “a few” neuropsychological factors influencing my performance, she wanted to know why I did not use testing accommodations. But it seems I made several missteps similiar to those you describe above in attempting to respond.

    I had been out of school with my BA for quite a few years before returning to work on a premed program. I was coming from an environment in which there was open hostility towards testing accommodations, so I had no inclination to pursue these at my current school, especially when I had heard and read that it was a very bad idea for premeds to request testing acommodations, in situations like mine which did not exactly fit the criteria of “medical reasons and drastic life altering circumstances”.

    My TA kindly yet very strongly expressed many of the same principles you give above, in encouraging me to 1) take acommodations and 2) not to mention the shortcomings which led me to seek those accommodations to anyone involved in evaluations, the L.O.R. or interviews, in any capacity. She was basically taking the role of an adcom member so she could give me an impression of how they would respond to the information I was giving.

    I was very suprised how thin the line seemed between “information” and “excuse”, and what seemed to me like the complete reversal between the status of accommodations as “the excuses” in my undergrad years, versus today’s excuses being the mention of any shortcoming. I knew there were laws implemented to support testing accommodations but I did not have any indication that the premed/med-school-admissions culture had changed to accept testing accommodations in any significant way.

    Frankly I’m still trying to work out where the line is and how to navigate it, though your post has given me new ways of thinking about it where I was somewhat lost before. I follow what you’re saying about phrasing things positively in order to evidence growth – but I’m still very shaky about where my honest “this is who I am” becomes an excuse to an adcom rather than just part of the picture of my application and my pursuit of medical education.

    I’ve found your responses throughout this site to be very thoughtful (and I’m very grateful to be able to read all of it, and grateful for your continued comments even up to now despite your misgivings about the site and its audience). Perhaps you can shed some light on why medical school applicants cannot mention flaws and shortcomings if they exist? Not to dwell on them, but to acknowlege they exist and are part of who you are and could be as a doctor. If we all have flaws, why such danger in mentioning them? How is fairness administered by “marking applicants the same regardless of circumstances”? Can’t a person’s shortcomings an important part of how and why they strive to be an excellent phyisician? I ask it this way because this seems different to me than saying “despite one’s setbacks” but maybe we do mean the same thing.

    I do hope you find this inquiry somehow in line with what you set out to do on this blog, I’d be really glad if this were a dialog that somehow helped different kinds of people contribute to medicine, however they can. Thanks.

  2. medaholic
    medaholic June 6, 2010

    Hi Salix Caprea,

    To further explain, adcoms don’t necessary look down on people who have had tough circumstances. When I say don’t make excuses, I don’t mean don’t mention things that are important to your application.

    The bottom line is don’t shoot yourself in the foot. If you have had testing accommodations in the past, don’t say my GPA is low because I have had some learning difficulties. Instead, you could mention how you learned to handle your handicap and overcome it.

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