UMMSM Future Doc Series

UMMSM Future Doc Series August 2019

Kamaree J. Harris

UMMSM Summer Program Completed: Motivation 2016, Motivation TA 2019
Undergrad: Georgia Southern University
Degree: Biology
Medical School: Mercer University School of Medicine, Class of 2022
Social Media: Facebook | LinkedIn

Why did you decide to pursue a career in medicine?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been interested in how things work. When I was younger, I spent more time disassembling, reassembling, and repairing my toys than I did actually playing with them. Model cars, airplanes, trains, buildings, rockets— you name it. I enjoyed building things and working with my hands to the point that I would volunteer to put together anything that required assembly. I loved the challenge of assembling something, and I found great satisfaction in taking a bunch of pieces and understanding how they work together to create the final product.

Over the next few years, I performed well in school, and I found math and science particularly interesting. Fast forward to high school, my love for learning about how things work continued. I took an honors anatomy course and fell in love with it from the start. Learning about the different organ systems and how they all work together to power the human body was extremely fascinating. I wanted to learn more, and it was around this time when I became seriously interested in pursuing a career in medicine.

My college courses and extracurricular activities solidified my desire to pursue a career in healthcare. I began researching the different ways that I could make an impact in healthcare, but I believed becoming a physician was the best way for me to gain the deeper understanding of the human body that I so desired. This, combined with the opportunity to educate and counsel patients, diagnose diseases, and provide comprehensive care, made it clear that medicine is the avenue through which I want to positively impact people’s lives.

I also have to credit my desire of becoming a physician to my parents, who have always been very health-literate and health-conscious. They raised my siblings and me to be happy and healthy human beings, and I am so grateful for that. By watching my parents, I also learned how to be a loving, selfless, and compassionate individual. They have equipped me with the skills, experiences, and perspectives that I believe will help make me an excellent physician. They were my doctors long before I really knew what a doctor was, and I wouldn’t be who, what, where, or how I am today without them.

What advice would you give to premed students applying to medical school?

First, I would like to say this: if becoming a physician is something that you really want to do, you can do it. You can do anything to which you set your mind. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise, and never give up.

Now for the advice:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the application process. Consider the following questions as you’re preparing to apply: What is the AAMC? What is AMCAS? What is the primary application? How much does it cost? When does the application open? When should it be submitted? How long does it take for the primary application to become verified? What is early decision? What is regular decision? What is a secondary application? When should it be submitted? How much does it cost? When should you take the MCAT? How much does it cost? What prerequisites do I need for the MCAT? What prerequisites do I need for medical school? Do I need to have a certain major? What are the different interview formats? Familiarize yourself with the process.
  2. Apply early. Most medical schools’ admissions committees (adcoms) use a ‘rolling admissions’ process, where adcoms start accepting students as they see fit. Generally speaking, the earlier you apply, the better your chances are of gaining acceptance. This is because earlier in the application cycle, more seats are available in the entering class. However, as the application cycle progresses and students get accepted, there are fewer seats available, so your chances of earning a seat in the entering class are greatly reduced.
  3. Apply with someone. I would highly recommend going through the application process with someone. I applied with a classmate of mine from my master’s program who is now one of my classmates in the MD program. We proofread each other’s personal statements, work/activities blurbs, and secondary applications. We even held mock interviews together. It was nice to have her go through the process with me because she held me accountable, motivated me, and kept me on schedule to meet deadlines. The application process is scary and draining enough as it is, but going through it with someone definitely made it less scary and more navigable.
  4. Research your schools. You need to be well informed about the schools you are applying to and know their mission statement. Is the school research-driven or community-medicine oriented? What kind of patient population do they serve? What is their primary method of instruction (i.e. case-based learning or lecture-based)? When do students start learning clinical skills? What is the class size? Does the school take out-of-state students, or do they mainly take in-state students? Where is the school located? There are many reasons why you should research your school, but here are two important ones: (1) you want to make sure you will be a good fit for the school, and (2) you want to make sure the school will be a good fit for you. After all, you’ll be spending the next 4 years (and several tens of thousands of dollars) there, so you want to make sure you’d be happy. Lastly, do not apply to any school that you would not attend if you were to get accepted.
  5. Be realistic. What does your application look like? Is it lacking anything? Does it demonstrate why you want to be a physician? You may hear some people tell you to apply to a few “reach” schools. While I agree with that statement, you should also be realistic. Please do not apply only to top-tier schools with substandard numbers. Applying to medical school is very costly, time-consuming, and tiring. Be smart about the schools you apply to so you can increase your chances of gaining acceptance.
  6. Understand early vs. regular decision. Many schools participate in the early decision program (EDP), in which students are notified of their status (accepted, deferred, or rejected) before September 30th. However, you can only apply to one school during this time. EDP is typically for more competitive students who have expressed a strong desire to attend a certain school. Because you’re only applying to one school, applying through EDP shows adcoms that you are serious about attending that school. Regular decision (RD) is the more traditional route that most students take when applying to medical school. Again, do your research on the school(s) you’d like to attend so you know which method works best for you.
  7. Stay organized and prioritize. There are several different deadlines you must meet when applying to medical school. Your primary application needs to be submitted early because it must be verified, which takes a few weeks. Letters of recommendation must be submitted in time for schools to review your application. Secondary applications have an unwritten 2-week turnaround time, and if you’re applying to 15-20 schools, it can get hectic. Interview season can also get chaotic. Stay organized by creating a spreadsheet of all the schools you’re applying to, their deadlines for the primary and secondary applications, interview date, interview style, etc. Get started early and stay on it.
  8. Be patient. Be persistent. If you don’t get accepted, don’t get discouraged. Contact the adcom at the school(s) you want to attend and ask what you can do to strengthen your application. Strengthen those portions of your application and apply again the following year. If, unfortunately, you are in the situation where you have to reapply the following year, you should have some improvements on your application. You should not submit the same exact application when reapplying.
  9. Protect your GPA and score well on the MCAT. Many schools receive thousands of applications during each application cycle, and they must have a way of sorting through all of the primary applications in order to send out secondary applications and eventually invite students for interviews. To do this, many schools have a certain GPA and/or MCAT score that they require in order to review your application. Again, research the schools you want to attend to see if you meet the requirements to receive a secondary application. You might have excellent research, outstanding awards, and notable extracurricular activities, but not one person on the admissions committee will see your application if you don’t have the numbers to get your application on someone’s desk. Do your best to protect (or improve) your GPA and score as well as you can on the MCAT. Do not give the admissions committee a reason to say “no.”
  10. Get strong letters of recommendation. Hopefully you have a few professors you’ve worked with and physicians you’ve shadowed with whom you’ve developed a great relationship. Contact these professors and physicians and ask them if they would be comfortable writing a strong (emphasis on “strong”) letter of recommendation on your behalf. You don’t want just a letter of recommendation— you want a strong letter of recommendation. Be sure to contact professors and physicians before the application cycle begins. They are busy people; you need to recognize this and respect their time. As Dr. Vega says, “your lack of planning does not become [their] emergency.”
  11. Don’t compare yourself to others. One of the most important lessons I learned during my pre-med years is that everyone’s journey to medicine is different— and that’s okay. I know it is the pre-medical nature for us to compare ourselves to others since, after all, we’re essentially competing with our peers for those coveted yet limited seats in MD/DO programs. Believe me, I know you want to figure out what extracurriculars other students might be involved in, what research your classmate is conducting, which physician so-and-so is shadowing, or what score your lab partner received on the MCAT. I’ve been there. I used to be in that environment, and I used to find myself doing some of those same things. But what I have also learned is that comparing yourself to others does absolutely nothing productive for you. Just remember that “when we compare ourselves to others, we’re often comparing their best features to our average ones.” Think about that. We are always our own worst critics. I know we just want to make sure we are doing the right thing or that we are on the right path, but understand that there is no single, standard, universal, ‘one-size-fits all’ way to get into medical school, residency, or even fellowship. Your way is the right way. “You can be anything, but you cannot be everything.” Own your story, be confident in your journey, continue to work hard, and you’ll be right where you want to be. (Quotes are from Farnam Street)
  12. Everything happens when and how it’s supposed to. Please, just trust me on this.
  13. Diversify your portfolio. Your experiences in healthcare can show what you like and dislike and confirm that medicine is what you want to do just as much as experiences outside of healthcare can. Study abroad, participate in a service trip, volunteer at a local food bank, etc. Experiences outside of healthcare not only change your perspective on life, but they also show admissions committees that you are a well-rounded individual.
  14. Know your application inside and out. If you put something on your application, it is fair game for discussion during your interview. You need to be able to hold a genuine conversation about everything you’ve listed on your application. You also need to be prepared to articulate some of the ‘red flags’ (if any) in your application. They will likely be addressed during your interview, but you can use these opportunities to turn weakness into strength and demonstrate growth and maturity.
  15. “Know your ‘why.’” As Dr. Vega would ask, “what’s your ‘why?’” Why are you pursuing a career in medicine? What’s going to keep you pushing forward during the application process? What’s going to keep you going when you have so much material to study in so little time and all you feel like doing is sleeping? Who keeps you going? What keeps you going? “Know your ‘why.’”
  16. Utilize your resources. There are many resources available to students who are interested in pursuing medicine. Stop by your pre-health office, talk to mentors and advisors, or visit the AAMC’s website. There are also many medical students and/or physicians who have devoted their time to make videos and write blogs designed to help students prepare for careers in medicine. For example, someone who immediately comes to mind is one of my own mentors, Dr. Christel Wekon-Kemeni, M.D., a resident pediatrician in North Carolina (check out his Future Doc Series feature for the month of April, and visit his blog at https://blackmanmd.com/). Find similar individuals on social media (YouTube, Instagram) and see what words of wisdom they have to share with pre-med students.
  17. Jot your thoughts down. Whether you’re working on your personal statement, work/activities section, secondary essays, or preparing for interviews, you’ll likely be thinking of responses throughout the day. Whenever you think of something to say or an approach to an essay prompt, write it down. It doesn’t matter if you write it on a sheet of paper, type it in your phone, or text it to yourself; the point is just to save your thoughts somewhere. If you don’t, you will probably forget it. Trust me, this can be very frustrating, especially if you thought of a good way to word something.
  18. Get advice from multiple people. It’s good to talk to many different medical students and physicians when applying to medical school. Everyone’s experience is different, and everyone’s advice will likely be different. You should take the advice you get with a grain of salt, because, like I said, everyone’s experience is different. However, if you hear the same piece of advice from multiple people, you should probably take that advice into consideration because it’s probably true/good advice.
  19. Take care of yourself. Continue to exercise, eat right, stay active in church, sing, play sports, write music, draw, watch your favorite TV show, dance, shop, hike, cook— whatever it is that replenishes you and brings you happiness. Continue to talk to your family, friends, and mentors. Stay close with them— you’ll need all of their love and support. Like I said before, applying to medical school is a long and draining process, and you don’t want to go through it alone.
  20. Believe in yourself. You need to believe that becoming a physician is something you can and will achieve. Your confidence (or lack thereof) will show in your applications, essays, and interviews. Put your heart into your application. The application process is something you do not want to have to go through again. You got this!

I know this is a lot of advice, but these are some words of wisdom and encouragement I found useful as I was going through the process. Applying to medical school is not easy, but it is doable. You just want to make sure you give yourself the best chance to get accepted. The way to do this is to have a strong application that you truly believe in as well as a great support system, hobbies, and resources to keep you going.

Tell us about your UMMSM Future Medical Scholars Summer Program experience.

I have somewhat of a unique experience with the future medical scholars summer programs. In the summer of 2016, I was a student in the Motivation program. This past summer, I returned to the Motivation program and served as a teaching assistant. Spending not one, but two summers in Miami was so much fun. However, having the opportunity to develop professionally and participate in programs designed to help me reach my career goals was unbeatable.

My experience as a student:

The Motivation program is a 7-week, full-time summer program designed to give students a mini medical-school experience. As a student in the program, I studied select sciences from medical school curriculum, shadowed physicians, and attended workshops designed to help me sharpen my study skills, improve professionalism, and increase my competitiveness for medical school. I also mentored high-school students interested in medicine and attended seminars on ethics, diversity, and disparities in medicine.

While this program was loaded with possibilities, I believe my fellow classmates played a pivotal role in shaping my experience. Thankfully, I was surrounded by supportive, inspiring classmates who demonstrated the importance of camaraderie, especially in the medical profession. From effective study skills to different lessons and perspectives on life, I learned so much during the program. One of the main lessons I learned is that everyone has a different path to medicine. This theme was underscored by my classmates and the personal accounts we received from current medical students, residents, and attending physicians. Their testimonies especially resonated with me. As the first in my family to pursue medicine, I often felt lost or unsure of my next step. However, participating in the program reassured me that I am on the right path to achieve my goal. While the program was rigorous, it gave me a better perspective of the many challenges I am likely to face in my medical career. Invigorated, I completed the program empowered with a skillset, mentality, and qualities necessary to navigate a successful journey in medicine.

I appreciated the program and what it did for me both academically and professionally. After completing the program as a student, I knew that once I got into medical school, I had to return and serve as a teaching assistant. Little did I know, three years would quickly elapse before I returned as a teaching assistant. In that time, I earned a master’s degree, scored well on the MCAT, successfully applied to medical school, took some time to work, travel, and spend time with family and friends, and successfully completed my first year of medical school. I owe much of my success to the Motivation program, and I was beyond excited and honored to return to the program to share my triumphs, wisdom, and new experiences with the students.

My experience as a teaching assistant:

My experience as a teaching assistant was incredibly rewarding. It was surreal to be ‘on the other side’ of the program and share my story with students whose very seats I sat in not too long ago. This shared experience allowed me to connect and relate with students. I constantly reminded the students that I faced obstacles very similar to the ones they were facing, which, I believe, provided some reassurance and validated their feelings when the program challenged them. In fact, one student told me that hearing my story “gives [him] hope.” Having the opportunity to be a part of the students’ journeys is an indescribably gratifying feeling. Whether I was helping students edit personal statements, answering questions about medical school, or tutoring a student the night before a biochemistry exam, I am beyond grateful for this experience. I saw a little bit of myself in each and every one of my students, and I made it a point to remind them that if I can do it, they can too. I hope the students learned as much from me as I learned from them.

I want to take this time to brag on the wonderful people who I had the pleasure of working alongside during the program. To the professors: thank you for sharing your time and expertise to make this program possible year after year. Thank you to the amazing staff in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement— Jaleesa, Janet, Dr. Vega, Dr. Symes, and Tizita (my awesome co-TA). It was an absolute honor to work with such influential and inspiring people. Thank you all for creating an incredible work environment and for helping me to continue to grow professionally. I learned something from each and every one of you, and I cannot thank you all enough for your time, effort, sacrifice, and dedication to this program and to each and every one of the students. This office, this program, the students, and this summer will forever hold a special place in my heart.

What do you do for fun in your spare time?

Medical school is exhausting, but I make sure to make time for the people who are close to me and activities that keep me going. I love to exercise, travel, relax, watch football, and spend time with my family, friends, and significant other. I also love to watch videos of jumbo jets taking off and landing— as well as videos from the cockpit of pilots operating the aircraft— because the little kid in me still has a fascination with airplanes.

I also enjoy serving as a mentor to students who are interested in medicine. Whether I am giving advice about the medical school application process, answering questions about the master’s program I completed, or sharing my experiences as a medical student, I absolutely love being a resource for students. Mentorship is very important to me, and I would not be where I am today without the guidance, support, and advice I received from mentors. It is an honor, pleasure, and passion of mine to help others pursue their dreams of a career in medicine, and I would be remiss if I did not pass along the same mentorship I received from others.