Category Archives: Intern Applicant

My Experience at SAVMA Symposium 2019

I had the good fortune to be able to present some topics near and dear to my heart at the 2019 SAVMA Symposium held in Athens, GA in March.  I presented on Medical Error, was on a panel about Internships, and presented Preparing For and Securing an Internship. I wasn’t sure what would happen with each talk. Here’s what did happen:

Medical Error

My main goal with this talk is to get people to realize that error is an activity intrinsic to any human endeavor.  It is particularly problematic in highly complex, tightly coupled, and obscure systems, as happens in a biological entity like our patients.  Ultimately, if an error happens, focus on What Happened, How it Happened, Why it Happened, and What to Do to Prevent it from Happening Again. DO NOT focus on the WHO.  Errors happen because of systems, not because of people. We spend a lot of time focusing on the person engaged in the error, when we should be deconstructing the system which led to the error.

I think this talk was well-received.  I tend to get positive feedback about it because most people have not gotten this message before.  A few questions were asked about how to deal with the emotional consequences of being the one who made the error.  The room was about 25% full and everyone seemed engaged, which was heartening.

Internship Panel

I was a late addition to this group because someone else canceled.  I was honored to be invited and to participate. There were three faculty clinicians and one vet from the sponsor organization.  Unfortunately, I don’t think the moderator was prepared for a panel session. Once things opened, we sat awkwardly for a little while before I proposed, “Why don’t we give a brief background on each of us?”  I felt like I had to lead the panel with questions for us all to answer. This was kind of OK- I’ve been on many internship panels over the years. I just felt uncomfortable because I felt like I was controlling the panel, which was not my role as a participant.

The room was probably 40% full, and the audience seemed engaged.  They asked good questions and the other panel members were helpful.  One spoke a bit excessively, but they were young and this was probably their first panel.  Overall, I think the attendees benefitted, but it may have been time slightly more efficiently spent.

Preparing For and Securing an Internship

I was super excited to present this talk.  I had only just launched The Vetducator blog, although I’d been writing posts for a few months by this point.  I was feeling very enthusiastic to help vet students with their next step and spent a lot of time thinking about the most impactful things I could say.  I expected to have maybe 6-10 attendees and we would circle the chairs in the room and have a chit-chat about internships. Well, it didn’t turn out that way.

By the time I was scheduled to start, the room was 90% full and people kept trickling in until it was standing room only.  My interactive format was not conducive to a room of 50+ students, so I adapted on the fly. I encouraged questions and began going through my presentation.  By the time I hit 30 minutes in, I was only 25% done with the presentation due to the great questions I got. I flew through some slides to hit on some major points and allow time for Q&A at the end.  Everyone seems engaged and interested and enthusiastic to hear my perspective. It was an extremely supportive experience as my first outing as The Vetducator.

I was extremely impressed with the organization of the Symposium from the speaker’s point of view- everything was well laid out, I had clear instructions of when and where to go, and had a moderator present to introduce me and help with technology.  I hope the students had a similar experience. Based on the experience, I contacted the organizers for the 2020 Symposium at Cornell and have arranged to present several hours there, including some topics from The Vetducator. Hopefully, I saw you in Athens and will see you at Cornell!

Do Grades Matter, or How I Came to Love My Grades

3PO is wise.

This year, I spoke at the SAVMA Symposium about internships and how to maximize your chances to get them.  I got a surprising number of questions about grades. “I hear some programs care about grades a lot.” “Do programs look at your transcripts?”  “Our classes are these amalgamated courses so we don’t get many different grades. Will that hurt my chances?” I was largely not prepared to answer these questions, because they confuse me.  Before I get to that, let me address the concerns.

“Do grades matter?”  Yes. The degree of interest will vary by program and individual evaluator, but almost all will make a note of grades and/or class rank.  When I evaluate interns, if they are in the bottom quarter or the top 3 of the class rank, I make a little note. I look at the rest of the application and base my decision largely on everything else.

I use class rank to cue me to what to look for.  If a candidate is in the bottom quarter and the letter of intent is poorly constructed and the letters of reference are not very laudatory, I would probably give them a low score.  If they are in the top 3 and the letter of intent is boastful and the letters of references do not mention they are easy to work with, I would probably also score them low.

“Do grades in specific courses matter?”  Unlikely. It’s possible residencies may look at the grade you got in their discipline in vet school, but looking through transcripts is usually not very illuminating and is time-consuming.  Again, individuals may vary- maybe the ophthalmologist on the selection committee makes sure every applicant at least got a “B” in the ophtho course in vet school. But I believe this is unlikely.

“What do I do if my grades are not good?”  “What programs care about good grades?” “What if my school gives one grade for the whole semester?”  “Do programs look at your undergrad grades?” These are the questions that confuse me.  If you don’t have good grades, that’s in the past.  You can’t do anything about it. You can’t know what programs care about grades, so apply where you want. If your school gives you a single grade for the whole semester, you can’t do anything about that.  If programs look at your undergrad grades, you can’t affect that.

Stop.  Worrying.  If you are in your pre-clinical years, yes, obviously study and try to do well.  But if it is in the past, there’s nothing to be done about it. Follow the advice I give on How to be Successful.  Be an RFHB. Aim for Zero. Show Up. All of that you can affect. The grades you got before, you cannot affect.

So, don’t think about them.  Focus on what you can control now, which is the future.  As C-3PO told Chewie, “He made a fair move, screaming about it can’t help you.”  Screaming about what happened in the past can’t help you. Please stop. Look towards the future.

Handling Conflicting Advice for your Application

Let’s say you follow my heartfelt, strongest advice and have other people review your application materials.  Congratulations, you just put yourself in the top 50% of applicants! Now, you get feedback from your friends and mentors.  Unfortunately, some of the feedback conflicts. For example, one of your helpers comments, “Be careful not to come off arrogant here,” and another comments, “I like this section- very assertive.”  You’re not sure whose advice to follow. What do you do now?

First, consider the source.  Is your mom giving you advice that conflicts with a faculty member in veterinary medicine (let’s assume your mom is not in vetmed)?  Is your sibling, who is jealous of your success, giving you advice that conflicts with your classmate, who wants you to succeed? Don’t ignore these sources of advice, because they can absolutely be useful.  But weigh the sources appropriately.

This is where you, your individuality, your own approach, and your personal choices shine.  This is why asking for advice is not cheating. Unless someone writes your letter of intent and CV themselves, YOU are making decisions about what to change, what not to change, and how to change it.  These decisions differ among individuals and speak to who you are as an applicant.

Don’t take anyone’s suggestions made with Track Changes in Word and do ‘accept all.’  You need to evaluate each suggestion/correction and decide if you want to incorporate it or not.  This is also why my services are not cheating- YOU need to have written the sentence, and YOU need to modify it if necessary.

What if you get specifically contradictory feedback from two sources you trust a lot?  Someone advises “this sentence is great!” and another says “this sentence should be cut entirely.”  You can decide on your own or you can get a third perspective to weigh in. Remember, evaluators can vary widely in what they like and don’t like.  There is no perfect application. There ARE bad applications, and you want to avoid being one of those. At the end of the day, this is YOUR application- you get to decide what gets included and what doesn’t.

Working with Underserved/Marginalized/Low SES Populations

Image by Kirk Fisher from Pixabay

In my post giving about advice on how to maximize your time during vet school for success, I mentioned getting time working with underserved/marginalized/low socioeconomic status (UML for the purposes of this article) groups.  One of my editors said, “Why?” I thought that was a great question and deserved its own article.

As always, this is my personal opinion, but influenced significantly by many years of discussing applicants for positions in academic veterinary medicine.  Although unlikely, it is possible there are evaluators out there who would look down on an applicant who worked with UML groups. In reality, it is at worst neutral, and at best a tick in your positive column.  There are a few reasons this experience is seen positively.

1) Perspective.  Veterinary medicine requires working with a dynamic range of people.  Your staff, clients, others doctors- people come from all sorts of different backgrounds and places.  If you have worked with diverse groups of people in the past, you are at least aware of them and may be better prepared to work with them in the future.

2) Humility.  I hope that people who work with UML groups realize how amazing their life is and appreciate their great life.  I believe it is a humbling experience to work with those who have very little, and to see they can still enjoy their life and have human experiences.  Humility is incredibly important to me when looking at people who would be good in a team.

3) Adventurousness.  The willingness to work with UML groups indicates that you have a certain character of boldness which is often sought in leaders (which all veterinarians are by dint of their profession).  If you are willing to go outside your comfort zone, I have greater confidence that you will leave where you have lived, go across the country, and be in a new position somewhere you have never even visited.

4) Diversity.  Veterinary medicine is dominated by white women.  Diversity is a problem in our field.  Having some experience with other populations may reflect well on you for those who are interested in fostering diversity and the awareness of the importance thereof.

5) Stories.  Possibly the most important aspect of dealing with these communities is you can share what you learned in your letter of intent and during interviews.  These create opportunities for you to share an interesting, unique experience and what you took from it. That helps create a persona for you in letters and interviews which evaluators may remember better than a generic applicant.

It is not an essential requirement, but having the chance to work with diverse populations may improve your application.  I believe it is helpful for all applicants to have worked with UML groups, but this may not be a universal belief. What do you think?  Does this add to an application?

Behind the Scenes: How we Chose Interns

Image by Valentin Sabau from Pixabay

Before we start, you should know that every program does their intern selection process differently.  Evaluators care about different things. Some may use class rank as a cut point- they don’t evaluate anyone not in the top 25%, for example.  (You can’t do anything about this so stop worrying about it). Some may have a committee, or a single individual, or an advisory committee to a handful of decision-makers.  So, this is not universal. But I wanted to give you a peek into how I (and institutions where I have worked in the past) chose interns.

First, we would take all of the applicants and divide them according to school where they graduated.  Our committee was usually made up of 8 faculty members. Faculty would then pair up, so we had 4 pairs.  Each pair then indicated which schools they would evaluate applicants from. Usually this was based on people they knew at those schools.

Each pair then got all of the applicants from the schools they agreed to review.  The applicant pool was evenly divided among the pairs. Each pair then read all of the applications in their pool.  When I read applications, I made a spreadsheet with the applicant as a row, and then columns including letter of intent quality, references, leadership, teaching experience, research experience, class rank, CV, notes, and overall score.

I usually used a 4-point score: 4 for not-rankable, and 1-3 divided according to my estimation of them being in the top, middle, or bottom third of applicants.  Each applicant sent to the pair would be reviewed by both members of the pair. Then my partner and I would meet and discuss the applicants and agree to a score for each of our applicants.  Then each pair would send their ranking to the chair of the committee, who would organize them. We would all meet together as a committee and discuss the rankings, moving various applicants up or down according to information we had gleaned (e.g. by calling friends at institutions).

It was a huge effort and took a lot of time.  And, as it turns out, it’s probably meaningless.  In a study where we compared rank with intern performance, there was no relationship.  This is similar to interviews- they don’t really relate to the performance of a person in a position.  So we could probably accomplish this all with just randomly drawing the names out of a hat. But, like interviews, we FEEL like doing this process should improve our outcome, so we do it anyways.

Behind the Scenes: How I Read an Internship Application

Image by Alicja from Pixabay

I thought it would be helpful to share my personal process for reading an internship application.  This is a highly personalized process- please don’t assume that others go through the same process. Nonetheless, I thought it would be helpful to share what goes through my brain, so here it is:

First, the internship application through the match is organized like this: standard application information (entered when you apply through the VIRMP), letter of intent, CV, transcripts, letters of recommendation.

From the standard application, I scroll down to the veterinary education section.  I notice if they went to school at an AVMA-accredited program or an unaccredited program.  I note the class rank and graduation date. I glance at the references to get an impression of what sorts of letters they have.  Very little hard decisions are made at this step- it’s just collecting data.

The letter of intent is where I begin to apply some discrimination.  Is it more than one page? If so, I probably won’t read it unless it appears to be an _incredibly_ unusual applicant.  If it’s more than one page, I will review the rest of their materials to decide, “Is this person even worth considering?”  The vast majority of the time, the answer is “no”, so my job is done and I move onto the next. If the letter is one page or less, I skim it until I find an interesting, useful, unique piece of information, then read that segment in detail.  I also read for grammar and spelling errors. I consider how they structured concepts and what I learned about the applicant. The letter is extremely important to me and I will start to put the applicant into one of three bins- not rankable, rankable good, rankable OK.

For the CV, I check to see if they have any obvious gaps in professional progression not addressed in their letter of intent.  If so, this is a red flag. Have they done research- if so, what was their role? If they were the first author on a submitted publication, great.  Otherwise, I don’t think much of research experience. Did they have an officer role in a club? What is interesting about their experience? Did they travel?  How will I summarize this person in my Excel file where I track all applicants (see below)? The CV is not a major deciding factor for me but helps fill in the picture of the applicant.

The transcripts are fluff for me.  I skim them briefly to see if there are any “D” or “F” grades and, if so, in what subject they are.  If not, I spend no time on the transcripts unless they are from international applicants. In that case, I review them carefully to get an idea of what academic material this person has studied.

The letters of recommendation, with the letter of intent, form the greatest portion of my evaluation.  In the letters, I look at the qualifications of the letter writer, are they from the applicant’s current institution, how many interns they have worked with, and their connection with the applicant.  I then skim the ratings of clinical & technical skills and professionalism to see if there are any particularly low marks. Most of my time is spent reading the qualitative data provided in the remarks section.

In the qualitative remarks, I primarily look to see if the person is easy to work with, eager to learn and accept feedback and act in a positive, professional manner.  If the letter is not very detailed, that is also flagged as concerning. I will also look for indications of humility, eagerness to work, and emotional intelligence. It is rare to read a letter which is not laudatory, so I need to read between the lines.  Remarks which focus on the intelligence of the applicant, without mention of them being easy to work with, are flagged as problematic.

Once I have read through everything, I will go back and make notes in an Excel document which has the following column headings: name, class rank, education/experience, letter, clubs, miscellaneous, research, references, score.  I make short notes for each of these and then make a determination of placement: do not rank, rank in bottom third, rank in the middle third, rank in the top third.

So, that’s the process.  This forms the basis for some of my advice, and it may differ among evaluators.  Maybe some people care a LOT about research, maybe others ONLY consider the objective data provided in letters of recommendation.  However, in discussion with dozens of colleagues, most of them follow a similar process to that described here. So I think this is a helpful start for you to review.

Behind the Scenes Series

I was inspired to write a short series on how applications get evaluated throughout the academic process- for vet school, internship, residency, and faculty positions. Realize that these are idiosyncratic- my process is definitely different from other people’s processes. Nonetheless, I think it may be helpful/insightful. Enjoy these for the next two weeks!

Internship Letter Mistakes

This is a specialized version of a post I have about general application letter writing advice, aimed at intern applicants.

Writing an internship application letter is hard.  I’m sorry. Intern applicant evaluators are so widely varied, you can’t possibly write the ideal letter unless you happen to A) know the evaluators and B) apply to only one institution.  Fortunately, there are some “wrong” ways to write an intern letter. Let’s look at them.

First, think from the evaluator’s standpoint.  They have a monumental challenge- reviewing possibly several hundred applicants for a handful of positions.  It is a grueling, churning, time-sucking task that they get very little thanks for. If you give them the opportunity to rapidly assess your letter as not-rankable, it saves them the trouble of reading your CV and letters of recommendation and thus saves them time.

Here are the rules to keep your letter from getting tossed into the do-not-rank pile.

One page or less.  I know some evaluators read two-page letters.  I know more who use this as an instant rejection.  You should be able to express yourself succinctly.

Good grammar and spelling. This may seem obvious, but I would say a full 20% of letters I read fail this test.  Have other people read your letter _carefully_ with a fine-toothed comb and make sure they are brutally honest.

Good use of English.  This one is hard for non-native speakers, but it is very obvious when it is present.  If your English is good but not native, find several native speakers to review and correct it.  We use language in odd ways in English.  The Japanese small old car is technically correct but does not sound the same as the small old Japanese car.

Avoid a TOO-unique letter.  We will talk about injecting your own style when we discuss the DOs of letter writing, but if your letter is quirky or eccentric, this may work for some evaluators but not for others.  This is highly polarizing with people who feel very strongly on both sides. Don’t risk it.

Don’t use odd word choices or excessive Thesaurus use.  This may not get you an instant rejection, but in a study where we analyzed intern applicant letters, letters that had odd word choices and excessive Thesaurus use consistently ranked lower. Keep it simple.

Don’t be boastful or arrogant.  I think there is some advice out there on the internet that you need to be assertive and confident in your application letters.  Maybe this is true for business, but it is not true in academia. In our study, none of the evaluators indicated ‘confidence’ as an important characteristic of a letter writer.  Some people may not notice or care about this, but I know many evaluators find those who display arrogance in their letter and veto their application.

Some examples: “I am confident  about my general medical knowledge across different fields…”, “I am highly motivated, quick to understand medical topics, detail oriented and capable of multitasking. I have the ability to get along well with just about anyone.”, and “I achieved a 4.0 GPA my first semester and eventually finished my studies at Unseen University in the top 5% of my class and as a member of Phi Zeta.”

As noted in the introduction, evaluators are an extremely heterogeneous group, and you can’t possibly avoid all pitfalls of all evaluators.  Maybe some don’t like anything other than a five-paragraph-essay format. Maybe others will reject any letter with the word “yellow” in it. It’s impossible to predict all the things evaluators may reject you on.  However, in my experience (and our research), these were the most prominent, consistent, and important. Write your letters accordingly and, if you need help, please reach out to me.

You Must Stand Out

Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

I can’t emphasize enough how much you should try to aim for zero– show up, be competent, don’t try too hard.  On the flip side, if you are forgettable, marginal, or just merely acceptable, you won’t ‘wow’ anyone and you won’t get letters of recommendation.  Obviously, you should read and adhere to all of the How to be Successful series of posts. In addition to those concepts, here are some which will help make sure you Stand Out.

1) Ask questions.  There can be a difficult balance between annoying, constantly questioning/bugging and curious, thoughtful, and engaged.  Asking thoughtful questions indicates you understand the material and are interested in learning even more. You may ask any questions you like, and this is a great way to learn, but if you haven’t done the basic reading and work to understand the foundations of the topic at hand, you probably won’t stand out when you ask your questions. Conversely, try not to ‘wow’ people with the questions you ask- esoteric data and minutia can be all well and good, but whenever a student asks me a question like this, it is obvious that they are trying to suck up or stand out.

2) Help out.  You may think faculty don’t notice all of your hard work, and maybe some of them don’t, but most of us keep a close eye on how hard working the students are.  Help your classmates out whenever they need it. Teamwork is an essential skill for veterinary medicine- demonstrate that you care more about the team than yourself.

3) Don’t be silent.  You don’t have to be the most outgoing, gregarious person but, if you are silent, you will almost surely fade into the background.  You should be engaged when things are happening and learning opportunities occur. Be prepared to answer when you are asked a question.  If you don’t know the answer for sure, you can hazard a guess. It is far preferable to make an educated guess than to be sitting in silence while the faculty waits for an answer.  Participate participate participate.

4) Be energetic.  Again, you don’t have to be an extrovert, but you DO have to look like you are happy to be working and learning.  You’re in vet school or an internship or a residency- isn’t that AWESOME?!? You can’t be excited 24/7, particularly with some of the long, mentally taxing hours we work, but you CAN do your best to express your enthusiasm as often as possible.  Students who are energetic and seem happy to be there make a far better impression than those who seem like they are just putting in their time.

5) Study.  This may seem self-evident, which is why it’s not in the How to Be Successful series, but I am often amazed when students go home and then don’t study.  Yes, you may be able to pass and do a fine job. But do you expect you will be able to excel, to stand out from the crowd? All vet students are above average and all interns much more so- if you want to stand out, you have to work, and part of this is studying when you go home or have down time.

I don’t want you to STRIVE to be outstanding or above the crowd- doing so will almost surely set you up for failure.  However, I do want you to be AWARE of what you can do to be a remarkable student/intern/resident. Find the opportunities to do these things as they arise, but don’t force it into situations.  If you had a long, tiring shift and try to force yourself to be energetic, it will come off as false and disingenuous.

These are some of the characteristics of the students whom I notice and for whom I am inclined to write positive letters of recommendation.  What are some other characteristics you believe are important?

Sample Vetducator Corrections for 2019 Letters of Intent

Image by Anne Karakash from Pixabay

I thought I would share with you the way I have worked with students in the past and the sorts of comments I provide.  In general, I try to offer the writer the perspective an evaluator will have. This sometimes comes off as blunt, but I’m trying to genuinely share what goes through my mind.  You can see that I don’t rewrite things, just offer suggestions, so it is still the original author’s work; their work with added editing and expert advice. These are all anonymous and submitted with the author’s permission.