Alumni Spotlight: An International Student’s Journey to Medicine, A Lesson of Resilience

Post written by: Hoang Yen V

Hello everyone! My name is Hoang Yen Vu, and I am a Biochemistry & Health Sciences graduate of Northeastern University (Class of 2021). Just as the title suggests, I am an international student from Vietnam and was an aspiring medical student during my years at Northeastern. I will be entering my first year of medical school at St George’s, University of London this September 2023, and this is my share on the seven-year journey it has taken me to get to where I am today. I hope this article will help to encourage pre-med international students at Northeastern to continue to pursue their medical passion.

Since I did apply to both US and UK medical schools, I will be sharing my experiences and outcomes of my applications. I would also like to clarify that I only applied to MD schools in the US as I did heavy research only on MD schools and was only exposed to MD physicians (and ultimately secured a letter from an MD) so I am unable to speak for those interested in applying for DO schools (Please bear that in mind!). Without further ado, below are five advices I believe are important for applying to medical schools:

  1. Researching international-friendly medical schools

For my US application, I relied heavily on the AAMC Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) to know which schools accept my international status. I also used MSAR to check for statistics such as MCAT score “cut-off”, prerequisites, and number of international students interviewed and matriculated for the most recent application cycle. It’s worth noting that many schools would appear on MSAR that they accept international applicants but their recent statistics would in fact show otherwise. Personally, I would use MSAR more as a reference to make a general list of which schools I am permitted to apply, but making my school list, I would actually check each school website to confirm whether my MSAR information matches the schools’ requirements for my application cycle. And if there’s something I’m still not sure about, I would immediately reach out to the medical admission teams for clarification. From my own experiences, I can see that the admission teams were generally helpful and quick to get back to me. Despite researching and making my list as easy-to-breathe as possible, it was as expected from a long time ago that mostly Ivy League schools and those in the TOP 20 would permit international students to apply (one of the factors that explained why it was so hard for international applicant to get into).

For my UK application, I relied a lot on a website called The Medic Mind to look for information about schools and their rate of acceptance for international applicants. Unlike the US, UK only allows applicants to apply to 4 schools per application cycle so it’s very important that applicants research the schools carefully and apply strategically. Personally, I think MSAR and Medic Mind are quite similar; however, I was able to get access to Medic Mind without paying for a subscription so that was much better. Another convenient thing about applying for UK medical schools is that most schools will have a cut-off score for UCAT/BMAT/GAMSAT, so it’s quite straightforward for applicants to be more certain about which school to apply once they have their UCAT/BMAT/GAMSAT score.

  1. Checking the schools’ prerequisites and academic credit transfer

For my US application, this issue mainly concerns with whether the schools I want to apply to would accept my AP credits or not. To solve this issue, I simply emailed the admission team or check the school website, since different schools varied in terms of which AP scores they would accept (some schools accept a 4 and 5 while others would only accept 5). On the other hand, I also emailed some schools about the courses I took at Northeastern and if they would accept these courses as part of their prerequisites. While all of them check the box, I did know of a friend’s situation where she had to re-take biology courses at a community college before she started her first year at Johns Hopkins SOM because she didn’t fulfill her biology prerequisites.

For my UK application, academic prerequisite issues are more problematic because each school would have a different requirement for international applicants, and some schools wouldn’t even accept anything else but GCSE or A-levels scores. A lot of schools didn’t clarify much on their websites about what kind of academic transfer would be acceptable, so for all of the schools that I was interested in, I had to email every single one of them about their academic requirements and any other requirements I should know before applying. It was a tremendously time-consuming step, and it’s interesting to know that my initial list of schools to apply was completely different from my final list due to their academic requirements.

  1. Writing a personal statement

I used the same personal statement for both of my US and UK applications. For personal statement, I spent roughly 4-5 months planning on what I should write, but my final draft was only written in less than a week. I did have a lot of dilemmas on what topic I should write and whether it’d be feasible for me to mention my international roots, but ultimately, I chose to emphasize on my Vietnamese and American background and how it connected to my desire to become a global physician. I went into the issue of opioid pain killers and how it affected me personally and my family, to its larger impact on both the Vietnamese and American communities. I actually believed that my personal statement might have a huge role in helping me secure an interview from many of the schools I applied to, including Harvard Medical School.

One of the things I would advise for those writing their personal statements would be to be thoughtful about the issue they choose to write, and be extremely selective about whom they choose to read and edit their statements. Different opinions are great but too many are actually harmful for you. I would suggest showing your statements to your professors, mentors, pre-med friends and your English tutors since I think they would have the most suitable opinions. When I was writing my personal statement, I utilized the Northeastern Writing Center a lot, probably every day since I was rushing to get my statement out there. I did make appointments with about three tutors there who had experiences editing medical personal statements and they were very understanding of my deadline too.

  1. Preparing for MCAT/UCAT/BMAT

Everyone’s experience studying for the MCAT is different and can be personal, and in my case, I didn’t pay for an MCAT tutor but studied for the MCAT on my own and took the exam twice. I did use a lot of available resources such as Reddit (r/mcat), UWorld, and AAMC official study guides to help with my study. Personally, I highly recommend UWorld since all of their questions have clear explanations attached to their answers. I used UWorld a lot for my Psych/Soc and saw a huge improvement on my official MCAT Psych/Soc score (from 127 to 130).

On the other hand, UK medical school entrance exams vary from school to school (again), but there are three kinds of exams one can take: UCAT, BMAT, and GAMSAT. The entrance exams also played a huge part in my strategic application, since I didn’t want to spend too much time studying for all three exams as they varied in their testing content and test-taking skills. I decided to study for the UCAT and BMAT: UCAT because most schools I applied to used it and it could be prepared for with 2-3 months of studying, and BMAT because I wanted to apply to Oxford University. The study resources for these two exams will differ but I relied on Medify to study for the UCAT, and the previous official exams to study for BMAT (which could be found on the Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing website).

  1. Preparing for medical interviews

I was invited to only one interview when I was applying for US medical schools, and it was with Harvard Medical School. The interview invite came at the beginning of October and my interview was not until the end of October. Unlike other schools I knew of that utilized MMI stations for their interviews, HMS interviews were much more casual and my interviewers mostly wanted to know about my motivation for medicine and to clarify some parts of my application that they didn’t have much information about. To prepare for my interview, I practiced many common questions with my friends, mentors and Mrs. Ciara. Mrs. Ciara also helped to put me in touch with current HMS students, who gave me a lot of tips on how to prepare for my interview. Outside of Northeastern resources, I was able to get in touch with some HMS international students thanks to the F1 Doctors – a community of international medical students and physicians. I also studied my application in depth and worked on my facial expressions so I wouldn’t appear too nervous in front of my interviewers. Ultimately, it was quite a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I would never forget!

As for my UK application, I received three interviews with St George’s University of London, University of Northampton, and University of Southampton, all of which used MMI stations. What’s special about UK medical interviews is that most schools emphasize on the Four Pillars of Medical Ethics and show great interest in applicants who are able to work these ethical pillars into their answers for the interviews. I had to study carefully about the UK medical ethics and examples of dilemmas and how these pillars could come into play. For my interview study, I got a lot of resources from The Medic Portal, The Medic Mind as well as the UK General Medical Council, which is the public body that manages the official register of medical practitioners within the UK. Another thing worth mentioning is that UK schools at during the 2022-2023 cycle no longer allowed for online interview so I had to fly to UK for in-person interviews instead, and thus, I had to also prepare for my UK visa application while studying for my UCAT and BMAT exams. Even I thought that was truly some high-level multitasking!

In conclusion, while the above advices can be helpful for those applying, whether it be US or UK medical schools, I would like to also bring to light two other things that I consider (after everything I have been through until now) to be equally important, which are:

  • Contemplate on your pursuit of medicine:
    • I believe medicine is a very noble career and that the journey to medicine (at least in the US and UK) truly tests an individual’s limit and their perseverance. I also learn that this journey is incredibly difficult, like 100x more difficult for international applicants (even at this very moment, I’m legit struggling with obtaining my student visa to study in the UK). It is not only about the restricted number of schools that we are allowed to apply to, or the financial challenges that may hinder many applicants who do not come from financially well-off families (i.e., Saint Louis SOM requires a 4-year full tuition payment of > $400.000 before first year begins). It is also about the arduous years of schools and residencies followed that might prevent us from seeing our families, spending time with loved ones or being there for our parents as they become older, especially if they are thousands of miles away from us, and we simply cannot get on a car and drive home whenever we want. Thus, while it’s great to think of the medical career and how much all of us will one day contribute to the health of our society, I also think it’s important that us international applicants carefully consider the ups and downs of our pursuit of medicine abroad.
  • Have a strong network of support:
    • While this is especially true for any medical school applicant, I believe international medical school applicants do deserve a lot of support and understanding from everyone, not just family and friends but also from our pre-med advisors, professors and mentors. I did enter my first year at Northeastern with the mindset of applying to medical schools once I graduated. However, my pre-med advisor at the time was quite discouraging of my ambition since it was extremely difficult for an international student to get into a US medical school due to a lot of factors. While I understood the practical reasons behind, part of me was quite disappointed to learn that I couldn’t cultivate any support from one of my mentors. Ultimately, Mrs. Ciara became my pre-med advisor during my sophomore year, and her presence, as well as support, made me regain my determination to have a try at medical schools again. Applying to medical school was another challenge too, and I was certain I would have gone berserk if it were not for my friends and family who stayed by my side and supported me physically and mentally. So yes, please make sure you are loved and supported by your loved ones during your medical journey!

And that is all from me. For any of international medical applicants out there, I wish you all the best!

From: a 1st year international medical student – Hoang Yen Vu.

P/S: for those interested in my complete CV of activities and achievements, you can check out my LinkedIn: