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RE: Top 10 entries…a word of advice

August 1st, 2020 by Dr. Remo Panaccione

Happy long weekend everyone.

We often get questions regarding entries into the top 10. I’m re-posting this from last year because it’s the best guidance I can give to the applicant pool…BE YOURSELF!!!

One of the themes throughout my time blogging on this site has been BE YOURSELF. If I were applying today and I read the application manual (Section 4.11)  the first sentence states : “Applicants are given the opportunity to identify up to 10 activities or experiences that they feel are sufficiently important as to define them as individuals.”    I would then site down and ask myself the question “Who am I”  What do I want the admissions committee to know about me?  What am I proud of? What in my life that makes me feel good and has made me the person I am? Do my top 10s clearly pain of picture of me?

Too often, applicants craft their top 10s because of advice from people who believe they know what the file reviewers are “looking” for or their experience. They want to duplicate the path of success of others while truly not knowing what that path was.

In addition, applicants look at CanMeds or the 5 non-cognitive attributes and want to fill every bucket with an entry into the top 10 or “plan” their life to  fill these buckets.  I will give you some silly examples that most of you hopefully will relate to. The applicant sees in CanMeds roles and the attributes we score on leadership.  The applicant scratches their heads and comes to the conclusion  that they don’t have anything that is strong to enter….Oh wait…I was captain of my pee-wee hockey team.  This gets entered into the top 10.  They then try to write eloquently around this. If you were a reviewer, what would you think of this?  Does this event which happened likely over a 10-20 years ago truly  show leadership? The fact the applicant chose this…does it demonstrate insight? Maturity?  Does this truly tell me anything about the applicant and who they are today? What else may have the applicant put in the top 10.  This is an example, where not only would the entry likely lead to a low score in one of the attributes but leads to lower scores in other attributes which all stemmed from the desire to enter a score to fulfil a CanMeds role or an attribute we list.

We often hear rumbles from unsuccessful candidates, I checked all the boxes, “why were my scores so low”. “Chasing” the attributes, “checking the boxes”, “trying to demonstrate the CanMeds roles often leads to undesired consequences.  It also leads to what we identify as token experiences in the trifecta-volunteer at a hospital, do some research, and belong to a club..  The example that I often site is “the one summer of research”. This does not make you a scholar. It checks a box but during that summer the applicant could have been exploring their passion for old cars. They had no previous knowledge of mechanics but self-taught themselves, worked full time to earn money to buy the parts and restored an old car to working condition.  That entry shows maturity to follow a passion, passion for something outside academics, self-balance, and yes intellectual curiosity.

Finally, for those who are still not convinced and want me to talk about numbers.  None of these candidates actually exist but you probably “recognize” them. Candidate A fills out their applications; they are passionate about their volunteer work,  Examples litter her/his top 10 and because of this passion they have led and organized events or societies.  It’s obvious what makes them hum and who they are.   They have no research experience, have never published, etc… The candidate has scores ranging from 8-10 on four categories and even 0 in scholarly activity.   Candidate B is an athlete. Has spent their entire life chasing this dream.  Has overcome injury, struggled with mental health issues and overcome all of this to become the captain of a an elite sports team,  Has never done research, only minimal volunteering mostly with their sports related activities.  I know what makes this candidate hum and who they are.  Scores range from 8-10 and then a few 3-4.  Candidate C has escaped a war torn country, and immigrated to Canada,  They have endured racism and have learned English as a second language.  Because of financial difficulties within the family they have worked various part-time jobs since the age of 14.  They have taken time to help other immigrant families.  They have balanced this with a very respectful GPA.  No research, no high profile leadership.  I know this candidates life story, I know what they could sacrifice, and where they struggled.  Scores range from 8-10 across multiple activities.  Candidate D.  This candidate has a stellar GPA and very good MCAT score (90 the percentile). In their top 10 they list numerous academic awards,  the fact they played piano (grade 10), hasn’t played this since. decided to work one summer in a research lab after first year undergrad, volunteers 3-4 hours every other week at a local hospital, formed a club on campus in their last year of undergrad but this club doesn’t seem to have much activity that is visible , oh an btw the summer they took the MCAT there was a void ( the reviewers can’t ascertain what the candidate was doing).  I have no idea who this candidate is.  What makes them hum. But they sure tick every box,  Guess what the scores may be here. Candidate D doesn’t get an interview and then wonders why..”I ticked all the boxes.” The process must be flawed or unfair.

For those who read this. BE PROUD IF WHO YOU ARE!!! BE YOURSELF!!! WE VALUE ALL TYPES OF EXPERIENCES!!!

Tags: 29 Comments

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29 responses so far ↓

  • Hi Dr. Panaccione,

    2 questions:

    1. Can you list multiple reflections or impacts under one entry? For example: developing communication skills and time management from a work position.

    2. Is it acceptable to have overlapping impacts across different top 10 experiences? For example: becoming a better public speaker through a volunteer role and a work position. I was thinking this may better communicate to the file reviewer how certain experiences may have been interrelated in their impact on me.

    Thank you in advance.

    • Yes and yes. Each tip 10 is about an experience and deflection. So you May have taken away multiple things from one experience or learned complimentary things from different experiences

  • Hi Dr. Panaccione,

    I submitted a request through my institution about a month ago to send my transcript to ucmedapp@ucalgary.ca via secure email attachment. I can see on UCAN that it hasn’t been received yet. I understand the office must be very busy and getting lots of emails, but I just got a notification from my university that the link to download the document expires in 30 calendar days if it is not opened in that time, at which point I would have to pay to re-order a new transcript. I was going to email the admissions office but I’m not sure my email would be read within the time the link will expire. What do you recommend? Thanks for your time.

  • Hi Dr. Panaccione,

    I had a question about verifier emails.

    If the verifier doesn’t have a professional email affiliated with the organization in question, but does have a different professional email affiliated with another official organization (i.e. their workplace; a non-gmail account) would including this email be considered professional or not? Does the email need to be associated with the organization in question to be considered professional?

    Thank you!

  • Hi Dr. Panaccione,

    Hope you and the admissions team are doing well. Thank you for all of the updates they are very much appreciated! I was wondering if there may be anyway of having the final mcat sitting date changed to be in line with other schools (UBC, UofA, Ontario Schools) to be at the end of September this year. I definitely understand all schools have unique deadlines so if this isn’t possible that’s no problem. Thanks very much.

    • Thank you for your question. Unfortunately, due to the fact our first year starts 6-10 weeks prior than other program our timelines are compressed. Therefore, we will not be pushing our deadline out further than September 12.

  • Use the verifier that is most relevant or was involved in majority of the experience . We will reach out for additional verifiers if needed .

  • Dear Dr. Panaccione,

    For top 10’s, is it possible to combine multiple experiences into one entry? For example:

    (1) Working as a TA for multiple years, but for different courses each year.
    (2) Sports has been a huge part of my life, and I was thinking of discussing my involvement on sports teams in high school, followed by continuing with intramurals in university. This would include a span of several years with various teams and sports.

    Are either of these approaches too broad or not allowed? Are specific activities/events required as opposed to progressive experiences?

    Would combining verifiable hours into the one activity be okay?

    Thank you!

  • Hi Dr. Panaccione,

    Thank you for this informative post. My question is as follows: if several of an applicant’s important life experiences arise from a single activity (i.e. a job or volunteer position), is it alright to occupy several Top 10 entries with that one activity?

    • It as acceptable. The question reviewers may ask themselves is why the learnings were not put under one entry in the description. You would need to be very careful that you are being specific about why they are separate entries and avoid the appearance that you are just trying to fill in space.

  • Dear Dr. Panaccione,

    I can admit that my experiences appear to be the “cookie cutter” resume because that was the mindset I had entering undergrad. Despite this, these experiences have truly made a significant impact on my life and I have spent many hours of involvement in these activities. While I have been lucky enough to not be from a war-torn country, or be athletic enough to be a star athlete, I have put in lots of hard work into all of the activities that I have been a part of. But I am afraid that the selection committee will look at my experiences as if I was just trying to “check the boxes” and this will have a negative impact on my score. What advice can you give that will help me put together my application such that it can still stand out?

    Thank you so much for your continued support!

    • Unfortunately, we don’t give specific advice on how to write top 10s. The best advice is to be genuine and reflect on whether these experiences were your true top 10.

  • Dear Dr. Panaccione,

    When verifiers are contacted regarding a Top 10 experience, do they see the description and experience impact sections or just the description section? My verifiers most likely will not be able to verify the impact of my experience and the statement may contain sensitive information.

    Additionally, how should we go about choosing verifiers? Using your above reply as an example, a contact within the student union can verify I was a club executive but they will not be able to verify the activity description. However, the president of the club who is considered my peer would be able to verify the activity description.

    Thank you.

    • Thank you for your question. We do not share what you have written with verifiers regarding your reflection and/or impact because we recognize that in many instances these may be very personal.

      We use verifiers to check on involvement, degree of involvement, legitimacy etc…. In essence does the experience listed exist and is there any evidence that the experience has been embellished.

      To your second question, we will follow-up if we need more information asking for other verifiers and or do our own homework by seeking out other third parties.

  • Hello Dr. Panaccione,

    I have been acting as a live-in caregiver for my elderly grandparents since March and want to include this in my top 10 experiences. I was wondering if I should worry about having a verifier for this activity. I know my family members are not useable and was wondering if I should ask our community’s doctor because he is aware of this current arrangement. As well, how should I enter the amount of time spent doing this or should I leave it blank.

    Thank you for your help!

  • Dear Dr. Panaccione,

    Upon reflecting on what I would put in my top 10, I find myself struggling to add 10 meaningful experiences. I of course want to come off as authentically as possible in showing the committee who I am as a person. I find that I can get 8-9 really meaningful experiences that speak to who I am as a person, would I be penalized for not filling out all 10 entries? I can get to 10 experiences, but I feel like the last 1-2 really wouldn’t be representative of who I am as a person.
    Thank you for your time!

    • Thank you for your honest and thoughtful post. You absolutely do not need to submit 10 and it will not hurt you if you submit less. In fact it may harm a file if an applicant submits token or less meaningful experiences. It is in keeping of the themes I described above. The top 10 are about allowing the file reviewers to know who you are. It is not about “impressing” the file reviews. I try to stress the importance of reflection. YOU have obviously done this quite well and have been honest with yourself. BRAVO.

  • Hello Dr Panaccione,

    I understand for referees its not a good idea for you to use the peer of a student group but what about for the verifier of a position in a student club there’s nobody that can really cerify your position other than the president or another exec member.

    • Thank you. In a post last cycle I cover some of this. Remember when we check clubs , we look for clubs that are associated with the student union to ensure they are legitimate if they are associated with a post secondary institution. Most may have a faculty advisor (list this person) or the roster of the executive is registered with the student union (a contact at the student union in this case would suffice).

  • Unfortunately, yes. We are not trying to be difficult but many times file reviewers do not consider student peers credible references due to the fact that many times there may be an element of social interaction that goes beyond a professional relationship which is difficult to determine. In addition, there have been several instances that members who belong to clubs or societies have applied using each other as references or verifiers which is always suspect.

  • Hi Dr. Panaccione,

    I have a question related to referees, I hope it is ok that I post it here. For the commitment to communities and advocacy referee, I would like to use the president of student-run organization that I was a member of during my time as an undergrad. However, as the organization was student-run, the president was a fellow student and therefore one of my peers. While I certainly believe that she would be objective, I understand why the admissions committee might be hesitant to accept the words of a peer. There are a few other potential referees, but they really don’t know me personally, and so I am hesitant as to how well they can answer the questions. In your opinion, would it be better to use a peer who knows me quite well, or someone who does not know me well but who would not be a peer?

    Thank you

    • Dear Laura,

      Thank you for your post. I would highly recommend that you do not use a peer even if they were president of an organization you were involved in. I’ve posted on this before. We look closely at the selection of referees not only what the referee says.

      • Hi Dr. Panaccione,

        Thank you for the quick reply! Would the vice president of the Student Union also be considered a peer? They were a student, however they were in an elected position and oversaw all of the clubs on campus.