How I got into Georgetown Med School (and didn’t pay a dime)
This is the first in a weekly series of blog posts that will feature medical students telling their story of how they got into medical school. This week, our Program Design Manager Oliver Ha sat down with Joshua de Gastyne who was accepted to Georgetown University School of Medicine in 2015. EDIT: (12/18/2017) Joshua is no longer an active medical student at Georgetown and was honorably discharged from his military duty as an HPSP recipient.
Joshua, tell us more about yourself. Where are you from, what school did you go to, and what were you involved in during undergrad?
I was born and raised in Christiansburg, Virginia, otherwise known as “Hokie Country” near Virginia Tech — where there are more cows than people and football is very popular. We’re embedded in a lot of beautiful mountains, but we lack access to major cities and therefore educational resources that are present at big schools. For that reason, I finished AP classes at my public high school relatively early, then applied to Southwest Virginia Governor’s School for Math, Science and Technology. I got very involved with the science fair part of the curriculum there and went on to win at the state level. I became very interested in neuroscience and genetics specifically, and that interest took me to Emory University. I began undergraduate studies at 16 years old, majoring in something called Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology, a very interdisciplinary and design-it-yourself experience. Largely through that, I wound up winning scholarships from Emory to study abroad. First, I did research for a summer at Oxford specifically in Anthropology. A few months later, I studied abroad with a Gilman scholarship from the US State Department to live with a family in Morocco and study Arabic. By the time I graduated, I had gotten certified at the EMT intermediate 85 level, volunteered at my college campus in Atlanta, was involved in student resident life and Homecoming Court, and founded a club called Students Against Modern Day Slavery to combat human trafficking.
During all of those experiences, when did you feel the greatest push towards medicine?
"Obviously, to someone who is 15 years old and very concerned about their mother, I was motivated to combine my interest in science with the chance to do a science fair project focused on things like sleep apnea and Restless Legs Syndrome"
My desire to pursue medicine was initially tied in with the science fair I participated in during high school. On top of that, when I was in 10th grade, my mom got very sick. It took doctors over 12 months to figure out what was the problem, but essentially something that looked like a complicated immunological disorder ended up being a wide range of symptoms derived from sleep apnea. This had a relatively simple fix of encouraging my mom to lose a few pounds, since obesity is a major contributing factor to sleep apnea. She also had to go on a CPAP machine, which we liked to call her Darth Vader mask. Obviously, to someone who is 15 years old and very concerned about their mother, I was motivated to combine my interest in science with the chance to do a science fair project focused on things like sleep apnea and Restless Legs Syndrome. I wound up honing in on the dopaminergic pathways related to Parkinson’s disease, which sparked an interest that I continued throughout college my freshman year by joining a lab in freshman year in Human Genetics led by David Ledbetter. I then proceeded the next summer to do Emory’s summer research program focused in cell biology, and then I worked in another lab focused in neurotoxicology in our school of public health the following year.
When and why did you apply to Georgetown?
I actually knew that I wanted to take a couple years off between college and medical school. One area of study that I didn’t get much time to explore in undergrad was political philosophy and public policy, so I spent time after college working in DC at a think-tank. Immediately after college, though, I dedicated a few months to MCAT study. I ended up putting a year between that and applying to medical school in order to lay the foundation of how I would pay for med school. I grew up, as mentioned before, in a rural area in a relatively poor family. My parents were in service industries with a dad as a pastor and mom working at a daycare. I had to put myself through college and was in the same mentality for med school. In that year, I started to apply for what the US military calls the Health Professions Scholars Program. My grandfather was involved in the navy and I grew up hearing Christmas stories about him. My other grandfather was involved in the Air Force, so there was already precedent for military service in the family. When I heard that the government would pay for all 4 years of medical school, I said “sign me up, I’m not about that 6 figure debt!”. As I worked towards that program in the year off, I went through a fairly lengthy process composed of multiple stages and eventually was accepted. Because I first got accepted to the HPSP, by the time I actually started applying to medical schools, I was confident going into that process with an offer already on the table. I was able to say in my primary app and secondaries that I had a clear vision for being involved in military medicine in the near future. I also would be graduating without debt, and could potentially be a role model for other students in a medical military route. I think it’s attractive to some medical school admissions committees to be able to say “oh, it is already a major source of stress for our students to have massive financial obligations building up, so to remove a level of stress so that they can focus on performing well in medical school would be a huge benefit”.
Why did you eventually choose to go to Georgetown, over the other schools you were admitted to?
Medical students commit a huge part of their twenties to med school and residency, so all of their 20s will likely be in one place.
Part of it was the military angle, part of it was the DC angle, and part of it to be honest was due to Georgetown’s brand name recognition. I had already been in Washington DC for a few years, as I first moved here to work for a think tank at the time the ACA was being rolled out. I had a friend group here and I knew that it would be a city I would enjoy living in. Medical students commit a huge part of their twenties to med school and residency, so all of their 20s will likely be in one place. I think it’s important to think of where, geographically, you will plant roots in and maybe even build a family in. The other reason was along the lines of the military connection. Not as many people know this but in the interbellum period between WW1 and WW2, a lot of the planning going into how we prepare former army medics to deploy into the workforce on short notice was based in DC. The government wound up concentrating a lot of its funds in support of that program in conjunction with Walter Reed Hospital. The main educational component came through Georgetown University School of Medicine; they endowed a brand new chair in military medicine and still today, a high proportion (20 of the 200 students or about 10%) of the student body is enlisted in one of the branches of the military (Army, Air Force, Navy). The third component was Georgetown’s brand name recognition. Now, you don’t want to live your life evaluating things by what other people think of them, but for better or worse, the US News ranking holds sway in the public mind. If a large part of your field values name brand recognition, then you might consider going to a school that sets you up for the type of career you want. Having known many people who came from Georgetown as undergraduates and having known that it had a great reputation for business school and law school, I assumed that it was also probably a center for excellence for medicine.
What are the top 3 reasons why you think you got in?
Great question. I was one of the people who became more cynical throughout the process. I was blown away by the amount of time schools asked students to invest in their application. There was the financial component, the time investiture component, the mental energy put into writing essays, tailoring your research to see if it matches up with the school, etc. On top of that I knew that Georgetown was one of my long shots—they have a 2.8% acceptance rate. 14,000 students apply there every year, and a few fly out for interviews. Surprisingly, on interview day a lot of the programming was oriented towards trying to impress us and convince us to come to Georgetown. They really only spent 50 minutes evaluating me, and that looked like one interviewer sitting down with me and saying “Well, it looks like I have your resume and your application, tell me a little bit more about yourself. How’s life? Why are you working in consulting right now? What kind of vision do you have planned out for your future, and why do you think Georgetown is a good place to do it?” I think the time I had spent in consulting allowed me to present myself well and articulate myself well on a variety of subjects. It had given me time to go deeper on the vocational question and helped me connect what I was doing now to how it fit with my 10, 20 and 50 year goals. All that considered, a lot of it is still a black box as to why Georgetown was specifically interested in me or why I got in. To be honest, there were several schools that I thought I had a better shot of acceptance at but for some reason didn’t get into. For those schools, I don’t think their decision was even necessarily related to interview performance. Anyways, I interviewed at 6 medical schools, didn’t get into one of my reaches, got into some others and then got into Georgetown. At that stage of the cycle (I interviewed in December and combined it with my trip home for Christmas break) I decided to withdraw my application from other schools and said “Georgetown is the right place, I would love to do my medical training here”.
Surprisingly, on interview day a lot of the programming was oriented towards trying to impress us and convince us to come to Georgetown.
How can others copy your success?
Well first of all, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that others copy my success. There are very unique demands to becoming a military doctor and there are serious questions you should ask yourself before committing sometimes 4 to 30 years of your life to practicing in a military setting. It’s a medical profession that can look very different from a normal academic center or a domestic-based medical practice. So take all this with a massive grain of salt! However, for the right person who is somewhat financially conservative and hesitant to take on massive amounts of debt, who has really thought about the contributions they can make within a military medical setting, who has the right disposition for working within a bureaucracy and going through a rigorously demanding bootcamp, then it’s very possible for them to do what I did. If you are in good physical shape, have good eyesight, possess the ability to pass a military fitness exam and performed at an academic level where you could get into a normal medical school, you could definitely do what I did. There are lots of unique opportunities that emerge from the HPSP and I think I was able to come to it from a position of strength by applying to HPSP first and getting accepted. I was then able to tell med schools that I wanted to move forward with a very clear “hey, I already have this set-up, now if I can just impress you as well and get on board with the mission of the school, I can be a valuable contributor here and not just pass muster here but really flourish”. It allows you to craft that compelling narrative about your ambition and commitment to medicine in the long term. There’s no reason why a driven person—specifically an Atlantis Fellow who is already thinking about traveling the world, serving in an international context, and seeing medicine and health care done in a team based orientation—there’s no reason why that person shouldn’t be very successful if they want to pursue this route.
Joshua de Gastyne is founder of The Ultimate Doctor blog with Startup Hoyas MED. He records medical segments for Vernacular Podcast and consults pro-bono for DC startups through the InSITE entrepreneur fellowship. He graduated with a BS in neuroscience from Emory University after studying anthropology at Oxford and Arabic in Morocco. Proud alumnus of the John Jay Institute, Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program, and the de Gastyne family clan.
Oliver Ha grew up in Colleyville, TX, and received a B.A. in University Scholars from Baylor University, where he concentrated in Biomedical Sciences, Political Philosophy and Great Texts of the Western Civilization. Oliver is currently on the interview cycle and plans to attend medical school in 2018. He has traveled abroad in Italy, Scotland, and Ireland. He joined Atlantis as the Program Design Manager this past August after teaching middle school science at Great Hearts Irving, a classical liberal arts charter school, and hopes to apply the scientific method to program development through the vehicle of design thinking.