The two most important aspects of the OMSAS application is 1) the autobiographical sketch (aka. ABS) and 2) references. I'll be giving some tips on how I went about completing these sections.
1. Autobiographical SketchAccording to OMSAS, the ABS is a "comprehensive list of the pertinent details of an applicant's activities since the age of 16, within the categories that apply to the applicant: Formal Education, Employment, Volunteer Activities, Extracurricular Activities, Awards and Accomplishments, Research, and Others...Applicants should include all experiences, both structured and non-structured that demonstrate an ability to determine needs in their community and a willingness to play a part in filling those needs."
I'd like to think of the ABS as a very long resume that you are submitting to the medical schools. My first tip is that you should first compile a list of all the activities you have completed since the age of 16 (we're looking at approximately grade 10/11 onwards) under the categories that were mentioned previously. Applicants that have already begun their OMSAS applications will most likely have already done this but for those premeds who are interested in applying next year, you should start now with this repository of activities. I found this to be extremely useful because it was a way for me to organize everything I had done in the past - some activities for which I had forgotten I had completed until I made this list!
With each activity that you list, describe what you did (in point form) for each activity and what skills you gained. By doing this first, it makes editing your description down to 150 characters much easier.
Wait - I only have 150 characters to describe what I did?!
Yep. 150 characters. Not words. Characters. Thus, every period, space, and letter counts. Basically, you have to be as concise as possible and use short form (provided that it's relatively well known by most people) whenever you can. The short forms that I often used in my own descriptions included:
- "between" = b/w
- "without" = w/o
- "with" = w/
- "Honours Bachelor" = Hon. B.Sc (for sciences)
- "and" = + or &
- "including/inclusive" = incl.
- "at" = @
Another tip is don't space when starting new sentences or when you decide to use the short form of "and". For example, instead of saying " I volunteered at the hospital, senior home, and gift shop" you can change it to " Volunteered @ hospital,senior home+gift shop". You can save some character spaces by doing this.
So...how am I supposed to describe what I did, include what skills I gained/used, and how this is relevant to medicine in 150 characters?!
To be honest, I never did the last step (describe how my activity was relevant to medicine) when completing my ABS. If you have room, then by all means, include it. The key I believe to cutting down one's description of their activity is to use adjectives and not to simply "state" what you did. Let's look at an example:
Applicant 1 (when describing a tutoring job): Tutored high school math and science; marked homework and quizzes; prepared lesson plans
Applicant 2 (when describing a tutoring job): Tutored high school math+science;prepared+marked lesson plans+homework;creative in tutoring approach to adapt to students' learning styles
See the difference between Applicant 1 and 2? Whereas Applicant 1 simply "stated" what they did, Applicant 2 was able to incorporate a certain skill ("creativity") that they used in their job. You could have also used words such as patient, responsible, punctual, etc. and if space permitting, you might have also included how the student improved once you tutored him/her. By doing so, you're allowing the admissions committee to see exactly what skill set you were able to develop/gain from each of your activities.
2. Quantity vs Quality on the Autobiographical Sketch
One should note that there's only 48 spaces for the entry of all activities on the ABS. Depending on how much an applicant has done prior to the start of their application, this may be too few or too many spaces for one to enter their activities. I've often been asked by others and friends whether admissions will look more favourably on someone who has close to 48 items filled out on their sketch and less favourably on someone who only has 20ish items. The answer is - I don't know. I know of an individual who was accepted with only 20 activities on their sketch and I also know of another individual who had close to 48 items on their sketch being accepted. I do believe that if you have <20 items on your sketch, you may be at a disadvantage just because it does appear to be too few activities. Now, unless these activities are really unique and stellar (think Nobel Prizes, publication in Nature, etc.), and the rest of the applicant's application looks great, then yes, they would have a good shot. With that being said, I'm not saying that one should have 40+ items on their ABS either. Don't try to "pad" (and most importantly, DON'T LIE!) on your ABS because the admissions committee can easily see through this and it might end up doing more harm than good for your application. I believe a good number of activities to include is in the range of 25-35.
3. Choosing Your References
OMSAS requires that you choose 3 referees. I highly suggest that you diversify your 3 references with 1 or 2 of these references coming from someone in the academic field (ex: supervisor, professor, teacher, guidance counsellor etc.) and the third coming from someone that can comment on your non-academic abilities (ex: volunteer coordinator, student government/association leader, etc.). Also, try not to choose referees from the same place of work. For instance, if you've already asked your supervisor from a lab to write you a reference letter, don't ask the grad student in the same lab to be your second referee. The only exception I can think of to this is if the graduate student (or colleague) can comment on another aspect of you that your supervisor hasn't already. By diversifying your references, you're enabling the admissions committee to not only see your academic side but your personal/social side as well. I've seen several premeds ask whether or not a reference letter would hold more weight if the referee was an MD. To be honest, I don't think the title of the individual matters as much as what they say about you - I personally never had a reference letter from an MD and I still got accepted.
The key to asking someone to write a reference letter is to directly ask them:
"Would you be able to write me a STRONG reference letter for my application to medical school?"
By using the word "strong", you are making the potential referee aware that this isn't just a simple reference letter but one for a professional school application and thus, they would be more likely to put more time into it.
My other suggestion is that you should provide each of your referees with a brief CV/resume of your activities as this can give them more ideas about what to write about/comment on and act as a refresher for them (especially if you had worked/volunteered in the same place for many years). For instance, one of my reference letters came from my thesis supervisor who I had worked with since second year of undergrad. I gave him my resume with everything I had done in the lab up until my application date.
One last thing, don't be afraid to constantly check up on your referees and to see if they've completed your reference letter or not! This is your application and missing an important deadline will invalidate your entire application. Whether it be a simple email, phone call, or even a personal visit, it's in your best interest to make sure that your referee hasn't forgotten to write you your reference letter and submit it to OMSAS on time.
Before I end off this MedTalk Series, I also want to let applicants who are interested in applying next year know that it's completely free to open up an OMSAS account. Thus, I would encourage anyone interested in applying to Ontario medical schools to open up an OMSAS account and see exactly how the application form is laid out. It's free until you hit the submit button =).
If you guys have any more questions/concerns, feel free to ask them in the comment section below! I'll also update this post if I think of any more useful tips.