Embarrassment of Riches

Short version: many good things have happened.

Long version:

I took two months to study for the USMLE Step 1, a test that covers the first two years of medical school, and while in Cambodia on my 6 week tour of Southeast Asia, I found out that I scored a 240/99 (the goal I set for myself). While studying for this test, I began editing a review book (First Aid for the USMLE) just for fun and submitting my corrections and suggestions to the authors. They contacted me and asked for my CV, and now I am working for them and credited as an author on the 2008 Edition of the book. During this time, I applied for transfer to several medical schools in the US. Drexel University in Philadelphia invited me for an interview. What follows is the story of that interview and the outcome.


Forgive the writing style. For the last week, I’ve been reading The Remains of the Day which is narrated by a proper English butler.

Last Wednesday, Friday, this past Monday and this Wednesday, Drexel invited people to interview for positions in the 2nd and 3rd year. There are 5 spots available for 3rd year and 16 interviewees. There are 4 spots available for 2nd year and 21 interviewees. Of those interviewing for 3rd year, I know six very well. I chose to interview on the last possible day so that 1) I would be remembered best, 2) I would be compared to no one else on my interview day, and 3) to learn as much as I could from people that had gone earlier in the week. This worked out well.

With my little attache case filled with my updated resume, research papers, Welcome to Grenada guide, and a few other things I took the train from NY to Philly, slept the night at a Bed and Breakfast, and headed to the interview. There were eight other students interviewing this day (all for second year). I was the last to arrive before 9am and took the head of the table. I introduced myself to the room, memorized everyone’s name and school, and started the room talking (they were staring at each other when I showed up). I am now always aware that I am being evaluated from the moment I walk in the door and that certain things (like command of a room, ease with strangers) are things that are always on display. Having done this so many times in Asia, I was very comfortable.

My interview went well. I was interviewed by a woman with whom I had spoken once previously on the phone. I had heard from other students that they only had 30 minutes to interview and that it was hard to get their message across in that time. I was aware of this as I shook her hand and sat down.

She then stared at me for four seconds.

“I have some presents for you,” I offered, at which point I opened up my little case and pulled out my updated documents. “This is my updated CV, and I’m very excited about the newest edition. I can’t wait to tell you about it.”

“Ok, then tell me.” I then told her the story of the First Aid Errors, how the job was offered to me, and that I was now a Contractor for Dr. Tao Le to manage the online site for the books. I was glad to have this out in the open early. She then began to ask me pointed questions and the tone of the interview was serious. I got the strong impression that she wanted to flush out people that didn’t know what they were doing with their life as she asked, “Why Drexel? Why Medicine? When did you decide Medicine? What will you be doing in five years? What sort of projects will you do if you come here? Explain to me exactly how your research was conducted.” And so on.

Oh, and my favorite: Why not become a writer?

I did my best to maintain eye contact, avoid looking away, and to sit with back straight and forward from the chair towards her. I have read that this makes you appear more interested and interesting. At every opportunity, I would answer in such a way as to lead the next question and in this way I was able to talk enthusiastically about things for which I had real enthusiasm. This made it easy to smile and hold her attention in a way that drew a smile from her.

And with that, she asked if I had any questions. The night before, I had prepared six questions that sounded specific but were in fact broad and I figured this would cover me, but I ended up not using them. Instead, I asked about very practical things like, “Do Drexel students take advantage of international rotations?” I knew the answer to this, but asked anyway to bring up the fact that I understand the importance of being bilingual and have plans to do a rotation in Ecuador (with Aunt Lucy and Uncle Fred) and that I have already traveled and have stories to tell you that will kill some time and make you think that I am well-rounded and interesting.

I told her about Laos and how much I loved the people. I told her about filthy, filthy Cambodia and the Killing Fields. I told her about the motorcycle trip in Vietnam with Kelly’s heroics, our first stitches, and the pictures that I’d show her if only she’d accept me. The interview ended with her telling me that they would decide later that day (or possibly on Thursday) who would be accepted and that I would know either Thursday or Friday.

So the interview was split very much in two and while I handled myself as well as I could have in the first half, I think we both enjoyed the second half much more. After this, my day was over. I then went down to the bookstore, bought Drexel stationary, and wrote her the following letter.

Dear Mrs. XXX,

As a writer, I depend on stories. There is something extra and hidden between the lines of a good story that would be harder to see if stated simply. You can imagine a much more interesting version of “he went to medical school,” for example. As an applicant, I notice when others have higher scores and I worry that someone might not see my stories tucked between my A’s and B’s. I wanted to thank you for inviting me to interview; it was my chance to show you some of the extra and hidden parts of my life that otherwise might have been missed on paper.

For Drexel, I hope to become a great story.

Sincerely, Me.

I would have mailed it, but as I said, the decision was being made later that day. I left the envelope with her secretary and caught the train back.


After working on an ulcer all day Thursday, I was called at 6:00pm. Drexel offered me a spot in their 2009 class and I took it immediately. This weekend, I fly to Las Vegas to give a speech at an Anatomy Research Congress and to share the good news with my mentors there. I’ll be giving the speech, then flying back to New York to pack up my life in Brooklyn and move to Philly.

What a ride.

Thank you, everyone, for taking an interest in my stories over the past two years. The encouragement to continue writing is what opened up so many of victory.jpgthe doors that I ended up walking through in medical school. I never could have guessed that they would have taken me here, and I wanted to celebrate this awesome thing with all of you.

Thank you so much,

Drexel University Class of 2009.


25 Responses to Embarrassment of Riches

  1. W says:


  2. whatnext says:

    huzzah!! and excelsior! (i’ve been reading strange british books lately, too….)

  3. Terry(A) says:

    /sound of raucous cheering as the crowd goes wild/

  4. Tim(U) says:

    /sound of popping corks/
    Congrats ‘Topher!

  5. Derek says:

    Awesome news. I’ve been reading your writing for a while now (starting from medschooldiary.com – which is no longer) and the entries you have shared are both entertaining and valuable to me as a pre-med student. I’ve had my share of downfalls thus far, so when I see your hard work paying off, I get inspired. Congratulations and keep it up!

  6. Dr. Robert L. Jordan says:

    Congrats Topher,

    With all your surperb educational preparation, including that received at SGU, it was a no-brainer that Drexel accept you. We look forward to great things from you there but will always consider you one of ours. Take care and best wishes…see you in Vegas…Dr.J

  7. bdf says:

    Well done, chap! Cheerio!

  8. Adam says:

    I think you left this one extra part out of your story. “I then placed ten crisp one hundred dollar bills in the thank you letter”…..left it with her secretary…..

  9. USMED says:

    One small point: after reading your blog and studying for the USMLE concurrently, I was hoping you would post your Step 1 score, so we could all enjoy your success. And I must congratulate you, because your score is higher than the average at any medical school in the US – including mine (a top school), where the average student scored 233 last year.

    However, your score, a 240 is not in the 99% – it is VERY high, yes, and probably at least in the 90%, but it is not as high as you understood it to be. Just so you know, something like a 258 is the 99%.

    I believe you mistook the “2 digit” score for a “percentile”. The 2 digit score is meaningless. Ignore it. Instead you should pay attention to the mean and standard deviations, which are usually around 215 and 23 if I remember correctly.


  10. Thanks, Phil, for the catch. I’m a moron. I have fixed the entry so it is no longer misleading.

  11. E says:

    Congrats! You’ll love it at Drexel. The IT guys already have you you on the class roster and everything, in case you are still pinching yourself. So, I take it you’ll be at orientation. You’d better pack quick. Do you know where your rotations are? E-mail me if you have any questions and I’ll try my best to answer them. Congrats again!

  12. amy says:

    congrats topher!
    i do not know much about you but i assume (according to what i’ve read on your blog) you did such a hard work, you are smart, a talented writer, and generous enough to share your stories with people….you deserve all those many good things that have happened to you.
    stay cool–

  13. D says:

    congrats.. hope you continue posting… life after Grenada!!!
    Can’t wait to hear about the transfer application process. Schools you applied to, reasons for doing so, your thought process during the time, etc….

  14. USMED says:

    Ah… so the way things stand for you now:

    240 Step 1 score + US medical school grad = absolutely ANY specialty you want to go in to. Radiology, Surgery, Ortho, Ophtho, Derm, etc. Any specialty you want. Probably wouldn’t be true if either your transfer wasn’t successful or didn’t score so well on step 1.

    Since the time you took Step 1 to the time you were accepted to Drexel, you just had a life changing couple of months. Congrats, really, congrats.


  15. Congratulations! As you know, I am a reader of this blog. Yours is also one of my first few links about USMLE when I started and attempted to blog. Cheers to you, Topher!


  16. Rani says:

    Congratulations Topher!

    You’re an extremely well-rounded individual who has done amazingly well at everything you’ve done (well since I’ve known you anyway).

    Your achievements are truly impressive and you’ve earned all the good things that have come your way through your dedication, hard work and generosity in giving back to the community.

    Best of luck in the future at Drexel.

    SGU Class of 2009.

  17. Adrian says:

    Brilliant work! Congratulations Topher, your hard work is paying off. Oh, and congratulations on landing the First Aid job (someone had to do something about that erroneous thing), that’s an amazing achievement.

  18. vrs says:

    Congratulations !!!

    If you can give a list of the US schools who accept transfer applicants from the Caribbean for the 3rd year and also the ones which have in-state residency requirements, that’d be awesome.

    At Drexel, did they interview applicants for transfer into 2nd year around the same time-frame you had your interview?

    Best of luck at Drexel !!!

  19. xoolio says:

    First, congrats on the amazing score and the admission to Drexel! Awesome!

    Second, would you mind posting your nbme/cbssa scores for comparison?

    Thanks for all the help!


  20. stuart blackwood says:

    yo….topher congrats man from a classmate one semester behind…who lived in the same house you lived in in st. vincent…i hope the genius rubs off…but more importantly…now that you are editing the First Aid….can we get a Rheumatoid pocket or what?

    congratz again

  21. anna says:

    hey topher, i used your blog while studying for the step and just read your update. i know people who have authored for first aid and i know people who have turned down authoring first aid, but either way they all come from the same school and they are all very smart. so it surprised me too to see so many errors in the book. i think its fantastic that you are shaking the complacency out of the ivy leaves!

    on another note- i just wanted to congratulate you on getting yourself to a better place. i don’t mean a better school or a better board score, but i mean a better personal place. its terrible that the med school admission process can be so arbitrary yet cause so much turmoil for a person’s confidence and ability to suceed. i’m really glad you didn’t settle and i hope that you can now truly believe that you deserve to have faith in yourself and your abilities. when i take a step back and look at your story, it occurs to me that the you could have said you transferred to yale, or ucla, or wash u or any of those “top” school and i wouldn’t have been surprised. its obvious that you’d shine at those places too. don’t forget that!

  22. Chen Le Yang says:

    Hi, Congratulations!!
    I know or rather i can understand the hard work that went into your preparation to succeed the things u did…I came acroos ur blog for the first time right now..and really liked it…Infact I just passed my final year exams last march and am doing my internship now . My school is in China and I want to take my USMLE step 1 ny nest year April…so in the process of looking for study tips i found ur blog and i liked it not becuase of the layout and the truth thats spoken here…but i also liked the fact that u actually made it so simple for other exam takers to review their USMLE step 1 bible in a correct fashion..thank u..and best of luck in everything that u u….have fun..

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