Pre-med to med school – 6 steps to help you succeed

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Students in scrubs on placement in Europe The days of a good GPA and high MCAT scores being your entree into medical school have been replaced by a highly competitive environment that yields a shrinking number of seats to students seeking admission.  You should start planning your pre-med journey early in your undergraduate career. Here are six key points to plan strategically for success.

1. Plan your undergraduate coursework

Gain a sense of what courses you need not only to fulfill your degree, but also those that will enhance your chances when applying to medical school.  This is critical because you not only have to fulfill your degree requirements, but plan the many other activities needed to gain admission.  Building a timeline and establishing a schedule helps insure you fulfill not only academic requirements, but outside activities as well. Having a sense of when you will register for what courses will be helpful in doing that.

For the biology or chemistry major, requirements will overlap with the pre-requisites for medical school. However, not all pre-med students elect to major in science.   Non-science majors must factor in the additional coursework needed to meet entrance requirements.

Reach out to school counselors for advice to insure your plan is comprehensive.  Balance classes across semesters so that you mix lighter and more difficult courses evenly.  It is unrealistic to take calculus, physics, organic chemistry and microbiology in the same semester without your GPA (or you) suffering.  One exception is taking the MCAT.  If taken during the school year, allow for study time by taking a lighter load.

2. Prepare for the MCAT early

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is considered by many to be the most difficult exam a college student will ever face. More students take the test every year than there are available seats for medical school.  Because your MCAT score is one of the major criteria for medical school acceptance, most students find it helpful to take a preparatory course.  Find out from other students what course they chose.  There may be some expense involved, so factor cost when budgeting.  A trial test can be extremely helpful to give you added insight to concentrate on courses that will enhance your chances when taking the actual test.

In addition to math and science, the MCAT includes a humanities or verbal reasoning section that can be more challenging for non-native English speakers.  Developing verbal reasoning skills that create a foundation to deal with complex information are not gained by taking a single course.  You should plan time to develop skills by reading articles, editorials, and literary reviews along with other humanities texts.

Be strategic when it comes to planning when you will take the MCAT. You must take it far enough in advance of applying to medical school for your scores to be available.  Also, allow time to re-take it if you do not achieve the desired scores on your first attempt.

3. Invest in LOR writers

You will need to submit Letters of Recommendation (LORs) with your application.  If you go to a professor with whom you had little interaction or several years have passed since you took their course, it will be difficult for them to draft a compelling letter on your behalf. To avoid this, consider who among your professors or physicians you interact with you will ask for LORs and establish a rapport.  Seek their advice and make them aware of your career plans; maintain contact with them so that when it comes time to ask for LORs, they can provide a personalized and compelling recommendation.

4. Clinical experience

Do not leave gaining clinical experience until your third or fourth year.  Medical school has become highly competitive and demonstrating commitment through clinical experience is another important consideration. Admissions committee members will be looking for consistency.  You should maintain somewhere around four hours per week over the course of your undergraduate career.

Board members are insightful and will be able to differentiate between students who have been consistent and those whose experience is superficial.  You should seek a wide range of settings, including outpatient ambulatory care as well as in-patient settings.  However, maximize the time you spend in a primary care setting where you will encounter a broad range of experiences to include on your application and much to expand on when asked about your experience during personal interviews.  Working in a clinic that caters to an underserved population is viewed with particular favor.  The clinical setting is another opportunity to forge relationships you can tap when it comes time for LORs.

5. Plan outside activities, community service, research, leadership

Commitment to community will put you in a favorable light.  Again, seeking opportunities to work with underserved populations such as a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter will round out your application. Identify organizations for which you can volunteer.

Plan to have at least a year of research experience.  As you take courses, seek out professors to learn what research you can become involved in.  If the school you attend has a medical school, ask professors for suggestions.

Acting in a leadership capacity, such as becoming an officer of a club will make a good impression on your application and during the interview stage of applying for medical school.  Keep in mind leadership is not measured by the title you hold but by accomplishments.  For example, working in a volunteer capacity to bring attention to the importance of healthy diet among college students or doing community outreach to increase awareness of safe sex is more meaningful than taking the role of an officer where your involvement is to plan socials.  Working independently or with peers to achieve a social initiative also reflects favorably.  Your pre-med CV should reflect a commitment to the medical profession.

6. Maintain balance

Time, hard work, commitment and effort are required to navigate your undergraduate journey.  However, you should not let the demands prevent you from making time for personal interests and having some fun!  Outlets such as sports, art, and music are important to create balance and add texture to the undergraduate experience.  Admissions board members favor students who are well rounded and have interesting ideas and experiences that make them stand out as unique.  Plan your journey with the result in mind!

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