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  • Charting A Course to Medical School: PART IV

    So here you are... done with the MCAT, and probably feeling like a great deal of weight has been lifted off your shoulders. You are relieved, happy, and excited about what is about to happen next -- your application to medical school. Yes, in many ways, the worst is over, but that does not give you an excuse to let up now. In fact, you should be more vigilant than ever. You are about to make some very important decisions, decisions which will affect the rest of your life. Now let's talk about: Selecting Medical Schools.

    Where do I apply, and how do I know this medical school is for me?

    Every year, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) puts out an updated copy of Medical School Admission Requirements. The book contains valuable information regarding names, addresses, and locations of every allopathic medical school in the United States and Canada. It also contains data pertaining to every medical school, including GPA/MCAT score ranges associated with accepted students, class size, curriculum, requirements for entrance, selection factors, financial aid, class composition, tuition, et cetera. For students interested in osteopathic medical schools, there is a comparable book published by AACOM called the "Osteopathic Medical College Information Book."

    With over 125 schools to choose from, how do you know which ten or so schools best suit your hopes, expectations, and qualifications? There are a number of ways that schools can be chosen. Examine the following factors:

    1. Curriculum
    What are you interested in pursuing once in medical school? Do you want to learn mostly via traditional lectures (traditional curriculum), via classes focused on learning information arranged by organ systems (traditional systems-based learning), or by case studies of clinical problems (problem-based learning). Every medical school has a reputation for coursework or programs unique to itself.

    2. Class size/composition
    Do you want to be in a class of 200 students, 100 students, or even fewer students? What types of student have been making up the class in the past few years? What percentage are women or come from minority groups?

    3. Location
    Where do you want to be when you are studying anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, and need a break? Do you want to be somewhere cold? Warm? Rainy? Sunny? Or is there a particular state or city in which you would like to spend four or more years?

    4. Tuition and financial aid
    Is there sufficient financial aid available? Will you be able to afford tuition, fees, and books? Are there good loan and grant programs available?

    5. Cost of living
    Even if you can afford tuition, will you be able to afford the necessities, including food, clothing, and housing?

    6. Competitiveness
    Do you just want to get through medical school, or do you want to excel among your peers? Do you want grades in your classes, or do you want to be on a pass/fail system? (Yes, many medical schools are pass/fail, and one school, Yale, has no grades!)

    7. Reputation
    It cannot be denied that some schools have established national recognition in particular areas of medicine. If you are already leaning toward a certain field, this may be something to consider.

    8. Out-of-state acceptances
    You may decide that you want to attend a medical school outside of your home state. This may be particularly true if you do not come from a state with many medical schools (e.g., Maine, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho). Check the AAMC's Medical School Admission Requirements for out-of-state acceptance rates and tuition (which may vary for in-state and out-of-state students).

    9. Other
    Is there anything else about a medical school that captures your interest (your great-grandfather graduated from there, et cetera)?

    How many schools should I apply to?

    This number is up to the individual, but applying to medical school is expensive. The average per student is usually about 10 schools.

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  • Charting A Course to Medical School: PART III

    Today we will get to the topic you've all been wondering about....or stressing about: The MCAT EXAM!

    The Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, is offered twice a year, once in April and once in August. The MCAT is required by 98% of all medical schools; the other two percent of schools require other standardized tests. Applications are available through your school's health professions advisor, an office of measurement and evaluation (if your school has one), or directly through the American College Testing service. Beware: the MCAT is a rather expensive test. Fortunately, there is a fee reduction program for financially disadvantaged students.

    What does the MCAT consist of?

    The MCAT consists of four sections: physical sciences, biological sciences, verbal reasoning, and a writing sample. The testing period takes a total of approximately eight hours and is split up in the following way:

    • Verbal Reasoning, 85 minutes
    • Physical Sciences, 100 minutes
    • 50% Physics
    • 50% Chemistry
    • Writing Sample, 60 minutes
    • Biological Sciences, 100 minutes
    • 75% Biology
    • 25% Organic Chemistry

    **NOTE: The MCAT Exam will be making some changes starting in 2015. If you are planning on taking the exam then, please read more here.

    How much should I study?

    No one can really answer this question, simply because it depends upon the individual in question. If you have completed the core requirements prior to the exam, it should be fresh in your mind and you should not have to spend an exorbitant amount of time re-learning. It may be a good idea to take a diagnostic test to see in what areas you should focus your review efforts.

    How important are MCAT scores?

    Generally, the admissions committees look at many things when considering applicants. For example, they look at academic records, recommendations, and extracurricular activities, in addition to MCAT scores. Ultimately, the importance of test scores is particular to each individual school.

    Should I take the MCAT in the spring or summer?

    If you have completed all of the core requirements by spring, then definitely take the test in the spring. However, if you will not have them completed until summer, you may be better off waiting until then. The key is that you should take the MCAT as soon after you have completed the required premedical courses (general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology). If you are applying to schools for early decision, however, then the spring test time is your only option. Also, remember that most schools have rolling admissions policies, so waiting until August before your senior year may put you at a big disadvantage, as your applications will not be complete until October at the earliest. By the way, if you will have finished all of the required courses by August before your junior year, you may want to consider taking the MCAT at that time. This will give you a chance to retake the test the following April if necessary without falling behind in the application process.

    Should I take the MCAT twice?

    You should choose this option only if you did not perform up to expectations in your first testing. DO NOT EVER TAKE THE MCAT FOR "PRACTICE". Many schools count each MCAT you take, some will take your best, and some will take only the most recent -- it really varies from school to school. The MCAT registration booklet also advises students to take the test twice if there is a large discrepancy between your first score and your undergraduate grades. Are MCAT preparation courses necessary?

    The preparation courses provide a structured schedule as well as practice tests. For those who prefer to study on their own (and save money), there are many good practice books available. These books usually contain several practice tests as well as an adequate review of the subjects covered by the MCAT. The important thing is to make a review schedule and stick to it. The MCAT preparation courses are there to provide structure, not to study for you. The preparation courses do not provide information that has not already been covered in your basic science courses.

    How do I get through the MCAT day?

    Get a good night's sleep. Relax. You have studied hard! Bring number two pencils, black pens (writing sample), and a sweater. You may also want to bring food to munch on during breaks.

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  • Charting A Course to Medical School: PART II

    Today we will be exploring Extracurricular Activities

    You might ask yourself, "What does it take to become a doctor?" It takes intellectual and heart-rending endurance, the desire and ability to relate to people effectively, and especially, the competence to think logically and to use common sense. Medical schools look for evidence that demonstrates traits such as leadership, maturity, determination, inquisitiveness, and a demonstrated interest and knowledge about what medicine encompasses. This can be accomplished, in part, by having experience in a health care setting, by speaking with health care professionals who have been through it, or by getting exposure to research at the undergraduate level. Not only will involvement in extracurricular activities show your determination, it will also give you a realistic view of the medical field, enabling you to observe its shortcomings, demands, and rewards first-hand.

    If you are unable to volunteer or find a health-related job at your local hospital or clinic, there are other alternatives. Working, playing sports, or even playing a musical instrument will demonstrate your commitment to a particular activity. These activities may take large amounts of time and may help explain your lack of involvement or enthusiasm elsewhere.

    Many college students who have no other choice but to work in order to pay their expenses may find their outside employment a valuable experience and a possible source of recommendation. Nevertheless, it is important that pre-medical students maintain decent grade point averages. Outside employment is extremely time-consuming, especially for students who are already swamped with heavy course loads. This may lead to a lack of studying which will undoubtedly lead to lower grades. Many pre-professional advisors suggest that taking a semester off is often a good idea for those who have to work through school. On the other hand, many students actually find it easier to perform well in school while working a little every week; they find it gives them more structure -- that they can schedule their time more efficiently when they are forced to do so.

    There is no doubt that pre-medical students face high degrees of stress, and many students turn to sports as a means of alleviating it. Participation in team sports in particular may exhibit your ability to cooperate with others (a very important trait for a physician).

    While the personal and social traits that medical school admission committees seek in prospective applicants are difficult to measure, a display of devotion will definitely be beneficial and may increase your chances of being accepted to medical school. Nonetheless, it is crucial to point out that extracurricular involvement will not make up for low grades or low entrance exam scores.

    It is also important to remember that you should be able to develop your interests outside of medicine. Book knowledge is not the only key to becoming a good physician -- communication skills, energy, and enthusiasm are also of great importance. Through extracurricular activities, you have the opportunity to develop these skills while pursuing interests which you truly enjoy.


    Pre-medical Access to Clinical Experience (PACE)
    This guide outlines the most effective methods for securing a medically challenging patient contact experiences before medical school.

    • Begin volunteering or shadowing physicians as soon as possible. Medical school admissions committees like applicants who know what is in store for them and who know what the profession is really like. Remember: most D.O. schools require a letter from a D.O. Letters from M.D.s are not accepted in place of a letter from a D.O. For students applying to allopathic medical schools, a letter from an M.D. that you shadowed can really help you out, too. A letter from a doctor who's simply a relative or a friend of the family will not get you really far.

    • If working will make your grades suffer and you can avoid working while going to school, then do so. If you must work, try to get a job in a medical setting.

    • Get involved in things you enjoy. There is a great deal more to education than books.

    • For your extracurricular activities, quality matters, not quantity. Pick a few activities that you like and get really involved in them, instead of spreading yourself too thin.

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  • Charting A Course to Medical School: AMSA's Map for Success, PART I

    Premeds - this article is for you! This post is taken from, "Charting A Course to Medical School: The AMSA Map for Success." Written by AMSA members, this guide offers help straight from students who have followed the same route you are facing now. Over the next few weeks, we will post a complete series of articles, so follow along as we dive in and create your course to medical school! 

    What does it take to become a doctor? The most important trait is a commitment to medicine, to individuals, and to society. Dedication, determination, and devotion to helping people through medicine are of paramount importance. Without these, your training and resulting career will not be very enjoyable or rewarding. 

    The time and financial commitment involved in this pursuit can be staggering. Most students accumulate a large amount of debt while in medical school. This debt, coupled with four years of training and a variable number of years spent in residency training, can seem daunting. Yet with confidence and motivation, these will appear only secondary in importance when you consider what you are gaining in the long run. The time and financial commitment can be viewed as an investment in your future. 

    The first thing we will focus on is the timeline for the "traditional" pre-medical student. This schedule will most certainly change depending on your school and when you decide becoming a physician is for you. You should check with the health professions adviser at your school to see what the recommended schedule is for you. Also, you should check specific requirements for schools that you are especially interested in, since requirements may vary slightly. As long as you fulfill the class requirements before you take the MCAT, you should be okay. Finally, please realize that this schedule includes only the core classes that almost all medical schools want to see. Beyond these classes, it doesn't really matter what classes you take, so feel free to take whatever interests you the most. 


    First Term:

    • General Biology I + lab
    • General Chemistry I + lab
    • Calculus I, if required
    • Electives (a few easy required general education courses)

    Second Term:

    • General Biology II + lab
    • General Chemistry II + lab
    • Calculus II
    • Electives

    All Year: Get involved outside of academics, join clubs and organizations (Join your local AMSA pre-med chapter, or start a chapter at your school!)


    First Term:

    • Organic Chemistry I + lab
    • English
    • Classes for your major

    Second Term:

    • Organic Chemistry II + lab
    • English
    • Classes for your major
    • Get information about medical schools that interest you.

    All year: Start thinking about leadership positions in clubs. Be sure to start building good relations with your professors.


    First Term:

    • Physics I + lab
    • More classes for your major
    • Electives

    Second Term:

    • Physics II + lab


    • Request AMCAS and AACOMAS applications
    • Register for the MCAT
    • Begin studying for MCAT (if you haven't done so already!)
    • Start thinking about which med schools you'd like to apply to


    • Be sure to register for MCAT in time
    • Start asking for letters of recommendation
    • If you did any coursework at any schools other than your current institution, you can start submitting transcripts from those schools to AMCAS and AACOMAS at this time


    • Take the MCAT


    • Start working on your applications (start earlier than this if possible, especially on your personal statement)
    • If you wish to apply for an AMCAS or AACOMAS fee waiver, applications are accepted beginning May 15.


    • Submit your applications! Since most schools use rolling admissions policies, the earlier the better. Do NOT put this off.



    • Complete and return your secondary applications as you receive them. Some may come before this time, some may even come after.
    • Start preparing for your interviews


    • Most interviews occur during this time. Make sure you are prepared.

    March-May 15

    • If you have the luxury, take some time to choose wisely about which school to attend
    • Start seriously thinking about how you're going to pay for medical school.

    May 15

    • By this date, if you have been accepted at more than one school, you must choose just one school, and drop all others.

    • During this time many schools will try to complete their medical school class by inviting students off of their waitlist. If you are still interested in any schools at which you are waitlisted, by all means let them know!

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  • What's science got to do with it?

    by Ken Williams
    Graduate Special Student
    The Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health

    This is the first of what will be a series addressing the current state of premedical education in the United States and the debate that surrounds it. We will explore the role of the natural and social sciences, humanities, and the arts and how they relate to both the education of physicians-in-training at all levels of their schooling and to life as a doctor. With this year being the 100th anniversary of the Flexner Report, the seminal work that caused the educational requirements for physicians to be codified, it is the perfect time to ask questions about what, if anything, should be changed with the path we have to take to get into med school? Are the requirements creating better physicians? How are we measuring that?

    For the record, my first degree was in philosophy, where I focused on ethics and logics. Since then, I have studied all sorts of things: health policy, graphic design, architecture, culinary arts, religious studies, and environmental studies, among others. All of these have helped to color my current perspective on both life in general and health care specifically. I believe that they have made me a better prepared applicant for med school, even though the path has taken me quite a bit longer than most.

    What do you think about the current state of affairs for premedical education in the US? Let me know and we can explore it together over the next few months...

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