Yesterday (since I’m writing this after 12 Midnight on Sunday), I found a post on City-Data.com, in the New Jersey Forum, asking for insight on how to apply to medical school. Having advised students at the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy, especially those who decided mid-stream that they wanted med. school rather that pharmacy, I posted the following.
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I’m answering this as a past academic dean and adviser for students at the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy.
The process starts early and needs to begin with the student understanding what s/he is preparing to do and the time and effort that it will take to attain their goals.
This starts in high school with an effort by the student to challenge him or herself in courses that go beyond the minimum requirements to graduate. AP courses in Biology, Chemistry, and Calculus would be a few areas to focus on. However, I would strongly urge these students to take time to pursue coursework in areas like the Humanities so they can provide proof that they are not just “regurgative” test takers. Obviously strong grades in the sciences and mathematics are going to be important in the application process for any college. But a consistency of strong grades across disciplines will go a long way in helping any student to be a successful applicant to a college.
Keep in mind that an application to a college or university is going to be judged on the “complete person,” not just the grades attained, GPA, and Rank in Class. Thus, students need to be active and involved in the world around them. Volunteer activities, part time work (not necessarily in a hospital or medical-oriented venue), extra-curricular activities, etc. are all going to help to show an admissions committee that the applicant is capable of balancing school work with being a real person.
What Type of School To Apply To
Too often students are mis-guided by well-intentioned HS guidance counselors, family members, and family friends who think they are helping by recommending the student pursue application to a pharmacy program in advance of med. school. Without question however this is some of the worst advice. Why?
1) All pharmacy programs of study now are doctoral programs. Thus, if a student is admitted directly out of high school, such as to the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy, the student will be studying for six years and attained a terminal professional degree. Most pharmacy schools, however, require four professional years of study and application to the program requires a minimum of two years of college coursework to have been completed. Several programs will only seriously consider applicants who have already attained a bachelors degree.
2) Frankly, the coursework in a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) Program is intended to prepare the student for life as a pharmacist in a hospital or industrial setting. Any focused content in Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Pharmacokinetics, and drug therapy from pharmacy school is not going to help you excel in med. school where the focus is on systems, structures, and forms of the human body.
Thus, I strongly encourage those thinking about med. school to look carefully at colleges and universities that will provide a deep, strong major in one of the sciences such as biology or chemistry. Don’t get hung-up on whether or not a college has a “pre-med” program. While it may be helpful in regard to specialized advising and the possibility to network with students and faculty at med. schools, having a transcript that screams “pre-med” as your major or option isn’t going to make or break the student’s application to med. school as I’ll explain later.
Within NJ, any of the public or private colleges are fine.
Once an applicant has been admitted to a college or university, s/he needs to manage their academic career. This means being smart enough to understand two realities:
1) whatever was learned in an Advanced Placement (AP) science or math course or even in so-called college coursework taken while in high school is not going to successfully prepare the student for the expectations of the faculty in departments in college,
2) while students may have been big fish in small ponds in high school, they are going to have to work their tails off in college to be even #2. This is because colleges can afford to be picky in whom they admit today and they are only interested in admitting the most aggressive, voracious type of student. As I’ve said to newly admitted students before, “You may have been number one in your high school. Today, the room is filled with former number ones. Let’s see who really is number one in this group.”
With this in mind, I strongly recommend to all incoming students to deny any college credit that may be offered to you for AP work or college courses taken in high school. This includes credit for courses like English or Calculus. If you really are perfect in your knowledge of the subject, you can spend time learning how the faculty teach the course content and figure out what best practices you need to use to study in college. Many times, the study habits and skills that made a student successful in high school will fail miserably in college because the content is more in-depth, requires greater skill in understanding nuances, and overall is far more challenging because the faculty expect more of college students. In many instances, however, students find out that the content of college courses, such as Biology I and II, is far more detailed than what they learned in the AP courses. As such, they desperately need to catch up on what they were not taught in high school. This becomes abundantly clear after the first exam where they are usually two or three points from a “D” or “F.”
Students in college should connect early with med. schools to figure out exactly what is needed to be considered for admission consideration. This includes the courses sought, the grades, the GPA, preferred types of letters of recommendation, outside activities, and the MCAT scores. Over the course of the students’ next four years, they need to make certain they are able to attain all of these things and bring them together so when they apply to the med. school, they can do so early and with the comfort level of knowing what they are doing.
Applying to Med. School
The applicant to med. school needs to be well-rounded (and I don’t mean that they have packed on the Freshman Forty). They need to prove through their application that they are mature, capable of handling incredibly stressful situations and detail-oriented. They also need to show that they are fully willing and able to commit another six years of their life to training and preparation for their ultimate goal. The applicant does this by having an application packet that profiles them in just this way. Their grades in all coursework – not just the sciences – will be strong and consistent. They will show a commitment to medicine through the internships and part-time work they have conducted while an undergraduate. It will continue with strong letters of recommendation, preferably from alumni of the med. school who are “recognized” in their field. This is especially true if the applicant is looking to get into a specialty area such as dermatology, pediatrics, orthopaedics, OB/GYN, psychiatry or the like. If the applicant is looking at ER surgery, having connections will help, but the real proof takes place post-graduation. Even if an applicant is looking to ultimately get into general practice, having letters of recommendation from specialists who have graduated from the school are helpful.
But for most med. schools, the MCAT scores are going to be the most critical aspect of the application. This is because it will help to confirm the trend in grades, the course content completed, and the (hopefully) glowing letters of recommendation. Unlike the SATs which only tell a reviewer that the applicant sat in a room for four hours and filled in a bunch of circles, the MCATs are much more a baseline to adjudge applicants against each other.
The fore-going information is provided solely as guidelines for anyone seeking admission. At no time should this be construed as the “Magic Bullet” or “perfect directions” to gain admission anywhere.
Please feel free to continue to ask questions as it is the best way for any applicant to understand what is needed for an application to be reviewed.