It’s that time of year again!

By Anne Reedstrom

No, I’m not referring to the beginning of spring or men’s and women’s NCAA basketball (Go Big 10!), but to Advance Registration.

Over the next couple of weeks, you will be pondering what the future might have in store for you, at least through next fall. If you think that future might include health professions school, there are things that you need to keep in mind.

Juniors: Get ready to embark upon your final year of undergrad! Think about the classes you need to take in order to finish things up – not just your pre-health requirements, but any classes in your major or pesky sector requirements that remain. The time may have come to finally face the monster that is Organic Chemistry Lab, but don’t let the dread ruin your senior year – you’ll do just fine. Lots of you will even end up liking it by the time you are done. No, I’m not kidding. This is also the time to make room in your course schedule for that irksome second English class – anything in the English or Comparative Literature Departments (or a cross-listing) will take care of it.

Sophomores: Soldier on, you’re halfway there. If you haven’t already had a semester where you doubled up in the sciences, now is the time to consider it. You’ve got a good handle on how to study for those hard classes and know about the multitude of resources available to help get you through, so go ahead and schedule something alongside Physics or Organic Chemistry. You will be juggling multiple science classes in medical or dental school, so this is good practice for the future, as well as a chance to show admissions committees (and yourself!) that you can handle it. Luckily, you’ll be able to balance your schedule with the really interesting upper-level classes in your major, now that you’ve declared one.

Freshpeople/First Years: You’ve almost made it through one whole year of college! Congratulations! Planning for the second year is pretty straightforward – take some more science. That’s it. No…that’s not it. Yes, you should take more science classes – move on to whichever one you want to take next; there is no specific order in which you should take them, excepting, of course, General Chemistry before Organic Chemistry. I like to point out the obvious. Beyond that, you should think about finishing up with whatever math might remain or scheduling a writing seminar if you didn’t already take one this year. Keep exploring those subjects that are interesting to you and knock out some more sector requirements while figuring out just what is exciting enough to make you want to major in it. The most important thing to remember, though, is to be reasonable in what you are expecting of yourself in a semester. If you’re still not really confident in your science classes yet, don’t double up or increase your course load to 5.5+ c.u.s. As far as being pre-health goes, you’ve still got a lot of time and it is better to take things slowly and do well than to rush and perform below your expectations and abilities.


While there are a great many things to think about when planning your schedule, there are also a lot of resources here at Penn to help you out. If you want to talk through or develop your plans go and see your advisor, a peer mentor, a sympathetic faculty member, or your friendly, neighborhood pre-health advisor! We have walk-ins weekly on Wednesday afternoons from 2.00-4.00pm and there will be a special session of walk-ins on Thursday, April 3rd from 12.00-1.30.

Why do I have to do clinical volunteering?

by Anne Reedstrom

As I make my way home on the bus, it occurs to me that I answer a ton of questions in any given day. Students often preface their question with “I know it’s a stupid question, but…” There are no stupid questions. Really. There’s no shame in not knowing something and asking someone to explain it to you. I eat and have an apartment and a TiVo because you have questions and I can help you find the answers. There is, however one question that I dislike. Not because it is a stupid question or because I get asked it every day, but because the question itself surprises me.

“Why do I have to do clinical volunteering?” This is the granddaddy of them all. But there are also its relatives:

Cousin Bob: “Do I have to, really?”

Nephew Pete: “But you don’t really learn anything, do you? That’s what my friend’s sister’s roommate’s dog said, anyway.”

Sister Sue: “I shadowed once, for two hours, in high school. Shouldn’t that count?”

And its most evil of relatives to which I dare not give a name: “Do I have to do more of that pointless volunteering?”

I cringe just writing those sentences.

The answer to all of them is yes, a resounding, reverberating, shout it from the rooftop of Rodin and risk some facilities people running after you with clubs, YES.

The other simple answer is “because it’s good for you,” but that’s what my mother always told me about eating peas, and I won’t touch the things. Gross.

Still another simple answer is because it is important for admission to medical school. Not everything you do needs to be because medical schools want you to, but this is an important component to your application.

So what’s the real answer? You should volunteer in a way which brings you into contact with patients in a medical setting, even in a limited way. You should do this because this will help you confirm that you want to spend all day, every day around cranky sick people. It will help you become more familiar and comfortable in medical facilities. You will learn about what nurses and other medical staff do, see how hard they work and, hopefully, develop an appreciation of their efforts, which will be important during your clerkships, since the nurses know it all and you know nothing. It’s also not a bad idea to experience life at the bottom of the food chain. You will strengthen your communication skills, or perhaps discover that you do have some, and begin to learn how to establish a rapport with patients. These are all invaluable skills that you will need as a physician. And, medical schools want to see that you have explored the profession and aren’t entering into this endeavor blindly, or just because your parents want you to. In other words, it is important for admission to medical school.

So why is this my least favorite question of the hundreds of questions I get asked? Because deep down inside me, as an educator and, despite my reputation as the “Mean One,” someone who cares about you and your successes, I want you to want to gain this kind of experience and it depresses me when you don’t. I want you to realize the value of it and how much you can learn. I want you to be excited about being in a hospital, whether it’s the cardiac floor or the ED, and become inspired by the work of the doctors and nurses you observe. I want you to see the patients as people and want to help them, even if you can only get them a blanket, some water, or the nurse.

I know you’re busy. You’re Penn students; you’ve got a fair bit going on in your lives. Even still, I want you to want to make the time to educate yourself and help others all in one fell swoop.

Ultimately, it is good for you, like peas and the other green vegetables I eat instead of them, and I want you to want it because, selfishly, I want you to be the best medical students and doctors you can be.

Who Are You?

by Anne Reedstrom


Whether this phrase immediately brings to your mind the classic sounds of The Who, the world of CSI (Las Vegas version), or simply sessions with your therapist, it is an important question to ask yourself when preparing to write a personal statement for your application to a health professions or law school.

Your personal statement is a chance to answer this question and give admissions committees insight into your personal qualities, abilities, characteristics, and skills which might be relevant to your field. I don’t mean that you should write an autobiography along the lines of “My name is Anne, I am X years old (I’m so not going to tell you the actual number), I grew up in Minnesota and studied Modern Languages as an undergraduate.” That’s not particularly helpful to anyone and will likely make you sound like a much more boring person than you are. That sentence certainly doesn’t do me any justice!

Dig a little deeper and provide the reader with more than a list of facts or accomplishments; these are the kinds of things that you can showcase on the actual application or the résumé you submit. Give them something they can’t get from your other application materials – you can’t really convey compassion, determination, meticulousness, organizational or communication skills on a résumé. But you can in a personal statement if you relate an experience, something in which you were an active participant, which demonstrates how you developed or used those qualities in a real-life situation.

When I talk to people about this, some know immediately what they want to write about – either the qualities they want to emphasize or the story they want to tell. Others struggle a little more, I think, for a couple of reasons. You have been doing a specific kind of writing since you came to college and only rarely has it been expressive or personal in any way. We’re actually taught to remove ourselves from academic writing and it can be a challenge to now be faced with a situation in which you are the subject of the essay. Some of us find it difficult to write about ourselves in an overtly positive way or even to identify positive traits we have – after all, our mothers taught us not to boast or be conceited (some were more successful than others).

These are the reasons that Peter, Todd, Carol and I are here to help you. We’re happy to help you reflect on your experiences, read what you’ve written and fill the pages with red ink. No, wait, that last one’s just me. Seriously, we are an excellent resource and hope that you will let us help you answer one of life’s great questions:

Well, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
I really wanna know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
Tell me, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
‘Cause I really wanna know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)*

*Words and music by Pete Townshend