Handling Mistakes in Your (Pre-) Medical Education

Pre-medical students hold themselves to very high standards.  This is not a bad thing – they have chosen a career that requires dedication to excellence and carries significant responsibilities.  While not universally true, many are very hard on themselves when they fall short, whether it’s an unanticipated low grade, turning up late for an appointment, or a simple miscommunication.  In Academic Medicine’s blog, AM Rounds, Dr.  Will Bynum, MD, relates a mistake he made as a resident, an unintended laceration, in “To Pull Back the Curtain on Shame in Medical Education, I Had to Start with Myself.” He also shares a link to a study of shame experiences in medical residents noting possible “factors that may contribute to shame—factors that could be that could be addressed to mitigate its destructive potential—including perfectionism, comparisons to others, fear of judgment, and self-evaluating through a ‘skewed frame of reference.’”

Consider shame-triggering events in your pre-medical education.  Nobody is perfect, and learning to face and work through mistakes and weaknesses in a healthy way is great preparation for your continued education.  Rather than seeing aspects of your application as a “black” or “red” flag to admissions committees, consider how you think of these things.  There is real value in being able to talk about them in a way that shows you are ready to work through the inevitable disappointments and difficulties of your professional life, without cringing and being fearful that someone will see them.  At Graduate & Professional School Advising we are happy to sit with you and talk about aspects of your application or preparation that may be concerning you.   

What is the Deal with Postbac?

Carol Hagan, Associate Director

You may have heard other students talking about postbac, or are thinking about it yourself in a preliminary way.  It can be confusing because “postbac” is something people undertake for different reasons and in varied ways.  Here is a quick primer on postbac:

  • “Postbac” is short for post-baccalaureate and refers to classes you take after receiving your bachelor’s degree.  It is not the same thing as enrolling in a graduate program and working towards a degree like an MPH or MA.
  • Pre-health alumni take postbac classes for two reasons.  Either they need to take classes to fulfill requirements for health professions schools and/or they want to take additional courses beyond the requirements to demonstrate their academic ability and raise their GPA.
  • Postbac classes can be taken as a non-matriculated student or in a formal postbac program.  “Non-matriculated” simply means that you are not enrolled in a graduate program; you are taking classes “a la  carte” as it were.  Some alumni call this “Do it Yourself Postbac.”
  • The decision between a formal postbac program and independent classes is an individual one.  People choose a path based upon their reason for doing postbac classes, the number they may want to take, their geographic location, and budget.
  • “But don’t medical schools prefer a program at certain schools?”  Medical schools prefer to see you building a strong application and making good personal choices.  It’s important that you do very well in the classes and one institution may be better than another for that to happen.  Also, health professions schools understand that you may want to pursue your goals in a way that minimizes your expenses.  They will not question a sound financial decision.
  • You can find postbac programs in the AAMC’s Postbaccalaureate Premedical Programs database.  Filter your search to find programs aimed at fulfilling the requirements (“Career Changer”) or boosting your academic credentials (“Academic Record Enhancer”).  Contact the individual programs if you have questions about your eligibility, previous coursework, or to see if they serve pre-dental and pre-veterinary students.

Knowing the basics and accessing information about postbac is a starting point.  You may have questions about which option is better for you.  Sometimes it isn’t clear.  You can always make an appointment, in person or on the phone, with a pre-health advisor through Handshake to discuss your plan.  Know that many Penn alumni have pursued postbac studies with success, taking different routes that worked with their post-graduation lives.

New Guides for MCAT Prep!

Carol Hagan, Associate Director

Introducing the New AAMC Guide: “How to Create a Study Plan for the MCAT Exam”

The AAMC has new, free resource for people planning to take the MCAT, which breaks the planning process down into detailed, manageable steps. The guide includes links to the AAMC’s MCAT information and study tools in addition to information to help you budget your time and money in the process.

One of the strengths of the guide is the emphasis it places on individualized planning and assessment. We know that Penn students prepare in many different ways, using various study tools and following unique study schedules — what works for one person is not going to work for everyone. All the same, it can be helpful to hear what others have done.

In addition to talking with your friends and mentors, you can consult “How I Prepared for the MCAT Exam” to hear others’ experiences. These personal stories portray a range of successful test takers, sharing their study plans and offering their advice to those getting underway.

Thinking About Graduate School? Keeping Your Thoughts in a Box.

Carol Hagan, Associate Director

In the early stages of thinking about graduate school you will probably spend a lot of time searching the internet. Unlike the process of applying to undergraduate schools where you had tons of information at your fingertips and could spend days taking campus tours, the process of learning about graduate programs is less structured. This is particularly so if you aren’t pursuing a professional degree, say in medicine or law, but rather something more specific or interdisciplinary. Even if you are able to find a list of graduate programs in your area of interest, it can be hard to discern why you would apply to one rather than another.

The information you gather about graduate school will come from multiple sources including program websites, professional organizations, conversations with faculty mentors, and informational interviews. For this reason, it can be very useful to keep notes and store your information in one place. Some people like to create a file on their computer and others have dedicated notebooks. Personally, I like to use a single big box for things like this and just toss my papers, brochures and notes into it without putting too much energy into organization in the early stages. Whatever works for you. If you see an interesting program online, you can print out the homepage. If you talk to a professor about graduate schools options, save your notes in the same place. If you browse LinkedIn to look for alumni with the same graduate degree, keep your findings.

This process can take weeks, months, even years. It’s easy to read information online and then forget the details later. If someone gives you two names of people you can talk to — the names go into the file and not to the bottom of your bag or lost in your email. Plan for the process to take some time and for the information you need to be in multiple places. Keeping everything organized will lessen the anxiety that can come with undertaking something relatively unstructured and help you a great deal when you transition from gathering information about graduate school to preparing applications.

Should I Be a Doctor if I Don’t Like My Science Classes?

Carol Hagan, Associate Director

One or two times a month, an advisee will share with me their dislike of their science classes and wonder if they should continue on the path towards medical school.  There is not an easy or quick answer to this question and it’s a great discussion to have with your pre-health advisor or important people in your life. 

First, elaborate on what it means to “not like your sciences classes.”  How many classes have you taken?  Is it one class or all of them?  Is it only lecture classes or labs and seminars as well?  Did you like science in high school?  Is it that you like the material, but not the exams?  Do you like the classes, but would like them a lot more if they were smaller or there was less grade pressure?  Do you dislike the classes because you feel you are not doing well (and are you being too hard on yourself or are you truly struggling)? 

It is quite common for students to be a great fit for medicine and not like all their science classes.  Some people really do not like physics or chemistry, but are genuinely excited about physiology or neuroscience.  Many people dislike the high stakes exams, but adore classes that integrate projects and readings from current journals.

Occasionally, students don’t like their science classes because they are conflicted about pursuing a medical career, or truly do not want it.  Maybe they used to want it, or a parent wants it, or they have some other career interest tugging on them.  If your heart isn’t in the long-term goal of working in healthcare, it can be very difficult to engage with the challenging scientific coursework.

If you are someone who confidently feels that you don’t like science at all, then you need to reconcile this with your desire to become a doctor.  Medicine is a scientific career.  You will undertake demanding studies in science in medical school and devote yourself to life-long learning in the sciences.  Nearly all of the students we work with who go on to medical school demonstrate enthusiasm for science.  It may be that there is another career that will encompass the aspects of medicine that attract you, but without the significant amount of scientific training. 

As always, you can make an appointment with a pre-health advisor to talk through this question by calling 215.898.1789.