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.
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.
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.
Mia Carpiniello, Associate Director
If you’re thinking of applying to medical school, you may find the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Aspiring Docs website helpful. With fact sheets, Ask a Med Student videos, and Ask the Experts Q&As, this website provides detailed information on becoming a physician from multiple perspectives. Moreover, the Aspiring Docs Diaries blog and the Inspiring Stories interviews reveal the personal journeys and perspectives of individual pre-med students, medical students, residents and physicians.
So, in addition to meeting with your pre-med advisor in our office, we encourage you to check out Aspiring Docs for reliable information as you explore pursuing a career in medicine.
The prompt for the medical school and dental school personal statement is deceptively simple: Why do you want to be a dentist or a doctor? Yet many applicants struggle to answer the question authentically and effectively. A great deal of the consternation applicants experience results from misunderstanding the prompt. The personal statement is not a persuasive essay designed to convince the admissions committee that you really want to pursue medicine or why you will be a great dentist or doctor. It is an opportunity to share how your experiences have shaped you and to give the committee insight into what kind of student and ultimately professional you will be.
Even applicants who understand what the admissions committee is really looking for can find the personal statement difficult to write. Some people are naturally more comfortable and more skilled at introspection, and thus find reflecting about the experiences that have affirmed their desire to pursue medicine easy. However, it is fine if you are not one of those people; you will just need to devote more time and more effort towards constructing a compelling personal statement. For applicants struggling, journaling can help.
Whether you are worried that your experiences might seem too generic or you generally have trouble reflecting on them, journaling as a pre-writing exercise can make the process of writing your personal statement easier. If you are struggling to get started, spend five or ten minutes each day free writing about your experiences at Penn—coursework, clinical volunteering, research, extracurricular activities. Think about how these experiences helped you grow intellectually, emotionally, and professionally. Reflect on moments where you felt moved and motivated or confident and excited about your future profession. Ponder your personal strengths and how they have manifest themselves in your work at Penn. Describe specific experiences vividly and articulate your emotions as clearly as possible in writing. Set a timer and give yourself permission to stop after your time is up. No one will ever see this document (you do not even necessarily need to re-read it yourself to benefit from it), so allow yourself to reflect unselfconsciously. You will be amazed by how much progress you can make and how close you will be to a good topic for the personal statement, with relatively little effort and stress. Starting early and with a low-stakes and low-pressure form of writing may seem silly but for applicants intimidated by the personal statement, it is easier than attempting to craft the essay from scratch. And as always, if you need assistance, feel free to meet with your pre-health advisor by scheduling an appointment.