Spring Primary Preparation

Spring is in the air! The trees are blooming, and the weather is warming. For those of you preparing to apply to medical and dental school, however, spring signals the beginning of a long and stressful application process. This checklist will help you prepare your primary so that you can start strong and take some time to relax and enjoy your spring.

Before planning, it is important to understand the application cycle. Medical and dental school applications contain three sequential parts. 1) the primary, which is the centralized and universal online application that is delivered to all the schools to which you apply 2) the secondaries, which are the school specific essays, and your committee packet containing your letters of recommendation 3) and the interview. Medical and dental school admissions is rolling, and applications are evaluated as they are received, so the timing of your primary matters. Aim to be ready to submit in the first few weeks of June by completing the following steps this spring.

  1. Take the MCAT/DAT. The MCAT is an important component of your primary application, and in most cases needs to be taken by May. Since the scores take around thirty days to post, a May test date allows you to submit the primary after you have your score but still within our recommended timeline of the first two-three weeks of June. Many applicants find it too stressful and time consuming to complete their courses, study for the MCAT, and prep their application materials. If you feel too burnt out or you have not had enough time to study, don’t hesitate to postpone your test date, and your application. You will feel better and be a stronger applicant if you have given yourself adequate time to study. The timing of DAT is more flexible, but you should generally try to complete it by June to ensure a timely application.
  2. Work on your personal statement. The personal statement is the first opportunity schools have to get to know you and your motivations for medicine. Get a jump start on it by spending a couple of minutes each day writing about your experiences in college and your reasons for pursuing medicine in a journal. Once you have a draft, submit it to your advisor for review.
  3. Choose your schools. Your school list needs to be decided by the time you submit the primary. Many factors go into choosing schools, from location, curriculum, cost, class size, and culture. Use the Medical School Admissions Requirements or the ADEA Dental School Explorer as well as Penn’s statistics to get a sense the range of schools you might apply to, but recognize that MCAT and GPA are only part of the application criteria. Have your advisor review your school list if you have questions or concerns.
  4. Plan for your secondary essays. Once a school receives your primary they will send you a secondary applications to complete. Depending on the number of schools to which you applied you could be faced with a busy July and early August. Set aside some time in your calendar to tackle these essays in a timely manner.
  5. Mark your calendars. Familiarize yourself with the deadlines for Penn’s committee letter process. Meeting these deadlines will ensure you can request your committee packet early. If you have questions about the deadlines and requirements for the committee letter, reach out to our office.
  6. Take care of yourself and each other. Make time to do whatever relaxes and energizes you. Go to the gym, have lunch with a friend, spend an evening re-watching your favorite show. Check in with your friends who are going through the process.

The application process is stressful. There are a lot of moving parts, and completing them well and in a timely matter is important. I hope this helps you prioritize your tasks, so that you can start the application season off right, but don’t forget to take some time to enjoy the nice weather!

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.

The AAMC’s Aspiring Docs Website: A Reliable Online Resource for PreMed Students

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.

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.


To Take a Gap Year or Not to Take a Gap Year? That is the (Common Pre-Med/Pre-Dental) Question.

Mia Carpiniello, Associate Director

Are you considering taking time in between college and medical or dental school? You’re not alone. Taking a “gap year” or even multiple “gap years” before embarking on professional school has become increasingly popular. Students often wonder what they can or should do during their one or more gap years. There are many options, as the list of 2015-2016 gap year experiences on our pre-med website indicates.

Ultimately, the decision whether or not to take a gap year is a personal one. The pre-health advising team in Career Services is here to talk through this decision with you as you plan for medical or dental school. In the meantime, check out this interesting article from The Atlantic about one person’s decision to take a gap year before starting an MD/PhD program.