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!

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.

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.