Clinical Volunteering Abroad: Know Your Boundaries

As a pre-medical or pre-dental student, visiting another country to volunteer in a clinic can be a valuable, even life-changing experience that strengthens your commitment to medicine and teaches you about patient care in a different cultural or economic context.  If you are interested in serving communities abroad and learning more about global health issues, clinical volunteer work in another country is a great idea!  There are, however, some points to “know before you go.”
1.  It is not necessary to volunteer abroad to get into medical school; in fact, a week or two in a clinic abroad without medically-related service work in your local community or the U.S. can raise doubts about your commitment to serving others.

2.  Evaluate the organization or program carefully before you commit.  How long has it been in operation?  Have you talked to anyone who has participated in the past?  What plan is in place should you fall ill or are injured?

3. Consider your budget when looking at programs as well as less expensive ways to volunteer that might be equally interesting to you.  Some opportunities can be extremely expensive.

4. A good clinical volunteer experience is not the one where you are allowed to do the work of trained physicians and dentists.  When volunteering abroad, your level of training may be vastly overestimated by staff and patients.  Consider carefully whether you, as a patient, would want an untrained volunteer giving you medical advice or performing procedures such as pulling teeth or conducting hands-on exams.  Show respect for patients by knowing your limits before you go abroad and expect that you may be asked or invited to perform duties beyond what you might do at a clinic at home.

Read: An interesting ethical case study on the AMA’s website, “Limits on Student Participation in Patient Care in Foreign Medical Brigades,” profiles a third-year medical student who sutured incisions without supervision.

It may seem necessary to volunteer abroad to build a strong application, but it isn’t the case.  Also, you may despair that your clinical volunteer work will not impress admissions committees because you “didn’t get to do a lot of hands on stuff” that other students have reported from their experiences.  Know that professionals on admissions committees are troubled by applicants who appear to have put themselves before the patient by taking on care beyond their training.

Having the above in mind while searching for a clinical volunteer experience can help you find a “good fit” for what is sure to be a rewarding, exciting, and educational time in the field.

Tick, tick, tick…Timing Your Application to Medical School

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Is time finite and structured?  Or, is it flexible, even fluid?  Scientific and philosophical considerations aside, from the point of view of a pre-health advisor, it depends on whether you are applying to medical school this year or not.  The application process begins more than a year before you enter medical school with lots of deadlines to meet.  Once you decide to apply, time is not on your side.  You may hope that if you are accepted you can defer admission, but it is the rare circumstance in which a medical school grants you an extra year before beginning your studies (p.s. come talk to a pre-health advisor about this if you are counting on a deferral).  You may expect the clinical experience and grades you get after you submit your application to make a difference.  This is not a great strategy, unless you truly believe that admissions folks have the time to continually review your application along with the thousands of others they receive.

Before you apply, on the other hand, you can take as much time as you need to build your application or do things that are not directly related to medical school.  Everyone is different.  Some people go to the medical school right after they graduate and that’s fine; however, there is nothing inherently “better” about going straight to medical school.  The best time to apply to medical school is when your application is strong and you are committed to beginning your training to become a physician.

Here are some points to consider:

1.  The application you submit, is the application that is reviewed. It is not a wise strategy to submit your application thinking that you will update the schools with all the great things you are going to do over the next year.  By all means, stay active while you are in the process of applying and talk about your experiences if you are fortunate enough to have an interview, but don’t assume someone will revisit your application when you email those great fall grades or that extra letter of recommendation.  A pre-health advisor can’t tell you whether you will get into medical school or not, but he or she can talk with you about the strengths and weakness of your application as well as the challenges of the admissions process.

2. Applying a second time to medical school can be challenging (not to mention expensive).  If you turn around and apply the next year the schools are less likely to ask, “Who is this?” than “What’s different this time?”

3.  Applying later in the application process puts you at a disadvantage.  Yes, the official application deadline may be in October; however, if you submit your application then your chances of receiving an interview are considerably smaller than if you have applied by mid-summer.

4.  Take the MCAT when you are prepared.  This is not a test you want to “take a shot at.”  Is it realistic to take the MCAT, start a new job, take two science classes, and find a new place to live in the same month?  From what I’ve seen, it is not.  It’s also worth noting that you don’t want to take the MCAT too early.  If you are planning to take a significant amount of time before applying to medical school, check schools’ policies regarding the oldest MCAT that is acceptable.

5. Time spent strengthening your application is not a “black hole” or a personal failure.  Taking some more time may not have been your plan.  It may be, as I’ve heard students say, that you “have no idea what you would do” with that time.  As pre-health advisors we present taking some time as an option, but it’s always your choice.  Thinking through the possibility allows you to make an informed decision about the possible benefits and risks.

6. Is there anything that you, personally, want to do before you begin medical school?  Once you enter medical school, and then the medical profession, the demands on your personal time will be significant.  If there is another career you want to explore, a different call to serve that you wish to answer, or a desire to pursue a personal, non-academic experience, you may want to give yourself time to do that before making your commitment to becoming a doctor.

Keep in mind, of course, that you can make time to meet with a pre-health advisor by appointment or during walk-in hours. We never take time off!  (Unless we are buried in snow, like today.)

C is for Cookie…but is it Good Enough for Me?

Sesame Street meets Aida in this epic meditation on the “C.”  Cameo by the blue monster himself at 2:37.

A new year and semester are upon us!  Judging from the crowded waiting areas at Career Services, many of you are taking stock and planning for the future.  Part of this process may be making peace with the past.  If you’re a premedical student then you probably know what I’m getting at.  That “C” from freshman year.  Maybe those grades in physics.  Perhaps you’ve been moving along the premedical path for a while, feeling that your grades aren’t quite strong enough.  Rather than fretting about the less-than-stellar aspects of your GPA, or denying that they exist, we at Career Services invite you to take a square look at them.  Many premedical students find it very helpful to come in for an appointment and talk about their concerns.

In the meantime, here are a few thoughts about grades that you may find helpful.

A single “C” on your transcript is not likely to keep you out of medical school. Grades are very important in the admissions process, but they do not need to be perfect.  Although you may be extremely disappointed in a single grade, admissions committees are looking at the big picture.  If you made a C- or lower in a class required by medical schools then you should speak with a pre-health advisor.  To fulfill the requirements, you should earn a grade of “C” or higher.

You can visit our office and review statistical information to gain a sense of how your grades compare with those of other Penn students and students nationwide who have been admitted to medical school.  Doing so may not tell you your “chances” of being admitted (as it’s so often put), but it will make you more informed.

Instead of feeling bad about your grades, think about what’s behind them. Are you setting unrealistic standards for yourself?  Are you taking on too much coursework or too many extracurricular activities?  Do you have anxiety when you sit for an exam?  Are you ambivalent about your pre-medical path?  Did you just not “click” with your professor and TA?  If you can sort out what is behind the grades, then you are more likely to take positive and productive action.  Some students find it helpful to meet with a pre-health or academic advisor, visit Counseling and Psychological Services, make an appointment at the Weingarten Learning Resources Center, or utilize the services of The Tutoring Center on campus.

If you suspect your grades are going to hurt your chances of gaining admission to medical school, take time to evaluate. Proceeding along the premedical path thinking, “I’ll see how next semester goes,” without reflecting upon your academic work and whether it’s an issue may lead to more difficulty.  While it can seem that “everyone else” is moving lockstep along a single track to medical school — they are not.  A realistic discussion with a pre-health advisor about grades may be more helpful sooner than later, allowing you to plan your career more mindfully and productively.

At some point, move on. More than once I’ve asked an applicant about his or her grades in a mock medical school interview only to witness the applicant engage in extended self-flagellation or angrily vent about a difficult professor or tough grading scale.  Your professional career is bound to include disappointments and undesired results.  Working through your feelings about your grades can help you develop confidence and perspective about your work.  You must be able to handle, learn from, and rebound from hard times.  There is no reason to do this alone — in addition to family and friends, consider using the campus resources mentioned above for support.

Osteopathic Medicine

by Carol Hagan

When the topic of osteopathic medicine comes up in my conversations with pre-meds, I usually hear something along the lines of “What IS that?” or “I don’t want to be limited.  I may want to do surgery.”  If you are interested in health care, then you should know about osteopathic medicine.  According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), nearly one in five U.S. medical students is training to be an osteopathic physician.  On a more personal level, it would be unfortunate to overlook or dismiss a promising career path due to lack of information or misinformation.


So, what is osteopathic medicine?  AACOM describes osteopathic physicians as “…bringing a patient-centered, holistic, hands-on approach to diagnosing and treating illness and injury.”  Can you specialize?  Yes.  Can you be a surgeon?  Yes.  Can you pursue a dual-degree program?  Yes.  You will find MD’s and DO’s working and teaching side by side in every medical school and teaching hospital in Philadelphia.

Excellent information about osteopathic medicine can be found on AACOM’s web page.   Particularly interesting are the links to current data on applicants, graduates, and areas of specialization and profiles of more than 50 current medical students.  And, of course, there’s a Facebook page!


Don’t forget to talk to osteopathic physicians themselves!  In fact, if you do apply to colleges of osteopathic medicine, you will need to have a letter of recommendation from a DO, just one of a few reasons to consider osteopathic medicine well before it’s time to apply to medical school.  It’s never too early to set up short, informational interviews and make inquiries about shadowing a DO.  Be polite, but be proactive.  If you feel hesitant about how to contact with a physician, come talk to us at Career Services.

Osteopathic medicine may not be the best fit for you, but then again, it might – don’t let what you don’t know limit your options.