The summer is winding down and you will be back on campus before you know it. Here are ten things to keep in mind this year, whether you’re applying to medical school in the spring, taking a gap year, or just starting to pursue a career in medicine.
- Partner with your advisor. If you haven’t met with a pre-health advisor, be sure to get an appointment on their calendar. A lot of planning and preparing has to be done before you’ll be ready to apply to medical school, so the earlier you know the steps, the better. Work with your advisor to develop a plan to get to where you want to go—it’s a good idea to ask detailed questions about the timeline for applying to medical school. Ask which courses are required for medical school, and the best order in which to take them at your school. Your advisor may also have ideas to help you gain health-related experiences, internships, and lab experiences. Discuss when you’re likely to be best prepared to take the MCAT exam, and learn if your school offers any prep courses.
Don’t have a pre-health advisor at your school? Visit the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions (NAAHP) website to help locate an advisor who can help you.
- Attend career/health professions fairs. Attend as many fairs as you can, especially if you want to talk with a lot of school representatives in person. Career fairs give you the opportunity to learn about multiple schools, programs, and admissions requirements at one event. It can be expensive and time-consuming to visit every school that you are thinking about attending, so participating in career fairs can help you narrow down your medical school selections and be more cost effective.
- Seek out on-campus resources and mentors. Some of the best resources are available right on your campus. Make connections with mentors in various academic departments who can guide you through the application process, help you reach out to colleagues for volunteer, lab, or shadowing opportunities, or just give you their perspective on applying to medical school. Getting assistance from those who have been through it before, or who have successfully helped others with the same process, can be very beneficial. Your campus may also have a career center and/or a health professions advising office where you’re likely to have access to guidebooks and web resources in addition to an advisor. Plan on becoming a regular visitor to these offices.
- Increase your activity and responsibility in clubs. When admissions committees look at your experiences, the kinds of clubs you belong to are just one part of the equation. They also like to see growth in various areas—like activity level and responsponsibility. Of course you don’t need to be the president of every club (and probably shouldn’t be), but taking on a leadership role, planning large events, or helping to shape the direction of a club highlights your leadership abilities.
- Get experience in the lab, volunteering and/or shadowing.
- Summer Programs: For an unparalleled summer learning opportunity, look into the Summer Medical & Dental Education Program (SMDEP). SMDEP is a free, 6-week enrichment program for first and second year college students interested in attending medical or dental school. Not only will this program offer preparation for science courses, but you will also develop valuable learning skills, have clinical exposure, explore career opportunities, as well as partake in financial workshops and health-related seminars.
- Research Experience: When looking for lab and volunteer experiences, first check the science department bulletin boards or websites for opportunities to assist with faculty research projects. Also, check with your academic advisor or your pre-health advisor, as they may already have relationships with faculty or labs. The best time to look for positions is during the middle of the semester, or a week or two before midterms. Generally, there also a lot of research opportunities in the summer, both paid and volunteer. The career center or your pre-health advising office may have a list. Remember, get your applications in early, typically there are more applicants than available spots.
- Shadowing: Shadowing is a great way to find out if a career in medicine might be right for you. It will give you a better understanding of what a typical day is like, and may give you good experiences to talk about in your applications and interviews for medical school. To find a shadowing opportunity, start by asking doctors you know, or others who may know of opportunities. Likely, this will be your strongest and best resource to find a shadowing opportunity. You can also ask your teachers, professors, and pre-med or academic advisors, as they might know doctors who have had other students shadow them previously.
- Prepare for the MCAT if you haven’t taken it or if you need to take it again. The Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®) is a standardized, multiple-choice test that has been a part of the medical school admissions process for more than 80 years. Nearly all medical schools in the United States, and several in Canada, require MCAT scores. Only you and your advisor know when it’s best for you to take the exam. Our best advice? Take it when you are ready. If you’re able, it’s a good idea to take practice exams and try to simulate a full exam prior to sitting for the actual test. The AAMC has a number of no or low cost test prep materials to help you prepare. If you have already taken the exam and are unhappy with your scores, speak to your advisor and create a plan for working on your problem areas and then decide when it would be best to retest.
- Ask for Letters of Evaluation. A letter of evaluation is often a composite letter written on your behalf by your school’s pre-health committee. It’s an overview of your academic strengths, exposure to health care and medical research environments, contributions to the campus and community, and personal attributes such as maturity and altruism. It’s important to speak with your advisor or anyone else who you’ve asked to write a letter on your behalf (i.e. a professor you’ve had for several classes, or the person supervising your lab work ) early in order to give them time to write a letter for you. This is especially important if the letter needs to address any extenuating circumstances that may have affected your grades during a course or semester, or provides perspective on challenges you may have encountered. Remember, depending on the size of your school, or the number of advisors available, the person writing your letter may have numerous letters to write, so it’s better for you if you approach them early.
- Get your parents up to speed on their role in the application process. You may need information from your parents for your financial aid application. To be considered for financial aid you must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Generally, students complete the FAFSA in January prior to the year in which they are applying for medical school. Even though you may be considered independent by federal regulations, some schools may still require your parental information to award institutional scholarships, grants, or even loans. Be aware of the school’s financial aid deadlines and processes, as this information may have an effect on the aid you are awarded.
In addition to the FAFSA, some medical schools require that you complete an institutional application for campus-based aid, and they may ask you to provide additional documentation, such as tax returns or other verification forms. Be sure to talk to the financial aid officer at each of your potential medical schools as early as possible if you have any questions about what is being asked of you. The financial aid office will be an important office for many students, so utilize this valuable resource early on in your medical education program.
There is a lot of information available to help you understand the financial aid process. Check out the available resources and tools on AAMC’s FIRST website. Here you will find videos, fact sheets, and tools specifically created for medical students and applicants.
- Familiarize yourself with all things AMCAS. The American Medical College Application Service® (AMCAS®) is the AAMC’s centralized medical school application processing service. No matter the number of medical schools you want to apply to, using AMCAS, you just submit one online application and everything gets disseminated to the schools you’ve chosen. The application is extensive, and not the kind of thing you’ll complete in one sitting. You’ll need to enter personal statements and all the coursework you’ve taken, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with what’s involved so you can be ready and organized when it’s time to get started.
- Relax. Have fun. Visit with family and friends, travel, or participate in hobbies you may not have as much time for once you are attending medical school. Use this time as a chance to relax, reflect, and energize yourself for the years to come.