By Robin K. Kuriakose, MD
Yep, you read that title correctly. But go ahead and read it once more! Direct medical programs come packaged in a variety of names: Combined BS-BA/MD, Guaranteed Admissions Programs, Direct BS-BA/MD Programs, etc. What they all have in common, however, is that they all provide a direct route for a high school student to gain admission into medical school.
For those that have never heard of these programs before, it understandably seems too good to be true. Yet it is this rarity that makes these programs ever so competitive. In brief, direct BS/MD programs are essentially combined college and medical school admissions that a high school senior can apply for. This can include an undergraduate experience of between two to four years, followed by four years of medical school. Often times, there is a minimum GPA requirement the student must keep while in undergrad to remain eligible for medical school admission. Even better, there are a few dozen programs that waive the MCAT!
Gaining acceptance into one of these programs requires years of hard work while in high school, and equally important, diligence during the application process. During high school, your job is to become as well rounded as possible. Of course grades and standardized exam scores matter, but the following will complete the picture.
Volunteer at a local hospital for a few hours weekly. Doing so will not only show that you know what it is like to be in a healing environment, but that it is an environment in which you thrive. It will also allow you to capture meaningful patient interactions and help you build compassion. Shadowing physicians in various fields will aid in these regards as well, but will also expose you to the wide scope of practice within the field of medicine. You can choose to become the classic picture of a doctor (aka the Internist or the Emergency Medicine doctor), who is managing a patient’s road to recovery or handling an emergent life-threatening situation. You can also specialize and become an expert in a specific organ of the body (just to name a few: Cardiology, Dermatology, Ophthalmology, Radiology). By shadowing, you can understand early what fields of medicine interest you. Next, if the opportunity presents itself, do research. Whether you are in a laboratory running a gel electrophoresis or in front of a computer reviewing charts to help compile data, research has the ability to distinguish you. It challenges your thinking and demonstrates virtues of patience and perseverance. Best of all, if you have a chance to publish your results in a paper, you will present a very unique application.
Working well with others during all these activities will impress upon your supervisors and mentors certain traits about you. These traits will eventually find their way into your letters of recommendations – an essential component of your applications. Always strive to be the best you can be, seek feedback, and keep working to improve yourself.
Now that you’ve done all of the above during your years of high school (and have decided that you are going to pursue a career in medicine), it is time to prepare your applications. As mentioned above, the first task will be to ask your letter of recommendation writers for their endorsement, and you’ll want to do this months before submitting your application. By asking in advance, you are not only showing pro-activeness, but you are ensuring that your letters won’t be written last-minute without thought and effort. You may want to ask as early as June prior to the application period. You should offer polite reminders every month or so, and every couple of weeks as the application deadline approaches.
During the summer before applying, you’ll want to work hard on your essays. Expect to write at least two essays. The first will be your CommonApp essay, and the second will be a supplementary essay, which usually answers the question: “Why do you want to pursue a career in medicine?” Generally speaking, you’ll want to choose a CommonApp essay topic that is different from the “Why Medicine” question, as it will allow you to showcase a different aspect of who you are as a person. Brainstorm ideas for these essays early, then write them, and have others read them (even your English teacher – I did!). The earlier you start, the more time you will have to get feedback and perfect your essay.
Throughout all of this, compile your CV, which is a list of accomplishments and activities you’ve partaken in through your years in high school. This will offer a bird’s-eye view of the things you are interested and involved in. Try to get involved with leadership roles within clubs at your school or local organization, as this will further help enhance yourself as an applicant.
Next, come up with a list of programs you want to apply for, visit their website, and write down the requirements for their application. Some have specific SAT score cut-offs; others will want to see an SAT II in Biology or Math. Whatever they are, make sure you read about each program’s requirements early enough that you have time to schedule in an SAT II or perhaps even another SAT before applications are due. With specific questions about a program, feel free to call or email them directly. How to choose programs to apply to can vary between individuals. For many, it will be based on location, prestige of the medical school, or cost. Many choose between 5 and 20 programs to apply for. It is always wise to have a back up application for regular undergraduate universities as well (perhaps one with a really good premedical program), just in case you don’t get an interview for these programs. If you feel that you’re not the most competitive, I would submit an application anyway. It is always worth the shot!
Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, strive for the very best scores in terms of high school GPA, ACT, SAT, SAT IIs, and AP exams. Lower scores in any of these exams don’t necessarily preclude your chances as long as you show strength in other areas. In summary, make sure to have a well balanced application evidenced by strong exam scores, a well-written essay, a thorough CV, and letters of recommendation that portray who you are as a person, and why you’d make an excellent physician. The road to these programs may be time-consuming, but it is worth it!
About the Author
Dr. Robin Kuriakose is a first year resident at Loma Linda University Health pursuing a career in Ophthalmology. He is passionate about mentorship and technology, and has published a book to help students navigate their journey through medicine.