This article appeared in Health Professions Newsline, 4th Quarter, 1995, Volume II, Number 3 and was written by Howard B. Duncan. Howard B. Duncan is Associate Professor of Biology and Premedical Advisor, Norfolk State University.
All too often premeds wait too long to get serious. Their belated self appraisals usually begin around the middle of their junior year: a time when the realization of "one more year before graduation" looms ominously in students minds. Unfortunately at this time some premedical students are just beginning an overall evaluation of their academic, personal, and medical experience credentials. Often they find numerous deficiencies in many categories and irreparable mistakes in others putting them hopelessly behind.
Students who are serious about attending medical school understand that there is no window of opportunity during the undergraduate years to "float along" for a semester or two (or three or four) in a sea of "C"s. Additionally it is essential to remember that many preparatory tasks must be accomplished on a fairly rigid schedule to enter medical school the fall after undergraduate commencement.
Of all the criteria used by medical schools to evaluate students, the one that should be of immediate concern upon arrival on campus as a freshman is your cumulative and BCPM (biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics) grade point averages. Not only will diligent study beginning at this point prevent early "blemishes" on your academic record, but it will also afford the opportunity to establish a high GPA at a time prior to the undertaking of more challenging courses.
Students often retake courses that they have barely passed with the intention of improving their grade. Retaking selected freshman or sophomore courses during your upperclass semesters will only add to an already heavy course load, while the original grade remains on the academic transcript. Additionally, by junior year the student's GPA is fairly entrenched and often cannot be raised significantly by retaking courses. It is more advantageous to work optimally in every course the first time.
Not surprisingly, upperclass premedical students often lack real medical experience. Medical schools desire applicants with some firsthand knowledge of medicine and medical school. Many medical schools offer summer medical enrichment programs which provide undergraduates with various experiences including medical lectures and laboratories, research opportunities, MCAT preparation, medical specialty rotations, and insight into application and admissions procedures. Some medical enrichment programs will accept rising sophomores into their programs.
Medical experience may also be garnered through volunteering in hospital emergency and operating rooms, homes for the elderly, public health clinics, and other health care facilities. Early undergraduate semesters are a time when students can commit a portion of time to campus and community volunteer activities. However, such volunteerism should be undertaken with an attitude of sincere contribution and worthwhile experience rather than merely a necessary requirement. Serving as a tutor or mentor at area schools, church organizations, youth community centers and athletic leagues can reflect a social conscience as well as enhance leadership and interpersonal skills.
Research has always been an essential component of medicine. Having performed research during the summer or during the academic year is always a plus to a student's credentials. Most universities offer undergraduate research courses and some present select students the opportunity to join a funded professor's research team. Joining organizations that are supportive and informative to medical interests is also a step that can be taken at the beginning of freshman year. These would include premedical societies and campus and national premedical student organizations. Additionally, induction into honor societies and other organizations that reflect academic achievements should be a priority as soon as you become eligible.
Letters of recommendation are an important tool used by medical schools in evaluating applicants. Premedical students may find that when they are ready to approach professors for individual or collaborative letters of recommendation, those persons know nothing about the student other than the grades earned in their classes. This is especially true on larger campuses. Therefore, cultivating relationships with professors through organizations, research, campus volunteerism, and even exceptional classroom or laboratory activity is quite essential in establishing identity beyond an alphabet in a professor's roll book. This effort should also be started in the freshman year.
Premedical students, who are on schedule in preparation for application to medical school, begin studying for the Medical College Admissions Test in the fall of junior year at the latest. The examination is administered in April of the following spring. Then, the American Medical College Application Service and/or Medical School Application is mailed in June. Such scheduling allows response from medical schools concerning interviews and acceptance in late summer or the fall of the senior year.
The challenge faced by premedical students is clear. Obviously there are very definitive steps that must be taken in preparation for medical school. But for students who wish to enter medical school the fall after spring commencement, these preparatory steps must be taken in a timely manner. Be a committed and diligent premedical candidate from the first day of arrival on campus and stay on schedule.