Early preparation eases medical school application

Stephen Moss

Applying to medical school can be one of the most stressful and nerve-racking experiences for undergraduate pre-medical students, yet it doesn’t have to be. If you take a deep breath, prepare early and seek advice from those who have been through it, the application process can become a lot less daunting. First, as an undergraduate it is important to establish yourself as a strong academic, especially in the science classes, in order to put yourself in a solid position come application time. Although GPA is not the end-all-be-all, it is a very important aspect that shows who you are as an applicant. “They have to know that you are academically prepared, so grades do matter,” Louise Russo, the Villanova pre-health advisor explains. “That doesn’t mean that everyone has to be super-brilliant, but you do have to have a strong record for them to have confidence that you are going to survive and be able to manage the workload. The stronger you are as an applicant academically, the better place you are in the applicant pool.” Next, pre-medical students need to make sure that they are well-rounded which means being engaged in club activities, service activities and most importantly, career-related activities. “I can’t even underestimate how important that is,” Russo says. “You have to prove to them that you have a realistic sense of medicine and the role of a physician that you didn’t get from a TV show. There needs to be enough exposure, with enough hours in enough different contexts across different types of practice areas so you can get a strong sense of what it really means to practice health care.” There are many opportunities available to improve one’s well-roundedness as an applicant especially with Villanova’s close proximity to many hospitals and the plethora of programs offered through the pre-health department. But don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and reach out to doctors in the surrounding area in search of shadowing opportunities which are invaluable for pre-medical students.   “I think the most important thing is shadowing experience because you really need to know what a doctor actually does,” says Jessica Eby, a senior who has recently been accepted to both Harvard Medical School and Penn Medicine. “A lot of people have a romanticized vision of what a physician is and they think it’s exactly like General Hospital and in reality there is a lot of paperwork, patients who aren’t that nice and there is so much more that goes into being a doctor than what you see on TV.” As important as experience and academia are, there is another aspect that is equal in importance and is often the source of the most anxiety among pre-medical students: the dreaded Medical College Admission Test. The MCAT, which will change its format come 2015, is a major tool for admissions in judging whether or not an applicant is ready for medical school. The scores range from 3-45 and it tests knowledge of the physical sciences, the biological sciences and also verbal reasoning skills. It tests knowledge that was accumulated throughout the various courses that one takes as a pre-medical student and there are various options to help one prepare such as prep classes that are hosted on Villanova’s campus each semester. Yet it is still often the breaking point for many students’ applications because many students do not prepare adequately. But just like the application process itself, if you prepare for the MCAT early, it can become a lot less intimidating. “For the MCAT I’d say start a year in advance and make sure that there is a chunk of time before the test that you know you will be free and able to focus on just MCAT preparation and taking practice tests,” Eby says. “That’s probably the key part, take practice tests. Take as many practice tests as you possibly can.” Lastly, and most importantly, you have to truly want to go to medical school and devote yourself to becoming a physician. If you are truly passionate about medicine and humanity then this humanitarian side of you will be reflected in the experiences you accumulate during your undergraduate career, and especially in interviews that hopefully come after your application is submitted and reviewed.   “There has to be evidence in that portfolio of strong humanitarian instincts,” Russo stresses. “You are going into a service career, people-centered, you have to be engaged with people.”   Again, take a deep breath. The medical school application, although unnerving, is not as bad as it seems. Just prepare yourself early and understand that if you take it step-by-step and use the many resources available, then you can put yourself in a great position in the application pool. But it starts here, with educating yourself on what you must do so that come junior or senior year, you don’t have one of those “I-wish-I-knew-this-earlier” type of moments that I find myself having right now.