Parents are understandably invested in their students’ education in more ways than just one, but sometimes the questions and added pressure from parents can get overwhelming. To answer some of these questions for students and parents, I surveyed Hope College pre-health students on what they wish their parents knew about college, the pre-health tracks, or the health profession itself, as well as questions that they commonly are asked. Most of the topics were centered around the application process and what it takes to be admitted to medical school, including extracurriculars, classes and grades. Some students also responded with how their parents’ can support or have supported them through the process.
The Application Process:
Related questions: When do you apply to graduate school and how? How long does the application process take? What makes a good applicant? What does and what doesn’t matter? When should you take the MCAT? What is a gap year? Why are you taking a gap year and how are you going to afford it? How do medical schools look at gap years? When do you choose a specialty?
One of the most common topics that pre-health students said their parents asked them about was the application process. The first thing to know about the application process for medical school (or any post-graduate health program) is that it is different than it was 20 years ago; getting into graduate school, especially medical school, is harder than it used to be. Graduate schools now consider students holistically rather than from academic performance alone, so it is much more competitive to get in and extracurriculars have much more importance than they used to. While good grades get your foot in the door, valuable experiences and reflective essays are what secure your spot. The acceptance rate for medical school applicants with GPAs of 3.79 or higher and Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores in the 95th percentile or higher for the 2017-2018 and 2019-2020 cycles was 87.8%—that means 12.2% of applicants with the best scores and grades are still not accepted despite their academic achievements. The overall acceptance rate of all applicants to medical school was 41.9%. This demonstrates that grades are not everything when applying to medical school (or graduate school) and it is very difficult to get in.
As for the “when?” of the application process, it depends on the preferences of the student and whether they choose to take a gap year or not. If students do not want to take a gap year, they have to complete all MCAT prerequisites by the end of their junior year and take the MCAT in April or May in order to begin applying during the summer before their senior year. However, gap years are becoming more and more common and many students use the extra year to gain additional valuable experiences in order to be more competitive applicants. The average age of matriculants to the MSU College of Human Medicine for the 2017-2018 and 2019-2020 cycles was 25 years old and to the WMU Homer Stryker School of Medicine was 24.7 years, demonstrating that many successful medical school applicants take a gap year. For students who are planning on taking the MCAT at the end of their senior year, a gap year will be necessary during the following year while they apply. Many students work with organizations such as Teach for America or the Peace Corps following graduation. It is very important for students to evaluate their candidacy prior to applying to medical school (or graduate school) because the process is very expensive between application fees, secondary application fees, and travelling to interviews. Since there is no way to know what the applicant pool with look like in a given year, it is important that students put their best foot forward when applying, which can sometimes mean taking a gap year.
Some students reported that their parents commonly ask them when they choose a specialty, and the answer is—not until the third or fourth year of medical school. While students may have some idea of their specialty interests prior to applying to medical school, this has no impact on the application process unless they are specifically planning on working in an under served area of medicine which could influence where they apply.
Related questions: Should you be doing extracurriculars? Shouldn’t you be focusing on your classes? Are you doing a lot of shadowing?
As mentioned before, extracurriculars are very important for pre-health students. Extracurriculars are how potential medical students prove that they meet the competencies that medical schools are looking for through actions rather than words alone. Students could probably write a solid essay about working with diverse people, but experiences can demonstrate that the applicant actually has a history of working with diverse people along with a commitment to serving. Experiences provide the students with real-life examples to strengthen their essays for demonstration rather than explanation. Good experiences also tend to help students grow as people, so more, and higher quality, experiences help make students more well-rounded individuals who will be more equipped to care for a wider variety of people in medicine. Applicants are required to write short activity essays, usually for around 15 activities, in addition to choosing their top three activities to write more about. This does not include secondary, or school specific, applications which target different competencies that medical schools are looking for, and demonstration through examples, when applicable, is always better than descriptions with no evidence. These experience essays are also an opportunity for applicants to demonstrate how they fit with the mission of the schools that they are applying to.
Aside from extracurriculars, job shadowing is also important to the application process. Dental schools as well as occupational and physical therapy programs require a certain number of shadowing hours prior to applying. While medical schools do not require specific numbers of hours, shadowing is still considered during the application process. Shadowing is important because it demonstrates that the applicant has some idea of what it will actually be like in the profession so that they know what they are getting themselves into prior to going through medical school.
Related questions: What GPA do you need to get into medical school? What order should you take classes in? Why can’t you graduate early? Are you keeping up with your classes? Will the courses you are taking really help you get into medical school? What happens if you do not do well on an exam or in a class? Didn’t you say you had a challenging semester last semester? Why do you have to put so much time into your labs, aren’t they the same as your regular courses? Aren’t you a pre-med major?
On the topic of academics, as I touched on before, GPA and MCAT scores are the first step to getting at least an interview during the application process. Applicants must prove that they will be able to handle the rigorous curriculum of medical school successfully. However, not all of the MCAT and medical school requirements are physical science courses. There is a section on the MCAT titled “Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior” which requires knowledge in psychology and sociology. Other than the prerequisites, major and minor classes do not necessarily matter. Some can be helpful towards building other skills that will be valuable for medical school such as cultural competency and building an ethical framework for decision making.
On the subject of major, there is no such thing as a pre-med major at Hope College. As mentioned above, there are prerequisite courses that are required for the MCAT and medical schools that pre-med students must take, but these are alongside a chosen major. Many pre-med students choose to major in sciences such as chemistry or biology due to the large amount of overlap between the major requirements and prerequisites, but it is not required to major in a physical science to apply to medical school. Many successful applicants to major in other fields such as psychology, a foreign language, economics, or history.
As far as grades go, getting one bad grade on an exam or in a class is not the end of the world for your student. Although maintaining a good GPA is important, this does not mean that the occasional B or C will completely ruin a student’s chances of getting into medical school. And individual exam grades do not matter as long as the student does well in the class overall. However, the pressure to maintain good grades can be intense, which may be why your medical student always tells you that they are having a challenging semester.
Apart from this topic, science labs are separate from lecture courses at Hope, although they are usually co-requisites. This means that labs have their own assignments and time commitments completely separate from the lecture portion even though it seems like they should go together. In addition, labs are three hours long and lab reports are normally not quick to write which ends up being a large time commitment for pre-health students while taking prerequisite science courses.
Supporting Your Pre-Health Student:
Related questions: Why don’t you take some time for yourself? Why don’t you go out more? Why are you ignoring me? How can we help you?
Many students responded to the survey saying that they wish their parents knew just how much support they need and want. Pre-health tracks are difficult because of the rigor of the prerequisite curriculum and the pressure to perform well in classes on top of the time commitment of required extracurriculars. Supporting your student is different for every student but some ways include listening, encouraging, and reassuring your student through difficult times. One student who responded to the survey wrote about how grateful they are for their parents’ support—specifically for listening without trying to “fix” and reminding them that there is more to life than classes and grades through updates from home. They added that knowing that their parents’ were always there with a listening ear is encouraging. Another student responded saying that students most need their parents’ support in times of doubt; if your student tells you that they do not want to be pre-health anymore, it is up to you to decide whether they are serious or not, but reminding them of what brought them to this career path in the first place can be the push they need to make it through a difficult time. Although each student is different, these are ways that you could try to help encourage your student through difficult times. Other ways that you might be able to support your student could be doing research on your own to learn about the application process and meeting them where they are at. Many pre-med students are very focused and driven and likely feel like they cannot take time for themselves lest their grades drop or due to the pressures of extracurriculars. Asking about a (non-existent) social life or lack of self-care can feel like criticism if presented in certain ways, so listening to your student with empathy can go a long way. Encouraging them through the busyness and trying to understand their situation can help to make them feel more supported. On top of this, students may not have very much time to chat on the phone or respond with more than a quick text message—as one student said: we are not ignoring you, we are just really busy sometimes (or all the time).
As far as supporting your student through the actual process, connections for shadowing opportunities often come from friends of the family or people the student already knows, so parents can be instrumental in making these connections for their students. Do not do the work of setting the shadowing up for them, but connecting them with the right people is a way that you can help.
Getting into graduate school for any health profession is extremely competitive and supporting your child through the process can be instrumental to their success, even if that just means lending a listening ear.
Sources: The Association of American Medical Colleges – https://www.aamc.org/