Remaining Schools

I’ve had to reexamine a lot of my priorities over the past month or so and have had to realize that if I wanted to do the kind of program I’m interested in, I needed to reevaluate a few things. To that end, I sort of altered the way I had been looking for schools to apply to.

I’ve concluded that I’d like to do a PhD in computational biology or biostatistics, depending on the school. I’d like to integrate my interest in math, programming, and quantitative science into medicine. I’ve come to realize that this makes me somewhat incompatible with a significant number of MD / PhD programs. So to maximize my chances of getting an acceptance somewhere, I screened schools in the following way:

  • I created a sortable list of all 130 medical schools in the US and removed all that were in areas I really didn’t want to live for 7-8 years.
  • I went through the MD / PhD program websites and looked to see which had progras in computational biology, bioinformatics, or something similar. I feel compelled to point out that the quality of medical school websites varies greatly. Some are fantastic and give you a great sense of what they’re about. Others, not so much.
  • Some schools make it abundantly clear that they are only interested in the ‘basic sciences’. I’ve learned that this is code for the Holy Trinity: biochemistry, neuroscience, and molecular biology. Once I concluded I wasn’t going to find a home there, I removed them from the list.

That leaves 18 schools, which I’ve listed here. I’ve arranged them in relative order of perference, but until I do more research, I’m not sure which ones will be at the top of my list:

University of Washington School of Medicine
Harvard Medical School
University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A Carver College of Medicine
University of Chicago, Pritzker School of Medicine
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine

Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine
Wake Forest School of Medicine of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine
Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
Baylor College of Medicine

Indiana University School of Medicine
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
University of Michigan Medical School
University of Minnesota Medical School
University of Colorado School of Medicine
University of Virginia School of Medicine

I don’t intend to apply to all of these schools, but I have no idea how competitive I will be for these programs. My undergrad GPA is atrocious and I don’t have a tremendous amount of medical research experience under my belt.

I was shocked to find that Harvard made its way onto my list – but programs like mathematical biophysics have a way of snagging my attention. Anyway, thoughts on any of these?

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More Reader Questions on the MCAT

I got an email from a reader today and decided to post my response here:

I read your blog and i find it to be very down-to-earth and helpful. thanks for helping us pre-meds with these tips!

Thanks for the kind words. The last couple of years on this road has changed me in some rather unexpected ways, so it’s somewhat enjoyable to help encourage others along the way. For some reason, the premed world is consumed with bitterness, infighting, and other destructive behavior. I understand competition, and some good-natured competition among colleagues is probably a good thing, but the level of nastiness and general douchebaggery I’ve witnessed over the last couple of years makes me rather sad. One of the hardest things I’ve learned in this entire process is the necessity of being dependent upon others. There is no way I’d have gotten to this point or have had the experiences I’ve had if it hadn’t been for other people along the way. In my opinion, I owe it to them to encourage others along the way.

For more literary minded readers, the parallels between this medical school thing and my blogs namesake are pretty striking. Nearly every obstacle placed in Odysseus’ way on the journey back to Ithaca was only surmounted by the help of others around him. With Poseidon absent from Mount Olympus Athena intercedes with Zeus on his behalf, which ultimately leads to his release from the island of Calypso. After being shipwrecked by Poseidon, the Phaeacians offer him hospitality and ultimately return him to Ithaca in the middle of the night. And even at the end, Odysseus enlists the help of a slew of people in slaughtering the suitors that have set up shop in his home, eaten his food, drunk his wine, and tried to woo his woman. If you’re a premed reading this and think that you have nothing to gain from your classmates or others along the way, you’re a fool.

What do you think about the density of the bio passages for the last MCAT you took? I took one last year and i was so bogged down by the long bio passages and didn’t get to finish, which ended up hurting my score.

None of the biology passages that I’ve seen on either the practice exams or the real one felt all that long to me. Your timing problems could be due to a lot of things, but my guess is that you’re probably focusing on the details in the passage too much. My goal when I read those passages was to understand the experiment, how it had been performed and what the results were. The MCAT absolutely tests your ability to interpret graphs, tables, and that sort of thing. Focus on understanding and ignore the details – if a detail is needed to answer the questions, you can always go back to the passage and find it.

I have taken physiology, anatomy and other upper level bio courses that i think may help boost my MCAT score.

I found physiology and biochemistry extremely helpful. Genetics would have been useful if mine hadn’t been a completely waste of time. I took a full year graduate biochemistry course which really helped me integrate some of the more confusing chemistry concepts I had with my understanding of molecular biology. Upper division courses don’t automatically boost your score anymore than an MCAT prep course.

Do you think reading science journals would help with the dense bio section?

As I mentioned, I don’t think that the biological sciences section is really all that dense. Reading science journals might be helpful, I suppose it really depends upon your background and abilities. Reading and understanding scientific literature is a crucial skill though and something you should probably cultivate independent of whatever ancillary benefit to your MCAT score it might have.

One thing I alluded to earlier is the ability to read and interpret data in things like figures and tables. This is a key skill to doing well on both science sections of the exam – I can guarantee that it will be tested multiple times, so if you can’t read data tables or graphs, you’re going to be in trouble. Reading scientific literature can probably help you develop this skill, but I really can’t give you any firsthand information; I read and interpret data every day at my job. In my opinion, undergraduate science degrees do not teach this skill to students and it really hurts them on the MCAT.

I have way too many MCAT books that i bought that didn’t work (TPR, EK, Kaplan) and i am skeptical about adding TBR to this list. I wanted to see if there is another cheaper alternative out there. Currently i am using Barrons MCAT prep that i picked up in the library. I like it so far. (I know no one uses this but i am finding it less overwhelming to have just this ONE book Vs multiple books at a time.)

I’ve written about this before, but I’ll reiterate it here. For the most part, the materials you use do not really matter all that much. If you sample people that score greater than a 35, they will all have used different materials. A majority will have used Kaplan, with Exam Krackers, the Princeton Review, and all the rest having their fans. The common denominator among those students will not be the materials they used. They WILL share these though:

  • They will have made a study plan that included copious amounts of worked problems under timed conditions.
  • Most will have taken all their courses prior to starting their study plan.
  • They focus on learning the material in those classes, rather than just getting an A. When I took organic chemistry, there was a classmate that used to chide me for making such a big deal about understanding how different things worked. We had similar grades, but she scored a 26. Your goal in college should be to understand basic science and to think rigorously. Since the MCAT tests these, it would be natural to focus on learning those things in school. Sadly, too many students adopt the premed obsession with grades and miss that opportunity.
  • They didn’t take it until they were ready.

I’m not going to rehash all of my advice on studying for the MCAT, since my blog is littered with it. Ultimately, don’t stress over the books you use. The important thing is that you make a study plan, do things under timed conditions, stay consistent, and review.

Also, to those of you taking the exam this Saturday, best of luck. Think positively and focus on your successes.

Another Reader Email on the MCAT

Here are some excerpts from an email I got today and my response. I figured some of my readers that are locked in deadly combat with the MCAT might find them helpful and encouraging.

Hey MSO-
So I’m just two weeks away from the MCAT now. When you were taking your practice MCATs, did you ever have the feeling of “WTF did they get this stuff”? Especially on biology? I took FL5 the other day. What the hell was up with all of the insect stuff?

When I was taking my practice full-lengths, I actually felt like the science passages were all fairly well-written and legitimate topics. I don’t remember the insect passage, but there were definitely times were the material felt like it was beyond the scope of introductory classes. It feels that way because it is. There will be plenty of things which are beyond what you’ve seen in your courses and prep. That’s alright though – the MCAT isn’t testing content knowledge so much as whether you can figure out new things based on what you’ve already learned. The reason I don’t remember the insect passage is probably because it wasn’t asking questions about insects. For example, the MCAT might introduce an incredibly complicated topic from the field of particle physics. It might give you a really intricate explanation about the Z and W bosons, and then show you a plot like this one from CERN, which you have most likely never seen (unless you follow my Twitter feed).

Then, it might ask you to determine which interval recorded the most events per 5 GeV, say 10-100 GeV, 100-500 GeV and so forth. You might not have a clue what is being measured or how the data was taken and the MCAT doesn’t care if you do, because that’s not what it is testing. It’s testing whether or not you can read a plot with labeled axis and draw some very simple inferences from it. That’s a completely relevant skill to medicine, or at least, how I plan to practice medicine. The only reason I bring up CERN is because it was at the front of my mind – rest assured, there will be incredibly obscure topics on the MCAT that you will have never heard of before. The real trick to taking the MCAT is learning to find the simple question that the test writers have hidden among all the advanced stuff you’ve never seen before. If you can do that, then you REALLY know the science.

I remember on the real thing, I got squashed with this ridiculously complex passage that had all sorts of complications. I looked at it, completely befuddled by it, and then went back to what I had told myself for months: find the simple question. Then I realized that the question was really just asking if I could determine velocity and acceleration from a simple graph of position relative to time. I didn’t need to understand what was all over the chart, I just needed to remember that velocity was the time derivative of position. I looked at the chart, identified the quantity in question, circled the right answer, and went on. I later saw in the SDN forums that passage had absolutely murdered other students, but it was incredibly simple, but only if you could see the question the writers had cloaked in all the other stuff. I sort of felt guilty.

I understand your feelings about scoring well but still a little nervous. I am about in the same range that you were (upper 30′s) but still wish I was hitting at least 40, especially since I seem to miss some REALLY easy questions here and there, particularly on the PS if I miscalculate something. Those errors are so easy to make and there just isn’t enough time to double check all of your answers, which is what I am used to doing in class.

As far as scores go, if you’re in the upper 30s, you’re totally set, assuming you’re doing them all under timed conditions. Ignoring verbal, at this point your score is really a statistical fluctuation – it only takes a couple of problems to knock you a point or two and it isn’t something you should worry about. My advice, particularly in hindsight, is to focus on the fact that you’re crushing the practice exams, still have some time to go, and are continuing to improve. Make it about how much you understand well, how solid your test-taking chops are, and how the easiest day will be the day of the real thing. The emotional game of the exam is something that doesn’t get talked about too much, but it’s of huge importance. Second to timing and practice, managing the emotional uncertainty and anxiety is probably the most important thing, and I’m intentionally placing it above content review. All the knowledge in the world doesn’t help you if you’re letting your nerves get to you.

Go back and read my post on the last exam I took – I let a single error ruin me. I had become so accustomed to getting every question on the PS science correct that I let a tough passage burn 15 minutes of my time and absolutely demoralize me. The lesson I learned was to not let perfect become the enemy of the good. It’s really easy to do – you get a 15 on the PS section and figure that you should be doing that every time. Then a rough passage comes along, you get engrossed in it and refuse to let it go. That approach is really natural for people that really know the stuff, but it can absolutely devastate you. The real thing will absolutely have a passage or so in each section that is designed to do this. The writers are laying a trap for you and, if you take the bait, you’ll run out of time on one of the sections and will leave the last ten questions unanswered. I’m glad I tanked that last practice exam, because if I hadn’t, I’d have made that mistake on the real thing and gotten absolutely owned.

Alea Iacta Est

I apologize for my long absence the past few weeks. I’ve been working on the application for my committee letter and it’s taken the vast majority of my time over the past month. I probably put something like 150 hours into it since I started working on it in October.

dice_wooden

For those that don’t know what a committee letter is, I’ll explain a little bit. Most large institutions, particularly those that are affiliated with a medical school (e.g., Duke University) have a committee that overseas advising and recommendations for the pre-health professions. Students are given the option to submit a single letter of recommendation from the committee in lieu of soliciting letters from individuals. This is important for a couple of reasons. First, a letter of recommendation from a committee can potentially carry more weight than individual letters because the perspective of the committee is likely to be more informed on how best to support an applicants candidacy. Another thing to keep in mind is that, if an applicant goes to an institution that offers a committee letter, but doesn’t attain one, that tends to raise some flags. Finally, the medical admissions world is not very big – gaining a committee letter from an institution that holds applicants to a high standard can set you apart. Of course, the opposite is also true. If you poison the well at your undergraduate or post-bacc institution, you’re probably screwed.

The institution I chose to do my post-bacc coursework at has a rather rigorous committee letter application process. Several months ago, I had to attend a seminar on the process and more or less sign up to start. The application consisted of a few dozen short essays about our life, goals, reasons for pursuing a career in medicine, and things like that. We also had to compile all of our grades, calculate yearly GPA, report scores, and all of that sort of thing. Essentially, the purpose is to force applicants to compile all of the necessary things for application prior to June, when AMCAS begins allowing applications to be submitted. A secondary purpose for all of the writing is to get students primed to work on their personal statements. I’ll start working on my personal statement next week, but I think that one of my essays will probably be the basis for it.

Once all of that stuff is finished, I’ll have a series of interviews to determine whether or not the committee will support my candidacy or not. If they choose to, I’ll have to submit my application before a certain date and then the committee chair will write a letter of recommendation from the committee, which will be uploaded to AMCAS.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, right out of high school I was an awful student and had a terrible GPA. It wasn’t until a couple of days ago that I put all my grades together and figured out what my stats looked like. It turns out that my overall GPA is a 3.254 with an overall science GPA of 3.475. The picture improves quite a bit, when I look at my post-bacc grades: an overall GPA of 3.842 and a science GPA of 3.802. I have no idea how schools are going to look at this – hopefully they have the sense to see that I didn’t get serious about college until 2003 and that I’m actually serious about what I do today.

Caesar Crossing the Rubicon, from “Figures de L’Historie de la Republique Romaine

I’m set to start finalizing the list of schools that I’m going to be applying to. The Doctor Lady and I have had a lot of discussion on it and she’s gotten a lot more comfortable with some uncertainty about the future. I’m tired of being apart from her. I’m applying exclusively to MD / PhD programs and will probably pick around 15 schools – hopefully my lackluster GPA doesn’t hit the adcom too hard.

It’s interesting – writing nonstop for the past few weeks about my interests and goals in medicine has really helped me articulate it better. Things have come into focus for me a lot more than they would have been a couple of months ago. This is another of those hurdles along the way I suppose – it was an interesting experience, but I’m glad that all the writing is done.

My research project that I’ve been working on took a serious backseat about a month ago, so it’s time to dust it off and get back to work on it. Tonight though, I think I’ll crack a beer, cook up a steak, and play some Skyrim.

Oh. To all of you that helped me review my essays and writing, thanks so much. Couldn’t have done it wihout your help and I know you helped me improve a lot of things. Hopefully I did a decent enough job on it to convince the committee to strongly support my application. I’m going to try not to let myself get too worked up between now and my interview, since there isn’t much more I can do.

Death by a Thousand Deadlines

My committee letter application for my post-bacc institution is due this Friday at 5:00 PM.  I was chatting with a buddy of mine earlier tonight and told him how much work I still had left to do on my application and he mentioned how he hated deadlines.  I started to realize that, among the many things I have to look forward to, meeting deadlines is going to characterize the next ten years of my life.  There are deadlines for application.  Deadlines for secondaries.  Deadlines for deciding on where to go if I’m accepted.  Deadlines for everything in graduate school, I’m sure.  Deadlines.  Deadlines.  Deadlines.

I’m glad I see this now and have started learning how to be organized, otherwise I’ll be going insane a few years from now.

Thoughts on Preparing for the MCAT

I apologize that it’s taken me this long to get a post up on how I studied for the MCAT. I’ve been really busy with work lately and, to be perfectly frank, I’ve more or less forgotten about the MCAT entirely.  Although, last night I did have a nightmare that there was a second entrance exam for medical school that I didn’t know about. The weird thing was that it consisted of fighting vampires and lycans, along with a substantial amount of platforming. I’m not going to lie – I’ve been playing a lot of Castlevania and Deus Ex on my Playstation over the past few months.

As much fun as all of that is, I want to lay out my thoughts on preparing for the MCAT for several reasons. First, I feel somewhat obligated to all those that came before me for sharing their thoughts and experience. In particular, I really should single out the long-running thread on SDN which provided me with the framework I used to structure my study time. Second, I’d like to help others that are going to be taking the exam and hopefully help them avoid some of the mistakes that I see a lot of students make. Finally, one of the things I hope to do is encourage those of you out there that haven’t put the exam in the rearview yet. One of the things that I learned about the MCAT, or studying for any professional school exam for that long, is the huge emotional roller coaster you’ll be on. I’ve got some thoughts on this at the end.

With all that said, let’s dive in. Let me qualify my remarks here a bit – most of this is really oriented for people that will be taking the exam in its current format. The MCAT is scheduled to undergo a major overhaul in a couple of years, so if you aren’t taking it for 3-4 years, not all of what I have to say will be directly applicable to you.

First, some general advice on how to be successful on the exam:

  • Focus on learning the material in the classes. This probably gets mentioned (and ignored) more than any other piece of advice, but it is absolutely true. The worst thing you can do for yourself is obsess about your grade and not learn the material. There will undoubtedly be a couple of topics that you need to learn from scratch for the exam, but if you don’t know anything about physiology and want to prepare for the exam, you have some hard yards ahead of you.
  • Don’t start reviewing for the MCAT until you have taken all the prerequisite material. This is really just a restatement of my earlier comment, but it gets all the time by premeds. There are people that do it, but I suspect that they are less than satisfied with their MCAT scores.
  • Do not take the MCAT until you know you can and will be ready to take it. I have personal experience with this – two summers ago, I was studying for the exam and after about 10 weeks started realizing that I wasn’t read and was having to learn a lot of new material. I concluded that I really needed some time to fill in the holes, so I took a year long graduate biochemistry sequence and a semester each of physiology and genetics. It set my application back by a year, but there is no doubt in my mind that my score on the MCAT was all the better for it.
  • Do not get impatient and decide to take the exam earlier than when you will be ready. A bunch of my classmates did this and wound up with mediocre scores because of it. In one case, a friend of mine scored something in the mid-20s and it completely derailed his application.
  • Do not adopt the attitude of “I’ll take it to see how I do”. MD schools see all of your attempts, so don’t be a fool here. One shot. One kill.

Here’s my opinion on prep courses.

  • They are expensive and, in my opinion, often give students a false sense of preparedness. A lot of students I’ve seen take a prep course during the spring and prepare to sit the exam thinking they are ready when in reality they are not.
  • They force a schedule upon you which may or may not be beneficial. A prep course for me would have been a huge waste of time because it would have spent ages in physics and molecular biology, none of which would have been necessary for me. In hindsight, I could have probably reviewed MCAT physics in a few sessions. On the other hand, I really needed to spend a couple of days on electrochemistry because it was something I had never covered. Prep courses typically do not have the flexibility to do that sort of thing.
  • For some people, particularly those that are not able to rigorously stick to a review schedule, prep courses may make sense. If you cannot discipline yourself to study and review at the appropriate time, a prep course might help you out.
  • One final thought on prep courses. If you take one and it helps you review, that’s great. But it’s only part of the game. You have to do practice exams under actual exam conditions. There were people I knew that showed up to take the exam with me and I was shocked how many of them took a prep course and had only done one practice exam. Unwise.

Now onto prep material. As I mentioned a while ago, I don’t think that the material is really the determinant for doing well. I believe practicing questions under timed conditions and heavy review is the key to success. That said, here are my thoughts on the different review systems out there:

  • Kaplan – Their subject review material is absolutely terrible and riddled with errors. I’ve heard that the material available in their classes is better, but I’ve not seen those. Also, their ‘MCAT in a Box’ is a giant waste of money.
  • Princeton Review – Didn’t use any of this, although their Hyperlearning series is rather legendary from what I have heard.
  • ExamKrackers – I felt their content review was rather cursory and I found myself constantly needing to supplement it, particularly with their chemistry section.  Their verbal review book was fantastic and, as much as I hate to admit it, their Audio Osmosis series helped tremendously with knowing the things which were going to be covered on the exam and what I could safely ignore.
  • The Berkeley Review – Hands down the best review materials I used. The format of their passages is really well suited to timing and learning to think the way the MCAT requires. I will say that their material is far over the top – if you use the Berkeley Review, do not let it get you discouraged when you wind up missing half the questions on practice passages.  I attribute my success on the exam in no small part to the fact that I got hammered on a regular basis by the passages in those books, particularly the biology book.

Now we get to the meat of how to make a study schedule and stick to it. As I mentioned, I heavily leveraged what was recommended on SDN, so if you want more details, check it out there.

  • Register for the exam and know when and what date you will be taking it.
  • Figure out how much time you have to devote to the exam. 3 months is very aggressive if you have a full-time job or other responsibilities. 4 months of studying worked well for me but you need to schedule a lot of break days, or you will get burnt to a cinder. I was ready to be done after about 10 weeks or so. People that talk about hardcore studying for 6 months are lying. Anything more than 4 months and you’re going to be a crispy critter come exam day.
  • Set a tangible and realistic goal for yourself. Some people set their goal to be a 40 or a 45. To me, this is foolish. Something like only 8 people out of 1000 score over a 40 and no one gets a 45. My goal was a 35 and I would have been pleased if I’d wound up with a 34, but a little disappointed. Happily, as it turned out, that didn’t happen. Make sure that your goal is realistic, but not something you’ll be devastated by if you miss it by a point or two.
  • Count backwards about 4 weeks and schedule the 8 practice AAMC exams, leaving at least two days in between to review the exam and do practice questions as review. Also, make sure to schedule a day off every week or so – for me, burnout set in after about 12 weeks and I really needed time to unwind occasionally, or I was going to go crazy.
  • Count backwards another 3 months and fill in your study schedule. I found that doing the practice exams after the review was far more beneficial than doing them once my content review was complete. Not everyone does it this way, but it worked for me.
  • Don’t let the exam consume you.  You could literally spend the rest of your life studying the concepts tested on the MCAT.  Anyone that thinks they understand all of this stuff completely is kidding themselves.
  • A lot of people, after the fact, will look back and say “I really shouldn’t have worried about it so much” or “Put the MCAT in perspective”.  I think that’s a bunch of crap because for 3-4 months of your life, it really needs to be the most important thing under the sun.  That’s a crappy deal, I know, and yeah, it isn’t the only part of your application.  But let’s face it – schools screen based in large part on your MCAT score.  I’m not going to say “I shouldn’t have worried about it so much” now.  I crushed the MCAT mostly because I DID worry about it so much.  I didn’t ride my bike for 4 months.  I didn’t get to hang out with friends much during that time either.  I’m not saying you should live like a monk or anything like that – I drank my share of beer and played a lot of Oblivion – but if you want to give yourself the best chance to do well on the thing, don’t listen to anyone telling you to relax or not worry about the MCAT.  I know lots of people that weren’t worried about their MCAT performance.  I did a lot better than they did.

For studying, I would set a 50 minute timer and focus on getting good work done. After 50 minutes, I would take a 10 minute break, check my email, talk to the Dr. Lady, and get something to eat or drink. Then I’d go back and repeat. I found that studying at the office after everyone had left to be very effective. The only times I went to the coffee shop were when I wanted coffee. There were people there with their MCAT books and I marvel that they were able to get anything done.

Once you’ve gotten started, understand that, regardless of the time you set aside, you will fall behind. You have to keep going. As you start doing more passages and reviewing them, particularly if you adopt a cyclical approach to studying, you will find that you wind up filling in a lot of holes, so don’t get hung up on getting every problem worked or every detail figured out.

If you want more detail on how I actually studied, as in the day-to-day work, check out the SDN post on MCAT studying or feel free to ask in the comments or in an email.

The emotional part of the process is what I really wanted to talk about. I was unprepared for the constant ups and downs of the process. I remember missing questions, not understanding a particular concept, or making mistakes and I realize now that I let it negatively affect me when it came to working passages or taking the practice exams. Probably one of the most important things to learn is confidence and it only comes with time. This is part of the reason why I recommend against practice exams prior to review or a ‘diagnostic exam’. The last thing you want the day of the exam is to be thinking about all the questions you missed or the mistakes you made on practice exams.

I had planned to write a lot more about my thoughts on preparing for the exam, but ultimately I think each person needs to tailor something that will work for them. I was pleased with the approach that I took and how the results turned out.

On a personal note, I really need to say thanks to a few people.  First, the Dr. Lady.  She help me keep going when I scored below the multiple guess rate on a set of biology passages (yes, the Berkeley Review is that hard) and reminded me of good performances when I needed to hear it.  My buddy Little Ben for making sure we got together for a beer once every month or so, lest I forget that life exists outside of the exam.  And lastly, I really need to say thanks to all of you guys for the encouragement over the past year.  Knowing that all of you were waiting for practice exam results made it a lot easier to struggle through all those practice passages.  Hopefully, the application cycle will work out alright and I’ll find myself looking back with another milestone in my rearview.  Thanks!

Apparently the MCAT is Important

The head of the premed committee at my institution had quite a few things to say to me earlier this week. He seemed to think that a big MCAT score on the board was something of a gamechanger and altered the way that I should look at schools. Apparently, my exam score, GPA, letters of recommendation, and research / work experience give me a very strong application and, assuming I don’t tank my interviews, he felt confident I was going to have my pick of several offers next year. When I asked about schools he was thinking would be wise to apply to, he started spouting off places like UCSF, UCSD, Stanford, Duke, Johns Hopkins, and so forth. I was really taken back because for the last two years I’ve know him, every time I walked out of his office I felt like he thought I was a joke. His inability to tell people what they want to hear is legendary. This time I went to see him, I heard phrases like “Run like the wind” quite a bit. From his perspective, I have a significant opportunity here which a lot of people don’t normally have.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with the physican I’ve been doing research with. We were talking about some of my goals in medicine and I told her that I really wanted to wind up at an academic institution, with a significant amount of teaching and collaboration. She asked me if I had considered the MD / PhD route. I remarked that I had considered a PhD several times since I graduated and that I had turned it down because I felt that it really narrowed ones focus and that sort of turned me off to it. In her opinion, that is a flawed understanding of the way that the dual-degrees function in medicine. In the medical field, the dual-degree functions in a somewhat different manner than it does in the hard sciences and doesn’t necessarily constrain someone to one very narrow slice of the profession. Additionally, from her perspective, dual-degrees among the faculty of most institutions is becoming more the rule rather than the exception. This of course got me thinking, because every one of my professors and classmates has asked me why I’ve not considered the dual-degree. Well, now I am.

This is all rather strange for me. Up until now I’ve been thinking of myself and my candidacy for medical school from the perspective of an underdog. I think that may be a bit of a mistake – if there is an opportunity here, I don’t want to waste it.

With that as a bit of prologue, I have a couple of questions that I’d like to crowd-source some advice on.

  • Is a dual-degree (or an MD with a post-doc or fellowship) more or less the standard approach for a person with my goals?
  • What are the most important aspects of a combined program to consider?
  • Are there limits on what fields a person is able to pursue their PhD in?
  • In general, what advice would you give to someone in my position looking at selecting schools to apply to, both for MD and MD-PhD programs?

If any of you guys have some advice, I’d love to hear it. Thanks.