20 January 2008

When should I "give up" on applying to medical school?

I was speaking with a group of undergraduate pre-med students who asked me when I thought someone should “give up” on seeking admission into medical school. My first inclination was to say that if medical school and medicine is your “dream” you should never “give up”. I thought a bit about what might be behind the question and I thought it might make a good essay topic for my blogs.

I have never been a person who dealt in “shoulds” in terms of what might be the best situation for anyone’s life and life pursuit. If you want something and if really desire something, then pursue that “something” and make sure that you are in the best possible situation to achieve your goal. Any realistic (and the emphasis here is on realistic) goal is achievable in taking small steps daily toward it. Certainly, you cannot possibly reach anything if your are not moving “toward” it.

The pursuit of admission to medical school and medicine is a bit like having more than 100 pounds to lose. You have to be consistent with your work on a daily basis or you are not going to see results. This means that everything “counts” and you can’t afford to “slack” or you won’t reach your goals. Your undergraduate work is an opportunity to set yourself up with solid and disciplined study skills that can take you into medical school and beyond. It is also an opportunity to learn how to learn and master coursework. Just as daily exercise and diet modification will lead you closer to losing that 100 pounds (ounces at a time), daily preparation/study and mastery of your coursework will lead you closer to your goal (one semester at a time).

As you have probably heard, this is not a “sprint” but a “marathon” and like a marathon, you can’t just lace up your running shoes and expect to finish a 26.2 - mile race without some daily training and preparation. If you are not comfortable with long-term goal achievement, then use your undergraduate to obtain the characteristics that will make you comfortable with long-term goal achievement.

Overcoming difficulties
There are plenty of physicians out there who didn’t start off strong as an undergraduate. Perhaps they had some maturity problems or perhaps they just didn’t have the academic skills for the pre-med coursework but the important thing is that they kept their goals in mind. If something is not working for you in terms of getting your coursework mastered, then change it.

You can decide at this very minute -even if you are on the verge of dismissal- that you are going to turn your academics around “by any means necessary”. The process of doing this “turn-around” can be a huge asset in terms of making you competitive for medical school but you have to be successful. Just thinking about getting your academics together (like dreaming about losing 100 pounds) won’t make it happen but taking some active steps toward changing your methods will get results.

Many students have gone from extremely low undergraduate performances to getting themselves competitive but the process is not easy or short. Again, it’s back to the daily and consistent work with constant checkpoints to make sure that you are keeping on track. Enlist the assistance of any study skills courses at your school; enlist the help of peer tutors; enlist the help of a good academic adviser. In short, get help from any resources that you can find. Often, your school’s counseling service can help you identify resources at your school that can help you. You have to take the first steps and be willing to make some changes. Why not make the changes because what you are doing is either successful or it’s not?
Just remember, undergraduate “GPA damage control” is a long and expensive process. If you know this going in, then you can prepare yourself for the long haul. Again, medicine is not a sprint, it’s a long-term goal.

There are some things that are very, very difficult to overcome. I place things like academic dishonesty, felony convictions and substance abuse problems. Most medical schools, even if you are sitting there with a uGPA of 4.0 and an MCAT of 45, are not going to be very interested in you with these things in your background. If you have a substance abuse problem, get it taken care of long before you anticipate entry into medical school. There are excellent substance abuse programs out there and you can’t hide from your problems forever. Medical school on any pharmaceutical substance (other than pharmaceuticals prescribed by a physician within the guidelines of established medical practice) is expensive and heading for a crash either physically or legally. Neither of these are things that a prospective medical school would like to deal with. In short, take care of what you need to take care of and educate yourself so that you can handle life without drugs of any kind. If you “think” you have a problem with tobacco, alcohol, uppers, downers and any other illicit substances, then you have a “problem”. Get your “problems” solved as soon as they are identified.

Living in the “Real “World
You are going to read (and hear) stories out there about John or Jane X who got into Medical School A or B with a GPA of 2.5 and an MCAT or 20. Those John and Jane X’s are very, very unlikely to be real people. The average uGPA for medical school matriculants in 2007 was around 3.65 and the average MCAT was around 31. This means that the further from those average on the low side that you are, the lower your chances of admission. Admission to medical school with a uGPA of 2.5 is not impossible but it is improbable since the uGPA averages have been increasing every year. Get your uGPA as high as you can period. Get the highest MCAT score that you can period.

There are also folks out there who would believe that if you are an URM (Underrepresented Minority) in medicine, that you can get into medical school with drastically lower GPAs/MCAT. This is simply not the case because you have to have something in your application that shows you are capable of mastery of a challenging medical curriculum. If you are a URM and far below the uGPA/MCAT averages, then you likely don’t have a competitive application. Do what you have to do, to make yourself competitive and be prepared to take some years to get this done. I don’t care what your ethnicity/race is, you still have to be able to get through medical school if admitted. Admission is no guarantee that you will complete medical school. If you uGPA/MCAT is low, get yourself competitive by whatever means you have at your disposal.

But when do I “give up”?
You must answer this question for yourself. Preparation, application and matriculation in medical school is a very expensive process. How much time and money do you have? If you are a re-applicant, what you have you done to significantly improve your chances of admission? Just reapplying to medical school to “show them that you really, really want this” is not enough. You have to make some improvements on your application before you spend that money to reapply. Again, take a realistic look at what might have kept you out and get it improved.

If your application didn’t work this year, rework everything that you can rework before you submit for a future year. If you are reapplying to the same schools, you especially need to change and improve everything about your application that can be changed. Get fresh letters of recommendation, rewrite your personal statement (I don’t care how wonderful you believe it is, it didn’t work) and take more coursework if your uGPA is very low. Retake the MCAT if that is holding you back. (Beware though, retaking the MCAT and scoring lower can be a death blow). What ever you do, be sure to make it an improvement and not a change for the worse.

Looking at other career options
Some people believe that if they explore other career options such as physician assistant, nursing or physical therapy, that they are somehow giving up their dream. Nothing could be further from the truth. Explore other careers and have a realistic appraisal of how competitive you are for those careers. You may find that one of those careers better suits you in the first place from the standpoint of time of schooling to what your actual interests/motivation for medicine might be.

I am not advocating for anyone to seek to be a physician assistant, nurse or physical therapist because they “couldn’t get into medical school” but I am advocating that you should have a career back-up that you can love and pursue. You may not be competitive for physician assistant, nursing or physical therapist or you may not be interested in these great careers but you can’t make an honest decision without career exploration first. You may find again, that these careers are a great option for you and a better option than medicine.

Parting thoughts
Finally, be willing to let any of your advisers take a long and hard look at your competitiveness for medical school. If you don’t get in, get input from any and every excellent resource that you can find. Your goal is success on reapplication and you want to do everything that is within your grasp to ensure your success. Only you can tell when it’s time to move on to another career option and it’s YOUR life to live as you wish. Enlist any and all help that you can to get what you both need and want out of life.

The pursuit of becoming an excellent physician is a long goal. There will be people along the way who will tell you what you “can” and “cannot” accomplish. If you know yourself, and have faith in yourself, you know that you can accomplish anything that you want. You have to be willing to “run your own race” and take care of your own “needs”. There are as many routes into medical school as their are medical students.
If you should decide that you don’t want to pursue medicine, then that’s the best decision for you. Don’t let your life’s dream be anyone’s other than your own. It takes a fair about of courage to stand back, take a realistic appraisal of where you are and make the decision to move on to something else.

The other thing to consider is that getting into medical school does not have an age limit. Just because you decide not to continue with the pursuit next year does not mean that you can’t do something else and revisit medical school application three, four or even ten years down the line. As long as you have the desire, the stamina and are willing to earn competitive credentials, then give yourself a couple of years to decompress before you dive back into this process. If something doesn’t “click” for you in 2006, it might “click” in 2009 because you are a different person with a different perspective.

06 January 2008

Shadowing Me

Some people have asked what may be expected of a pre-med student who is shadowing a physician. I thought that I would write a bit about what I provide and expect on this shadowing experience. The expectations of the physician and the experience of the shadower definitely vary but I hope that this description provides those who have not shadowed with some things that might make the experience better.

Legal Matters
I have a confidentiality sheet that all pre-medical and medical students must sign before shadowing me. It outlines the confidentiality rules such as you may not disclose the name, condition or any other identifying information of any of the patients that you encounter during the shadowing experience. It also outlines that your may not write on any patient document while in the hospital and it outlines that you will observe all rules and regulations as you are directed by the staff of the hospital. These rules are for protection of the privacy of my patients and are pretty clearly outlined before you come to the hospital.

I ask that shadowers dress in business attire for the experience. This includes suits for males and suit or dress and jacket for females. I don’t ask for white coat because I seldom wear one. I have a badge that identifies you as a Student Observer that you will wear on your jacket along with a name tag. My patients expect that you will be professionally dressed and they are made aware of your presence. If I am going to be doing any procedures that you will be observing, I obtain their permission before you are allowed to observe anything. The staff is quite aware that I have shadowers from time to time and are very helpful in terms of making you feel comfortable. They understand the process and are happy to help me make sure that you have a good experience.

What I expect you to do
I expect you to have some expectations of what you want to achieve in participating in this experience. You should write down a few objectives and have these ready for me to go over with you. Are you there to learn about my specialty? Are you there to learn about the practice of medicine in 2008? Are you there to discuss your chances of admission into medical school? Are you there because you need an additional letter of recommendation for medical school? In short, jot down a few objectives for your visit and have them handy.

I expect you to bring a copy of your Curriculum Vitae (resume). If you have a photo attached, so much the better but I take a digital photo of you and place it with my copy of the signed Confidentiality sheet. If I am writing a letter of recommendation, I like to look at the photo and make sure that I remember the person correctly. Sometimes people will ask for a letter several weeks after their shadowing experience and I like to make sure that I remember the person.

I also like for you to bring a copy of your Personal Statement (PS) and the medical schools that interest you. I usually read your PS before we begin the day and I often offer tips for making the document stronger. I also can provide some information about specific schools that might be helpful to you. I can also suggest particular schools that might be a good fit for you too. Again, I add your PS and schools list to the folder that contains the documents that I have mentioned above.

The Day
I usually have people shadow on a day that I am in the hospital ,clinic and teaching. While it’s a long day, it usually gives the shadower a good experience. I usually have folks come on the day when I am not on call and have a lighter procedure day. I want to you see some cases but I also want you to have plenty of time to ask questions and understand as much about my practice as possible. I also will send you a list of the cases that I have scheduled and a brief description should you want to do some research before you observe.

Over lunch, which I provide, we usually discuss your career plans and I answer any questions that you might have. Again, I usually have taken a look at your CV, PS and schools list. If you are yet to take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), I usually offer some tips about preparation for this very important exam. Since you will likely sit in on one of may classes, I usually give you a copy of my lecture notes so that you can follow along. The class is a great time for you to meet some of my pre-clinical medical students or some of the third-years that are on my service. They usually have loads of hints and suggestions about application to medical school.

When the day is done, usually about 5 pm (just before evening rounds), I usually go over any questions that you might have and any expectations that you have of me that we haven’t gone over during lunch. If you need a letter of recommendation, I ask that you provide a deadline for me so that I can make sure that you letter is out in a timely fashion.

Most shadowers get a chance to participate in morning rounds, a few cases, in my clinic and sit in on a class or lecture. I think that while the day is pretty full for you, it gives you a fairly realistic idea of what this profession involves. After all, this is your shadowing experience and you have a short period of time to make the most of your experience. I also feel that you need to have exposure to the daily routine of what I do so that you can compare your shadowing experience with me to others that you might have. Again, this gives you a more realistic experience.

Finally, I do have people who come back for a second day sometimes. These folks usually have shadowed me early in their undergraduate career and now want to spend a little more time working on buffing their application before they submit it. I certainly do not ever have a problem with this. I definitely recommend that people shadow at several stages in their undergraduate career as sometimes the shadowing experience can hone your desire to pursue medicine if you were unsure the first time around.

Good sources of names of physicians who will allow you to shadow are the local medical societies in your locale. Most local medical societies will have lists of physicians who will work with you. I know that in many large metropolitan areas the city medical society will make all of the arrangements for you. This was how I was able to shadow several physicians before I entered medical school.

Another source of physicians who will allow you to shadow would be any medical schools that are nearby. You might contact the individual clinical departments of the medical schools which may be able to match you with the name of a physician or two that would allow you to shadow. Other resources are your family or personal physician who may provide this service or know a colleague or two that might allow you to shadow.

The important things to do are:
  • Have a list of objectives that you want to accomplish on this visit.
  • Find out what the dress code will be, what time you are expected to finish and what the daily agenda will be.
  • Have a copy of your CV, personal statement and list of schools if possible (attach a small passport-sized photo) to your CV.
  • If you need a Letter of Recommendation, be sure to provide a deadline, an address as to where the letter should be sent and if the letter is going to an individual or a committee.

The last thing is to enjoy your experience being mindful of the person who is allowing you to shadow them. This means being mindful of the confidentiality of their patients and send a letter of thanks when you are done.

05 January 2008

Academic Excellence

For many people in both medical school, graduate school and undergraduate school, this is the beginning of the second semester (or quarter). If you are new to your academics, then you finished the first semester/fall quarter with some academic achievements (good or bad) and learned some things about yourself. Since this blog is about strategies for success in medicine (getting into medical school, staying in medical school and other things associated with medical school), I though I would post a note or two about making changes that can enhance your Academic excellence.

Doing well in academics is something that can be mastered with practice. It comes out of having a strong and solid approach to what you have to master in terms of knowledge and it comes out of having a high comfort level with the learning process. If you always feel that you are somehow “not going to be able to get everything learned” or that ” the course is too hard”, then your beliefs can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no task, no matter how great or how formidable, that cannot be approached by taking small steps every day until it is conquered. You have to be willing to “chip away” on a daily basis and note your progress on a daily basis in order to see that you are handling the larger task in smaller steps.

Let’s take Organic Chemistry for as an example. At the beginning of the year, your professor hands you a syllabus that outlines the lecture schedule, laboratory schedule and exam dates in addition to what is expected in terms of how you will be graded in the course. Usually your grade is the result of your grades on some combination of exams and projects. Armed with this information, the first thing that you need to do is make a master subject calendar of lecture topics and test dates. Also include things like “one week to Exam 1 ” and “2 weeks to Exam 1″ along with “3, 2 and 1 week to project due” so that when you look at your calendar daily, you know exactly how much time you have to master the knowledge for the material on your exams/projects.

The next thing to do is look at your reading and problem assignments each week for your lectures/topics. Some topics have many problems and some don’t have so many problems. Divide and conquer here by looking at the amount of time alloted for each topic. This should give you a good idea of the importance of each topic. Your textbook is a good resource in terms of looking at how much time and space it devotes to a particular topic. For example, look at functional groups of organic compounds. This is a topic that can be divided into families with the simpler families being presented first and the more complicated families being presented later. You can use your text to add upon your knowledge base.

The other thing that you want to do is be sure that you are prepared for each lecture. Don’t go to class with the idea that you can sit there, listen to the lecture and learn what you need for mastery. You need to know something about the topic before you hear the lecture. The best way to do this is to read about the topic before you hear the lecture so that you know something about the items that will be presented. Don’t every walk into a lecture “cold” as 50% of your actual studying can be done in your preparation for you upcoming lecture. The other 50% comes in your digestion of both the reading and lecture in addition to any problems that were assigned.

A point about problems and problem solving. With any problem that you are given, try to figure out what learning concept is behind the problem. For example, look at the wording of a problem and then review the concept that applies to that wording. Consider the problem, in diabetic ketoacidosis, glycerol is primarily used for what? To answer this problem, you need to know something about the biochemical derangements that take place in diabetic ketoacidosis. In diabetic ketoacidosis, the patient is acidotic which implies that ketone bodies have been released and have lowered the pH of a patient’s blood. What else do you need to remember? You need to remember that while the blood sugar is high, the patient does not have adequate insulin which allows glucose to enter the cells and undergo glycolysis and be used for fuel. That leads you to thinking about why the ketone bodies are out in the blood stream in such high quantities in order to cause acidosis. This because the brain primarily, needs to have a constant fuel supply and in the face of a huge amount of glucose in the blood, none of it can be used by the brain because there is no insulin to allow the brain cells to take up the glucose. Now what do you need to know about diabetic ketoacidosis in addition to the above and that is that fat is being catabolized into acetyl Co-A that is being used to make the ketone bodies and that the fat comes from the breakdown of stored triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerol. The fatty acids can undergo beta oxidation to acetyl Co-A and then shunted into ketone bodies but the glycerol goes to the liver as a substrate for gluconeogenesis or the making of glucose. In the face of large amounts of glucose in the blood, the diabetic can’t use that glucose to feed their brain and thus they are making more glucose in addition to ketone bodies which are acidic. This is the concept behind this problem and why you need to approach problems like this or questions like this from many different angles rather than just memorize the answer. You have to be able to master the concepts so that in any manner you are questioned, you can figure out the correct answer not attempt to rely on you memory.

The next thing that you must think about is that you have all of the tools that you need to master your coursework under the conditions that work best for you. Don’t compare yourself to anyone in your class. Some people are visual learners (tend to sit in the front of the class) and some folks are aural learners (tend to sit in the back to avoid aural distractions). Most folks use a combination of both visual and aural and thus learn best when they utilize both methods. If you are a visual learner, then make a brief outline of the material to be covered in lecture and take a note here and there. Don’t try to write down every word that the professor says but watch how the material is presented and fill in your notes later. If you are an aural learner, listen to the lecture and take a note here and there. Listen for inflections in the professor’s voice. Listen for key phrases such as “in summary” or lists of important topics. If you worry that you will miss something, take a small digital recorder with you and record the lecture. You can then upload it to your lap top and it’s there if you need to review concepts.

In short, if you have managed to get through first semester, you have every tool that you need to excel second semester. You may need to adjust some of your study habits or you may need to fine tune others. The important thing is not to dwell on what anyone else in your class does but to do what you need to get the results that you want. There is no class invented that could not be mastered because after all, someone had to come up with the facts and concepts for the professor to present. Don’t go into any of your courses with preconceived notions that the course is too “touch” or is a “weed-out” course. The coursework is there for you to master and you have to figure out how you will master it.

Another common mistake that many students make is relying on their perceptions of the professor’s like or dislike of them personally. No one who is lecturing actually cares about you as a person. They don’t have a personal relationship with you, and if they do, it doesn’t matter in terms of the presentation of the material to be mastered. The material is there and it doesn’t care about you or the professor or whether or not you “like” or ”dislike” the subject matter. If you spend the dollars in tuition, then that alone should be enough for you to have a vested interest in mastery of the material that is presented. In short, you need to get your tuition dollar’s worth out of this class for whatever reason. Whether you ”like” or “don’t like” the way the professor talks, looks, or anything else has no relationship to how you deal with the material that is presented. The professor is not your main source of knowledge but someone to help you navigate (by their experience) though mastery of this class.

Finally, you can decide in this very instant, that you will change your “thinking” in terms of how you approach your coursework. You can approach your coursework from a point of fear and trepidation or you can approach your coursework from the standpoint of “hit me with your best shot because I can hit it back and score”. You can decide to toss old habits of trying to “cram” at the last minute and replace them with solid organization and daily study. You can decide that you will either adapt a lifestyle and study style that will allow you to become an excellent scholar or you will continue to do what you have been doing that doesn’t get the academic achievement that you want. The key point is that you are the complete master of your thoughts, actions and reactions.