An Insider’s Perspective: Medical School Advisor Tips on Preparing Pre-Medical Students
By Lisa Cardello, Ferin Ford, Nicholas LaTorre, and Chantal Vergara
The medical school experience is unlike most academic endeavors students face. The curriculum is fast-paced and expansive, leaving little room for error but many possibilities for difficulty. Career specialists can use the observations of professionals in the field to support students who aspire to enter medical school long before the application process even begins.
Create a Strategic Study Plan
The medical school curriculum challenges students to master a large volume of content in a short period of time. This can become an obstacle for students accustomed to utilizing conventional studying methods (such as cramming) as opposed to efficient learning strategies. To be successful, students must be prepared with a strategic study plan to ensure optimal retention and mastery of the content. Undergraduate students should begin practicing strategies such as:
- Scientifically-proven learning strategies such as spaced repetition, interleaving, and active recall promote long term retention and mastery of course content (Brown et al., 2014).
- Practice using active learning tools and resources such as flashcards, mnemonic devices, diagrams and quizzes.
- Utilize time management techniques such as time tracking, the Pomodoro technique, and consistent use of a planner or calendar application. Practice frontloading important and creative tasks in the morning, and leave more mundane and less urgent ones for later in the day (also known as the “Fresh and Fried” technique.)
In addition to active learning strategies, students should begin mastering effective test-taking strategies early on to be successful. To prepare for the MCAT exam, students need to enroll in challenging courses that align with the MCAT exam blueprint and use exam review books along with a question bank routinely to supplement course material. Timed practice questions and self-assessments also permit students to conceptualize content knowledge, practice exam pacing, build exam stamina, strengthen their confidence, and minimize test anxiety (Sefcik et al., 2013).
Medical school is undoubtedly a high stress environment. Students are confronted with competing pressures to do well academically as well as participate in medically-related co-curricular activities. As prospective medical students, it is crucial to establish effective stress management skills. Ideally, students would seek mental health support prior to admission because anxiety and depression symptoms are often exacerbated in medical school (Ludwig et al., 2019). Career specialists may need to refer undergraduates to appropriate mental health services.
It is also common for medical students to battle with imposter syndrome – feelings of self-doubt and fear that they are not as intellectually competent as others perceive them to be (Perlus, 2018). Students reverse these maladaptive thinking patterns by developing a growth mindset to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks and see effort as a path to mastery (Dweck, 2006). This new way of thinking counteracts the belief that academic accomplishments are simply a result of luck or good timing and encourages help-seeking behaviors. Establishing a strong support system and stress management routine are also ways students can prepare for the impending stressors of medical school.
Interpersonal skills are crucial to students’ successful progression through medical school. Limitations in this area not only hinder grades but also students’ progress later in the medical residency application process. From our observations, students who exhibit weaker social skills compared to their classmates tend to perform poorly on clinical rotations and residency interviews.
Practitioners can design student-ready environments by connecting students to co-curricular activities that promote engagement in teams or service work. Experiences where students are involved in the medical field are even more beneficial. Research suggests that early exposure to clinical settings, especially patient interactions, can promote the development of strong communication skills (Graf et al., 2020). When career specialists assist students in identifying professional development opportunities such as attending conferences and seeking a mentor in the medical field, the student may benefit from models of strong social interactions and guidance in further growth opportunities.
Do Your Homework
Careers specialists must be knowledgeable about navigating the medical school selection process so that they may guide students appropriately. Medical schools differ greatly, so it is important that students research and evaluate schools to a greater depth than when applying to undergraduate programs. Common factors that students use to evaluate medical schools include tuition, culture, location, prestige/reputation, and mission of the school. However, there are other, often overlooked, areas to consider as well. For example, some medical schools provide varying curricular tracks, such as a lecture-based track or a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) track. A student should evaluate whether their learning style and preferences are consistent with a school’s delivery method(s) of instruction.
Students should also research career paths and residency match rates. For example, if students are interested in dermatology, they should make sure that their selected medical schools have consistently placed graduates in this specialty area. This is particularly important for students who have an interest in highly specialized areas of medicine. Additionally, it is important for students to recognize that there are two types of American medical schools: allopathic and osteopathic. Both offer a comprehensive medical education needed to become a practicing physician, but osteopathic medical schools teach OMT, a set of hands-on techniques used to diagnose, treat and prevent illness or injury (American Osteopathic Association, n.d.).
A gap year refers to a period of time between the end of a student’s undergraduate education and the start of medical school. While some students may prefer to immediately progress from one level of education to the next, the reality is that gap years are not uncommon among medical school applicants. According to a 2019 survey of incoming medical students conducted by the Association of American Medical Colleges, 43.9% of students who enrolled in medical school took one to two gap years (Murphy, 2020).
Career specialists play a key role in recognizing when a student may benefit from this time and advising accordingly. A gap year can allow students the opportunity to strengthen their medical school application in a variety of ways, such as maximizing study time for the MCAT exam, engaging in research or community service activities, completing prerequisite courses or a post-baccalaureate program, solidifying career goals, or taking a much-needed break prior to starting medical school.
Supporting Future Physicians’ Career Aspirations
In conclusion, the journey to becoming a doctor may seem insurmountable at times but with the right skills and strategies, undergraduate career specialists can support students’ career aspirations of becoming a physician long before they take their first step into medical school.
American Osteopathic Association. (n.d.). What is osteopathic manipulative treatment? https://osteopathic.org/what-is-osteopathic-medicine/osteopathic-manipulative-treatment/
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.
Graf, J., Loda, T., Zipfel, S. et al. (2020). Communication skills of medical students: survey of self- and external perception in a longitudinally based trend study. BMC Medical Education, 20(149). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-020-02049-w
Ludwig, A. B., Burton, W., Weingarten, J., Milan, F., Myers, D. C., & Kligler, B. (2015). Depression and stress amongst undergraduate medical students. BMC Medical Education, 15(141). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-015-0425-z
Murphy, B. (2020). Premeds: Capitalize on gap years before applying to medical school. American Medical Association. https://www.ama-assn.org/residents-students/preparing-medical-school/premeds-capitalize-gap-years-applying-medical-school
Perlus, J. (2019). Helping clients who feel like imposters. NCDA Career Convergence Web Magazine. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/197507/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/false
Sefcik, D. J., Bice, G., & Prerost, F. (2013). How to study for standardized tests. Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Lisa Cardello, EdS, NCC serves as the Director of Center for Teaching and Learning at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine (RowanSOM) where she oversees academic and career advising services. She is a National Certified Counselor and an adjunct professor at Rider University and Rowan University where she teaches career planning courses. Lisa is a past President of the New Jersey state chapter of NCDA. Lisa can be reached at email@example.com.
Ferin Ford, MA, is the Associate Director of Center for Teaching and Learning at RowanSOM where she works closely with first year students as they transition into medical school, as well as provides supervision for a robust peer tutoring program. Ferin oversees the SOM Pre-Matriculation Program, an educational program which helps future physicians acclimate to the academic and social challenges of medical school. Ferin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicholas LaTorre, MA, is an Academic Advisor/Program Coordinator in the Center for Teaching and Learning at RowanSOM. Nick provides academic and career advising to third and fourth year students as they navigate the process of selecting a medical specialty and participate in the residency Match. Nick also coordinates programming at RowanSOM including the Fundamentals II course and the Road the Residency orientation. Nick can be reached at email@example.com.
Chantal Vergara, MA, NCC is an Academic Advisor/Program Coordinator in the Center for Teaching and Learning at RowanSOM. Chantal provides academic advising to second year medical students as they navigate coursework and prepare for the medical licensing board exam. Chantal oversees the RowanSOM Summer PREP Program, an educational enrichment program that provides scholars who are often underrepresented in the medical profession with academic, clinical, and research opportunities to support their medical school preparation. She also coordinates the Rowan SOM Inter-professional Grand Rounds program. Chantal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.