Glad tidings

Med School CollageOnce again, we’re celebrating the accomplishments of the students who have completed our program.  Congratulations, everyone!  We couldn’t be prouder!

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When Should I Take the MCAT? Advice for Post-bacs and Non-traditional Pre-meds

timing the MCAT

I surely don’t need to tell you how important the MCAT is. In a forest of applicants with 3.6 cumulative GPAs, MCAT scores offer one important way for admissions committees to compare apples and oranges (or in the case of non-traditional students like our post-bacs, a way to compare persimmons with kumquats).

 

There are plenty of websites, online study guides, and of course the Khan Academy’s free MCAT video collection that you can use in your preparation.  Many of our students choose to study on their own, using books like The Berkeley Review, Exam Krackers, Kaplan, Princeton Review, and others. Others take courses, either online or in Rochester; still others hire an MCAT tutor.   These resources do a great job of helping our students prepare.

 

In my post today, I’d like to focus on a topic that you may not have thought through fully: deciding when to take the MCAT.   It’s an important consideration, and one that requires more deliberation than you might think. If you take the MCAT too soon, you risk being not fully prepared, which can be disastrous on the exam. If you wait too long, you may begin to forget the materials covered in your science courses, meaning that you’ll need to expend even more effort in an already challenging review process.

 

For post-bac students, timing is perhaps more complicated than for students who take the MCAT while still undergraduates. For post-bac students, the issue is more than simply waiting until you have completed the necessary coursework. The dilemma for post-bacs involves balancing how long you will need to prepare against your desire to begin medical school as quickly as possible. You need to keep in mind that MCAT review is not easy. Unlike tests of scholarly aptitude (like the GRE), the MCAT offers questions about specific concepts you must master in order to do well on the test. Don’t remember the viral life cycle? Go back and review, because this is fair game on the test.

 

For a post-bac student planning to take the MCAT, here are some essential things to keep in mind:

 

  1. The MCAT is only offered approximately 20 times each year. If you’re feeling ready to take the exam in the middle of October, that’s great—but you will need to wait until January at the earliest to take the exam. Keep in mind that most students take the MCAT during the year prior to applying to medical school.  You can find the 2016 MCAT dates on the AAMC’s website

 

  1. The MCAT should be your first priority. It’s very difficult to study for the MCAT while working full time or being a full time student. If you’re going to attempt to balance these activities, then you need to allot more months to study.

 

  1. MCAT preparation is not something you can do quickly. Most of our students take at least three months of intense study to prepare for the exam.

 

  1. Under NO circumstances should you plan to take the MCAT before you are ready, as a “practice run.” Medical schools will see these scores, and each school has its own method of using earlier, lower scores. Some schools may average the scores, others may decide only to use the most recent scores. It makes sense to plan to take the MCAT only once. Obviously, if the exam does not go as well as you hope, then you can always take it again. But going into the exam without sufficient preparation seems foolhardy.

 

  1. Practice exams are helpful, but do not necessarily predict how you will do on the actual exam. One thing I have heard repeatedly from students—high scorers and low scorers alike– is “But I did so much better on the practice exams!” There’s many reasons why this could be the case, ranging from nerves to practice tests that are not rigorous enough.

 

  1. It takes approximately 30 days to receive your scores. If you take the MCAT in September, your scores will not arrive until October. That’s quite late in the admissions cycle. Unless you’re a superstar, it’s probably a good idea to hold off and apply during the next application cycle. It’s much harder to get into medical school as an October applicant than as a June applicant, due to the rolling admissions process.

 

MCAT timing is a highly personal decision for students. I strongly encourage post-bac students to discuss their plans with a qualified adviser who can help them consider the pros and cons of when and how to prepare.   If you’re reading this advice as a prospective post-bac student, I encourage you to find a program with an adviser whom you trust, who can help you set a reasonable plan in place (along with a plan B in case things take more time than you anticipate). Don’t rush into the MCAT. It’s only one part of the medical school admissions picture—but it’s a very important part.

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Happy fall!

The University of Rochester is so beautiful in the fall.

Aerial views of the City of Rochester skyline, Genesee River, Rush Rhees Library and River campus buildings from the top of Brooks Crossing Apartments, University of Rochester's new residence hall.// photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester"

Aerial views of the City of Rochester skyline, Genesee River, Rush Rhees Library and River campus buildings from the top of Brooks Crossing Apartments, University of Rochester’s new residence hall.// photo by J. Adam Fenster

Statue of Martin Brewer Anderson, first president of the University of Rochester, at dusk photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester"

Statue of Martin Brewer Anderson, first president of the University of Rochester, at dusk photo by J. Adam Fenster

Hutchison Hall

Hutchison Hall, as seen from the Genesee River

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Images of Carlson Library

Looking for a good study spot?  Here’s where our post-bac students like to study.

"Exterior view, Computer Studies Building, University of Rochester, River Campus, Rochester, NY. The Computer Studies Building is the home of the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science as well as the Carlson Science and Engineering Library.  Photo by Brandon Vick, University Communications http://www.rochester.edu"

“Exterior view, Computer Studies Building, University of Rochester, River Campus, Rochester, NY.
The Computer Studies Building is the home of the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science as well as the Carlson Science and Engineering Library.
Photo by Brandon Vick, University Communications
http://www.rochester.edu”

Interior view of Carlson Library on the University of Rochester's River Campus, April 10, 2014. Photo by Brandon Vick, University Communications http://www.rochester.edu/

Interior view of Carlson Library on the University of Rochester’s River Campus, April 10, 2014.
Photo by Brandon Vick, University Communications
http://www.rochester.edu/

"This 3D image of an archaeological dig on Smith's Island in the Bermudas was compiled from photos taken by Prof. Mike Jarvis of the History Department. It was one of three winners of an HSCCI data visualization contest that was held to demonstrate the capabilities of the Visualization-Innovation-Science-Technology-Application (VISTA) Collaboratory, University of Rochester's new 1,000-square-foot data visualization lab located in Carlson Library, October 23, 2014. // photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester"

“This 3D image of an archaeological dig on Smith’s Island in the Bermudas was compiled from photos taken by Prof. Mike Jarvis of the History Department. It was one of three winners of an HSCCI data visualization contest that was held to demonstrate the capabilities of the Visualization-Innovation-Science-Technology-Application (VISTA) Collaboratory, University of Rochester’s new 1,000-square-foot data visualization lab located in Carlson Library, October 23, 2014. // photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester”

As always, thanks for taking such great photos of campus, Adam Fenster and Brandon Vick!

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Writing your personal statement for medical, dental, or vet school

Personal statement “5300 characters? How on earth can I possibly explain all of the reasons why I want to be a doctor in a single page?”

You can’t. In fact, if you could completely express your life’s ambition, describe your background and formative experiences, and gesture toward your personal philosophy in this limited space, you would have lived an unusually shallow life.

So what’s a medical school, dental school, or veterinary school applicant to do? Take heart, my friends. Here is my prescription:

There’s no way you can be exhaustive—so don’t try to be. Instead, tell a story, and tell it well. As humans, we’re made up of thousands of stories, and for an application, there is no single right story to include.

You may wonder, “Should I tell the story of my grandfather’s battle with heart disease? Maybe I should describe my amazing shadowing experiences with Dr. Iyer. Or should I recount the moment when I tore my ACL playing soccer?”  The experience itself probably does not matter all that much. What matters is the way you choose to tell it, and the way the experience sheds light on your motivation and character. In other words, admissions committees read thousands of essays each year—the experience itself, unless it is truly shocking, is probably unlikely to be unique. What is unique is you—the meanings you derive from the experiences you have had. Any story you tell should be a jumping-off place for self-examination, and a chance to reveal something authentic and thoughtful to your readers.

Be personal. That does not mean you need to disclose your deepest secrets in your essay—unless you have a clear rationale for doing so. Keep in mind that your words, in both this personal statement and in your essays in your secondary applications, are your only opportunity to introduce yourself in your own words to the admissions committee. Your goal is to make the admissions committee want to meet you. The way to do this is to be sincere, to be reflective, and to be honest.

No one expects you to be perfect. Some of the most interesting essays grow out of moments of failure, disappointment, grief, and challenge. The stories you tell in your essay do not need to have a happy ending, nor must they invariably show you in your finest hour. Sometimes the moments when we are challenged can lead to the richest opportunities to explain the complexity of our thinking.

Don’t expect your reader to do the work. If you relate an experience, you need to be clear about what it means to you. Don’t expect a reader to make a gigantic leap from a description of your pediatrician to your current research obsession without providing a logical connecting idea. Don’t expect a reader to automatically understand that the dog’s death you have so heartbreakingly described was the motivation for your desire to become a veterinarian. You need to do the work by linking these ideas into a logical, cohesive narrative.

And finally, plan to write more than one draft. In fact, plan to write at least five drafts. It is difficult even for the most engaging and experienced writers to deliver a meaningful, high impact personal narrative—and all the more so when they must do so in a single page. Start early, revise often. And share your work with careful readers, who will give you honest feedback. In an ideal scenario, you’d show your drafts to one person who is an English major (or better yet, an English professor), preferably one who is meticulous about grammar and word choice. Another reader should be someone who knows you well, and can comment on whether the writing gives a good sense of who you are as a person. The third reader should be someone who is further along than you in education and experience—a professor or a mentor would be an ideal choice. You want this person to critique the quality of your reflection and expression.

And now, it’s time to get started. Find a comfortable chair, your favorite beverage, and begin.

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Writing Your Personal Statement: A Few Resources

With apologies to Erasmus of Rotterdam and Hans Holbien the Younger.

With apologies to Erasmus of Rotterdam and Hans Holbien the Younger.

Are you writing a personal statement for medical, dental, or veterinary school? The post-bacs at the University of Rochester are polishing their drafts, readying themselves to submit their applications to medical school and veterinary school (alas, we have no dental school applicants this year). You’ll find plenty of advice on the internet about writing personal statements, but some suggestions are more helpful than others. I’ve collected some of my favorites to share with you. While most of these suggestions are specific to medical school, the suggestions are applicable to any health professions personal statement.

When advice comes from the American Association of Medical Colleges, you should always take it seriously.   This page, with advice from Sunny Gibson from the Feinberg School of Medicine and the University of Rochester’s own Brenda Lee, Assistant Dean for Medicine Education & Student Affairs, offers excellent suggestions. Dean Lee’s suggestions take the form of a succinct list of questions to address. Ms. Gibson’s suggestions are longer, and give more explanation. You’ll find that many lists of advice encourage you to “show, don’t tell”: Ms. Gibson offers specific examples of what that actually looks like.

The pre-health advisers at Johns Hopkins University offer a concise, comprehensive guide. Don’t look for examples here—this consists primarily of dos and don’ts. Pay close attention to the caveats (“Don’t lie,” “Don’t narrate your entire resume”)—these are extremely important.

Jeff Glenn from Harvard Office of Career Services offers superb suggestions. With brief examples, this collection of powerpoint slides illustrates catchy openings and effective transitions, and provides some good examples on how to proceed when you’re stuck.

Anubodh Varshney, writing for U.S. News and World Report, has some excellent tips. His insistence on the necessity of self-reflection and the advice to tell a story are particularly important. I take issue with his “80-20” rule because it seems to me that too much space devoted to future goals will not reveal enough about the person you are today—but overall, this essay offers sound advice.

Edward Chang, also writing for US News, illustrates how to create a compelling narrative. Chang’s essay offers an approach that is different from the previous lists—he creates a fictionalized medical school applicant, and demonstrates how she can organize her experiences into a cohesive story.

Liza Thompson has several blog entries about personal statements, but this one is my favorite. In particular, her advice to include evidence of altruism is an excellent point, and seldom mentioned in other considerations of personal narratives.

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Six Things to Know about the 2015 MCAT’s Critical Analysis Section

 

  1. You’ve got an hour and a half. There are 53 questions to complete during this time.
  2. The questions are all based on writing passages. The passages themselves are relatively short—approximately 500 to 600 words.   You can expect some tricky vocabulary and challenging writing.
  3. There will be no passages based on science. Half of the passages are based in the humanities and the other half are based in the social sciences.
  4. The questions are designed to test your powers of critical analysis and your reasoning skills. Approximately 30% of the questions will be based on comprehending what you read. The other 70% will be based on reasoning within the text and reasoning beyond the text. Thus, you won’t only be asked questions about what the passage means. You can expect to be asked to evaluate and analyze word choice, imagery, and rhetorical devices, to extrapolate ideas and apply them to new contexts, to consider how new ideas and information might impact the text’s argument.
  5. These questions will not focus on your personal opinion. Keep your judgments focused on the text itself—even if you don’t agree with the arguments being made.
  6. If you read a passage about a topic you know well, use particular care in your responses. Your answers should be based solely on the passage and the new ideas and information introduced in the questions. If you happen to know obscure (or even not-so-obscure) facts that might contradict the arguments in the passage, keep them firmly out of your mind.

 

Want to know more about the Critical Analysis section? Check out the American Association of Medical College’s description of this section here.Critical Analysis

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Help for pre-vets

Animal-Care-1024x697If you’re considering veterinary school, you probably already know that the application process is long and involved. One thing it is not, though, is mysterious. The American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges has created a series of webinars for pre-vet students. “The Road to Veterinary School” is intended for freshmen and sophomores, but the information is applicable to post-bac students as well as students contemplating post-bac programs. “The Road to Veterinary School” includes information about vet school pre-requisites, clinical experiences, and the application process.   “Applying to Veterinary School” and “Introduction to VMCAS 2016” are both intended for students who will apply to Veterinary School in the near future. These webinars are offered at monthly intervals, and most last about an hour.   The entire listing (and registration links) can be found here.

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Why doctors need stories

After posting the last two entries about Jay Baruch and Rita Charon’s upcoming talks, a recent article in  the New York Times offers thoughtful opinions about why narratives are important in the field of medicine.  Take a look at Peter D. Kramer’s article and let me know what you think.

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Narrative disaster zones–a talk with Jay Baruch, MD

October is a great time to be on campus.  Sure, there are midterms and falling temperatures–but there are also some amazing talks happening.  Here’s one that promises to be incredible–and it’s free and open to the public.

 

Jay Baruch, MD

Jay Baruch, MD

Annual Human Values in Health Care Lecture

Wed, Oct 22, 3:30 – 5:00, in Goergen Hall 101, (Optics and Bioengineering) on the River Campus

Narrative Disaster Zones:  Story Pearls and Pitfalls in the Emergency Department

Presenter:  Jay Baruch, MD, Associate Professor, Emergency Medicine, Alpert Medical School, Brown University

Jay Baruch, MD is Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, where he serves as the director of the Program in Clinical Arts and Humanities, co-director of the medical humanities and bioethics scholarly concentration, and director of the ethics curriculum.  Dr. Baruch’s short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous print and online medical and literary journals.  His academic work centers on the importance of creative thinking and creative writing skills in clinical medicine.

This event is sponsored by the Division of Medical Humanities and Bioethics in the School of Medicine and Dentistry and the University Committee for Interdisciplinary Studies Human Values in Health Care Cluster.

For further information, contact Mary Fisher, 275-6435; mary_fisher@urmc.rochester.edu.

I hope to see you there!

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