The Basics of Medicine
Question: Hi HPA: I’m the first person in my family to attend college, I’m good at science and my family thinks I should consider being a doctor. Of course, I have my own doctor, but sometimes I feel like the only student who doesn’t know anything about becoming a doctor, even really basic information. Can you recommend something I can read or do to get a basic foundation?
Answer: We’re so glad that you asked this question, and rest assured, even your friends who may have doctors in the family might not know some of the basics—things change in medical training and preparation over time, so how things were when their parents or grandparents became doctors may have changed. Additionally, here at HPA, we tend to focus more on how to get to medical school in our presentations and materials than on what happens once you’re there. Please don’t hesitate to come in and ask your questions—as simple or even “silly” as they seem to you, we are happy to answer them. We meet with a number of students who are the first in their families to go to college, who may not have as much access to this kind of information — getting to know individual students and their backgrounds, and provide guidance and advice is a very satisfying part of our job as HPA advisers!
We will also create a “career of the month” about medicine some time soon, to cover some of these basics. For more immediate information: one good overview is The Road to Becoming a Doctor (links to a pdf), produced by the Association of American Medical College (AAMC). Another great resource from the AAMC is the Aspiring Docs portion of their website, which includes Basics FAQs (we especially like their blog written by current med students and materials about deciding whether medicine is right for you, working with your adviser, and finding a mentor). For slightly longer, personal accounts, a few books come to mind (with amazon.com links): What I Learned in Medical School provides short pieces written by newer physicians, The Pact, which chronicles the story of three African American men who grew up as friends in inner city Newark and supported each other in their goal to become doctors, and Treatment Kind and Fair: Letters to a Young Doctor, written by a physician mother to her son as he begins medical school. ♦
Question: I am a freshman, and am seeking some advice concerning my extracurricular activities. I am very serious about the violin and have won some orchestral competitions, and take regular private lessons with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra in Philly. I auditioned, and was accepted to the Princeton University Orchestra. The problem is, the rehearsals often conflict with other activities in which I am interested. It was mentioned in the freshman orientation meeting that being committed to specific activities is very important. I would like to know how important it is to have orchestra on my resume were I to apply to med school. Would being a member of the school orchestra have a huge impact on my application? Would the schools still view my playing the violin in the same light if I were not pursuing orchestra here at Princeton? Thank you
Answer: You should do what you LIKE to do. You seem to have a wonderful talent. The orchestra here is outstanding. You may not have time to be engaged with music in this fashion again, so if you want to play the violin at Princeton, by all means do so. As you go through Princeton, you will find nooks and crannies of time to pursue other activities if you desire. You can take care of health-related experiences in the summer. Health professions schools admire passion and commitment. Follow your heart on this one. ♦
Fall Break Suggestions
What “pre-health things” can I do during Fall Break while I have some free time?
Good question! There are always things that you could do with a few free hours:
- Borrow a book from the HPA library to read, and get some insight about being a doctor, applying to medical school, or learning about other health careers. We lend books for two-week periods. A list of titles we have is available on our website.
- Contact some alumni physicians near your home by searching by location in the Alumni Careers Network (ACN), using Career Services’ Networking Tips for best results. See if they are available to shadow, or just take them out to coffee and learn about their experiences as physicians.
- Surf through some websites for medical schools in your home state (links to each of them are available here).
- Start looking into summer internship and other summer experiences. We have a list of opportunities in which past Princeton students have participated. Other good places to look include the AAMC list of Summer Undergrad Research Programs at med schools; this list of links from Brandeis University.
- The most important thing is to take some time to just relax! The second half of the fall can feel even faster and more stressful than the first, so come back refreshed and ready to work. ♦
Question: Hi HPA – I finally have some time to breathe during fall break. Is there something I can do that’s productive for my pre-health plans?
Answer: This is a great time to take stock of where are you and what to do next, and that’s going to be different for every student.
Freshmen – consider how midterms went, get caught up in classes if you need to, think about your study skills and time management, read through some of the McGraw Study Strategy Tip Sheets for ideas on how to improve, reach out to some physicians you know and do some shadowing.
Sophomores – start looking at summer opportunities including IIP international internships, clinical opportunities and research internships, apply for Princeternships if you want an in-depth short-term shadowing experience, come by HPA and borrow a library book or two to read up on medicine over the break.
Pre-Applicants – familiarize yourself with the health professions school application process on our website, start to consider letters of recommendation, touch base with friends who are currently applying and talk to them about the process, or friends who have recently started medical school and see if they’ll take you on a tour of their school or let you sit in on a class with them. If you need to keep raising your GPA before applying, look into post-bac record enhancer options and start working on your application materials.
Current Applicants – fill out interview reports, stay active in your work and volunteer endeavors, keep sending us updates.
Fellowships & Medical School
Question: I am a current sophomore pre-med. I’ve heard of fellowships like the Fulbright and the Rhodes that involve a year of study abroad, and they sound like very cool options. However, a couple of people have told me that these fellowships are somehow incompatible with med school, and I was wondering if this is true. Is it possible to do a program like these after college but before entering med school?
Answer: Of course it’s possible! In fact, in recent years, pre-med students have been awarded the Rhodes, Sachs, Fulbright, Gates Cambridge, Dale, Labouisse, ReachOut, Churchill, and Whitaker fellowships, not to mention numerous P55, and Princeton in Latin America, Asia, and Africa Fellowships. If you’re fortunate enough to find such support for studying at Oxford, Cambridge or another location abroad, then we would advise you to take such an opportunity and make the most of it. It can get tricky in terms of determining when to apply to med school. You always want to apply when you have the richest qualifications and also when it is logistically possible to write applications and attend interviews in a timely manner. In some cases this may be before/during your fellowship year, in other cases it may be after, but the details can be worked out with proper planning and good advising. We have alumni who are awarded postgraduate fellowships and scholarships every year, heading off to med school afterwards; one of them even spearheaded an effort to write a guide for med school applicants considering fellowships abroad, which we are happy to share with you. Make sure you come talk to us, and make sure you let your fellowship adviser know of your intention to apply to med school. Currently, Dr. Deirdre Moloney and Ms. Hanna Lee advise students individually and hold many info sessions for interested students. The Fellowships office is located in the Office of International Programs at 36 University Place, just upstairs from HPA. ♦
Funding for Summer Projects
Question: Dear HPA, I am planning on doing research this summer outside my area of concentration (and thus totally unrelated to my thesis/independent work at Princeton). I was wondering if you know of any grants or scholarships that Princeton offers for undergrads doing mentored summer research over the summer, not necessarily for our thesis or independent work.
Answer: The question of funding your summer ambitions is a great one. There is no one resource, but rather many potential ones. While this doesn’t apply to you, it is good to know that our Financial Aid office in West College is sometimes able to fund coursework taken elsewhere over the summer. For other projects—research, service, clinical work—pre-med students should seek funding from a relevant academic department, although not necessarily the one of your chosen concentration (this depends on the nature of your idea). Another option for funding might come through various Classes via the Alumni Council, or perhaps through the Center for Religious Life or the Office of the Vice President of Campus Life. A fairly comprehensive overview of funding for service-related projects can be found on the Pace Center’s website. Our advice to you specifically would be to contact the academic department that is most relevant to the research you’re going to do; we wouldn’t assume that nothing would be available to you only because you’re not concentrating in that department, as there might be a faculty member on campus very interested in your ideas. ♦
Getting Involved in Pre-Health Student Orgs
Question: I’ve heard there are a number of health-related student groups on campus. I am interested in getting involved, but I’m not sure how to find them. Do you have any suggestions?
Answer: Great idea! There is a wide array of Princeton student groups dedicated to health care and health concerns. The organizations offer some wonderful resources and programming, much of it community service-oriented. A bonus is that they can introduce you to a support network of peers who are similarly interested in the health professions.
HPA has a listing of health-related student groups with brief descriptions and contact information on our website: http://www.princeton.edu/hpa/premed/student-groups/
We encourage you to explore the interesting options available to you! If you’re a member of a group that isn’t listed, please let us know! ♦
Question: Hi HPA, I'm having a somewhat difficult time deciding whether I'd like to graduate in 4 years, or in 3 years with Advanced Standing. I believe I have enough AP credits to make me eligible to finish in 3 years, but I'm not sure if I know all the pros and cons of the two paths. The main reason I'd like to graduate early is time-related, and another is tuition-related. The way I see it is that if I decide to apply to medical school and then become a resident, and maybe a fellow, I will be spending a lot of time "not working." So, the earlier I can finish my schooling, the better. And, it would also be nice to save my parents one year's worth of tuition. But the other half of me wants to stay here at Princeton so I can enjoy my senior thesis, finishing with my original class, and taking in the social scene. Also, I'm afraid I might miss out on something if I'm rushing through college, and then my application won't be as strong for medical school.
Answer: We haven't had any medical school applicants in the past two years applying to go to medical school early, meaning they were graduating in 3 years and headed straight on for more schooling. This is indeed rare with Princeton pre-meds and with the same population at most top colleges in the country. A main disadvantage is the lack of maturity you may exhibit, frankly, when presenting yourself as an applicant (compared to peers). Nearly 2/3 of Princeton applicants take 4 years to graduate and then take a year off before medical school, so you would be interviewing at age 20 or 21 alongside 22- and 23-year-olds. Also, medical schools might question why you didn't take full advantage of the cultural, intellectual, and yes, social offerings at Princeton; you may not encounter such offerings again in your lifetime. And we're not sure what to make of your comment that being a resident and fellow isn't "working" (!). If the financial situation is extremely serious then medical schools would surely understand your decision to limit your college to 3 years, but generally speaking, we do not recommend graduating early unless it is for these purely financial reasons (and dire ones at that). In the end, of course, the decision is yours. ♦
Graduate and Professions School Fairs
Question: I know today is the Graduate and Professional School Fair, but I don’t even know if I want to go to graduate or medical school. If I go, what should I say to school representatives?
Answer: It’s great practice to attend graduate school and job fairs before it “counts.” It helps to have developed a one minute introduction that you can give of yourself (name, concentration, class year, where you’re from, one or two interesting things about you), and then have a couple of questions you want to ask. Some examples: “Do you have suggestions on how to spend the summer as a freshman – it can be hard to find internships without more experience,” or “What advice do you have about how to decide if medicine is right for me?” or “What have Princeton students liked about your school?” You should also be prepared to answer some questions about yourself and your interests. If you’re shy or anxious about attending, try to recruit an outgoing friend or two and find strength in numbers! It’s also okay to just go and check it out without engaging with the reps – at least you’ll know what a fair is like for future reference! ♦
Making the Most out of Meeting With HPA Advisers
Question: Dear HPA – I tried to come to drop in hours to introduce myself for the first time and just kind of talk generally about being premed, but I didn’t feel like I had enough time and I felt guilty because so many students were waiting. There’s only one dropins that fits in my schedule, and it always seems really busy. Are there other options to meet with you?
Answer: We’re sorry that you felt rushed in your first meeting with us! Here are some things to keep in mind in working with us at HPA:
- The beginning of the school year is always really hectic. Most students are using drop-in hours at that time to ask quick questions about courses they’re interested in, or stopping by as returning visitors and giving us updates on what they did over the summer. For a first meeting, it might be more comfortable to come in a few weeks into the semester – we’re usually particularly quiet during midterms and reading period.
- You can call ahead of coming to HPA (609.258.3144) and ask Jen how busy it is, and how likely it’ll be that you’ll be seen.
- If you want broad, general information about being premed at Princeton, please read through the FAQ and Preparing Guide and then ask more specific questions that you have as follow-up. This will make our conversation much more fruitful and efficient!
- If you do want to generally introduce yourself during drop-ins rather than set up an appointment, it can help to bring your resume so that we can quickly get a sense of what you’ve been doing as a start to the conversation.
- You can schedule a 20 minute appointment via WASS. If none of the appointments work in your schedule, shoot us an email at hpa@ with your schedule and we’ll try to set something up. Right now, there are still appointments available next week, and a lot more the week after that.
- Twenty minutes may seem too short. If it feels like we have a lot more to talk about, we will often set up a follow up meeting at the end of our appointment, or continue conversations in email, so know that you’re not limited to just one meeting all semester. It can also help to include some details about why you want to meet when you set up the appointment, so we can be prepared for the meeting.
- You (alone or with a small group) can invite us to lunch in your residential college or eating club – if we don’t have other obligations, we’re happy to sit and chat with you and your friends in a more relaxed setting.
- If you’re planning to apply to health professions school this year, know that we have also set aside some appointments this semester to meet with potential applicants so that you can talk with us about your candidacy before your pre-application interview. These will begin after the Applicant Workshops, which will occur right after fall break. ♦
National Health Service Corps
Question: I’m interested in becoming a physician who practices in an underserved area. I've heard that I can get assistance with paying for med school if I am headed in this direction. How would this work? Thanks HPA.
Answer: You’re probably talking about the National Health Service Corps (NHSC). The NHSC was established in 1972, in order to provide primary health care programs to underserved populations, in what they call "health professional shortage areas" (HPSA) as designated by the Department of Health and Human Services. They have a loan repayment program for med school. According to their website, the NHSC loan repayment program (LRP) recruits fully trained health professionals who agree to provide primary health services in NHSC community sites. In return, the NHSC LRP assists clinicians in their repayment of qualifying educational loans that are still owed. The NHSC is seeking clinicians who demonstrate the characteristics for and interest in serving the Nation’s medically underserved populations and remaining in HPSAs beyond their service commitment. It is important to remember that service to medically underserved populations is the primary purpose of the NHSC LRP and not the repayment of educational loans. For medical and dental students oriented toward this type of service, there are also scholarships, residency opportunities, and "ambassadorships" available in conjunction with the NHSC. We encourage you to explore these opportunities in more detail at http://nhsc.hrsa.gov/. Of course, making a commitment to the Corps should only be done after a great deal of research, consideration, and soul-searching. ♦
Paying for Medical School
Question: Dear HPA: I keep hearing about how expensive med school is. I know of at least one pre-med who has decided to do something other than medicine since he doesn’t feel like he can afford med school. I’m on financial aid here. Do med schools have financial aid? Is the cost really that bad? I hope to work part-time while in school to help pay for it.
Answer: The average allopathic medical student graduates with over $175,000 of debt. So yes, as a raw number, it does look “bad”—that amount of debt (plus the interest that accrues on top of it) can be scary. You need to know as much as possible about the financial commitment you’re making and the options available to you. The first thing you should do is read the Financing Health Professional School handout in full. We’ve included information about online resources, service repayment programs (like the National Health Service Corps), and other sources of funding. Generally speaking, medical students take out loans to pay for medical school—not grants or scholarships. These loans are most often federal loans, and their interest rate is relatively low. As an aspiring physician, you are considered a “good risk” by the government, someone who will be able to repay loans and still live comfortably as long as careful budgeting is in place. Also, make sure that you seek out the Financial Aid personnel at the medical school you attend. Cultivate a true advising relationship with these people, if possible, as the financial climate in this country is ever-changing and by the time you’re a first-year med student there may be new financial options—and those options may change over the course of your four years in med school. It is not too soon, during your med school interviews, to ask about the Financial Aid office, learn who these people are, and get a feel for what type of interaction they have with current students. We try to host a Financing workshop every spring semester as well, so keep an eye on our events in Vitals for that event! Ultimately, though, if you're truly committed to becoming a physician, a medical education is an excellent financial investment and worthwhile from a lifelong financial perspective. ♦
Question: I couldn’t make it to the recent medical school visits. Did they talk about what they’re looking for in applicants?
Answer: On a big picture level, both Cornell Weill and Johns Hopkins Med emphasized the importance of academic excellence (as evidenced by grades, MCAT scores and letters of recommendations) along with personal competencies. The Association of American Medical Colleges identified a key set of competencies – observable behaviors that combine knowledge, skills, values and attitudes – that they desire in entering medical students. The competencies include: service orientation, social and interpersonal skills, cultural competence, teamwork, integrity and ethics, reliability and dependability, resilience and adaptability, capacity for improvement, and written and oral communication skills. If you’re applying this year, take some time to think about how you have developed and demonstrated these competencies, and find ways to comment on them in your materials (they may come across in activities list entries and the personal statement, but most significantly in secondary essay responses). If it is earlier in your “premed career,” actively develop/improve in these competency areas – meet with an HPA adviser if you would like to brainstorm ways that you might do so. Read this AAMC report for more insight on the relative importance of difference academic, experiential, and demographic and personal attribute data that admissions officers use when making interview invitations and offers of acceptance. ♦
Question: I’m a freshman pre-med student and I’m wondering what I should do this summer. I’ve already done hospital volunteering in High School. Should I work in a lab?
Answer: There’s no one way to answer the question of what you “should” do this summer. Instead, we might ask you to think about what would you enjoy doing? What would give you a new and different kind of experience from what you have done in the past? What would help you develop interpersonal skills and an ethic of service? What would allow you to recharge your batteries? While your high school volunteer experience may have been helpful in your decision to pursue the pre-health path, it will be important to continue to develop clinical exposure (either as a volunteer, or by shadowing physicians) in order to enhance your own understanding of what it means to practice medicine, and in order to convey to a medical school that you have deepened your engagement throughout your college years. You may choose to gain more clinical exposure in the summer, but you may prefer to do this during the academic year, and do something entirely different during the summer. Doing benchwork in a lab prior to medical school is certainly not essential (unless you are pursuing an MD/PhD). If you are passionate about lab work and want to pursue it, that’s fine. But don’t spend your summer in lab because you think you “should.” No matter what you want to do this summer, start thinking about it now if you haven’t already. Be sure to check our Gaining Experience page for ideas about summer experiences. And, if you do something great that’s not on our list yet, by all means let us know! ♦
Question: Dear HPA: Tonight I was able to watch a live webcast where three doctors played a video of a Laparoscopic Sleeve Gastrectomy performed by the Vanderbilt Medical Center. The doctors pause the video and show slides giving information about the surgery; they also comment and answer questions (asked by people watching the live webcast). I went to the website that hosted the video and found hundreds of webcasts with videos of real surgeries which can be browsed by specialty, institution, condition, and procedure. I thought it was a really convenient way to look at an actual surgical procedure without having to go to a hospital. Students who think they want to be surgeons can go to the site, and I think it might really help them figure out if surgery would be for them. I’m not sure if you already know about it. Maybe HPA could refer students to it: www.orlive.com
Answer: It sounds like you’re practically a surgeon already! Seriously, given your enthusiasm for ORLive, we decided to send your note out this week to the pre-health community. Aside from giving pre-health students another way to procrastinate (sorry about that), we agree that the videos are fascinating and perhaps even motivational. However, please remember, you’re not expected to be thinking about your future medical specialty right now, as an undergraduate. Med school will bring you more than ample opportunity to choose your specialty. Still, for those curious about surgery, watching ORLive is definitely something to do when you’re taking a break! If nothing else, you’ll learn how you do at the sight of blood. ♦
Visits to HPA
Question: Hey HPA - I’m a freshman who attended the Orientation talk you guys gave last weekend. It was unclear to me how often I should come into your office for advising. I’m taking CHM this semester but I’m not sure yet whether I’m going to stay pre-med. Should I set up a regular appointment or something?
Answer: Our main role as pre-health advisers is to make ourselves as available to you as possible when you need us. Most pre-meds find it useful to check in with us once per semester. You can update us on how you’re doing (and on your thinking about medicine as a future career path), and we’re able to alert you to upcoming events, opportunities, and deadlines that you may not be aware of. Bare minimum: visit us once a year. We do see advisees more frequently than once or twice a year, certainly, when they are experiencing academic difficulty or when they have something fun to share with us—like a med school acceptance!—and we always welcome that. Even if you decide to step back from the pre-med curriculum at Princeton and do postbac work to complete your requirements, we’d still like you to make yourself known to us as an aspiring physician or veterinarian or dentist. And we are always happy to talk to you about clinical and service experience. Don’t be a stranger! Our best wishes to everyone for a successful fall semester! ♦
What 'Counts' as Research?
Question: Hi. I just had a question. I've heard that med schools are looking for people who have done some research in a lab. What makes a 'lab'? What counts as 'research'? Does it have to be molecular studies with a lab coat and a plate of cells? Can it be a psychology lab?
Answer: Any research experience will be of interest to medical schools. Your depth of knowledge in any subject, via research for your JP and thesis, will be weighed favorably by schools. So in a general sense, it all "counts." Certainly work in a psych lab would "count."
However, if you're interested in pursuing medical research in med school and beyond, then you need some experience in a "hard" science laboratory. This would not have to be molecular in nature - chemical, physical, biochemical, etc. would all be fine. Again, this applies only to certain programs, and certain career goals you may have. And of course, if you're interest in the MD/PhD (or MSTP's), then in-depth research in a biology, chemistry, or physics lab is basically required. ♦