Life After Graduation
Question: I’m graduating in the spring and have no idea what to do next. I think my grades are good enough to apply to medical school this year, but I’m really not sure. Should I apply to med school this year and then if I don’t get in, should I look into taking classes, or should I just try to take classes next year? If I need to take classes, do I have to apply to do that now?
Answer: This question is too nuanced to try to answer by email – a one on one meeting would be much better! We will also be talking more in depth about how to evaluate your own candidacy when we have our Applicant Workshops right after fall break – anyone who is thinking about applying to health professions school is encouraged to attend one of these workshops (and if you’re definitely applying this year, you are required to attend). It’s fine to wait until those sessions to learn more and then come and talk with us about your specific situation, but if you’d rather not wait, please feel free to make an appointment now (online, through WASS) so that we can sit down and talk about all aspects of your medical school candidacy. We’ll want to look more holistically at your academic preparation for medical school (including grades, MCAT scores, letters of recommendation, trends in your performance, reasons for difficulty if you have pinpointed them, etc.), as well as your overall candidacy (activities, motivation, readiness for the challenges of applying in and of themselves, etc.) and see where you are.
There’s a certain point where we might recommend more academic record enhancement, but it can differ from person to person based on this “big picture.” For some students, it might be that a few more courses taken part time while pursuing other opportunities in the coming year is a reasonable option. For some students, we might see a chance to gain entry to medical school and suggest that you could apply this summer, but to take courses full-time in the coming year in case you have to reapply. For others, we might recommend taking classes first and then applying after that. Some students may not have the financial resources to support the ideal path, and we can help you try to negotiate that, as well. We try to outline some of this on our handout, Postbac Paths: Record Enhancers (see the Record Enhancement Programs page of our website), but even this does not capture every scenario. Remember: we believe that any and all of you are capable of becoming health professionals, but the path might not be as straightforward as it once seemed – we can help you look at the options, and evaluate whether or not you’d like to continue on the path! ♦
Postbac Career Changers
Question: I’m managing in Chemistry, but I love all of my other classes. I’m not sure if it’s that I don’t want to do medicine anymore, or if it’s just that I’m more interested in exploring the other classes right now. I just don’t think now is the time for me to do the science courses. I've heard of postbac career changer programs, but are there any disadvantages to doing them instead of doing classes at Princeton?
Answer: There are a few things to consider when it comes to postbac programs. First, there are competitive admissions processes, so there's no guarantee that you'll get into your top choice program. Many of the strong programs are away from major metropolitan areas, so you might have to rebuild your social network and family -- if it's important to you to have support nearby, you'll have to quickly try to seek a new network when you arrive. But time and cost are probably the most significant factors. Postbac programs are intense and science-heavy, so if you find out in your first semester that you need to slow down and take the courses at a less intense pace, that may change your timeline to completion, and many students are concerned about the amount of time it'll take to move through the course work, then to medical school and residency. Cost should not be overlooked -- postbac programs are expensive, and there is little grant aid available, so doing a postbac will likely mean taking out loans.
That said, the benefits of the programs -- guidance through the curriculum, advising support and committee letter, a community of students in the same situation as you, guaranteed seats in the classes -- are a worthy investment. Be sure that you're pursuing activities during college that test out your interest in medicine and let you explore other career options so that you know that it'll be worth the time and financial investment (and so that the programs will be convinced that medicine is really right for you when you apply). In any case, if you aren't feeling drawn to medicine now and aren't doing well in the classes, taking a break and spending the summer really exploring your options may be a better plan than trying to slog through the classes, doing poorly, and wasting the opportunity to study what you're passionate about. Definitely come talk with us so that we can get a fuller picture of your specific situation and provide some insight for you.
Premed after Graduation
Question: Hi HPA - I’m a freshman and I thought I wanted to do medicine because I liked science in high school and I definitely want to do something that has an impact on society, but I fell in love with my freshman seminar, which was health policy focused, and I haven’t loved my science courses so far. I feel like a failure leaving my lifelong dream of medicine behind, but I feel like I’m not going to do well in science right now because I’m not feeling excited about it. What would happen if I didn’t do the premed courses, concentrated in WWS, but decided later that I wanted to be a doctor?
Answer: This is a common freshman concern—suddenly science is more rigorous, and other courses that you might have originally been taking just to fulfill requirements become the most interesting thing you’ve ever encountered in a classroom. College is a time of self-discovery, and it’s important to be open to changes in your interests in light of new information that you’re encountering.
Try to spend this summer doing some soul searching, and some general career exploration. Get into a medical setting if you haven’t done so before, shadow some physicians, read about careers in medicine. At the same time, read student perspectives and alum profiles of students who majored in WWS, connect with alums through the Alumni Career Network who may be out in the non-profit or private sector, read some websites that focus on health policy. Keep gathering information, and see if that points you in one direction or another. Maybe you’ll decide to stick with sciences now, and maybe not. Don’t hesitate to talk through your thought process with an HPA advisor!
But, to answer your question, if you decide to take time off from being premed, but then feel the calling again later, you can always return to premed. In fact, some of the more compelling candidates we encounter are those who headed off in completely different directions for awhile (theater, professional athletics, research) before settling on medicine. There are academic programs designed specifically for students who want to take the premed courses after graduation (post-baccalaureate) - we highlight some of them on our webpage: http://www.princeton.edu/hpa/post-bac-programs/career-changer.
Finally, since you’re a first-year student, you might also consider the Mount Sinai FlexMed Program (http://icahn.mssm.edu/education/medical-education/programs/flexmed): FlexMed allows college sophomores in any major to apply and, if accepted, allows you to follow any academic path you wish through undergrad. ♦
What to Do During Your Year 'Off'
Question: I'm just curious, what are some of things that people do with their year between college and med school? I'm thinking about applying after senior year but I'm wondering what my options are with the year off. Thanks.
Answer: As we've said before, the most common two reasons people elect to take a "glide" year are: 1) They're tired of being a student and there's something else they'd like to do before beginning their medical education, or, 2) They need the time to become a stronger applicant. If you're in the first group, you have more freedom in choosing how to spend your time. If you're in the second group, you need to be realistic, and work toward filling in gaps--for instance, taking extra coursework in the sciences if your science grades are not competitive, or volunteering at a hospital or clinic of you have done very little of such an activity since high school. We thought it might be interesting to list the things that recent alumni are doing with their year. This should give you a sense of the broad range of things you might consider:
- Doing clinical research in endocrinology at Mass General
- Earning a masters of public health at Columbia
- Working for Africare, setting up HIV/AIDS youth centers in Zambia
- Developing the curriculum for a charter school in Brooklyn
- Assisting with research in pathology/immunology at WashU in St. Louis
- Researching in "parasitology" at the Univ of Colorado while volunteering in the ER
- Studying in the special masters post-bac program at Georgetown
- Working at an AIDS hospice in Houston
- Volunteering at a health clinic in Spain
- Coordinating a literacy program in low-income areas of New York City
- Performing clinical research on breast cancer at UCSF
- Teaching biology and coaching a sport at a New England prep school, and more!
Why is Everyone Taking Time Off?
Question: It seems like more and more students are opting to take a glide/gap year or years before medical school. Why are so many students doing it? Is it a Princeton-specific thing? Are the advisers making students take time off?
Answer: The advisers at HPA are not here to “make” anyone do anything when it comes to the application process. We aim to provide our guidance based on qualitative and quantitative data, including past experience with students, communication with admissions offices, understanding of trends in admissions, numerical data about our own applicants, data about the national applicant pool, as well as our own relationship with each individual student – our understanding of his or her background, strengths, weaknesses, and goals in the application process – to provide our best advice in a process that is complicated, stressful, and financially and psychologically taxing. We want students to meet their goals in their first application cycle. We have seen too many students apply before they were fully ready for the process and struggle: students with high grades and relatively little clinical or “real world” experience have had trouble in interviews, and not gained acceptances to their desired schools; students whose grades weren’t competitive went through the whole application cycle without an interview invitation, and had to then regroup and take multiple years off to strengthen their academic profiles and reapply; students who weren’t sure about medicine in the first place have withdrawn in the middle of the application year, saddling themselves with expenses and stress in the process. As advisers, we want students to be successful, but we also leave it to them to make the best decisions for themselves. We have had students go through the application process knowing they were unlikely to succeed, and we still supported and advocated for them as strongly as we could based on the strength of their candidacies (but we also worry for them, since we know that there can be bias against reapplicants in the admissions process).
As far as whether this is a Princeton-specific phenomenon, we do think that there are aspects of the Princeton experience that lend themselves to applying at the end of senior year and taking a glide year, versus applying junior year and matriculating directly after graduation. Your senior thesis is a significant aspect of your time here; having it on the application, along with a letter from the thesis adviser, can be meaningful. The transition to Princeton can be a steep climb for many students, so allowing more time to demonstrate academic ability by way of all four years of grades on the application may be in the student’s best interest. A student may not have had as much time to leave the “Princeton bubble” and gain real-world experience as they would like, so the year off can be a chance to mature and grow away from an academic environment (it’s hard to describe how meaningful this is until you have done it, but if you ask students who have taken a year or two off, this is one of the first things they say about the benefit of doing so). Plus, Princeton is tough, emotionally and intellectually, and it is fine to take some time to refresh before jumping into the rigors of medical school. We have even more reasons outlined in our glide year handout, some specific to Princeton, but many more universal. And, applicants nationwide seem to be taking more time – it isn’t just a “Princeton thing.” Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, and Cornell all provide some insight on the “gap/glide year,” and a quick google search reveals a number of others.
Again, there is no “one size fits all” to being premed. If you have questions about your own specific situation, don’t hesitate to come in to talk! ♦
Will HPA Continue to Support Me After I Graduate?
Question: I am graduating this spring, and I’m not applying to medical school yet, but I might do so down the road. Will HPA still be able to support me as an applicant? Is there anything I should be doing before I leave?
Answer: As you know, there is no one way to prepare for, apply to, and get into medical school. Every year, quite a few alums who graduated years ago get in touch with our office for advice and support, and we love working with them! Advising is available to all alums. We can add you to our listservs, and continue to meet with and email with you. To be eligible for a committee letter of recommendation after you graduate, you must meet our eligibility criteria, which are outlined on the website.
As far as things to do before you leave, email us with your permanent email address if you’d like to remain on our alumni email list. You’ll receive Vitals weekly, and will thus be able to stay abreast of anything related to future application cycles. You might also want to ask for letters of recommendation for us to hold on file for you. We are happy to hold any letters in our files for ten years beyond your date of graduation. You can learn more about the process of gathering letters of recommendation here. ♦
Working in Consulting or Pharma Before Med School?
Question: Hi, I am a current senior and I want to take a year or two off after college to work before going to medical school. I have applied to consulting jobs, particularly those with healthcare, and also one at a pharmaceutical company. Is this something that medical schools would look down upon? I am considering getting an MD/MBA and this seemed to be an ideal way to gain some experience. Thank you!
Answer: Working in consulting (healthcare-related) or the pharmaceutical industry for a year or two before matriculating at a medical school is an acceptable thing to do, but only when all other aspects of your candidacy for medical school are in place. We often recommend that one spends time 'off' strengthening any weak spots (academic, clinical, research) in one's application. To be honest, reactions to the type of experience you're describing are somewhat mixed among medical schools, but generally speaking it will not hurt you as long as you continue doing something involving patient care, even if it's simply volunteering a few hours per week at your local hospital or community health clinic. If you're interested in an MBA, your path makes some sense, and it could be argued that all MD's could use some background in industries and professions next door to medicine, such as health insurance, health policy, and pharm. Just make sure you spend a little time doing something patient-centered if at all possible—patients are what it’s all about, when all is said and done, right? ♦
A "Year Off" Between College and Medical School
Question: I’m a senior and starting to think about what to do during my year off before medical school. I’d like to travel but does that look bad to med schools, just to spend some time in Europe? What else should I be doing?
Answer: Let’s start by rethinking the term “year off.” We like to think of a year (or two) between Princeton and medical school as time to do something you’ve always wanted to do, which will continue your growth, intellectually as well as socially and culturally, even if you’re not in a classroom. Hardly a “year off,” when you think about it . . . Now, probably the three most common reasons why people elect to take some time before medical school are, 1) They’re feeling burnt out academically, 2) There is something else they’d like to do—a program, an adventure, a job—before starting their medical education, or 3) They need time to become a stronger applicant. If you’re in one of these first two groups, you have the freedom to choose how to spend your time, and Princeton offers an abundance of opportunities for positions, fellowships, etc for your life following graduation. If you’re in that third group, you usually fall into one of two additional subgroups: you need to take more courses to improve your academic credentials (usually science courses) or you need to find some health-related “clinical” work since this area is absent from your background. Some traveling doesn’t “look bad,” especially if you view it as a way toward personal growth. However, if your entire year includes no health-related activity, helps no one other than yourself, and involves just a lot of sightseeing, you may indeed appear a little too “leisurely” to medical schools. Every year we have recent alumni doing Princeton Project 55 and Princeton-In-X fellowships, working for Teach For America and the Peace Corps, teaching on their own (outside of a program), doing bench research or clinical research, working in doctors’ offices or hospitals, working at pharm companies . . . and countless other things. To sum up: our general advice would be to decide what you dream of doing, decide where to do it, and keep an eye on your overall credentials for medicine (academic and non-academic). ♦