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. HPA has copies of these and many other books in our lending library!
The Cost of Applying to Med School
Question: I was talking to a senior who said I should start saving my money for med school applications now. What’s the average that a student spends on applying?
Answer: There are many costs associated with applications, but few are set – most will vary depending on the student. The MCAT costs $300, but preparation can range from a few hundred to a few thousand depending on your preparation method. Your primary (common) application will cost $160 to process for the first school, and $37 for each additional school. The average student applies to about 20 schools, so that’s about $850 for your primary application. You will receive secondary applications from most if not all of your schools, and those range from $0 to $100+ depending on the school; you’ll likely spend around $1500 on secondaries. So, that’s in the neighborhood of $2600+MCAT prep for applications and MCAT. You’re responsible for your interviews – professional clothes, travel, lodging – depending on the proximity of the interviews, this cost will vary widely.
This is one of the many reasons we advise students not to apply until they feel competitive enough to gain acceptance to medical school. We have seen more than one student worried about the strength of their candidacy, who tried to apply to 50+ schools, hoping someone would take a chance on them. The cost for 50 applications will likely end up around $7000, money that would be better spent on taking some postbac courses to improve academic metrics, or supplement income to allow an applicant to accrue more volunteer hours, or otherwise be used to bringing the candidacy to a more competitive level before applying.
There are ways to help mitigate the expenses along the way. Students from low-income backgrounds can apply to the AAMC Fee Assistance Program, which reduces some application costs. Shopping consignment, outlets, and discount stores can reduce clothing costs (suits are most often on sale in January and July, as seasons change). Keeping your school list local can reduce interview travel costs. Saving up frequent flyer miles or credit card award points could help. Many medical schools have volunteer students who will host you during your interview visit so that you don’t have to stay in a hotel.
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!
If Not Medicine, Then What?
Question: Hi HPA – I’m feeling less certain about premed than I used to be. What other careers do you see students go into when they leave premed?
Answer: While we don’t have any real data on this, anecdotally, students’ career paths when they decide against the MD are often guided by where they found the most satisfaction, personally or academically (or both!), during college. From my (Kate’s) example, I was pre-vet during college, and I liked my science courses, but I loved being the equivalent of an RCA on campus. I enjoyed providing guidance to others as they navigated the college experience, working in an environment that supported lifelong learning, and basically, I just loved college. So, I dropped pre-vet mid-junior year, finished out my Biology major, and went to graduate school for higher education administration. At Princeton, we have worked with students who want to continue in a health care role other than medicine who went on to optometry, physician assistant, dentistry, and other health professions; we’ve worked with students who followed a love of service to non-profit work, students who loved fast pace and problem solving who went into consulting, students who wanted to share their love of the sciences with others as teachers, students who were passionate about a discipline they discovered at Princeton and pursued it in graduate school, and countless other routes. It can feel scary to give up the “premed identity” and the reasonably straightforward path to medicine for the seemingly infinite number of other, less straightforward career trajectories, but at the end of the day, with a Princeton degree and the experience that four years on campus affords for students to grow and mature, to become liberally educated, deeper thinkers and stronger communicators who want to help others and their communities, we are confident that our former premeds are going to do great things no matter what careers they ultimately choose.
International Students and Medical School
Question: Dear HPA – I have heard that it’s harder for international students to get into medical school. Is this true? If so, why?
Answer: It is statistically more difficult for international students to be accepted into medical school, and once a student is accepted, there are also financial considerations that can create a barrier. According to AAMC statistics , in 2014, of the 1,160 MD applicants whose legal residence was outside of the US, 130 matriculated to medical school, for a matriculation rate of about 11% (vs. 41% for all applicants). There are some US medical schools that do not accept international students and some that limit international acceptances to Canadian citizens. Once an international student is admitted, the financial aid options at many schools are more limited than they are for US citizens. Over the past four years, we have had about 10 international students who matriculated to medical school, so it certainly isn’t impossible, but it is important to have a realistic understanding of the obstacles that international students may face. Please refer to the International Students section of the HPA website for more information, or come in to meet with an advisor to discuss your plans.
Is HPA Open This Summer?
Question: Is HPA open during the summer? Will there be drop-in hours?
Answer: The HPA office is open all summer during regular business hours, Monday through Friday from 8:30am-4:30pm (any exceptions will be listed on our website). We welcome you to come by and use the resources available (e.g., the materials from individual health professions schools and the access to the MSAR online), borrow books (including MCAT prep materials) from our HPA library, and eat candy and enjoy the air conditioning. The advisers need to focus the majority of their time writing committee letters, so we won’t have drop-in hours. We will be scheduling a limited number of appointments during the week (call to make an appointment), but for any quick questions that you might have, please try emailing hpa@ first – if we can’t address the question by email, we’d be happy to schedule an appointment. Current applicants will also have access to online drop-in hours.
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 for drop-in hours (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 (search for "HPA"). 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.
- 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 around fall break.
Medical School Visits
Question: I know that HPA and Premed Society host visits from admissions reps from medical schools. I’m only a freshman—should I go to these? It seems intimidating to think about the application process to medical school this early.
Answer: Like many things, it wouldn’t hurt to try going to one, and see how you actually react by attending. Some students get inspired and motivated by going to these talks, but it’s true that some find it stressful. We do try to choose admissions representatives who are accessible to students and interested in helping you out, and sometimes seeing them in a smaller group setting can make the idea of interacting with them less intimidating when it comes time to apply. Many of the admissions speakers are also willing to communicate directly with students who have come to information sessions, which can be a nice connection if a specific question comes up and you want a second opinion beyond HPA’s about an aspect of your candidacy. That said, it’s absolutely fine to wait awhile before you start coming to these information sessions—we will continue to offer a few every semester, so you’ll be able to catch some when you’re ready! We do hope that juniors and seniors who are closer to the application process choose to attend at least a couple of these info sessions, since it can help them get into the mindset of applying, and help them see how schools highlight certain aspects of what they offer to students (e.g., location, curriculum, patient care opportunities, global health offerings), and use that information to decide where to apply and how to craft their application materials for schools of particular interest.
Medical Schools Overseas
Question: Hi HPA – I’m exploring all of my med school options. I know my grades aren’t competitive yet for MD programs so I’m looking into post-bac record enhancers, but a friend of mine suggested medical school outside of the US are less competitive for admission. What are your thoughts on these kinds of programs?
Answer: Fewer students with whom we work have attended medical schools outside of the US, so we have less information to work from than we do for US-based schools, but there are certainly many individuals who have successfully navigated medical school abroad, come back to the US, taken the required exams to qualify for residency, including receiving ECFMG certification, and gone on to practice. There are many schools in the Caribbean, Israel, Australia, among others, that cater to US citizens who cannot gain entry into US programs, at highly variable rates of success. If you’re considering this route, be sure to do significant research into the support provided to students, the success of past students in terms of persistence rates (how many students who started the medical school successfully completed their studies) and residency match rates, the average time to graduation, average debt. Also consider your own comfort level with being so far away from your support systems, your ability to self-advocate, to adapt to new cultures and situations, and your academic readiness for medical school overall (for more questions to consider, check out this detailed website). As competition grows more intense for residency slots and US allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) medical programs increase the number of positions in their schools, international medical graduates are less likely to find residency positions, especially in more competitive specialties (in 2015, US MD seniors had a 93.9% match rate, whereas US citizen IMGs had a 53.1% match rate). In many cases, we would rather see students take a little more time to try to gain entrance into a US MD/DO school by taking more classes, gaining more clinical exposure, etc. – if that doesn’t work out, then looking into international medical schools may be an option worth exploring, and you’d be more ready for medical school generally with the additional preparation.
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.
Premed Alphabet Soup
Question: Hi HPA – I heard a senior talking about calculating their BCPM and reading up on the ACA before doing their PAI and AMCAS. As a freshman, should I know what all of these things are? It felt like they were speaking another language.
Answer: The world of medicine and med school admissions can seem intimidating because of these “insider” terms, so we’re glad that you asked! BCPM stands for Biology/Chemistry/Physics/Math. Your BCPM or science GPA is evaluated separately from your overall GPA in the medical school admissions process, so it’s one of the numbers you should know before you decide to apply (read more about Science GPA here). The ACA is formally called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but it’s often shortened to Affordable Care Act, ACA, or “Obamacare.” Familiarity with the current state of the US health care system will help you know what you’re “getting yourself into” as a future physician. The PAI is the Pre-Application Interview. All Princeton applicants interview with one of the advisers as part of their preparation for application. The AMCAS, or American Medical College Application Service is the “common application” for most allopathic medical school (MD) programs (read the basics of the application process here).
Seeking HPA Advice
Question: I’m a first-year student looking for basic info about being pre-med here at Princeton. I’ve been trying to make an appointment for a couple of weeks and every time I check, everything is booked. Is there another way that I can get some information?
Answer: There are a couple of great opportunities for basic information and perspective that are currently not as utilized as they could be. The first is our fabulous HPA Peer Advisers – they’re all enthusiastic, helpful, and are happy to talk with any student about their pre-health paths. We select and train HPA PAs and they’re in touch with us regularly. Similarly, “Jock Docs” are pre-health varsity athletes who are available to support their peers. Contact information for all of our Peer Advisers and Jock Docs is available here on our website.
Our Art @ HPA offering every Friday from 12:30-1:30pm is another way to just sit and chat informally with advisers – we have few students who attend every week and would be happy to have more! If you’re the first in your family to pursue medicine, we have an Aspiring Docs Conversation Series with one more offering this semester – we’re hoping to continue this opportunity in the spring, so let us know if you’re interested in participating!
Our website is another rich source for basic information. Be sure to check out our Preparing for a Career in the Health Professions guide – you can find it on our website or pick up a hard copy from our office at any time. Our FAQ and First-Year student “Prehealth 101” info session are also available on the website, and we have a page highlighting resources for first-year students.
We put new appointments on our WASS calendar about two weeks in advance, so keep checking back from time to time, and hopefully you’ll be able to find one! HPA tends to be pretty quiet during reading period, so that may be a good time to schedule a meeting if you don’t have pressing concerns. You can also try coming during drop-in hours – we’re almost always able to see everyone who stops by. Drop-in hours for the week are posted on our website and our Facebook page. For tips on making the most out of meetings with HPA advisers, check our archived FAQ ideas.
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.
The "Why Medicine" Answer
Question: I’m a freshman and I know that I’ll be ask to talk about why I want to be a doctor when I’m applying to internships and later to medical school, and I feel like my answer is the generic “I want to help people and I like science.” I know I want to do this for myself, but I know that’s not enough. How do I convince other people?
Answer: You’re not alone in feeling this way! When something has become part of your identity, as being premed is for some students, it’s hard to pull that out and question it and put words around it. For one, the more hands-on experience you get in and around medicine and caring for patients, the easier it will be to expand your answer. Think of an activity you’ve devoted a lot of time to – a sport, a musical instrument, a hobby – and think about why you like that. You’ll probably get at least some images coming to mind that you’ll draw from; as you volunteer at hospitals, shadow physicians, care for others through other activities, you’ll be able to draw from specific instances that inspired you or helped you see yourself in the profession more clearly. Asking physicians, medical students, even other premeds, why they’re pursuing medicine may also help: hearing what they have to say and (as importantly) how they say it could give you more of a framework for what it means for you. For some “why medicine” ideas, read some of the Inspiring Stories on the AAMC Aspiring Docs webpage. It can be a helpful exercise to start writing your own “why medicine” answers down in a journal or a blog every few months, or after meaningful experiences. This will give you early practice in putting ideas to words and you’ll be able to look back and see how your answer evolves as you mature. You can also use the “premed ponderings” that we’re posting to our HPA Facebook page as prompts to guide your thinking about your career in medicine.