By Glenn N. Cummings, Ph.D., Director of Health Professions Advising
Last Friday, I attended a one-day conference hosted by Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, the new allopathic medical school in Camden. We Philly-area pre-health advisers like to get together every January at a different health professional school, engaging in dialogue about timely professional topics, hearing updates from Admissions deans, and generally comparing notes, while catching up on a personal level, too, since many of us have been doing this advising thing for a while and know each other as friends (I may have pulled out my phone to show photos of my six-year-old more than once). Cooper has a beautiful, intelligently designed building with an emphasis on “being green” and an anatomy lab with a million-dollar view. Cooper also has an Admissions dean with a passion for primary care and a down-home sense of humor that kept us entertained all day. A high point of the day for me was when two alumni from Princeton, where I used to work, appeared at lunch. They were happy first-years, and I was a happy adviser just catching up with them and knowing that everything had turned out OK. These two women had taken a couple of years between college and medical school, taking their time preparing to be the best applicants they could be. They had everything to offer the profession, and now they were having their chance.
I love seeing former advisees when I visit health professional schools. They’re always so mature. They have confidence and self-knowledge to a degree that I don’t often see in undergraduates. Running into my former advisees at Cooper fit in perfectly with the unscripted theme of the whole day, I realize now. Over the course of the conference, the Penn State-Hershey’s dean of Admissions showed a slide outlining the personal characteristics he looks for in applicants, with maturity encompassing virtually all of them . . . the new list of AAMC “personal competencies” came up in conversation more than once, and it was mentioned how older applicants demonstrate these competencies more readily . . . and several colleagues reminded me in separate conversations how more and more of their advisees were taking at least a year before going to medical school.
An AAMC survey in 2011 revealed that approximately half of matriculating medical students have a period of twelve months or longer between college graduation and arriving at medical school (see last year’s “Getting Started” guidebook published by the AAMC as part of Medical School Admissions Requirements). At my last college, as many as two-thirds of the applicants had graduated when they applied, and at F&M that number has been consistent with the national trend, around half. One of my colleagues at another small liberal arts college says that as many as 80% of her applicants are college graduates before they start the application process.
There are some real practical advantages to slowing down your path toward medical school and growing up a bit. If you didn’t know this already, let me say that grades tend to trend upward in junior and senior years, and applying the summer before senior year, to go straight in, chops off the last and often best year of your academic work. Senior year culminates in your strongest intellectual achievements and often your deepest engagement with faculty. Furthermore, the time crunch surrounding the MCAT loosens up considerably, as does the anxiety over fitting the test into your busy schedule, when you plan to apply during the summer after graduation. And lastly, you have the “free” year—not only to recharge your batteries, but to expand your knowledge of healthcare, whether that be through clinical research or clinical care. I could go on.
What this means is that more and more applicants, and more and more first-years like the two women I had lunch with on Friday, have maturity on their side. Facing the complexities of a dynamic profession and a healthcare system that is, to say the least, in transition, necessitates a more mature physician workforce, does it not? To choose your area of medicine when residency programs are tightening and primary care is in trouble, to figure out how to balance your personal and professional lives, and above all to meet the day-to-day challenges of the Affordable Care Act (and its sequels, the legislation yet to come) as they create the new reality in medicine—why wouldn’t we want our aspiring physicians to have maturity on their side? More importantly, why wouldn’t you, as a leader in this new medical world, want every ounce of wisdom, every insight, epiphany, and cautionary tale you could glean from life experience? Think about it . . .
One final note: The AAMC personal competencies mentioned above are one of my favorite topics these days. You’ll probably hear about them again. In the meantime, you can check out a brief description of them here.