• How can I make myself a competitive candidate for med school?
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    How can I make myself a competitive candidate for med school?

    Dr. Christian Arbelaez

    I would recommend that you develop your "whole self": solid grades and MCAT scores, extracurricular involvement in the community, research and participation in summer programs if possible, and strong letters of recommendation.

    Kevin Harris

    This is the $64,000 question, and the answer starts with first understanding what factors help to determine if an applicant is "competitive."

    Ideally, you'll want to present evidence of your solid and consistent academic performance in all coursework, and specifically in the sciences; demonstrate your commitment to a career in medicine through extracurricular experiences in health care settings; develop and then highlight your personal characteristics such as leadership and integrity; and do well on the MCAT® exam.

    To get there, I'd suggest you first put some serious thought into how you're going to achieve your goal. There are a lot of moving parts involved with preparing, applying, and ultimately being admitted to medical school. You can start this process by getting an objective assessment of where you are relative to the factors listed above.

    You may have to come to this assessment through a variety of exercises, such as establishing an effective relationship with your academic and pre-health advisors. Involving your teachers in this process, particularly science faculty and faculty from your major field of study, can be helpful as well. (Relationships with your teachers are also helpful in the future in terms of providing references). Becoming active in programs and organizations is also helpful. The point is to develop a roadmap and keep track of where you are along the way.

  • Does taking five or more years to complete undergraduate school affect my ability to get into medical school?
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    Does taking five or more years to complete undergraduate school affect my ability to get into medical school?

    Dr. Christian Arbelaez

    It depends on the reason. It's not seen negatively, if the reason is that you are taking an extra year for research, international work, financial hardship, personal illness, or family illness. It may have a negative impact if you have consistently struggled academically and have to repeat an entire year.

    Kevin Harris

    The answer is no, in the sense that there's no written guideline that says students must complete their undergraduate degree within four years to be considered. In fact, there are academic plans, such as decompressed curriculums, study abroad programs, and the like that have growing appeal among students and provide wonderful opportunities to broaden a student's profile. The definition of a traditional four-year student is evolving. However, there is a "why" question that might come into play. Are there "red flags," such as sketchy academic performance or mishandling of the life "stuff" that happens to us that might lead admissions committees to consider the five-year plus time frame in a less positive light? If so, there's no need to panic. Appraise your work and experiences honestly and emphasize your ultimate success in graduating. Your determination can be considered a personal attribute. The issue then becomes quality over quantity.

  • I plan to take organic chemistry during the summer and physics during my junior year.
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    I plan to take organic chemistry during the summer and physics during my junior year.

    Dr. Christian Arbelaez

    If you have completed organic chemistry and most of the physics tested by the MCAT by the spring, you should not be at a disadvantage. Taking classes in the summer should not hinder your chances of getting accepted to medical school. Keep in mind that summer classes are more condensed and fast paced so you will need to be dedicated and keep up. If you don't do well in these classes, it will definitely hinder your chances.

    Kevin Harris

    There are a lot of factors involved in this decision that prevent us from providing you with a definitive answer. We do know the going consensus is that students should try to avoid taking the core science courses, at least for the first time, during the summer. Important considerations are: Will there be ample resources and time available during the summer to best position you to do well in these courses? Are the "best" professors for these courses teaching it during this time? The answer to your question about preparing for the MCAT follows this logic. Does the summer environment afford you the optimum chance for mastering organic chemistry and/or physics? Therefore, your preparation for the MCAT and your chances of admission to medical school might be indirectly affected by taking these courses in the summer based on what you realistically can absorb from these courses in the summer environment. I suspect there are successful medical students who took these courses in the summer. It may be helpful to find someone who took this path and use them as a resource.

  • I attend college in a very rural area of the country.
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    I attend college in a very rural area of the country.

    Dr. Christian Arbelaez

    Concentrate on doing well in your classes and working with your pre-med advisor to set up research/volunteering experiences at a nearby medical school or hospital during your summer months. There are a lot of summer programs offered and you should look into applying to these programs early.

  • When should I start studying for the MCAT® exam?
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    When should I start studying for the MCAT® exam?

    Dr. Christian Arbelaez

    You should start preparing for it during your second year. The summer between your second and third year you should apply for one of the summer programs that has an MCAT preparatory component to it. I think that MCAT prep courses are helpful in that they provide you with test-taking strategies and simulate real testing conditions.

    Kevin Harris

    You mean you haven't started already? Technically, the preparation clock for the MCAT exam starts the moment you realize you want to become a physician. Pace yourself though; this process is a marathon, not a 100-meter dash.

    I'd suggest starting by checking out the official MCAT Website. There you will find some basic information that can help you map out a timeline and strategy for preparing (also sample tests). You'll also find tips on preparing for the exam. Most importantly, factor your personal and school responsibilities into your plan so that you don't compromise your ability to succeed in those areas.

    Commercial test preparation companies are certainly an option. However, they are not a requirement for doing well on the MCAT exam, and they will not replace putting in adequate time and focus. Other resources are at your disposal as well. Check with your pre-health advisor's office, the campus learning center, and with your campus student groups regarding programs that are available to enhance your test-taking ability.

    Also, realize that preparation for the MCAT exam—and most other standardized exams—involves much more than just the academic aspects. Take care of yourself mentally and emotionally as well; after all, your health and well-being also relate to your success on the exam. It's all part of the preparation!

      Kevin Harris, MSA

      Kevin Harris, MSA, is the director of diversity access programs in the division of health careers/education and special services for students at Virginia Commonwealth University.

      Christian Arbelaez, MD, MPH

      Christian Arbelaez, MD, MPH, is an outstanding clinician, educator, mentor, researcher and leader in his pursuit to advance the field of emergency medicine.