March 4, 2013

The Pre-Medical Experience: A Critical Review

June 1st will be here before we know it.  Every year the opening day for submission of the AMCAS application comes and pre-meds apply to medical schools across the country in hopes of a coveted spot to continue the journey in their medical education. This past month the International Journal of Medical Education released a an article The undergraduate premedical experience in the United States: a critical review that raises some interesting points for pre-meds to consider as they begin to gear up for application season. Some important points to highlight from the journal shows empirical evidence insists that there is a strong correlation between pre-medical academic performance and pre-clinical academic performance. This just highlights how important your grades are.  Others argue that students enter medical school with values and ethical points that may be difficult to influence or alter with the current ethical curricula in medical schools. Recent studies on physician depression and burnout indicate that physician well-being is diminishing by the stress of pre-medical and medical education.  It is important to be well-rounded and find that ability to have life-work balance, to maintain happiness. Another interesting study cited in the article notes that the “pre-medical syndrome” perception of being cut-throat and competitive is actually just a stereotype and many pre-meds go above and beyond to diversify their courses and make it a point to work together in cooperative studying. The main conclusion from the article notes that while some more research is going to be needed to further expand the insight into what pre-medical education “is” and “what it needs”.  It might be interesting to conclude that while being “pre-med” correlates to formal curriculum requirements and strong social norms that influences the identity of the “ideal” and “successful” premed student, pre-meds as a whole are a unique and diverse set of individuals. This article provides a unique opportunity for you as a student to ask yourself a couple questions…
  • Why medicine? What draws you to it?
  • What are you doing to further your understanding of the medical community and things taking place in it?
  • How are classes going? Do you need to seek out help to improve grades in a particular area of study?
  • Have you established close relationships with professors that can attest to your character and provide a meaningful Letter of Recommendation?
  • What experiences help you standout that you could write about in your personal statement?
The important point I would like to convey to everyone is that there are certain requirements of the pre-medical track i.e. the MCAT, volunteering, coursework, etc. However, each of you has unique experiences that are forming your character and skill set that will be integral to your medical education and practice. Don’t lose sight of the big goal, the privilege and opportunity to be a physician. Find confidence in what makes you, and bring that into the upcoming applications! So I leave this post not only with thoughts of #MCATdomination, but more importantly a check to find that confidence that you can bring great things to medicine.  The stress and the long days can be hard, but the hard work pays off. more
Tests & Scores
February 29, 2012

Keeping up with the MCAT Test Changes

Earlier this month the Association of American Medical Colleges formally approved the first major content changes to the MCAT since the test was last revised in 1991. Since the AAMC’s announcement there has been a flurry of discussion about the new exam as students, pre-medical advisors, and medical schools all attempt to understand how they will be affected, and what they can do now to start preparing. The first step in preparing is naturally to understand exactly what the changes will entail. While the AAMC has published a 150-page MCAT2015 Preview Guide that details exactly what the new test will look like, the changes can be boiled down to 3 major points:
  • Beginning in the spring of 2015, the MCAT will be restructured into 4 new sections: the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems section, the Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems section, the Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior section, and the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section.
  • The new exam will include the addition of topics in behavioral and social sciences and advanced science concepts in biochemistry, in addition to the currently tested topics in physics, general and organic chemistry, and biology. The Writing Sample section will be eliminated from the exam starting in 2013.
  • Despite the removal of the Writing Sample, the additional content will make the 2015 MCAT about 90 minutes longer than the current one – going from 5 ½ hours to about 7 hours.
While the extent of the changes is certainly surprising to some, there is general agreement that the expanded content and restructuring of the test will create an exam that will better allow medical schools to evaluate applicants. It’s important to remember that these are beneficial and needed changes, as today’s medicine includes scientific advances that didn’t exist a generation ago, and today’s doctors serve an increasingly diverse population. In fact, in a recent Kaplan survey 73% of medical school admissions officers stated that they believe the changes will better prepare pre-meds for medical school. However, there’s little question that the new MCAT will be more difficult than the current one. The MCAT changes will challenge pre-med students to learn significantly more material within the same amount of time, a potentially daunting, but achievable challenge. The additional content will also affect undergraduate pre-med programs that will need to move quickly to ensure their curricula cover the expanded topics. If you’re among  the students who will potentially be taking the new exam it’s vitally important to speak to your pre-medical advisor sooner rather than later to fully understand how you’ll be affected. Students and faculty who are interested in learning more about the coming MCAT changes can visit the website that the AAMC has set up to discuss the changes at, as well as follow the AAMC on Facebook and Twitter. We’ll also be following the changes closely and posting regular updates as they become available. In the meantime, the results of a recent survey of January MCAT- takers sheds some light on the current premed experience:
  • A Determined Lot: 92% of pre-med students said that even if they had to face the additional content slated for the MCAT in 2015, that it would not have deterred them from pursuing a career in medicine.
  •  A Rigorous Academic Track: 95% said that their existing pre-med education was intense, including 61% who described it as “very intense.”
  •  No Time for French 101: 29% reported that the intensity of their course load prevented them from exploring areas of study outside of pre-med. more
Tests & Scores
February 13, 2012

How to build the Ideal MCAT Study Schedule, Part 1

I often get questions from my students about how to effectively schedule studying for the MCAT. With so many other drains on your time, trying to squeeze in 300+ additional hours of studying can seem like a daunting task, and it’s with that in mind that I would like to introduce this first entry in a three-part series dedicated to helping you build the “Ideal” Study Schedule. While the notion of an “ideal” schedule will certainly change from person to person, there are a few constants that you’ll need to keep in mind. In our initial discussion I’d like to look at what factors you’ll want to consider when building the best MCAT Study Schedule possible. The spring semester is already in full swing, and midterms are going to be here before anyone has the chance to remember who Hardy Weinberg was. With daily responsibilities and stresses mounting, it is important to build a study schedule that is going to help you to study more efficiently, not just more. While initially crafting your schedule, there are several important things to remember:
  • Study every day, even if only for a short period of time. If you can make time to study for 45 minutes twice a day, that will add up to 10.5 hours of studying a week! By making it a habit to study everyday you won’t have to put those study marathons in over the weekend that can quickly burn you out.
  • Utilize your time between classes. While everyone tries to craft the perfect class schedule each semester, there are always breaks between classes where time usually goes to waste. Instead of catching up on your Netflix account or mindlessly creeping on Facebook, try and use your half hour break to go through some flashcards. This is a great tool to get a lot of high yield content down quickly.
  • Get out of bed, and study earlier in the day! Despite what your roommate says, your brain functions better in the morning than at night after a long day of labs and classes.
  • As much as possible try and establish a normal daily schedule. Many of us have romanticized the notion of pulling the all-nighter and still getting the A on that organic chemistry test, but the fact is that approach simply cannot be done for the MCAT and certainly will lead to burnout. Establishing a daily schedule may be boring, but it will help keep you on a path to success.
  • Find a good environment to study in. Even though your apartment or your dorm room has all of the luxuries of home, this can be a very distracting environment. After you establish your schedule, part of keeping that schedule is finding a positive place to study. Examples of this can be the library, an empty classroom, or a quiet part of the student union, but the important thing is to find an environment that’s conducive to focus.
While these are all important things to consider when creating any study plan, the main thing to think about while considering your own is to find what works for you! Everyone studies in their own unique way and you need to experiment to find out what can keep you efficient as possible. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll introduce you to three different typical pre-medical students, and show you how each can create a study schedule that meets their needs. more
Tests & Scores
November 14, 2011

Studying for the MCAT: The Stories Behind the Science

As you’re already well aware, there’s a lot of science that you need to learn as a pre-med student. From physics to chemistry to biology, the number of laws, equations and concepts for you to understand and memorize can seem daunting, so it’s important that you find an easy and effective way to internalize those facts. While many students turn to handy mnemonics like RED CAT (for electrochemistry) and Kung Pao Chicken Over Fresh Green Sprouts (for taxonomy), I find that many students also enjoy learning about the stories behind how a certain principle or phenomenon was discovered and understood. While it’s often debatable whether these events actually happened, these stories provide an amusing diversion from your normal studies and may even help you remember your science lessons better.

Archimedes takes a bath

One of the most oft repeated stories of scientific discovery tells the tale of Archimedes discovering the principle of displacement. According to the common version, an ancient king supplied a quantity of gold to a blacksmith in order to create a special crown. Upon its delivery, the king suspected that the blacksmith had stolen some of the gold, but could not accurately measure the volume of the crown due to its irregular shape. The king tasked Archimedes with solving the seemingly unsolvable puzzle. One day while climbing into the bath, Archimedes noticed that the water level rose as his body displaced the fluid; he realize that by immersing the crown in water and measuring the change in volume, he could effectively measure the crown and prove the blacksmith’s treachery. Archimedes was so elated by his discovery that he leapt from the tub and ran naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!” (“I have found it!”).

Galileo climbs a tower

The idea of constant acceleration due to gravity is typically a difficult one for introductory physics students to grasp – after all, there’s no question that a feather falls more slowly than a rock! However, I’ve found that no story better is a better example of this phenomenon than Galileo’s visit to the Tower of Pisa. The story goes that Galileo had a suspicion about this principle, but wanted to prove his point in a dramatic way. Using two balls of equal volume and shape, but different mass (one was lead while the other was wood), Galileo climbed to the top of the Tower and dropped the balls at the same time. While popular opinion (based on the beliefs of none other than Aristotle) held that the heavier ball should fall faster, the experiment showed that this wasn’t the case, as the balls hit the ground at the same time.

Fleming paints the future of medicine

While the previous two stories have certainly been embellished over the centuries, one of my favorite stories in science is much more firmly founded in truth. In 1928, Alexander Fleming was a little known biologist who had the unusual hobby of creating “paintings” in petri dishes by seeding them with specific bacteria that grew in various colors. One morning Fleming returned to his lab and, to his dismay, found that one of his most recent works had been ruined through the contamination of a rogue mold. Curiously, the area around the mold growth showed a halo of bacteria free medium, and Fleming concluded that the mold was releasing a substance that was toxic to the bacteria. The subsequent purification of the Penicillium mold and the birth of the age of antibiotics was enough to eventually earn Fleming a Nobel Prize.

Of course, there are many more amusing and amazing stories of scientific discovery out there – too many to list them all here. Not only do these tales help us to better understand and remember the principles at work in our everyday world, but they remind us that, as scientists, we too are part of the process of discovery. more
Your Future
August 18, 2011

Topics in Medicine: Prescription Drug Abuse

It’s 1:00 am and the library is really starting to clear out. You are starting to think about heading home, however, that dreaded organic chemistry exam in the morning has you thinking you should stay for a couple more hours. As you start to nod off, your friend from class mentions they have a “magic pill”; this pill allows them to stay up all night long studying at an even faster rate than they ever have before AND they are awake for their morning exam!

In colleges all across the country, and especially in the hyper-competitive pre-med world, this situation is becoming more and more common. Now what are these “magic pills” and where do people get them from? Are they legal? Is it really ok to take them?

Most prescription study aids are made up of amphetamines, a psycho-stimulant drug that is known to increase wakefulness and focus but is associated with decreased appetite and other side effects. Amphetamines have been synthesized since the late 19th century and became more popular starting in World War II; combat soldiers used them to increase focus and fight fatigue. This is when strong abusive tendencies began to show and the drugs eventually became regulated and limited to prescription use only. The most common drugs on the market today are Ritalin, Adderall, and Dexedrine, all of which tend to be habit forming both psychologically and physically.

The positive effects of these drugs increase appeal to many students, and while the increased study time and increased test scores are nice, the negative side effects are rarely talked about. They include but are not limited to: reduced appetite, increased heart rate, dizziness, paranoia, headaches, dry mouth, difficulty sleeping, and in some instances hallucinations. As with most prescription drugs, this makes them dangerous when not taken under the correct circumstances. In spite of the disadvantages of the drugs, it is easy to understand why so many students are hooked and why there will be continued use.

An article late last year in the La Crosse Tribune sheds some additional light on the matter by placing hard numbers behind the trend. The numbers they quote are from a study published in the Journal of American College Health, titled "Illicit Use of Prescribed Stimulant Medication Among College Students"; given that this study is more than 6 years old, most experts believe that the statistics reported have only grown – some even believe it’s actually closer to 1 in 2 students that have or are using prescription study aids. Looking forward, the ethical implications are clear - it’s important to remember that as a future doctor, you will eventually have the prescription pad in your hands.

In the Topics in Medicine series we are highlighting various trends that are important to the future of medicine; while we have previously discussed various diseases and illnesses that all doctors will want to fight, the topic of prescription drug abuse is no less important. As you get ready to start your career in medicine, it’s important to understand not just the scientific but also the social issues that affect you and your patients. more

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