First, the Accepted team and I want to extend our best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery to those who are sick or who have ill family members. We also know that some of you or your families are experiencing financial difficulties because of the pandemic and lock-down. Again, our thoughts and prayers are with you all.
The remainder of this post will help you deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the attendant restrictions on your med school application. Accepted’s med admissions consultants had an online meeting about the coronavirus’ impact on med school admissions and decided it would be helpful to you, our clients and applicant friends, to share the perspectives that came out of that meeting.
While you will find below the opinions of experts with decades of experience as pre-health advisors, med school, or postbac admissions committee members and/or admissions consultants, please remember that we are not public health experts, economists, or prophets. Our crystal ball is cloudy and imperfect. However, we hope to calm and reassure without being unrealistically optimistic about the situation.
Linda Abraham’s thoughts
The pandemic is a major, but temporary, bump in the road to becoming a physician. It may delay your plans, but it doesn’t have to derail your ambitions.
If you’ve already taken your MCAT
If you already have an MCAT score that you are satisfied with, you can proceed pretty much as usual. Get your recommenders lined up. Work on your personal statement, most meaningful experience essays, and activity descriptions. I’m assuming you also have a GPA, coursework, clinical exposure, community service, and leadership/teamwork that are also critical to med school applications. If at all possible, try to submit your primary application in June to further enhance your chances. However, don’t rush your application in order to get it in early.
You may be in slightly better shape this year than in a “normal” year because there are going to be applicants who are unable to apply because they can’t take the MCAT now.
If you haven’t yet taken the MCAT
If you haven’t taken the MCAT at all, you have to wait for AAMC to start offering the exam again. We believe that med schools will be much more understanding of later submissions than in the past. However, no one really knows when they’ll start giving that exam again. It could be May, but it could also be later.
For those who have been preparing for a March, April, or May MCAT, this delay is particularly frustrating. You’ve invested heavily in preparing for this exam. You’ve put in hours studying. Continue to study, especially those parts of the exam that you find difficult.
Other testing services either have rolled out (ETS for the GRE) or are working on (GMAC for the GMAT, LSAC for the LSAT) home exams with remote proctoring. We’ll let you know if AAMC announces anything along those lines.
Is it possible that you will need to take a “gap year” if AAMC doesn’t offer the MCAT until late in the summer or later? Yes. it is. But if that happens, turn that “gap year” into a “growth year” that enhances your chances of acceptance. Work, volunteer, gain research experience if you are interested in research, prepare well for the MCAT so that you can earn a high score.
Again, “delay” doesn’t need to mean “derail.”
If you’re not satisfied with your MCAT score and really want to retake it, you have to decide whether to apply with your current score or wait to retake. Obviously that will depends on how low the score is and where you want to attend.
Bottom line: Do what you can while confined to your home to improve your chances of acceptance. Think positive. Hang in there!
Linda Abraham is the founder and CEO of Accepted. She is also the co-founder of AIGAC and the host of the Admissions Straight Talk Podcast.
Dr. Barry Rothman’s thoughts
Together, we are facing uncertain times in dealing with a pandemic the modern world has not known since the Spanish flu of 1918-19. Although this is a very scary time, it is also a time during which many people are pulling together, being kind to and thoughtful of each other, often through online contact. At present, no one, including med schools, knows how long the pandemic and the shelter-in-place orders will last. One thing is quite certain: we need and will continue to need well-trained physicians and other healthcare workers more than ever.
If I put myself in the place of a med school admissions committee, here’s what I come up with:
- Med schools will not want to jeopardize the application cycle, so they are likely to not delay the opening date or modify the calendar.
- They will have to be more flexible in examining applicants’ credentials by accepting later MCAT dates, activities and letters. In particular, for at least the near future, it will be difficult for applicants to gain further in-person clinical and social justice experience.
- Med schools will also have to be flexible in evaluating applicants whose academic records for this spring (and likely beyond) show med school prerequisites and electives taken pass-no pass rather than for a letter grade. Nevertheless, I recommend not taking the pass/no pass option and instead requesting a letter grade when possible.
- Interviews (and med school admissions committee meetings) will likely have to switch to a totally online format, as air travel and meeting in person with others will continue to increase one’s risk of being infected by COVID-19. Fortunately, Accepted offers online practice for both standard interviews and MMIs.
- Much of the med school didactic curriculum will be offered online rather than in person. This is already taking place.
Given the above scenarios, if you have doubts about your application, I think it’s wise to wait an additional year and spend that time making it stronger. I’d give this advice without a COVID-19 pandemic, and I think it applies even more to the present situation. Consider having a no-cost call with one of our consultants, and if appropriate hiring one of us for an hour to help you evaluate the strength of your application and how to improve it.
Dr. Rothman is the founder and former director of three post-bac programs and professor of biology. He now works with med school applicants as an Accepted admissions consultant.
Dr. Mary Mahoney’s thoughts
You were hoping to take the MCAT, then COVID-19 changed that. You were hoping to get your medical school applications in right away, but without an MCAT score, what then?
Your target schools haven’t posted what they want you to do, likely because they’re not sure what they need to do for their current students, and potentially you, the incoming ones. Medical schools (and the rest of us) are in the midst of uncertainty.
Your undergraduate courses have gone online. They’re moving forward. Your school is being flexible. Your professors are accommodating. The transition to online courses has been smoother than expected. Great.
You’re practicing social distancing, you’re quarantined, or you live in a state where your governor mandates that you stay home. Now what?
You’ve done a little something to help your community. You’ve done more than a little something to help your family, your neighbors. But you’re restless. Now what?
First, breathe. Really. Stand outside and breathe. Relax. There are weeks ahead during which we may not have a clear compass, a few months to pass when the new normal will come into focus. Your target schools will figure things out. Trust this.
But what can you do? It’s very simple. This is a perfect time to read.
Start an online premed book club with your premed and health science friends.
Read books written by doctors about being doctors and talk about them. Read books written by patients (and caregivers) about being sick and talk about them. These books will help you. They’re very good books. They’re revelatory. Humane. Keen.
Reading breaks through isolation. It will give you meaningful use of solitary time.
When we read the experiences and struggles of doctors, we are meditating upon living. When we engage the stories of patients, we listen. Their stories are a bit different than you thought they’d be.
Imagine yourself during a medical school interview referring to the story in one of the books that resonates with you. Share this story. Mention the book. Mention the author. It very well may be your interviewer knows the book too.
You have the time now to read. Here are some suggestions:
Contemporary books written by doctors that illuminate life:
- Rafael Campo, Alternative Medicine (poetry)
- Robert Coles, The Call of Stories (nonfiction)
- Atul Gawande, On Being Mortal (nonfiction)
- Perri Klass, A Not Entirely Benign Procedure: Four Years as a Medical Student (nonfiction)
- Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (nonfiction)
- Abraham Verghese, The Tennis Partner (memoir)
The “must read” for med students, written by a doctor who satirizes American medical education:
- Samuel Shem, The House of God (fiction, barely)
Biography of a Doctor:
- Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (about the current Harvard physician whose ethos is “the only real nation is humanity”)
Biography of a Disease:
- Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies (a biography of cancer)
- Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures (reportorial, nonfiction)
Contemporary books written by patients (or caregivers) that illuminate life:
- Mark Doty, Dog Years (caregiver, memoir)
- Andre Dubus, Meditations from a Movable Chair (disability, essays)
- Margaret Edson, Wit (patient, a play)
- Lucy Greely, Autobiography of a Face (disability, memoir)
- Paul Kalinithi, When Breath Becomes Air (doctor as terminal patient)
- Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals (patient, autobiography)
- Paul Monette, Borrowed Time: an AIDS Memoir (caregiver, memoir)
- Paul Monette, 18 Elegies for Rog (partner, poems, AIDS)
Dr. Mahoney is a former nurse and current English professor. She has over 20 years of experience as an advisor and essay reviewer for med school applicants.
Cyd Foote’s thoughts
As the country braces for COVID-19, our lives are changing quite a bit. For medical school applicants, there are special challenges. The MCAT has canceled its next two testing dates. International mission trips are being scrapped. As for local scheduled volunteering and shadowing opportunities, many are being postponed or canceled. Many of you are probably asking yourselves, “How is this all going to affect my application?”
It’s unfortunate but understandable that regularly planned volunteer work and shadowing has been affected. With hospitals under pressure, limiting non-essential access is a vital step to protecting public health. As this situation progresses, stay in touch with your coordinators so that they know that you’re ready and willing to help out, whenever you’re needed.
While many volunteer opportunities have been suspended, others are still going strong – and need help. Across the country, from California to Texas to Vermont, organizations are looking for healthy volunteers. Food banks and Meals On Wheels have been hit particularly hard.
READ: How Can I Continue Volunteering in the Age of COVID-19?
And don’t forget the people in your community. Check on elderly neighbors or anyone with compromised immune systems, or look to sites like NextDoor for people in your community who need support. Making grocery or prescription runs for them, or even offering to walk their dog, is an easy way that you can help.
There are lots of opportunities for working at home for organizations like the UN and the Red Cross, or you might find something that better fits your skillset here. Remember that a lot of these might be working on reduced personnel, so be patient with your queries.
Supporting others during this time is going to make a real difference for your community and your own mental health. And while it should not be your primary motivation, the initiative you show won’t go amiss on your application. I can easily see admission committees asking questions such as: “What did you do when your volunteer spot was canceled?” Instead of saying, “I worked on my application, studied for the MCAT, and watched Netflix,” you can impress with a great answer about how you stepped up and served in any way you could.
As for how this is going to affect your application, the honest answer is that nobody knows. However, medical schools are well aware of this situation and will, I believe, be very understanding about disruptions during this period. This should hopefully translate into being more accommodating about later MCAT scores and applications.
This is new territory for all of us, but making sure that you have the support you need while supporting those around you will help us all get through this.
Cyd Foote is a former administrator at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Author of three ebooks about medical education, she has successfully advised MBA, medical, and residency applicants since 2001.
Lolita Wood-Hill’s thoughts
This is going to be an interesting application season. My biggest concerns are Pass/Fail grade options, MCAT testing dates, and how applicants can show their calm, caring, and compassionate attitudes as the virus separates us from personal contact experiences.
AAMC is working on making more dates available for MCAT testing. What I find most promising is the idea that they are working on getting test results out earlier than the normal 4 weeks. This would be a great way to lessen the consequences of taking a later exam. But I am also encouraging students to NOT worry about taking the exam in July or even August. Get the rest of your application in, including secondaries. This will require you apply to a broader number of schools as you won’t have scores to help you decide where you will be most competitive, but it will ensure your application is complete at the earliest possible time.
Pass/Fail grades are an issue. On the Northeast we have seen that many of the medical schools are requiring letter grades UNLESS the college has mandated P/NP grades for all courses. My recommendation is that students consider their own GPA’s and how well those GPA’s can withstand a B- or C grade. If you have a science GPA that is 3.7 or above, I would not worry and take the grade. If you are someone who has just started making inroads to a better GPA, I would consider taking the P grade and repeating the course or taking a W and repeating the class. AAMC has made it clear that their system will accept the P grade but it will not be factored into the AMCAS GPA. Speak with advisors on your campus to check on the policy at your school.
I am sure that every medical school will want a clear idea of what you did to assist your community or other communities. Digital volunteer opportunities abound: Digital Smithsonian, Crisis Text Hotline, etc. You can also find a local homeless shelter or food pantry to help with deliveries, making meals, donating supplies, and providing these on site programs with your knowledge of social media to help them get the word out that they are there. NO ONE should expect to be let “off the hook” regarding volunteering during this time. Your MCAT studying, completing your classes, your research, are all important to keep up with. But you should be making every effort to show that you’ve made a personal commitment to help out during this time of crisis.
Lolita Wood-Hill has been a pre-health advisor for over 25 years. She has extensive experience with dental, PT, PA, and law school applicants.
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