Almost Everything You Need to Know About Postbac Programs

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Session 253

Dr. Glenn Cummings is the Associate Dean and Director of the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. We discuss mistakes students make and so much more about postbacs.

If you’re a nontraditional student, you will certainly get a lot of information from this episode. And even as a traditional student, there will be plenty of information for you.

One quick thing which we didn’t get to talk about in the interview is if you’re thinking about applying to postbac programs, there is now a centralized application service for postbac programs. Not every postbac is participating in it yet. As you’re doing your research and looking at postbac programs, figure out if they’re taking part in PostBacCAS or if you need to individually apply to that postbac program.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[02:21] From PhD in American Literature to the Premed World

Even though he has a PhD in American Literature, Glenn has been a pre-health advisor for seventeen years now. And he started for two reasons. First, was he wasn’t happy with the research he did in graduate school. He knew it just wasn’t where he was headed. Second, he really wanted to do advising.

Just as he was finishing his doctorate, he had a job at a small nursing college, then a liberal arts college that was poorly funded. They didn’t have any system for academic advising. He was teaching American literature to older students who had gone back to school after raising families and having careers. Some were working full time.

He was at the University of Virginia at that time, and the premed advisor of 20 years just left. He was asked to do it on a trial basis to see if he enjoyed it. It also included pre-law advising since he was the overall director of pre-professional advising at that point. Ultimately, he liked the pre-health students the best, so he decided to stick with that.

Although science was not his background, he wanted to alleviate suffering and improve people’s well being, and that was something he shared with the students. That’s what has brought him to Bryn Mawr as their Associate Dean and Director. Today he has been in these positions for three years.

Although science was not his background, he wanted to alleviate suffering and improve people's well being, and that was something he shared with the pre-health students.Click To Tweet

[05:55] What is a Postbac Premed Program?

Glenn defines postbac as the short term for postbaccalaureate. It’s a program you do after you get your bachelor’s degree. The premedical postbac programs fall into two types:

  1. Career-changer programs (which he sometimes calls “start from scratch”) are for students who have not taken the premedical requirements. So they take this program for a year to take the basic sciences to be eligible to apply to medical school.
  2. Grade-enhancer programs are for students who have done most, if not all, of the courses in college, but they didn’t do as well as they wanted to. So they need to do additional science and enhance their record.

[07:00] Postbac Right After College: Is It Right or Wrong?

Many college students are in their sophomore or junior years, and they’re planning on taking a postbac right after college. Is that wrong thinking?

Before being part of the Bryn Mawr postbac program, Glenn was at UVA for four years and at Princeton for eight years. He also ran the health professions advising program there. Glenn says that in his last couple of years before leaving Princeton, he saw there were students who were very well-informed who were considering this path.

There were so many opportunities offered to them during college that were exciting to them, like studying abroad, double-majoring, or writing a senior thesis. And so some students just thought they couldn’t get those medical school prerequisite courses in.

Another possible explanation is that students have been told they need to be a perfect premed with perfect numbers and extracurriculars to get into medical school. So they would rather delay all of that stuff until later. But Glenn doesn’t think delaying your prereqs would make it any easier to get those high marks.

The number of applicants we get in our postbac program that are college seniors has grown a little bit every year.Click To Tweet

The advantage these students have is the extra time they’re able to think about whether medical school is the right decision for them. However, it’s not in the spirit of what these programs were created for. At their institution, Glenn says they still consider students right after college, but they interview them. They carefully inquire about their interest in medicine.

[13:00] Sense of Community in a Postbac Program

Glenn further explains that students attracted to the Bryn Mawr postbac program express a desire for a sense of community. He describes their program as having a very tightly knit community of 75 to 80 students. They are a fairly small college, but large enough to be able to foster diversity. So they wanted that group with similar goals and similar values.

A lot of postbac students want a group of people going through the same thing they're going through, almost like a dress rehearsal for medical school.Click To Tweet

Advising at the Bryn Mawr Postbac Program

At some undergraduate institutions, students may not have a structured advising system. But at the Bryn Mawr postbac program, they’re very involved in the student’s academic success. They have one-on-one advising with students every day, making sure their weaknesses are being addressed. They’re essentially guiding them towards academic success.

If you need structure and community, then a formal postbac program will give that to you. Glenn adds they facilitate co-curricular activities as well, such as speaking events centered around healthcare. It’s very important that you’re able to show that you can be part of that community during your postbac interview.

If you need structure and community, then a formal postbac program will give that to you.Click To Tweet

[17:25] Shadowing and Clinical Experiences During Your Postbac

Although not part of the curriculum, Bryn Mawr does orient students about the need for having shadowing and clinical experience as part of their typical week. At Bryn Mawr, students arrive at the beginning of the summer. And over that summer, Glenn has a staff member who works with them to find a place in the community where they can get some clinical experience.

This is done in a way that enhances what they’ve already done. Many of their students have already had these kinds of experiences under their belt, while others have had very little. Either way, the staff member works with them closely to help guide them toward a clinical experience they find valuable.

At Bryn Mawr, they have a large database of local clinical experiences pursued by all their students in the past, so they also have access to that. Bryn Mawr doesn’t have any official shadowing program, but some colleges do offer these at local hospitals.

[20:45] How They Evaluate Their Students

Glenn mentions two things postbac students need to be evaluated on:

  1. Their academic ability.
  2. Their familiarity with medicine and their passion for it.

So he admits it’s a challenge for them when looking at postbac applicants.

Almost all of the people that come to our program have something in their story that familiarized them with medicine.Click To Tweet

[Related episode: What Can I Do If My GPA Is Too Low for a Postbac Program?]

The Importance of Clinical Experience for Postbac Applicants

Glenn explains that almost all of the students that apply to them have had some experience with medicine. Either they’re volunteering at a hospital, they’ve shadowed a doctor, or they’ve dealt with illness in the family. In fact, some of the most interesting applicants they’ve got are ones who have been treated by multiple doctors—some they liked and some they didn’t—and this gave them a clear sense of the kind of provider they want to be one day.

Occasionally, they have accepted students who didn’t have clinical experience. Then they’d go to the local hospital and they don’t enjoy it. They don’t like being with sick people. They didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into. But this is rare.

The postbac program at Bryn Mawr is also short. It’s only one year. Before you know it, you’re trying to apply to medical school. So what he looks for in students is that short-term potential for them to be able to go to a medical school interview and speak passionately about why they want to be a doctor.

[24:10] Judging Career-Changer Postbac Applicants

Glenn says that this is a surprise to applicants, but they look all the way back to high school transcripts.

We look at high school transcripts. We look at their high school science grades. Click To Tweet

They want to see the last time the applicant was in an environment where they did lab work and they had to do science. They also look at their SAT and ACT scores. This can also surprise people. But they find this very informative, especially if the applicant hasn’t had any science in college. So they need to go back and look at those things. This gives them a sense of any challenges with the coursework ahead.

Your grades in college mean more than you might think, even if it's in a discipline far away from science.Click To Tweet

Looking at how many classes they took, the level of classes they took, or the challenges they faced in whatever discipline they chose, you can get a sense of how they’re going to do in a rigorous science program.

Glenn says the letters of recommendation help a lot too. Many skills are actually transferable to doing well in the sciences. The MCAT is not required for career changer postbac applicants—only for academic enhancers.

[26:50] The Biggest Mistakes Made by Postbac Applicants

Glenn says the biggest mistake he sees applicants make is applying late. They’re like a dress rehearsal for medical school, so they have rolling admissions just like medical schools.

We're a mini, little version of a medical school in terms of our application process. Get your application in early.Click To Tweet

They only have a certain number of seats for their classes. They always see some really amazing applicants at the very end of the cycle. It’s very hard for them to turn them down or to put them on the waitlist. But they’re applying late for some reason.

Bryn Mawr starts accepting applications in August. If you wait until February to apply, unfortunately, the train is already leaving the station. February is their actual deadline for applications, but you should apply much earlier.

Historically, students work off deadlines. Personally, I wish medical schools would get rid of the word “deadline” and Glenn agrees with me on this. If you actually wait until the deadline for these applications, you’re hurting your chances significantly.

Interviewing for Postbac Programs

Another important thing during the postbac application process is the interview. They can do it via Skype or in person. But regardless of which format, students need to put real thought into what they want they communicate in 30 or 40 minutes. This is the second most common mistake they see: when applicants come in poorly prepared for the interview. They don’t listen very well, and they do all the talking. They don’t stop to breathe. Or they give just one-word answers.

Glenn has noticed older career-changers seem to be better at communicating in the interview. It’s mostly the younger students that struggle with this.

[Check out my 1-on-1 Mock Interview Prep!]

[31:30] Common Mistake Among Career Changers

Glenn thinks career changers generally do well in the interview because of their maturity and comfort level talking about themselves. But one common mistake they make is they dominate too much. They’re just very strong about taking the conversation where they wanted it to go.

Leadership is nice, but over-leading in the interview can be a real problem.Click To Tweet

Especially when you think about interacting with patients or medical staff, you don’t want someone who is overly assertive. The biggest takeaway as you’re preparing for an interview is that you’re being judged based on how you’re communicating in that clinical setting.

Being Positive in Your Postbac Interview

Glenn has actually read my book, The Premed Playbook: Guide to the Medical School Interview. And what he likes is the emphasis on being positive during the interview.

Sometimes career changers tend to go through the other jobs they’ve tried and explain why it wasn’t right for them. They talk about the reasons they don’t like that certain career. It’s negative, and it comes out in the end that medicine was just the default they arrived at. Instead, you should emphasize what pulled you to medicine.

[34:20] What Are Linkage Programs to Medical Schools?

In the Bryn Mawr postbac program, they have eighteen linkages to medical schools. They’ve been around for a long time, thus the high number. They’ve basically developed relationships with these schools. The medical schools see that graduates of the program come to them and do very well in their medical school. So they want more of those students.

In a medical school linkage, instead of finishing the program and taking a “glide year” while you’re applying to medical school, you just apply to medical school halfway through the program. This happens at the very end of the application cycle (winter). If you’re conditionally accepted by the medical school and then you finish the postbac program strong, then that conditional acceptance turns into a real acceptance. Then you can start medical school the next summer.

Some of these linkage programs actually waive the MCAT. But you’ll have plenty of tests later on, your boards being the big one. So you’re not getting out of standardized testing for the rest of your life.

[Related episode: How Can I Get into a Postbac with a Linkage to Med School?]

The Disadvantage of Medical School Linkage Programs

The disadvantage is that they ask you to commit to one school in a very, very short period of time. You arrive in your postbac program and, within months, and you’re choosing one school at the exclusion of all the other 140 medical schools in the country. So you’re trying to convince yourself it’s where you belong. It’s a tall order for a lot of students.

Now, if you’re a postbac in a program that doesn’t have linkages, Glenn wouldn’t worry about it. If you do well academically in the program and have the transcript and extracurriculars to show it, then you’re going to be a great applicant.

Glenn says applying to a linkage program is a tough decision to make. If you apply to med school the normal way, maybe you apply to 15 schools and you travel around the country visiting them in person. You can feel confident that you cast a wide net and explored all your options. It’s hard for someone linked to ever know that.

If you apply to med school the normal way, maybe you apply to 15 schools and you travel around the country visiting them in person. You can feel confident that you cast a wide net and explored all your options.Click To Tweet

[37:45] Why Choose Bryn Mawr for Your Postbac?

Glenn takes pride in the students they have at the school, due to their diversity. Second is the collaborative learning environment they have: The basic sciences are taught in a way where students are broken into groups and working collaboratively as much as possible.

[39:28] Looking for a Career-Changer Postbac?

Glenn’s advice is to get out there and get that clinical experience. Some people come into their postbac program with very little of that.

Create some time in your week. Prioritize just enough to get three hours of time to get into a hospital setting and do some clinical volunteering or shadowing on a weekly basis. Just make sure there is patient contact. This the best way you can start to figure out if that’s the environment you want to be in.

And for those students who keep putting off their decision to apply one year after the next, saying their job keeps getting in the way—you just need to do it. Make it happen.

And for those students who keep putting off their decision to apply one year after the next, saying their job keeps getting in the way—you just need to do it. Make it happen.Click To Tweet

It’s Never Too Late for Medical School

Lastly, Glenn wishes to tell people out there sitting in a cubicle and worried about making that leap, it’s never too late. And that’s because of the postbac programs. So have faith in that.

Just have faith that it's not too late.Click To Tweet

Glenn adds that you can also talk to current postbac students who are career changers. Sometimes, you just need to see examples of people who made the decision to go for it, and that makes you realize it can actually happen. In some careers, you might need to start right after college—but through these postbac programs, it’s really never too late for those wanting to pursue medicine.

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