Today, let’s pick the brain of with Ellen Miller, EdD, an advisor at Hofstra University, about where medical school advisors get their knowledge. Listen for some sound advice on navigating the premed and medical school application process.
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Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
How Advisors Stay Current to Advise Students Effectively
Ellen got into advising premed and medical students in an interesting way. While she always wanted to work in healthcare, she struggled with chemistry in school. Her former supervisor then suggested she work with premed students or athletes, and since she couldn’t be a pre-med student herself, she chose to work with them.
Ellen reassures students that advisors can have knowledge to help them even without going through medical school themselves. She notes that advisors stay up to date by talking to current admissions officers, attending conferences, and getting feedback from students who recently went through the process.
Advisors make sure to understand current trends in admissions and healthcare. Their expertise comes from ongoing education, not just their own personal experience applying to medical school decades ago.
“Advisors at your college at your university are educating themselves and staying up to date.”
Unlocking Clinical Experience Opportunities
Overcoming Lack of Privilege to Gain Clinical Experience
Ellen suggests several ways for students without financial resources or social connections to get clinical experience. She advises networking with peers, pre-med clubs, and advisors to learn about local volunteer opportunities. Students can also reach out directly to hospitals, family doctors, and career centers for internships.
If necessary, paid jobs like medical assistant roles can fulfill requirements while providing income. Ellen emphasizes that any health-related job builds valuable skills for medical careers. Perseverance is key – students should be proactive, utilizing all campus resources and not getting discouraged with one rejection.
“A lot of students are under the assumption that if they’re getting paid and getting health care experience, that’s not as good as volunteering. Well, that’s not the case.”
The Value of Balancing Work, School and Any Clinical Experience
Ellen addresses the mentality of students who think limited clinical experience like 5 hours of volunteering per week is “trash” and not worth doing. She says admissions committees actually value a student who can balance academics, almost full-time work, and some clinical experience, even if only 5 hours a week at a hospital. It shows an ability to manage competing demands.
For students who need better pay, employers’ letters of recommendation can speak highly of traits. Whether that’s work ethic, responsibility and leadership abilities gained from long-term non-clinical jobs. Quality of experience matters more than quantity alone.
“It’s all about what you do with that time that you’re not in the classroom.”
Demonstrating Passion for Service Through Community Impact
Ellen emphasizes that admissions committees want to see well-rounded applicants who are doing more than just academics.
When assessing privileged students who may not have struggled in the same ways, she says committees still look for how those students have used their time and talents to better their communities. Some examples she gives are teaching yoga to underserved youth, tutoring peers, or volunteering to translate for patients who don’t speak the local language.
The key is demonstrating passion for service and making a positive impact on others.
Resourceful Ways for Students to Find Shadowing Without Connections
Ellen provides several suggestions for students without medical connections to find shadowing opportunities:
- Join pre-med clubs and student organizations to network with peers who may have resources
- Reach out to advisors for shadowing leads from past successful students
- Contact local hospitals directly and be proactive if the first attempt is unsuccessful
- Check with their career center for internship listings
- Attend campus events to explore new opportunities
- Utilize pre-health advising listservs that regularly post shadowing openings
Her advice is for students to be persistent and resourceful in their search by taking advantage of on-campus supports and connections.
Ellen explains that their postbac program started as a career changer program but has evolved to also serve as an academic enhancer. The program now supports a diverse mix of students, from those right out of undergraduate looking to boost their grades, to those with established careers wanting a change.
Unlike lockstep programs, Ellen works with each student individually to design a personalized plan of study tailored to their background and goals. This flexible approach helps students from all situations achieve their healthcare dreams.
Choosing the Right Postbac Program
When advising postbac students, Ellen takes a layered approach. She first evaluates their undergraduate transcript to determine if boosting science GPA is needed. Then she considers whether a master’s program would be necessary. She’s transparent if a student’s grades are in the low B/B- range and a master’s is likely required.
Cost is also discussed. She recommends formal postbacs for those needing to raise undergraduate GPAs, but notes if grades are already good, individual courses may suffice. Students should consider level of ongoing advising and academic support at different program types to find the best fit for their unique situation and goals.
Ellen believes it’s important for postbac programs to provide structured support. This was her motivation in formalizing her university’s program 20 years ago. She thinks students pursuing postbacs deserve ongoing advising to guide their class selection, application process and beyond.
“Look for a program that’s going to have ongoing advising support in class selection.”
Ideally, programs also offer supplemental resources like tutoring and career services. When considering options, students should look for ones ensuring they won’t be “left high and dry” after coursework is complete. Regular advising and academic assistance are especially crucial given postbacs’ time constraints while balancing other responsibilities like jobs and families.
The Critical First Year: Where Students Get Lost and How to Persevere
Ellen believes many students get lost in the first 1-2 semesters of undergraduate studies when they are still developing strong study habits. Receiving a low GPA during this critical time can lead to advisors discouraging continued pre-med pursuits. However, she stresses not to give up too early.
“Not everyone is going to survive those first two semesters. But we also should be looking at it as a way to support these students.”
Advisors should support struggling students by exploring tutoring/advising, rather than seeing it as “vetting”. For students, the key is assessing whether their major/support systems fit their needs, and giving themselves time to adapt before deciding on a new path. Persevering even after a rocky start can lead to success down the road for motivated individuals.
Bringing More Certainty and Transparency to the Medical School Admissions Process
If Ellen could wave a magic wand, she would make the medical school admissions process more certain and transparent. She wishes students could clearly understand what is expected of them. And that if they just have the confidence by doing everything asked of them to the best of their ability, they could achieve their dream of attending medical school.
She finds it frustrating when well-rounded, compassionate students who check all the boxes still don’t get in. This leaves them and advisors unsure of what else could have been done. More certainty and fewer “roll of the dice” elements would be her desired change to the current pre-med and admissions process.
Ellen believes there could be a few reasons why a very qualified student may not get accepted to medical school:
- If they received interviews but were not admitted, it’s possible their interviewing skills need improvement.
- If they did not receive any interviews at all, they may have applied to schools that were not the right fit. Carefully selecting schools aligned with their interests and qualifications is important.
- Not getting feedback to learn from past mistakes is a missed opportunity. Advocating for students and seeking feedback from schools can help identify weaknesses to address.
- Perseverance is key – with interview coaching, recalibrating their school list, and applying again, determined students will often succeed with time and multiple applications.
The Potential Use of AI in Admissions
When asked about potential future use of AI in medical school admissions, Ellen expresses reservations. While AI could theoretically calculate nuanced factors like needing to work long hours, she believes it would miss the human element that is important in evaluating candidates. Sitting on admissions committees has given her insight into how different each applicant is and how personal experiences shape them.
To her, a computer-only process without human judgment would be frightening. This would take away the consideration of an applicant’s character and fit for a school’s mission that comes from people involved. However, she acknowledges schools may have different views on using AI’s potential for reduced bias in decisions. It’s an ongoing debate without a clear answer.
Follow Your Passions
Ellen agrees with the advice to have students follow their passions and interests rather than try to mold themselves into a generic pre-med mold. She doesn’t like when students just tick off activities or clubs without passion for the sake of checking boxes. Students should truly engage in causes and experiences that excite them. Then in their applications, different schools will be drawn to different students based on fit.
Rather than stressing about one predetermined path, let your authentic interests shine through. And this will help the right programs take notice of the unique person they will be getting if admitted.
Final Words of Wisdom
Finall, Ellen says she is very passionate about helping non-traditional postbac students achieve their healthcare dreams. At the Baltimore conference, she hopes to share knowledge about what these students should look for in a postbac program to best support them. This includes factors like flexibility, individualized support, and guidance through the application process.
“If this is what you really want to do, there’s a way to go about doing it. To have regrets to not have followed your true path is not the way you want to live your life.”
Her goal is to encourage any student pursuing their passion, regardless of age or background, by helping them find an achievable path forward. She wants students to leave without regrets and with confidence that their goals can be attained through dedication and the right resources.