Pre-Medical Guide for Parents

For many parents, guiding a child down the path toward medical school can be a confusing and challenging experience.  We have put together a list of Frequently Asked Questions to address common concerns posed to us by parents over the years.

How successful are Penn's pre-med students in gaining admission to medical school?

Penn is a premier school for pursuing pre-medical coursework.  Medical schools know that it is a rigorous institution, and that students who excel here are well prepared for professional success.  Penn students also have access to excellent research and clinical volunteer opportunities, which enhance their medical school applications.

Every year, Penn students fare well above the national average in applying to medical school.  The statistics we have regarding applicants for Fall 2013 admission to medical school demonstrate Penn's strength as a "pre-med school."  Nationally, only 43% of the individuals who applied for Fall 2013 admission to allopathic (MD degree-granting) medical schools matriculated. However, among the 317 Penn applicants (both current students and alumni) for Fall 2013 admission, 230 of them, or 73%, matriculated (76% were accepted).

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How do students prepare for medical school?

Part of the preparation for medical school is academic.  Although students may pursue any major they wish, they must complete a standard "pre-med curriculum," which consists of introductory biology, general chemistry, introductory physics, organic chemistry (all with lab), English, and math.  In addition to these courses, some medical schools require upper-level classes in biology and biochemistry and knowledge of biochemistry and statistics is needed for the 2015 MCAT.  Click here for more information about pre-med courses at Penn.

Students must also take the MCAT exam, which tests their mastery of the basic sciences, as well as their verbal skills.  The test consists of four parts: (1) Verbal Reasoning; (2) Physical Sciences; (3) Biological Sciences.  Each of these sections is scored on a numeric scale, from 1-15; the highest score a student can receive is a 45.  Nationally, the mean score on the MCAT was 25.2 for the 2012 application cycle.  Nationally, the mean score of applicants matriculating to medical school in 20213 was 28.3.  The average score among Penn students was 33.9.

However, students need more than strong grades and MCAT scores to fare well in the application process.  Aside from the academic work, students must also demonstrate their commitment to the medical profession by becoming involved in clinical volunteer work.  With several hospitals in walking distance from campus, and its own renowned medical center, Penn is an ideal place for exploring all the facets of health care.

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What are the benefits of going to Penn, as opposed to doing a combined BS-MD program?

The University of Pennsylvania does not have a joint BS-MD program with Perelman School of Medicine.  There are other schools that do have joint-degree programs, which allow students to complete both a bachelor's degree and a medical degree in six or seven years.  These programs are attractive to some students because they provide a guaranteed and streamlined route toward earning an MD.  However, there are certain advantages to pursuing undergraduate work at a school like Penn, as opposed to doing a joint-degree curriculum.  The most serious drawback to the joint-degree is that students are put onto a very fast track at a young age.  Students do not have the opportunity to explore a wider range of course work or to seriously consider whether medicine truly is the right career fit for them.  Even those high school students who "know" for sure that they want to become doctors often do not really understand much about the profession, and an intensive joint-degree program does not give them the time or the flexibility to weigh all of their career options.  Also, by having four years to complete their undergraduate work, students at Penn have the time to take classes that will enhance their ability to be good doctors.  Courses like "Medical Sociology," "Bioethics," and "Health Care Systems," among dozens of others, help students to understand the social and economic aspects of health care, thus preparing them all the more fully for medical school and beyond.

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Do pre-medical students need to pursue a science major?

No.  Pre-medical students can major in any discipline—whether science or non-science.  Medical schools do not require or even prefer a particular major, and if a student pursues a non-science major, the basic pre-med courses can be taken as elective courses.  Students from Penn matriculating to medical school pursue a wide range of majors and academic programs.

Medical schools expect students to pursue a balanced, well-rounded education, no matter what they major in.  Medicine is an interdisciplinary field; it requires not only a sophisticated understanding of science, but also an ability to communicate and empathize with others.  Therefore, those who major in one of the sciences must be sure to take electives in the humanities and social sciences.  Those who major in a non-science field will take the required pre-med courses, and should also consider taking one or two upper-level science courses to enhance their preparation for medical school.

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How can I best support my child along the pre-med path?

Being a pre-med student can be extremely stressful.  The academic course work is rigorous, and since students are graded on a curve, the competition can seem intense.  In addition to being academically difficult, the pre-med path requires a great deal of maturity and flexibility, in terms of finding time to do volunteer work, research, and other kinds of extracurricular endeavors.  It is not unusual for students to feel overburdened and anxious at times along the way.

For some students, this anxiety may be compounded by the fact that they sailed easily through high school, and therefore do not have experience in coping with school-related stress.  For the first time in their academic careers, they may find that while they are working hard, they are not getting A's.  This can be very unnerving, as they may not know what to do, or who to turn to, for help.

Parents can play a critical role in helping to alleviate this stress.  If your child mentions feeling "stressed out" or seems nervous about faltering in his or her pre-med work, it is essential that you not dismiss such concerns.  Talk openly and understandingly about them.  Try to make specific suggestions, and point your child toward resources at Penn that might provide needed support.  The University's Tutoring Center offers both individualized and group tutoring sessions for all of the pre-med science courses.  The staff at CAPS(Counseling and Psychological Services) can help students with test anxiety, or with other personal problems that may be distracting them from their academic work.  Also, be sure encourage your child to make contact with professors and teaching assistants, for questions about problem sets and exams.  Lastly, a meeting with a pre-health advisor can help your child maintain a realistic perspective on their preparations for medical school and address academic issues if they arise.

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My child wants to take "time off" after graduating from Penn, to pursue something else for a couple of years before applying to medical school.  Isn't that frowned upon by the medical schools?

Traditionally, pre-med students applied to medical school after his or her junior year.  However, that has changed.  Today, a majority of Penn's applicants to medical school are alumni, not graduating seniors.  Among those who applied for Fall 2013 admission, only 29% were seniors.  More importantly, students who take time off are not at a disadvantage.  Medical schools are pleased to admit qualified students, regardless of whether they apply directly from college, or whether they wait 1, or 2, or 5, or even 10 years before applying.  Only 43% of Penn-affiliated matriculants to allopathic medical school in 2013 were going straight to medical school.

Why do students take time off?  Some need extra time to complete required course work, or to prepare for the MCAT exam.  Others want to take a break from school in order to work and earn some money before starting medical school.  Still others go into the Peace Corps or travel abroad on a fellowship or participate in Teach for America or Americorps.  Some want to explore another career before committing themselves to medicine.  The important thing is that students apply when they are ready, both emotionally and intellectually, to go to medical school.

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My child started Penn as a pre-med student, but now seems to be having doubts.  What should I do?

It depends on the source of the doubts.  Some students start to shy away from medicine because they are struggling with the pre-medical science courses.  If your child is having academic difficulties, please encourage him or her to seek extra help from the pre-health advisors in Career Services, from Penn's Tutoring Center , and from their professors and teaching assistants.  Sometimes, students just need a break from the "pre-med track" and want time to explore other possibilities.  This can be a great thing for students to do.  Looking at other options, whether in the health care field or outside of it, can either lead to other exciting opportunities, or help students realize that medicine truly is the right career fit.  Students who are interested in health care, but who do not want to pursue a medical degree, can begin investigating other career possibilities from information we have on the pre-health section of the Career Services web site.

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My child has experienced some academic difficulties with the pre-med science courses at Penn. Will the Penn name compensate for that?

Although medical schools regard Penn highly, students must still perform well here.  The average GPA of Penn applicants who are successful in gaining admission to medical school is around 3.6, and 3.5 in the sciences.

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Even if a student has low grades or a low MCAT score, doesn't it make sense to just apply and see what happens?  Is there any harm in trying?

Actually, yes, there can be drawbacks to applying hastily to medical school.  When students are rejected, and then re-apply, they are not working with a "clean slate."  They have to overcome the negative judgment made against them by the medical schools—they have to prove that they have significantly improved upon their first application.  It is much better to delay applying, use the extra time to gain more experience, and to put together a stronger application.

Getting into medical school requires hard work, maturity, scientific ability, discipline, and a spirit of compassion.  Medicine is also an immensely demanding profession, and anyone who enters into it must feel that it is the right vocational fit.  If all these factors are present, more likely than not, your child will be successful in the application process.Good luck in supporting your child through this arduous but ultimately rewarding journey to medical school.

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