HPA COVID Impacts on Applicants FAQ

FAQs on this page are specific to navigating prehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Academic Year 2021-22

I’m hoping to get involved in some in-person activities that will help with my med school application. Do you know what’s available this semester given the pandemic?

We are trying to collect information for you from other offices and student organizations as quickly as possible! Many of the most popular prehealth activities are student-run so we hear about them the same ways that you do: reading residential college listservs, hearing from student leaders in the organizations, checking for updated website information. Any information we get will be posted in Vitals and on our website.

Most of the health-focused organizations are run either through the Pace Center or ODUS student orgs. A few initiatives reach out to us directly, including the Athena Hospice program, which is accepting applications for volunteers. Student leaders or organization members who want us to share information about their opportunities can always email us and we’ll add your information to Vitals and to the student organizations section of our website.

While it may be harder to find opportunities for direct patient interaction, there are plenty of ways to serve those in need, broaden your understanding of civic and community engagement, and work with individuals different from yourself. Any activities that hone and demonstrate your cultural competence, service orientation, teamwork, and other interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies are valuable.

There are some courses that will integrate a service/community-engaged learning component, as well, which you can find on the ProCES website. Some prehealth students became involved in community organizations through a ProCES course and then stayed involved after the course ended.

Be sure to attend the Service and Involvement Fest on September 6 to learn more about what’s out there.

I've tried to find physicians to shadow but the pandemic has continued to limit opportunities. Is it okay to apply without any shadowing experience?

Medical schools seek applicants who have a realistic idea of what it’ll be like to be a physician, and having concrete exposure to patients and the health care system will help you convince the schools (and yourself) that you know what you're getting yourself into. You'll be able to speak more concretely about your motivation, and to describe your vision of your future in medicine based in part on seeing how others have navigated the path you hope to undertake.

With the relative lack of shadowing available, prospective applicants have to be more creative in seeking experiences that will help them gain that realistic understanding and to develop the competencies that will help them succeed in medicine.

In addition to continuing to seek in person opportunities, we'd recommend a combination of reading (memoirs, current news, the kinds of articles we post on our Facebook page, AAMC content like the "Real Stories" series); conversations with health professionals (even if they have to be phone/virtual right now); taking classes that engage with health topics; direct service within diverse communities that you hope to serve as a physician; virtual shadowing (ideally with reflection / conversation to follow).

That said, according to the survey given to entering medical students in fall 2021, 94% of respondents had participated in shadowing and 92% had volunteered in the healthcare field--a lot of them may have done so prior to the pandemic, but we'd expect the numbers will remain high, especially since some applicants are postponing their applications a year or two to continue accruing experience (it's often easier to do so after graduation than during college). If you can't find opportunities, then at least showing a good faith effort to engage in clinical and service opportunities will be appreciated by admissions committees.

See our COVID FAQ and Ideas for Volunteering During the Pandemic for more ideas, and read this quick article for some insights from admissions representatives.

 Academic Year 2020-2021

Coursework Questions

Will medical schools accept online courses for prerequisites?

From conversations with medical schools since the pandemic began, they understand the extraordinary circumstances that future applicants have to navigate. When you apply to medical school, we provide a letter of recommendation that provides context about your academic trajectory, which will include information about how the pandemic affected your choices.  Medical schools consider each applicant holistically and we expect them to consider your circumstances individually in light of the pandemic.  We're happy to chat with you about your individual situation. 

Is it okay to PDF prerequisite courses?

When you are given the option of taking the prerequisite science courses for grades, we would strongly recommend maintaining the grade option. However, if circumstances like illness, lack of access to appropriate resources, or other hardships are preventing you from performing at the level that you know you are capable of, health professions schools understand that we are all facing unprecedented circumstances during the pandemic.

If you feel that you need to PDF a science course, reach out to us so we can talk with you and provide advice based on your specific situation. We will try to help convey your rationale and your specific situation in our committee letter of recommendation, but it is still unknown how schools may respond. A number of medical schools that have moved to competency-based entrance requirements rather than specific courses, so there will be some schools you can apply to, even if other schools ultimately will not accept the PDF grades for prerequisites.

Keep in mind that many medical schools are using online learning within their curricula, so this will provide helpful practice. Be sure to use the McGraw Center’s resources to maximize your online learning. 

We continue to recommend that you demonstrate academic readiness for the rigor of medical school by engaging in robust graded science preparation (at least 10-12 biology, chemistry, science, and math courses, ideally taken during a full course load), securing strong academic letters of recommendation, and doing well on the MCAT. 

What about PDFs for other classes?

We’ve received many questions around PDFing—keep them coming! We’re happy to chat about your specific situation. Broadly, keep these points in mind: 

  • Most medical schools have stated their policies regarding the pandemic, and most are willing to accept pass/fail grades.
  • PDF’ing a few non-science and non-prerequisite courses during college has never been a cause for concern in medical school admissions.
  • Double check the policies of your public state medical schools and any specific medical schools you’re interested in. We’ve collected links to prerequisites websites for many schools that are popular with our applicants.
  • Through the HPA committee letter, we help schools understand the context around your academic performance. We will include information about Princeton grading policies, but also customize our letter to describe your own personal situation to try to help allay any concerns that they might have.
  • Medical schools review applicants holistically, considering all educational and experiential aspects of each candidate. Admissions deans have said that there is rarely if ever a single factor (like a single PDF grade or even a single semester) that will make or break a candidate. Your grade trends, course choices, letters of recommendation, and MCAT scores will all be taken into account as medical schools consider your academic readiness for their programs.
  • Chat or email with your director of studies, dean, or us if you’d like to talk about your specific situation!
How can I learn about specific medical schools' policies?

Most, if not all of them are updating their admissions websites with relevant information. You can find links to these many of these websites on our webpage.

Activities Questions

How can I stay involved in prehealth activities while I'm home?

This is a time of uncertainty and disruption for everyone, so it may be hard to start a new volunteering position or other formal activity since folks in charge of organizations may not have time to bring new people on. Many in-person volunteer and clinical activities will also be suspended to try to maintain social distancing. Here are a few ideas--we'd love to hear other ideas that you might have.

  1. Be an active, helpful member of your home community. Volunteer to cover childcare needs for neighbors or to check in (by phone/from a distance) on the elderly. If you’re part of a religious community, see if there are ways that you can provide support through them. Check with organizations where you have volunteered in the past to see if you can step back into previous roles. 
  2. Use idealist.orgvolunteermatch.org, and local volunteer opportunity databases (like NY Cares) to seek other local options, but be ready for slow responses. Connect with the Pace Center) as they generate ideas.
  3. Read books that provide insight about being a doctor, applying to medical school, or learning about other health careers. For ideas, use our list of titles available in our HPA library.
  4. Contact alumni physicians near your home by searching by location in the Tigernet Directory and LinkedIn. Shadowing may not be possible for a while, but it will be interesting to chat with them about their experiences as physicians, especially during this time. See HPA Networking Tips for guidance on connecting (although you may want to wait until we're in a more stable situation).
  5. Learn more about the next step in your education: Surf through websites for medical schools in your home state (links to each of them are available here). Listen to the All Access Medical School Admissions podcast). Attend Virtual Fairs, virtual open houses, and other educational opportunities online (we’ll post these opportunities in our Vitals newsletter as we hear about them).
  6. Engage in free online learning opportunities, like this class about pandemics from Harvard or one about community change in public health from Johns Hopkins or essentials of global health from Yale.
  7. Do some prehealth reflection and journaling. We will post reflection questions regularly on the HPA Facebook page.
  8. Keep taking good care of yourself! Princeton is compiling resources for you here: https://winter.princeton.edu/virtual.

An evolving, crowd-sourced list of ideas for prehealth students.

Since hospital volunteering and shadowing aren’t available right now, what should I be doing to gain clinical experience?

Think about the reasons why medical schools are looking for clinical experience and brainstorm ways that you can address some of what they’re looking for.

  • Shadowing gives you a sense of the day to day life of a physician and examples of physician-patient communication: do some informational interviews to talk with physicians (and med students!) about their lives, read memoirs, attend talks for a better sense of the day to day.
  • Volunteering helps you learn to communicate with individuals with healthcare concerns: volunteering with a crisis text/call line and seeking counseling roles can help you develop your own “bedside manner;” seeking clinical research opportunities where you’re reading patient records or interviewing patients about their concerns can broaden your understanding of the patient experience; taking classes like Medical Anthropology and Literature and Medicine can deepen your insight on these issues as well.
  • As a physician, you’ll need to communicate with patients from diverse backgrounds—think about populations you’ll serve as a physician and seek ways to be helpful to them now: this could include being a pen pal for elderly individuals or teaching ESL to recent immigrants. You’ll also be a leader within your own community, so think about needs that could be filled locally and ways that you can help address them.

Be creative as you seek opportunities during these unusual times, and spend some time reflecting on how each experience is helping you develop personally and professionally as a future healthcare provider. Advisor-sourced ideas for gaining experience are being collected in this list.

I’ve heard that medical schools are recommending virtual shadowing. What does this mean? How do I get started?

Medical schools seek applicants who have a realistic idea of what it’ll be like to be a physician, gained in part by interacting directly with physicians. Since there are limitations to in-person interactions right now, schools are encouraging aspiring doctors to be creative in how they build this aspect of their preparation. Virtual shadowing can include having conversations with physicians about their careers, observing telehealth appointments, or attending interactive presentations organized by student organizations or the growing collection of opportunities like webshadowers.com and virtualshadowing.com (with past episodes on YouTube).
You might start with some of the passive opportunities – listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos, then move on to reaching out to alums or physicians in your network (including your own or family members’ physicians) to see if they’ll have a quick zoom chat with you about their career. Develop a list of questions you’d like to ask so that you feel well prepared for the conversation. We have some suggestions on our handout about informational interviewing.
Keep track of the hours that you spend in these activities and write a quick summary of the key points, what you learned, new questions that you have, next steps you might take after this experience. When you apply to medical school, you can include these experiences on your application, but more importantly, you’ll have gathered new perspective that will inform how you envision yourself in your future career, which will come through in the way you talk about your motivation for medicine in your personal statement and interviews.

Any advice on how to plan for the summer, knowing that we don’t know what’s going to be happening with the pandemic?

We’ve talked with the staff at the Princeton Internships for Civic Service (PICS) and International Internship Program (IIP), which are two of the most popular prehealth internship options. Both offices are working with internship providers on remote opportunities, as well as some that will meet in person. The Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP), one of our favorite opportunities for first-years and sophomores, is planning on a fully remote experience that will still give you an inside perspective on life at a professional school. All three of these programs have placements that vary in scope and duties, so expect to spend a few hours reading placement descriptions to determine what might best fit your interests. PICS and IIP are both offering prehealth-specific information sessions to highlight some of their opportunities in the coming weeks (their 12/7 deadline is among the earlier internship deadlines we’ve seen – plan accordingly)!
Outside of these three programs, we’re starting to curate our list of internship opportunities. So far, some are planning for remote, some for in-person, but many have not yet been updated for the summer. Keep an eye on Vitals for listings as we learn about them.
You may also want to stay closer to home for the summer. With some creativity, it’s very possible to create a summer plan that will help you develop your competencies without an official “internship” program. Working at a local summer program with an underserved community could demonstrate your service orientation and improve your cultural competency; a part-time job interfacing with the public (retail, food service, etc.) could demonstrate your reliability and hone your oral communication skills. Any job, full-time or part-time, could be combined with a weekly volunteer shift at a local healthcare facility (if it’s safe to do so) to help you gain insight into a clinical environment and help you develop your “bedside manner.” You may be able secure funding for local opportunities through Princeton programs like the Bogle Fellowship (for first-years) or Dale Summer Award (for sophomores) – check SAFE regularly for funding opportunities. Designing your own opportunity can demonstrate vision and initiative, and let you follow your own passions in a way that might not be possible in a pre-established internship.

Information for Health Professions School Applicants

I'm registered for the MCAT on January 25 near home but I want to come back to Princeton in the spring. Will there be exceptions to the required return date for MCAT?

Our understanding is that no exceptions or extensions are being being granted for MCAT examinees -- if you want to participate in campus life, you will be required to arrive on campus by January 24. If there are changes to this policy, they will be posted on the Princeton Spring 2021 website.

I've registered for a March MCAT. Will I be allowed to leave campus to take the MCAT?

HPA has conveyed to the administration the importance of the MCAT and taking it in a timely manner in the medical school application process, and that a test taken no later than mid-May is optimal for the coming application cycle.

There will be a system in place for students to request approval for travel out of Mercer County/Plainsboro for academic reasons after the quarantine period in January. This travel exception request procedure is still in the works, but will be in place before the next set of MCAT dates in March.

I'm planning to register for an April MCAT. Is there a recommended test site?

The Princeton site is ideal. Beyond that, we're waiting to see what guidance is provided regarding travel exception policies and procedures. There will be a system in place for students to request approval for travel out of Mercer County/Plainsboro for academic reasons after the quarantine period in January. This travel exception request procedure is still in the works, but will be in place before the next set of MCAT dates in March.

HPA has compiled a list of test sites by estimated driving distance. We recommend trying to book an exam as close to Princeton as possible and ideally in New Jersey, since travel within the state (versus into NY or PA) seems to be the most acceptable during the pandemic. Some of our guidance will also be contingent upon conditions over time, so do your best on the day that registration opens in February; you may have to be flexible in date or location given the state of the pandemic.

Other suggestions:

  • Be sure to consider your plan for maintaining safety as you travel to and from the exam site. Drive yourself in a rental car or carpool with an on-campus friend who is following the social contract to reduce exposure that could result from a ride-share service or taking public transportation.
  • Look into the parking logistics at sites of interest and try to avoid densely populated areas.
  • If you have to travel beyond Princeton, an afternoon test time may be preferable to avoid rush hour traffic.
What if I just want to take the MCAT in the summer after I leave campus? What's the latest I should take it to apply this summer?

Your goal should be to have your file complete at schools (verified primary application, secondary application, letters of recommendation, MCAT score) by early August. This will give you the best chance to be screened and potentially offered invitations to interviews at the beginning of the application process (see FAQ: Why apply early). 

The first step in being file complete early is to submit your primary application early. An application submitted within the first two weeks of June should be verified by mid-July, which will give you a few weeks to complete secondary applications, which are commonly sent after your primary application is verified. MCAT score reporting is independent of application verification -- your application will be verified whether or not you've taken your MCAT.

MCAT scores are released about a month after you sit for the test. So, if you're willing to submit your application in June without knowing your MCAT score, you could take the MCAT as late as late June / early July and still have a complete file by early August. If you want to know your score before you submit your application, we recommend taking the MCAT no later than May 15 so that you can submit your application by June 15.

I plan to apply to medical school this year but I won't be on campus. Is that a problem?

Not at all! This past year, about 60% of our applicants were alums and none of them were on campus--we always plan for virtual information sessions and ways to interact with advisers. 

I'm a junior and I'm worried that I haven't gotten enough clinical experience because of the pandemic. What should I do?

It's hard to get significant clinical experience as a junior even in a normal year, which is part of the reason that only about 15% of our applicant pool in recent years has been juniors. If you can find ways to develop an understanding of the day to day work of physicians and to develop the competencies that medical schools seek in other ways, it may still be possible to be ready to convince medical schools that you're ready by this year, but we expect that more students may take glide years in coming years than in the past.

What if I take a glide year in the middle of college to wait out this pandemic and then apply after junior year? Isn't this the same as taking a glide year after graduating?

There are many reasons that students take the post-graduation glide year, including:

  • Your senior year grades will be on your application, which can give more evidence of readiness for medical school.
  • You'll have access to letters of recommendation from smaller classes and your thesis that you undertake in senior year.
  • You don't have to manage interviews during the academic year.
  • You have a year to gain real world "adulting" experience before returning to academics.

We will talk more about pros and cons at our Applicant Information Session, which will take place in October.

Will it significantly weaken my medical school application if my thesis research is remote this year?

For starters, it’s helpful to think in terms of what medical schools might value in students who have participated in research, and my impression is that it is less about specific techniques that you learn at a lab bench and more about the competencies that you gain in a research setting. In terms of intellectual/thinking competencies, these can include the ability to critically read primary literature, to devise your own hypothesis-based line of inquiry, to generate and analyze results, to write those results up and present your findings to others. In terms of interpersonal competencies, these can include working collaboratively, learning to take constructive criticism, being organized and reliable, being resilient and adaptable when research doesn’t go the way you expected. 

So, all of these competencies can be accomplished in many disciplines (not just science!) and in many settings. It may become harder to provide as much evidence of teamwork ability when you aren’t working side by side with folks on a regular basis, but otherwise, you will not lose as much as it seems like you might by being remote. 

The place where it may be more of an issue to not be doing in-person science research is if you want to pursue an MD/PhD in an area where you’d ideally be at the bench. It’s easier to know for sure whether you want to devote your life to bench work if you’ve spent more time in that setting before applying. 

The other thing to be thinking about upfront is that the letter of rec from your thesis experience can be one of the most powerful letters that you can get, since it’s from someone (or multiple people—often a postdoc or grad student will cowrite with your advisor) who works with you one on one over a long period of time. Try to make a point of giving whoever is overseeing your work a chance to get to know you well in this remote setting!

I’m hoping to apply to medical school this year, but I’m worried that I haven’t gotten to know faculty as well as I would in a normal year. What tips do you have for trying to get strong letters of rec?

This is definitely a challenge that’s being presented by the pandemic. A lot of what admissions officers hope to learn about you—your ability to work in a team, your resilience and capacity for improvement, your oral and written communication skills, your reliability—will hopefully still be things that you’re able to exhibit even in the virtual environment. Keep all of those AAMC competencies in mind in how you interact with faculty, preceptors, and supervisors and try to behave in ways that’s giving potential writers helpful anecdotes that they can share about these competencies in their letters.

We still want two letters that speak to your readiness for the science component of medical school (because schools really want to know you’re ready for this), including one from someone who taught you in a class (because they want to know what you’ll be like as a learner and colleague in the classroom). If you’ve done a science-based internship or other research experience where your writer can speak to your science and thinking and reasoning competencies, that can cover one of the two science letters. For the classroom letter, it’s common to have a faculty member co-write a letter with a preceptor, so if it’s easier to get to know your preceptor, that’s a helpful step. If you can get to know someone in multiple venues—the lab and a class, or as a student and TA, or through conversations during office hours, residential college events, or other less formal settings than just in class—that can also help.

We recommend that our applicants have an active conversation with each writer (by zoom or phone, not just email) so that they can talk about themselves and their candidacy, remind the potential writer of their behavior in the class, and then share resume, a short biographical sketch, and other information with the writer to gain reassurance that the writer has ample information to write their letter. We have also reduced the number of required letters for applicants this year from four to three to help address this concern.