Postbac Record Enhancer Classes and Application Timing
Question: I'm a senior and I'd like to keep improving my GPA in order to be competitive for med school. I'm definitely planning to apply this year, though - is there any point to taking classes since they won't be in my application when I apply in June?
Answer: For starters, we hope you're willing to come in to discuss your candidacy with us holistically so that we can weigh in on the "when to apply" issue! But to answer your specific question, schools will place the most weight on what's on your initial application, but many will accept updates throughout the year, so you will be able to send grades as you take the classes. Front loading courses into summer and fall is helpful so you can send some grades early in the application cycle.
In general, it's always a good strategy to continue to work on the weaker parts of your application, which may include service, work with patients, academics, communication / interpersonal skills, or other important aspects of your preparation for medical school. Life doesn't end with submission of the application - intentionally choosing endeavors that help you develop into the physician you want to be should continue! We're happy to brainstorm with you about ways you may seek personal and professional development.
How Do I Know if I Need Postbac Courses?
Question: Hi HPA – I had a rough first year, but I’ve been doing better since then. I’m still worried that my GPA isn’t competitive for medical school and I’m thinking about doing a postbac program, but I’m not sure if I need one. Is there an approximate GPA where you’d definitely suggest doing a postbac program?
Answer: It’s impossible to put an exact number on this and we would want to learn more about you and gain a more holistic understanding of your candidacy before deciding whether or not we’d suggest postbac course work, and if so, what type of course work. Some factors that come into play: how many sciences you’ve taken, the level of rigor in your course choices, academic trajectory, BCPM and cumulative GPA, strength of letters of recommendation, MCAT score, state of residence, factors that may have affected your ‘distance traveled’ to medical school (such as coming from a first generation, lower income, or underrepresented in medicine background), and any external factors that affected your academic performance. Generally, it is very difficult to gain acceptance to medical school with a BCPM below 3.0, and we have seen students participate in postbac programs with GPAs up into the 3.4/3.5 range, but again, it is very case by case. Learn more about postbac programs in general on our website.
Do I need more postbac coursework with my current GPA?
Question: I’m graduating in the spring and have no idea what to do next. I think my grades are good enough to apply to medical school this year, but I’m really not sure. Should I apply to med school this year and then if I don’t get in, should I look into taking classes, or should I just try to take classes next year? If I need to take classes, do I have to apply to do that now?
Answer: This question is too nuanced to try to answer by email – a one on one meeting would be much better! We will also be talking more in depth about how to evaluate your own candidacy when we have our Applicant Workshops right after fall break – anyone who is thinking about applying to health professions school is encouraged to attend one of these workshops (and if you’re definitely applying this year, you are required to attend). It’s fine to wait until those sessions to learn more and then come and talk with us about your specific situation, but if you’d rather not wait, please feel free to make an appointment now (online, through WASS) so that we can sit down and talk about all aspects of your medical school candidacy. We’ll want to look more holistically at your academic preparation for medical school (including grades, MCAT scores, letters of recommendation, trends in your performance, reasons for difficulty if you have pinpointed them, etc.), as well as your overall candidacy (activities, motivation, readiness for the challenges of applying in and of themselves, etc.) and see where you are.
There’s a certain point where we might recommend more academic record enhancement, but it can differ from person to person based on this “big picture.” For some students, it might be that a few more courses taken part time while pursuing other opportunities in the coming year is a reasonable option. For some students, we might see a chance to gain entry to medical school and suggest that you could apply this summer, but to take courses full-time in the coming year in case you have to reapply. For others, we might recommend taking classes first and then applying after that. Some students may not have the financial resources to support the ideal path, and we can help you try to negotiate that, as well. We try to outline some of this on our handout, Postbac Paths: Record Enhancers (see the Record Enhancement Programs page of our website), but even this does not capture every scenario. Remember: we believe that any and all of you are capable of becoming health professionals, but the path might not be as straightforward as it once seemed – we can help you look at the options, and evaluate whether or not you’d like to continue on the path!
Question: Hi HPA – I struggled with some of my sciences here and I know that I need to take more classes for med school. I don’t think my family will be able to help me finance the classes and I don’t feel like I can take on the debt of a formal postbac program. Are there ways other students have taken classes that are more cost-effective?
Answer: Please come in for an appointment so that we can look holistically at your candidacy and brainstorm next steps based on your specific situation – it’s hard to give advice without knowing the whole picture. The advice may differ depending on how many science courses you’ve taken, your academic trajectory, where you’re from, and a number of other factors. Generally speaking, yes, there are less expensive ways to pursue classes, though they may take a little longer. If your family is willing to take you in for a year or two, and you feel that you could live at home and manage courses and work, that can save significant money. We recommend going to the best possible school that you can access, but at the same time, if finances are a concern, medical schools will take this into account – doing very well in the classes and on MCAT is definitely key. Many students choose to attend a state school near a place where they can live for free/cheap and look for jobs in the area. Some alums take full-time jobs to help finance classes that they fit in part-time. If you work at a college or university (or an affiliated institution like a research center), you may be offered tuition benefits for free or reduced price courses. If you still have to take the MCAT, consider working for a test prep company teaching ACT or SAT – you’ll gain communication skills and have access to discounts for your own MCAT prep. Keep in mind that it’s important to know your limits – don’t try to do too much and sacrifice your academic performance – and be ready to take initiative: one of the benefits of a formal program is that you’ll have built-in advising and support from your academic institution that you won’t have as a non-degree seeking student. We’ll help as much as we can, but we won’t be experts on other schools’ curricula. In any case, we’re happy to talk with you about potential timelines and pros and cons to different preparation routes!
The Cost of Postbac Programs
Q: Hi HPA – I didn’t take premed classes at Princeton but now I’m interested in medicine. I’ve started looking at postbac programs where I can take the science classes but they seem really expensive. Are there any cheaper options?
A: The range of ways that students complete the prerequisites after graduation is wide and driven in part by what you think that you may need or want in terms of structure and support. The pricier postbac programs often offer more staff, which often also means that there are more services, which may include high quality advising, access to a committee letter, guidance in the application process, linkages to professional schools, shadowing/volunteer opportunities, seminars, programming, etc., as well as an established reputation with medical schools, and a peer community (see more info on our website).
At the same time, some individuals take courses independently without going through a postbac program and reach their goals successfully. HPA can provide guidance and support along the way to alums. If you tend to work well independently, can advocate for yourself, will seek out the information that you need to apply (which includes staying in touch with us at HPA), you may do fine taking classes on your own through a local college or university. If you know that you’d prefer more support and infrastructure, going through a program that has a track record of success, it may make sense to work for a while to earn money to help finance a more structured program. Note that many students choose to take a year or two between graduation and postbac coursework: this will give you time to recharge after undergrad, earn some money, and make sure that it's really worth the time, money, and sacrifice that a medical career requires.
The most important aspect of your science preparation for medical school is that you do well in your classes and on your MCAT, and that you have strong letters of recommendation from your science faculty, so whatever postbac option you choose, focus on one that will bring you academic success and science faculty support via strong letters. We’re happy to talk with you based on your own situation about options from taking out loans, to working for a while before your postbac program, to taking classes independently. Different solutions are going to make more sense for different students.
How Many Glide Years is Too Many
I think I want to take one glide year, but I’ve talked to a lot of students who took two. Is there a point where medical schools worry about how much time you’ve taken off?
According to the 2017 Matriculating Student Questionnaire, over 20% of entering students started medical school 3 or more years after college graduation. A primary concern of medical school admissions committees is the applicant’s ability to negotiate the intensive, fast-paced didactic work in the first year. You have to provide evidence of readiness for a rigorous academic environment. If you were a strong student at Princeton, one or two years away is highly unlikely to cause concern, especially if your glide year experiences include a significant critical thinking/science component. Many students take two glide years because they find amazing research opportunities that require a two-year commitment or take a one-year international fellowship but do not want to manage med school interviews while abroad: in these cases, you’re very likely to maintain an academic mindset. If your GPA and/or MCAT score may be cause for concern with schools, it would be worthwhile to take some classes or retake the MCAT during your years off. Beyond one or two glide years, we have still seen students accepted with no additional academic work. In this case, though, it may be helpful to take the MCAT closer to the time of application if you’ve taken multiple years off since that will provide a more timely gauge of your readiness than counting on a score that’s a few years old. You’ll also want letters of recommendation from recent experiences that speak to your readiness to jump into the academic setting. Each medical school will evaluate academic readiness for their own curriculum: the MSAR provides data on age of students at matriculation, which may help you gauge which schools are friendlier toward “non-traditional” applicants. And every applicant is different—we are happy to provide guidance based on your specific situation.
Preparing for a Postbac Career Changer Program
Question: I’m a sophomore and I’m starting to think about medicine but I’m not ready to commit to the premed classes yet. If I might want to pursue premed after I graduate, what should I be doing now, other than classes, to start to prepare myself?
Answer: There’s a lot more to being ready for medical school than the course work that you have to take. Think about what it takes to be a good physician and look for activities that help to develop those characteristics in yourself. For some of you, you’ll be driven by the opportunity to be of service to society in a direct way, so developing your ability to communicate with people who are different than you and demonstrating your commitment to serving others may be your highest priority. For some, you’ll be interested in the intersections between other disciplines (e.g., humanities, tech/innovation, policy) and patient care, so you may focus there. For anyone considering medicine, spending time with patients and with health professionals is the most important activity to prioritize, since it’ll help you clarify your interest, provide role models and mentors in professions of interest, and provide proof to the postbac career changer programs where you may take your premed classes that you’ve gained motivation from concrete experience that will motivate you through the challenges of those courses.
Should I drop science and do a career changer postbac?
Question: I’m managing in Chemistry, but I love all of my other classes. I’m not sure if it’s that I don’t want to do medicine anymore, or if it’s just that I’m more interested in exploring the other classes right now. I just don’t think now is the time for me to do the science courses. I've heard of postbac career changer programs, but are there any disadvantages to doing them instead of doing classes at Princeton?
Answer: There are a few things to consider when it comes to postbac programs. First, there are competitive admissions processes, so there's no guarantee that you'll get into your top choice program. Many of the strong programs are away from major metropolitan areas, so you might have to rebuild your social network and family -- if it's important to you to have support nearby, you'll have to quickly try to seek a new network when you arrive. But time and cost are probably the most significant factors. Postbac programs are intense and science-heavy, so if you find out in your first semester that you need to slow down and take the courses at a less intense pace, that may change your timeline to completion, and many students are concerned about the amount of time it'll take to move through the course work, then to medical school and residency. Cost should not be overlooked -- postbac programs are expensive, and there is little grant aid available, so doing a postbac will likely mean taking out loans.
That said, the benefits of the programs -- guidance through the curriculum, advising support and committee letter, a community of students in the same situation as you, guaranteed seats in the classes -- are a worthy investment. Be sure that you're pursuing activities during college that test out your interest in medicine and let you explore other career options so that you know that it'll be worth the time and financial investment (and so that the programs will be convinced that medicine is really right for you when you apply). In any case, if you aren't feeling drawn to medicine now and aren't doing well in the classes, taking a break and spending the summer really exploring your options may be a better plan than trying to slog through the classes, doing poorly, and wasting the opportunity to study what you're passionate about. Definitely come talk with us so that we can get a fuller picture of your specific situation and provide some insight for you.
We highlight some of postbac programs on the Career Changer Programs page of our website, so you can do more research there.
Premed after Graduation
Question: Hi HPA - I’m a freshman and I thought I wanted to do medicine because I liked science in high school and I definitely want to do something that has an impact on society, but I fell in love with my freshman seminar, which was health policy focused, and I haven’t loved my science courses so far. I feel like a failure leaving my lifelong dream of medicine behind, but I feel like I’m not going to do well in science right now because I’m not feeling excited about it. What would happen if I didn’t do the premed courses, concentrated in WWS, but decided later that I wanted to be a doctor?
Answer: This is a common freshman concern—suddenly science is more rigorous, and other courses that you might have originally been taking just to fulfill requirements become the most interesting thing you’ve ever studied. College is a time of self-discovery; it’s important to be open to changes in your interests in light of new information that you’re encountering.
Try to spend this summer doing some soul searching and some general career exploration. Get into a medical setting if you haven’t done so before, shadow some physicians, read about careers in medicine. At the same time, talk with WWS majors, read alum profiles of students who majored in WWS, connect with alums through the Alumni Career Network who may be out in the non-profit or private sector, read some websites that focus on health policy. Keep gathering information, and see if that points you in one direction or another. Maybe you’ll decide to stick with sciences now, and maybe not. Don’t hesitate to talk through your thought process with an HPA advisor!
But, to answer your question, if you decide to take time off from being premed, but then feel the calling again later, you can always return to premed. In fact, some of the more compelling candidates we encounter are those who headed off in completely different directions for a while (theater, professional athletics, research) before settling on medicine. There are academic programs designed specifically for students who want to take the premed courses after graduation (post-baccalaureate) - we highlight some of them on the Post-baccalaureate Career Changer Programs page webpage of our website.
Finally, since you’re a first-year student, you might also consider the Mount Sinai FlexMed Program and Sidney Kimmel IDeA program, which allow college sophomores to apply and, if accepted, to ease the pre-requisites and application process to medical school.
Why is Everyone Taking Time Off?
Question: It seems like more and more students are opting to take a glide/gap year or years before medical school. Why are so many students doing it? Is it a Princeton-specific thing? Are the advisers making students take time off?
Answer: The advisers at HPA cannot (and would not want to) “make” anyone do anything when it comes to the application process. We aim to provide our guidance based on qualitative and quantitative data, including past experience with students, communication with admissions offices, understanding of trends in admissions, numerical data about our own applicants, data about the national applicant pool, as well as our own relationship with each individual student – our understanding of his or her background, strengths, weaknesses, and goals in the application process – to provide our best advice in a process that is complicated, stressful, and financially and psychologically taxing. We want students to meet their goals in their first application cycle. We have seen too many students apply before they were fully ready for the process and struggle: students with high grades and relatively little clinical or “real world” experience have had trouble in interviews, and not gained acceptances to their desired schools; students whose grades weren’t competitive went through the whole application cycle without an interview invitation, and had to then regroup and take multiple years off to strengthen their academic profiles and reapply; students who weren’t sure about medicine in the first place have withdrawn in the middle of the application year, saddling themselves with expenses and stress in the process. As advisers, we want students to be successful, but we also leave it to them to make the best decisions for themselves. We have had students go through the application process knowing they were unlikely to succeed, and we still supported and advocated for them as strongly as we could based on the strength of their candidacies (but we also worry for them, since reapplicants sometimes struggle in the admissions process).
As far as whether this is a Princeton-specific phenomenon, we do think that there are aspects of the Princeton experience that lend themselves to applying at the end of senior year and taking a glide year, versus applying junior year and matriculating directly after graduation. Your senior thesis is a significant aspect of your time here; having it on the application, along with a letter from the thesis adviser, can be meaningful. The transition to Princeton can be a steep climb for many students, so allowing more time to demonstrate academic ability by way of all four years of grades on the application may be in the student’s best interest. A student may not have had as much time to leave the “Princeton bubble” and gain real-world experience as they would like, so the year off can be a chance to mature and grow away from an academic environment (it’s hard to describe how meaningful this is until you have done it, but if you ask students who have taken a year or two off, this is one of the first things they say about the benefit of doing so). Plus, Princeton is tough, emotionally and intellectually, and it is fine to take some time to refresh before jumping into the rigors of medical school. We have even more reasons outlined in our glide year handout, some specific to Princeton, but many more universal. And, applicants nationwide seem to be taking more time – it isn’t just a “Princeton thing.” Bryn Mawr, Johns Hopkins, and Cornell all provide some insight on the “gap/glide year,” and a quick google search reveals a number of others.
Again, there is no “one size fits all” to being premed. If you have questions about your own specific situation, don’t hesitate to come in to talk!
When do I Apply for Glide Year Opportunities?
Question: Hi HPA – I know senior year just started, but a lot of my friends are already interviewing for consulting or finance post-graduation jobs. I’m taking a year off for med school applications – do I need to start looking now? Also, is there anything I should be doing for my applications to medical school this soon?
Answer: If you’re interested in those types of positions, then yes, but many of the positions of more interest to our pre-health students (research, clinical, service) tend to come available later in the year. We’re still compiling data on our current applicants, but some of the most popular opportunities include: P55 Fellowships (application due in early December); other postgraduate fellowships coordinated through the OIP - Fellowship Advising (varying deadlines, September through January); Princeton in Africa/Asia/Latin America (deadlines in November); NIH Postbac IRTA (varying deadlines). it’s still good to keep an eye on HandShake just in case something of interest is posted (and take a walk by their meetup today)! A couple of things that are also recommended whenever you have time: make sure that your resume is updated, read through our glide year opportunities information in Questions About Life After Graduation Question of the Week archives and the Glide Year Opportunitiesportion of our website, and make sure that people in your network (family, friends, internship supervisors, faculty mentors, physicians) know that you’ll be looking for a position in the coming year so that they might also be on the lookout for opportunities that will fit your interests.
As for med school applications, you can read the brief overview of the process on our website, but there really isn’t anything you need to do until our mandatory Applicant Workshop, the first of which will be in late October (it will be offered three times in the fall semester). So, just focus on getting settled in and readjusted and you’ll learn more about it soon enough!
When to Start Thinking About Fellowships
Question: I’m a sophomore and I think I’d like to take a glide year to pursue my interest in infectious disease – I might want to work, or I might want to do a graduate program, and I think it’d be great to do so abroad. An older student told me to look into fellowships – is it too early to think about this as a sophomore? When do I need to start researching fellowship options?
Answer: It’s never too early, especially if you’ve already developed an interest in something that you’d like to cultivate! Starting to plan as a sophomore may lead to different summer internships, course choices, relationships with mentors, and other experiences that will help you develop and hone that interest, and ultimately help you be a stronger fellowship candidate. For instance, you’ll be a stronger candidate for some of the prestigious UK fellowships if you’ve participated in abroad experiences before applying, and this summer may be a great time to look into the IIP opportunities. There is a Fellowships adviser who works specifically with first-year and sophomore students and he’d be happy to talk with you about your interests and provide some suggestions moving forward. The Fellowships Pre-Advising form, which you fill out before your first meeting, will also help you reflect on your interests (and make your meeting with the advisers more fruitful). Don’t let the form intimidate you, though! As a younger student, they won’t expect your answers to be too in-depth yet. If you’d like to work through the form with an HPA adviser, we’re happy to meet with you to talk about it. And as a sophomore, be sure to keep an eye out for information about the Dale summer awards – they’re only open to sophomores and they provide funding to pursue an area of personal interest; the application opens on December 1.
What to Do During Your Year 'Off'
Question: I'm just curious, what are some of things that people do with their year between college and med school? I'm thinking about applying after senior year but I'm wondering what my options are with the year off. Thanks.
Answer: Let’s start by rethinking the term “year off.” We like to think of a year (or two) between Princeton and medical school as time to do something you’ve always wanted to do, which will continue your growth, intellectually as well as socially and culturally, even if you’re not in a classroom. Hardly a “year off,” when you think about it! The two most common reasons people elect to take a "glide" year are: 1) They're ready for a break from the rigor of school and to refresh before beginning their medical education, or, 2) They want their senior year (or additional time) to work on their candidacy so that they are stronger applicants. If you're in the first group, you have more freedom in choosing how to spend your time. If you're in the second group, you need to be realistic, and work toward filling in gaps -- for instance, taking extra coursework in the sciences if your science grades are not competitive, or volunteering at a hospital or clinic of you have done very little of such an activity since high school. We thought it might be interesting to list the things that recent alumni are doing with their year. This should give you a sense of the broad range of things you might consider:
- Doing clinical research in endocrinology at Mass General
- Earning a masters of public health at Columbia
- Working for Africare, setting up HIV/AIDS youth centers in Zambia
- Developing the curriculum for a charter school in Brooklyn
- Assisting with research in pathology/immunology at WashU in St. Louis
- Researching in parasitology at the Univ of Colorado while volunteering in the ER
- Studying in the special masters post-bac program at Georgetown
- Working at an AIDS hospice in Houston
- Volunteering at a health clinic in Spain
- Coordinating a literacy program in low-income areas of New York City
- Performing clinical research on breast cancer at UCSF
- Pursuing Gates, Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, P55, Labouisse, ReachOut and Princeton In fellowships
- Teaching biology and coaching a sport at a New England prep school, and more!
We have added some links to programs pursued by recent graduates to the Glide Year Opportunities page of our website.
Working in Consulting or Pharma Before Med School?
Question: Hi, I am a current senior and I want to take a year or two off after college to work before going to medical school. I have applied to consulting jobs, particularly those with healthcare, and also one at a pharmaceutical company. Is this something that medical schools would look down upon? I am considering getting an MD/MBA and this seemed to be an ideal way to gain some experience. Thank you!
Answer: Working in consulting (healthcare-related) or the pharmaceutical industry for a year or two before matriculating at a medical school is an acceptable thing to do, but only when all other aspects of your candidacy for medical school are in place. We often recommend that one spends time 'off' strengthening any weak spots (academic, clinical, research) in one's application. To be honest, reactions to the type of experience you're describing are somewhat mixed among medical schools, but generally speaking it will not hurt you as long as you continue doing something involving patient care, even if it's simply volunteering a few hours per week at your local hospital or community health clinic. If you're interested in an MBA, your path makes some sense, and it could be argued that all MD's could use some background in industries and professions next door to medicine, such as health insurance, health policy, and pharm. Just make sure you spend a little time doing something patient-centered if at all possible—patients are what it’s all about, when all is said and done, right?
Will HPA Continue to Support Me After I Graduate?
Question: I am graduating this spring and I’m not applying to medical school yet, but I might do so down the road. Will HPA still be able to support me as an applicant? Is there anything I should be doing before I leave?
Answer: As you know, there is no one way to prepare for, apply to, and get into medical school. Every year, quite a few alums who graduated years ago get in touch with our office for advice and support, and we love working with them! Advising is available to all alums. We can add you to our listservs and continue to meet with you. To be eligible for a committee letter of recommendation after you graduate, you must meet our eligibility criteria, which are outlined on the website.
As far as things to do before you leave, email us with your permanent email address if you’d like to remain on our alumni email list. You’ll receive Vitals and will thus be able to stay abreast of anything related to future application cycles. You might also want to ask for letters of recommendation for us to hold on file for you. We are happy to hold any letters in our files for six years beyond your date of graduation. You can learn more about the process of gathering letters of recommendation on the Letters of Recommendation page of our website. ♦