Miscellaneous FAQ


Personal Competencies 

Question:  I couldn’t make it to the recent medical school visits. Did they talk about what they’re looking for in applicants?

Answer:  On a big picture level, both Cornell Weill and Johns Hopkins Med emphasized the importance of academic excellence (as evidenced by grades, MCAT scores and letters of recommendations) along with personal competencies. The Association of American Medical Colleges identified a key set of competencies – observable behaviors that combine knowledge, skills, values and attitudes – that they desire in entering medical students. The competencies include: service orientation, social and interpersonal skills, cultural competence, teamwork, integrity and ethics, reliability and dependability, resilience and adaptability, capacity for improvement, and written and oral communication skills. If you’re applying this year, take some time to think about how you have developed and demonstrated these competencies, and find ways to comment on them in your materials (they may come across in activities list entries and the personal statement, but most significantly in secondary essay responses). If it is earlier in your “premed career,” actively develop/improve in these competency areas – meet with an HPA adviser if you would like to brainstorm ways that you might do so. Read this AAMC report for more insight on the relative importance of different academic, experiential, and demographic and personal attribute data that admissions officers use when making interview invitations and offers of acceptance.  

Cultural Competence

Question: I'm thinking about the AAMC personal competencies and want to do more to improve my cultural competence. I'm applying for IIP, but what other ideas do you have?

Answer: Traveling abroad can certainly be beneficial in stretching your comfort zone, helping you gain independence and insight on those different from yourself. In the wake of the election, there are many communities much closer to home whose members are feeling vulnerable, and many of them will be your future patients. A culturally sensitive, empathetic physician who listens carefully and respectfully, and who is knowledgeable about the concerns of those communities -- refugees, immigrants, individuals experiencing homelessness, people of color, people who are LGBTQI+, people with disabilities, and many others -- can make a significant difference in the health and overall wellbeing of individuals and society. Here are a few ideas closer to home:   

The "Why Medicine" Answer 

Question: I’m a freshman and I know that I’ll be asked to talk about why I want to be a doctor when I’m applying to internships and later to medical school, and I feel like my answer is the generic “I want to help people and I like science.” I know I want to do this for myself, but I know that’s not enough. How do I convince other people?

Answer: You’re not alone in feeling this way! When something has become part of your identity, as being premed is for some students, it’s hard to pull that out and question it and put words around it. For one, the more hands-on experience you get in and around medicine and caring for patients, the easier it will be to expand your answer. Think of an activity you’ve devoted a lot of time to – a sport, a musical instrument, a hobby – and think about why you like that. You’ll probably get at least some images coming to mind that you’ll draw from; as you volunteer at hospitals, shadow physicians, care for others through other activities, you’ll be able to draw from specific instances that inspired you or helped you see yourself in the profession more clearly. Asking physicians, medical students, even other premeds, why they’re pursuing medicine may also help: hearing what they have to say and (as importantly) how they say it could give you more of a framework for what it means for you. For some “why medicine” ideas, read some of the Inspiring Stories on the AAMC Aspiring Docs webpage. It can be a helpful exercise to start writing your own “why medicine” answers down in a journal or a blog every few months, or after meaningful experiences. This will give you early practice in putting ideas to words and you’ll be able to look back and see how your answer evolves as you mature. You can also use the “premed ponderings” that we’re posting to our HPA Facebook page as prompts to guide your thinking about your career in medicine.

Journaling as a Pre-Health Student

Question: Hi HPA – I’ve been told by a lot of people that reflecting on my premed activities and experiences as I have them may be helpful when I apply to medical school, but I’ve never really been good at writing in a journal or being reflective. Do you have any advice?

Answer: When you apply to medical school, the expectation will be that you’ve done some “soul searching” to understand why you’re pursuing a career full of sacrifice and challenge, and you’ll have to articulate how you came to the decision to become a doctor to others. Practicing this means of communication before you reach the application stage can be helpful, and journaling is a way to capture your thought process as your understanding of and motivation for medicine evolves with your experience.  Journaling isn’t a natural skill for many people, so don’t worry if you have trouble getting started!

Here are a few ideas as you get started:

1. Read others’ reflections for inspiration – jot down ideas based on their writing. Aspiring Docs Diaries is a good place to start – these blog entries are written by current premeds, med students, and residents: AspiringDocsDiaries.org

2. Identify experiences or influences—special events, service projects, shadowing experiences, conversations, books—that inform, inspire, or challenge you. Record significant details about these moments, and then describe your impressions, feelings, and thoughts.

3. Use a format that helps you – some people prefer to type, some to handwrite, some to dictate into their phone as an audio journal. Some people blog online because they’re inspired by having an online audience, some want to keep their thoughts private, some do a mix of both. Doodling and illustration are also encouraged!

4. Over the summer, HPA will post “pre-health ponderings” on our Facebook page. These questions make good journal prompts. You can view last summer’s posts on the Premed Pondering section of our Facebook page.


The Power of Self-Reflection

Question: I know that med schools want me to demonstrate my ability in the sciences and want to see my commitment to medicine, along with those personal competencies you talk about. What skills should be building in order to be more ready for the actual application process?

Answer: The most important quality to develop is the ability to self-reflect. Before you apply, you should have a sense of your values, your motivations, what brings you satisfaction in life, what led you to make the choices you made, what you learned from those choices, and how it all comes together to create a cohesive narrative that speaks to your interest in your future profession. Many pre-health students are very focused on doing as much as possible, but it’s just as important to take time to make meaning of what you’re doing. Being able to share your personal narrative in writing (in your personal statement, activities section entries, and secondary essays) and in-person (in your interview) will ultimately help you gain acceptance to your professional school. By reflecting along the way, you’ll also be able to tell where you may need to gain more experience in order to better shape your narrative. Journaling, taking discussion-based courses that require reflection, working through medical school interview questions with friends or mentors, attending the Center for Career Development Design Your Future workshop, reading others’ stories and thinking about how they relate to your life, and meeting with an adviser at the end of the semester to take stock of the term are a few ways to build reflection into your life. Here’s a Harvard Business Review article with more thoughts on reflection.

There are some other useful areas to hone along the way—ability to follow directions and meet deadlines, organizational skills, professionalism—that will also help you thrive in actually preparing and submitting your application, but reflection is definitely key!

Fall Break Suggestions


What “prehealth things” can I do during Fall Break while I have some free time?

Good question! There are always things that you could do with a few free hours:

  1. Borrow a book from the HPA library to read, and get some insight about being a doctor, applying to medical school, or learning about other health careers. We lend books for two-week periods. A list of titles we have is available on our website.
  2. Contact some alumni physicians near your home by searching by location in the Tigernet Directory and LinkedIn using Career Services’ Networking Tips for best results. See if they are available to shadow, or just take them out to coffee and learn about their experiences as physicians.
  3. Surf through some websites for medical schools in your home state (links to each of them are available here).
  4. Start looking into summer internship and other summer experiences. We have a list of clinical opportunities and research opportunities in which past Princeton students have participated. Other good places to look include the AAMC list of Summer Undergrad Research Programs at med schools; Career Development, and in Vitals.
  5. The most important thing is to take some time to just relax! The second half of the fall can feel even faster and more stressful than the first, so come back refreshed and ready to work. 


Question: Hi HPA – I finally have some time to breathe during fall break. Is there something I can do that’s productive for my prehealth plans?

Answer: This is a great time to take stock of where are you and what to do next, and that’s going to be different for every student.

First-years – consider how midterms went, get caught up in classes if you need to, think about your study skills and time management, read through some of the McGraw Study Strategy Tip Sheets for ideas on how to improve, reach out to some physicians you know and do some shadowing.

Sophomores – start looking at summer opportunities including IIP international internships, clinical opportunities and research internships, apply for Princeternships if you want an in-depth short-term shadowing experience, come by HPA and borrow a library book or two to read up on medicine over the break.

Pre-Applicants – familiarize yourself with the health professions school application process on our website, start to consider letters of recommendation, touch base with friends who are currently applying and talk to them about the process, or friends who have recently started medical school and see if they’ll take you on a tour of their school or let you sit in on a class with them. If you need to keep raising your GPA before applying, look into post-bac record enhancer options and start working on your application materials.

Current Applicants – fill out interview reports, stay active in your work and volunteer endeavors, keep sending us updates. 



International Students and Medical School

Question: Dear HPA – I have heard that it’s harder for international students to get into medical school. Is this true? If so, why?

Answer: It is statistically more difficult for students who are not US citizens to be accepted into medical school, and once a student is accepted, there are also financial considerations that can create a barrier. According to AAMC statistics, in 2017, there were 1,529 allopathic medical school (MD) applicants whose legal residence was outside of the US. Of those, 200 matriculated to medical school, for a matriculation rate of about 13% (vs. 41% for all applicants). There are some US medical schools that do not accept international students and some that limit international acceptances to Canadian citizens. Once an international student is admitted, the financial aid options at many schools are more limited than they are for US citizens. Over the past four years, we have had about 10 international/DACA students who matriculated to medical school, so it certainly isn’t impossible, but it is important to have a realistic understanding of the obstacles that international students may face. Please refer to the International Students and DACA Students sections of the HPA website for more information, or come in to meet with an adviser to discuss your plans.

"Disadvantaged" Status

Question: I’ve noticed a lot of summer opportunities that are specifically for “disadvantaged” premeds. I’m first generation and low-income, but I’m also at Princeton and feel that it wouldn’t be appropriate to consider myself disadvantaged. What do medical schools and programs mean when they say “disadvantaged”?
Answer: These summer programs are referring to your journey to health professions relative to others who are pursuing these careers. Medical students are overwhelmingly from families in the top income brackets who, in addition to financial capital, also have the most “cultural capital” when it comes to family members and communities who can guide them through the written and unwritten rules associated with pursuing a college and medical school education. These summer opportunities are seeking to even the playing field by making opportunities available to those who do not have the networks and resources through their communities that others do. They recognize how much value there is to having a diverse physician workforce. Honestly, we wish someone would find a better single word descriptor than “disadvantaged”—the life skills, personal character, and perspective that you gain from navigating this “disadvantaged background” can really be an advantage moving into a professional career and caring effectively for patients, but it is the term we are currently stuck with. In the medical school application process, you’ll again be asked if you’d like to self-identify as disadvantaged and if you do, you’re given space on the application to describe your background. We work closely with applicants to help them decide whether or not to check this box and how to craft this mini-essay. It can be a good opportunity to advocate for yourself, but you may also decide that you would rather not self-identify as disadvantaged or you may feel that you are not disadvantaged by this definition—it’s a personal choice and we’re happy to act as a sounding board for you as you decide what to do.

Medical School Visits

Question: I know that HPA and Premed Society host visits from admissions reps from medical schools. I’m only a freshman—should I go to these? It seems intimidating to think about the application process to medical school this early.

Answer: Like many things, it wouldn’t hurt to try going to one, and see how you actually react by attending. Some students get inspired and motivated by going to these talks, but it’s true that some find it stressful. We do try to choose admissions representatives who are accessible to students and interested in helping you out, and sometimes seeing them in a smaller group setting can make the idea of interacting with them less intimidating when it comes time to apply. Many of the admissions speakers are also willing to communicate directly with students who have come to information sessions, which can be a nice connection if a specific question comes up and you want a second opinion beyond HPA’s about an aspect of your candidacy. That said, it’s absolutely fine to wait awhile before you start coming to these information sessions—we will continue to offer a few every semester, so you’ll be able to catch some when you’re ready! We do hope that juniors and seniors who are closer to the application process choose to attend at least a couple of these info sessions, since it can help them get into the mindset of applying, and help them see how schools highlight certain aspects of what they offer to students (e.g., location, curriculum, patient care opportunities, global health offerings), and use that information to decide where to apply and how to craft their application materials for schools of particular interest.  

Creating a College Resume 

I’m a first year student looking at summer internships that require a resume and cover letter. I only have a high school resume – what should I change to make it appropriate for these internships?
We checked in with Pam Cohen at the Center for Career Development – she encourages you to make an appointment or bring your resume to drop-in hours, but here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Consider your “target audience” – the people reading your resume – and what you want them to know about you for a particular role/industry.
  • Don’t devalue resume content just because it’s from high school. A strong resume showcases relevant roles from a variety of experiences.
  • Emphasize demonstrable skills. This may mean listing fewer activities, but writing more about the ones you keep to show a prospective employer what you have accomplished.
  • Review the resume guide online for more formatting and content tips!

Premed Alphabet Soup

Question: Hi HPA – I heard a senior talking about calculating their BCPM and reading up on the ACA before doing their PAI and AMCAS. As a freshman, should I know what all of these things are? It felt like they were speaking another language.

Answer: The world of medicine and med school admissions can seem intimidating because of these “insider” terms, so we’re glad that you asked! BCPM stands for Biology/Chemistry/Physics/Math. Your BCPM or science GPA is evaluated separately from your overall GPA in the medical school admissions process, so it’s one of the numbers you should know before you decide to apply (read more about Science GPA here). The ACA is formally called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but it’s often shortened to Affordable Care Act, ACA, or “Obamacare.” Familiarity with the current state of the US health care system will help you know what you’re “getting yourself into” as a future physician. The PAI is the Pre-Application Interview. All Princeton applicants interview with one of the advisers as part of their preparation for application. The AMCAS, or American Medical College Application Service is the “common application” for most allopathic medical school (MD) programs (read the basics of the application process here). 

Successful Transition to Princeton

Question: Hi HPA – what advice do you have for a new pre-health student to maximize academic success?

Answer: We stand behind everything that the McGraw Center suggests in their First-Year student checklist – we’ve included that info here, with some more premed-oriented specifics:

  • Create a study group for one of your classes; they're really efficient: The McGraw Group Study Halls are a great place to meet like-minded students and they’re offered in all of the premed sciences!
  • Schedule a Learning Strategies Consultation with a McGraw Consultant: Many of the Learning Consultants are pre-health and may be able to provide some perspective on their pre-health choices; all consultants are trained to work with any student in any discipline, so you can’t go wrong meeting with them to talk about time management, organization, goal setting, and study strategies.
  • Visit the Writing Center for help with your first big paper: Written communication is an essential skill for aspiring doctors (you’ll be writing dozens of essays as part of the medical school application process and you’ll need to think critically and express your ideas accurately and succinctly in many settings).
  • Go to at least one of your professor's office hours to talk about something you find interesting in the course: You may feel more invested in the course if you’ve developed a relationship with the prof; if you run into trouble over the semester, it’s easier to bring it to the prof’s attention if you already know them a little; and you’ll need a number of recommendation letters for your next professional step, so start early in building these connections. Project Welcome Mat offers some advice on how to communicate with faculty.
  • Even when things are hectic take time for recreation; this will actually make you a more successful student: burnout is a serious issue in medicine. Start developing good self-care habits now!
  • Find at least one mentor among faculty and staff, in addition to your adviser, to meet with regularly: the AAMC offers some guidance for premed students about mentorship.
  • Attend at least one of McGraw's workshops to prepare for your first midterms, finals, and everything in between: spending an hour just sitting still and making a plan with the help of experts can work wonders for your efficiency, confidence, and effectiveness as a student. McGraw’s fall schedule is online.
  • Take 20 minutes a week to reflect on your academic approach and ways you might adjust it to meet Princeton's demands.
  • Look around campus for additional resources, workshops, and activities to help make a smooth transition: HPA is one of those resources for pre-health students! Learn more about working with us on our website.

Sophomore Suggestions

Question: I’m a sophomore and I’m starting to feel the pressure of med school applications. I just want to know if I’m on the right track with my classes, choices of activities, and summer plans. Should I meet with an adviser to discuss this? Where else can I find information?

Answer: Sophomore year can be especially challenging for pre-health students – rigor of classes often ramps up, you have to make some hard decisions (eating club vs not, major), you feel like your summer has to “count” compared to last year, you may be taking on leadership in organizations, and you’re still trying to figure out how to manage your time and academic expectations, but at the same time, you feel like you’re expected to know what you’re doing because you’ve been here for over a year now. We would be happy to meet and talk this through! Here’s some food for thought in the meantime:

  • If you’re thinking of applying direct entry (starting med school the fall right after you graduate), this is the last summer when you can engage in activities that you’ll be able to draw from when you write your application. Your application will be submitted next June. Choose your summer plans accordingly, especially when it comes to direct interaction with patients – if you haven’t had any, prioritize that. There are many ways to gain clinical experience – you could do it as a full-time summer opportunity, or alongside another job/internship.
  • Talking through your experiences with an HPA Peer Adviser will give you another perspective. They can talk about what they’ve done as pre-health students, which might make your appointment with an HPA adviser more productive. Feel free to email with any of them or set up a time to meet and talk.
  • We have suggestions on our website for action steps by class year (here are the expanded ideas for sophomores). Reference these alongside the Dean of the College’s Sophomore Action Plan for ideas.
  • We will have a Sophomore Success Series of workshops starting after spring break – be sure to check them out – we’ll advertise them in Vitals!

Sophomore Early Assurance Programs

Question: I’ve heard there are a few juniors who have already been accepted to medical school through early assurance programs and am curious about them. Should I apply to these programs?
Answer: Princeton sophomores have four Early Assurance options, each with its own specific focus and eligibility requirements. Each program seeks students who have a demonstrated understanding of why they are pursuing a career in medicine gained through experience and who want to attend the specific medical school offering the program. Read up on the programs and the medical schools and decide whether or not one of them fits your goals and interests. You do not have to be sure that you would attend at the time that you apply, but you do have to convince the program of your fit for what it’s offering at the time that you apply. We will have information sessions for most of these programs this semester, so keep an eye on Vitals for announcements about them!

Surgery Webcasts

Question:  Dear HPA:  Tonight I was able to watch a live webcast where three doctors played a video of a Laparoscopic Sleeve Gastrectomy performed by the Vanderbilt Medical Center.  The doctors pause the video and show slides giving information about the surgery; they also comment and answer questions (asked by people watching the live webcast).  I went to the website that hosted the video and found hundreds of webcasts with videos of real surgeries that can be browsed by specialty, institution, condition, and procedure.  I thought it was a really convenient way to look at an actual surgical procedure without having to go to a hospital.  Students who think they want to be surgeons can go to the site, and I think it might really help them figure out if surgery would be for them.  I’m not sure if you already know about it.  Maybe HPA could refer students to it:  www.orlive.com

Answer:  It sounds like you’re practically a surgeon already!  Seriously, given your enthusiasm for ORLive, we decided to send your note out this week to the prehealth community.  Aside from giving prehealth students another way to procrastinate (sorry about that), we agree that the videos are fascinating and perhaps even motivational.  Of course, no one is expected to be thinking about future medical specialty right now as an undergraduate.  Med school will bring you more than ample opportunity to choose your specialty.  Still, for those curious about surgery, watching ORLive is definitely something to do when you’re taking a break!  If nothing else, you’ll learn how you do at the sight of blood.