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Navigating the Course


By: Dr. James L. Phillips, senior associate dean and professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas

Improving access to medical care for all of our citizens has a high priority for essentially all persons involved in providing health care. With the realization that those who are the most underserved medically are also those who are the most underrepresented in the medical profession, and having been one of the underrepresented minority students so designated, i.e., African American, Mexican American, Mainland Puerto Rican, and Native American, the focus of my career has been to get more URMS into the pipeline for medical school.

The most effective and the least painful way to accomplish this mission is to have truly effective education from K-12. Recognizing that many urban school districts are unable to provide the quality preparation that is needed, other initiatives are essential. Nonetheless, parents should be encouraged to place their students into programs, contests, etc., that emphasize science and mathematics in the K-12 years. It is recommended that students take four years of math and four years of science in high school. Utilization of the health museums and health fairs should have high priorities.


College Selection


The next area of concern is the selection of one’s college. Questions should be asked of each college regarding the number of applicants from their school to medical schools each year and the number who are accepted, and if the school is a majority school, the number of underrepresented minorities who have applied and have been accepted should also be determined.

It goes without saying that a good track record in this regard would be preferable to one that has a subpar record. Upon matriculation, if the high school background has not been particularly strong in the sciences and not as competitive as others, it is recommended that in the first year of college the student take only one science course, such as chemistry, and one math course. In other words, do not take both biology and chemistry in the first semester of college. This way the student can adapt to college more easily, determining the efforts and methods required to obtain A & B grades in those courses. In the second year or perhaps the second semester, one will then be able to take two or more science courses and continue to perform well.


Student Involvement


Similarly, it should be stressed to students that they should get involved in extracurricular activities the first semester and/or the first year of college. As time management is mastered, then in subsequent years, the extracurriculars can be a part of the student’s activities. Realizing that the following is not always possible, the motto for students who are premeds should be, “no C’s”.

Study skills are also very important and should be addressed as soon possible in one’s educational career. Preparing in advance for class, being attentive, sitting up front, taking good notes in class, and reviewing and summarizing the notes following the class should be routines that should be done at all levels. Team studying should also be incorporated. Study aids and devices, such as mnemonics and flash cars should also be routine.

As come gets further along in his educational career, the understanding that the information being presented is cumulative and will be helpful for many years is of great value, as the individual prepares for the profession of his choice. I tell the medical students that the courses in the basic sciences, for example, pathophysiology, constitute the tools for one’s trade which will be used throughout one’s career.

Students should routinely participate in summer enrichment programs such as the Minority Medical Education Program sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, MMEP to Summer Medical and Dental Education Program, and others. A research experience is not essential for acceptance in M.D. programs, but can be of help also. It is essential that all applicants to medical school have a meaningful health related experience.


Medical College Admissions Test


The next area of concentration is the MCAT. A solid three to four months of preparation should be devoted to the MCAT and should have a high emphasis on using practice MCAT exams. Begin the application process to medical schools early. The first accepted rule is to apply to all schools in one’s home state. A selected number of out of state schools should be selected, where one finds a good fit between the school and his or her needs. For those living in states with no or few medical schools, one seeds to utilize the AAMC booklet, Medical School Admissions requirements, where one can determine the percentage of out-of-state students accepted each year, at each medical school.

Continuing with the application process, it is important that the applications be done carefully and neatly and that the font used be reader friendly (for example 12 pitch). The personal statement should be meaningful and it should reflect characteristics and experience that will make you attractive to the medical school. Regarding letters of recommendation, it is the obligation to the student to cultivate become known to those individuals who will write the letters, so that they would be able to write more than the minimal comments that have to do with one’s grades only.

As one steers his course into medical school, and then into residency, he should always be appreciative of those who help and support him along the way. Besides parents and guardians, many others impact favorably in helping students reach their goals. This list will include faculty from K-12 and through medical school, secretaries and ward clerks, pastors and churches, administrative personnel, et. al. As one perseveres toward his goal, time must be allotted to help those who follow, also. Perseverance and gratitude will give many positive results, especially, the improvement and availability of health care for all our people.