Student Advice

Student Advice on Being Pre-Med:

What is something I wish I could have done differently with my pre-med experience at Columbia?

I wish that I knew more about the whole process before it was actually time to go through the madness of applications and interviews. If I had to do it again I would have probably taken all my premed requirements freshman and sophomore year so that I could have studied abroad my junior year. Instead I am studying abroad my senior year, which I am super happy about, but I think it would have been great to get all the premed stuff and MCATs done as early as possible. In terms of work-load, it would probably have been much harder to take all the courses in two years that I took in three. My advice to any premed students is to become acquainted with a premed student older than you so that you can ask them as many questions as possible so that you are prepared for the long process ahead.

-Celia Rivera, CC’04, Biology, Current applicant

I wish that I had done more community service earlier in my college years. Also, if you’re given an option to take the same class, but an easier version or a harder version, choose the easier one. Schools often don’t know the difference, and you’re putting yourself on the line by taking the harder class when you have no need to. This is especially true for Calculus classes at many schools.

-Lucas Bejar, CC’04, Neuroscience, Current applicant

I wish I had gone a abroad and tried a different subject for study.

-Jennifer Bodine, CC’04, Chemistry, AMSA Co-President

I was happy with my undergrad experience, and there is very little I would have changed. The only thing I felt I could’ve done a little better in terms of pre-med was getting all the components of my medical school applications done sooner (however, I applied during the AMCAS year that their server worked like a turtle on sedatives, so I don’t entirely blame myself). The primary application (sort of like a “commonapplication”) and personal essay wasn’t so bad; it was those secondaries from specific schools that had long essays that dragged out for me.

Also in terms of applying, if you get an interview to a school, make sure you both write a letter to thank the interviewer AND write a letter a month or two after that to the admission’s dean if you are still strongly considering the school (telling the dean that you have given some thought and still love the school). Admission’s officers are good at recognizing fluff, so don’t just say something like “I want to go to Cornell because I like PBL.” Personalize your letters so that they realize why you specifically out of the thousands of applicants feel that their school would be a good fit for you (i.e., do you have family in the area; have you spoken to current students — which any interviewed student can arrange if they just call the admissions office and ask; is there something unique about you that makes you a good fit for their program?). The initial application is important, but the little extras after you fill out the application mean a lot as well (but don’t stress about those until after you fill out the initial application — one step at a time! I’m just saying that you should not be dormant after you fill out the application thinking “well, the ball’s completely on their court now.” Don’t take this as a reason to be overbearing, as that would be just as bad if not worse).

-Alex Arriaga, CC’02, Math, Cornell Med Class ’06

Study more ;) … Actually I would’ve done some research. I did minimal to none, and that’s OK, but medicine is FULL of it and you feel a little out of the loop if you don’t know much about what’s going on. Fortunately it’s never too late…doing some now.

-Hector Rivera, CC’03, Biology, Harvard Med Class ’07

Why did I choose to be a science major?

I knew before I came to college that I either wanted to be a biology major or a mathematics major. I chose to do biology because I am very interested in the science of life. It turns out that it was beneficial because I had a very strong background for the biology section of the MCATs. Also, with all the premed requirements it is easier to be a biology major because all of premed classes count for the major as well. As a result I was able to finish my major early and have had all of senior year to take whatever classes I want to take for pleasure.

-Celia Rivera, CC’04, Current applicant

Is it easier for Biology majors once they get to medical school? Do non science majors tend to struggle?

“The advantage of the bio major” is a commonly discussed topic surrounding medical school. As a math major myself, I cannot speak for the bio majors. However, I have not struggled with concepts through medical school so far, and I am now more than halfway through my second year. In fact, you can be a bio major and take courses that do not have heavy weight in medical education topics (which would leave you in almost the same position as a non-bio major in terms of med school).

The only thing medical school assumes is that you’ve taken the intro pre-med courses it requires for admission. The only arena that I felt that Bio majors had some extra familiarlty was biochemistry, as I did not take that in undergrad (i.e., they were able to study slightly less if they wanted to for those few weeks — conceptually, I did not have any trouble grasping the material). If you are truly worried about being at a disadvantage, go online to your favorite bookstore site and buy Lippincott’s Illustrated Reviews: Biochemistry by Champe and Harvey. Learn that book (it breaks things down well, and is not that long). Then, even if you are a non-science major who only took strictly premed courses, you will actually be the one at an advantage as medical school starts. I did not do this myself, but if you aren’t sleeping because you feel med school is going to be too “hard” because you didn’t major in bio, this is an option.

Alex Arriaga, CC’02, Math, Cornell Med Class ’06

How do I decide whether or not to study abroad?

It really comes down to if you want it enough. It does require planning ahead of time so that you can finish your required pre-med courses in time, and you are not delayed to take the MCAT. Personally, it was one of the best decisions I made; it is an entirely different experience, and there is certainly much to learn from it.

-Surbhi Grover CC’04, studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark

How important are my extra-curricular activities? Do they have to be health-related?

Extra-curricular activities are a sign of being well-rounded, and they are also a sign that you are someone who actively pursues your interests, so I would say that they’re pretty important. More important than the amount of activities you partake in, or even than whether or not they are health-related, is how passionate you are about them, and to what extent this passion is conveyed to your interviewer. They definitely do not have to be health-related. I would say just be yourself, pursue your interests, and do it with dedication, and you’re fine. That said, your interests as pre-med students probably involve health, public service, and/or science, and extra-curriculars that touch on any one of these things will only further attest to your dedication to the medical field, which is a plus.

-Payal Shah, CC’04, Biology, Current applicant

Extracurriculars are important. It’s better to be really involved in a few things than somewhat involved in a lot of stuff. You need to be able to speak coherently (and even passionately) about your activities. You should have some health-related extracurriculars. You have to show the medical schools (as well as yourself) that you know what you’re getting into. You shouldn’t be going to medical school if you can’t stand the sight of sick people. Volunteering is very nice. Research experience is good, but do it only if you truly want to do it.

-Harma Turbendian CC’04, Biology, current applicant

Extra-curricular activities are very important. They really give the schools a chance to know you beyond the letters on your transcript. They should really be what you are interested in, and if you are interested in medicine, one of your activities will probably be health related, and that would solidify that you are interested in the health field. Medical schools love to see other activities too that aren’t health related. Bottom line is that when you get involved with anything, give it your 100%, show your passion and commitment… this is what medical schools really want to see!

-Surbhi Grover, CC’04, current applicant, AMSA Chair of committees

They are important to the extent that they demonstrate your dedication to something and your interest in helping people and the medical field overall. Not all your experiences need to be clinical-based, but they shouldn’t all be straight community service either. Ideally, you should have a good mix of the two with maybe a year working in a hospital and another year working on a community service project or tutoring, etc. Scientific research can be very good in that it can lead to a great character recommendation from you PI and can also show dedication and responsibility with your work. Your grades are one thing, but the schools want to see that another side of you with your EC’s that they can’t see just by staring at your #’s. In that way, EC’s tend to set you apart and they are good conversation topics both in written communication with the school (personal statements, etc..) and with interviewers. It helps differentiate you from the other 1500 people applying to that school.

-Lucas Bejar, CC’04, Neuroscience, Current applicant

How do I learn about research opportunities? And is it necessary to perform research to get into med school? Do I have to research in biology?

Research is not essential to get into med school, but it is a plus. However, don’t dive into research if you’re going to hate it. You need to be able to speak about the research you have done and really understand what you have done. Check Columbia’s work-study listings for research opportunities. Check with the Biology Department, especially Dr. Gibber.

-Harma Turbendian CC’04, Biology, current applicant

Contact departments on campus that you may be interested in. SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) provides great contacts, even though I didn’t do it. Check websites of other schools you like, and almost all institutions have summer programs. Talking to your professors can often help too. Finally, just check online, and see if there is anyone in particular you are very keen on working with. Just e-mail that researcher/doctor and most likely they would love to have you. Do you have to do research to get into medical school? Only if you want to! Don’t do it to list it on your resume. If you do research, it often comes up on the interviews, but so do your other activities.

-Surbhi Grover CC’04, Religion/Econ, AMSA Chair of Committees

The best ways to find research oppertunities are to speak to a professor in the field you are interested in and see if they can help you. There are also many summer research programs at many different Universities. Research totally depends on your own interest. If you are not interested in doing research in Biology then don’t. Find a field that interests you and try it out, because often times it seems that all fields overlap in research.

-Jennifer Bodine, CC’04, Chemistry, AMSA Co-President

Check out this site to get involved in Biological Research:

Or, for Chemistry Research opportunities, look here:

Scott Troob (CC’04, Biology major) takes you through the ins and outs of the MCAT. Pay close attention! (Scroll down for advice from other students…)

Before beginning to prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) there are a few questions you should ask yourself. The most important is how do I study the best?

Some people know they study best in groups, some benefit from guided study, and others need to be alone. Your answer to this question should serve as the basis for how you proceed. Put some time into thinking about it. It is very important that you feel comfortable studying. You do not want to feel overwhelmed, uninformed, or lost at any point during your studying.

If you need guidance, commercial courses package and present the topics covered on the MCAT in a comprehensive and manageable fashion. If you cannot afford these costly programs, get the books from a friend and form a group. The books are written to present the topics in the simplest way possible. They contain nothing that you cannot comprehend or cannot figure out with the aid of a friend. The toughest thing about the MCAT is the volume of material. This brings us to the next question:

How much time do I need to study?
People who have taken the MCAT will say different things, some start six months before the exam and some two. I would recommend that you put no less than three months of committed studying in before the exam. Studying will be much different depending whether you take the exam in the spring or in the summer. Chances are that if you plan to take the spring MCAT you will have other studying to do concurrently. In this case give yourself more time because winter break will be the only time you will have to fully devote yourself to studying for the exam. If you have allowed enough time, studying can be broken down into manageable chunks of one to three hours a day during the week, and possibly more on the weekends. Do yourself a favor, stay sane, don’t put in anymore than eight hours on any one day! Your timetable with be different depending on who you are and what your target score is.

Next question, what do I have to study?
Get informed! Instead of relying on word of mouth, go on the official MCAT website located at Here you will find an up to date description of what is on the MCAT and how heavily weighted certain topics are expected to be in a given year (things change). Commercial test-prep books contain everything that might be asked on the MCAT, and all subjects are treated equally. It is certain that you will study topics that you will not be asked about on the MCAT, just as it is certain that you will be asked questions about things you swore you wouldn’t. It is always better to study too much than not enough, especially for the MCAT. Now that you have an idea of how and what your going to study figure out how you are going to be tested on it.

What is the test format and how should I approach it?
Go to the MCAT website and learn about the format of the test, there are descriptions and full length sample tests. Practicing will be easier in a course than on your own, in either case start by completing passages and sections untimed then move to timed. Time is another huge obstacle with the MCAT. Work out strategies for getting the most amount of questions correct in the least amount of time. Skip passages if you find yourself rushed for time. It is essential to realize that some passages are easier than others, especially on the Verbal section. Do the easy ones first, you have the best chance for getting these questions correct. A correct answer on an easy question counts the same as a correct answer on a hard question except that a hard question will suck your time away from you! Become familiar with what types of questions will asked. They use the same tricks over and over. In any case, ensure that you get practice doing the sections timed and try to do at least two full length MCAT’s before the test. Courses will schedule timed MCAT’s for you, even if you blow off some classes go to the practice tests.

Set a Target Score
You also should set a target score. If you want the option of going to very competitive schools you are going to need very competitive scores. They say a 30 will get you in, but if you plan on getting much higher you are going to need to study a lot more and be much better at taking the test.There is nothing out of your reach if you prepare properly! Spend the time, hopefully you will study more for the MCAT than you have for any other test in your life. Get crazy about it, have fun, and stay positive.

-Scott Troob CC’04 Biology

When should I start preparing for the exam?

Investigate the format about 6 months before your test – that way, there will be no surprises. I think starting about 10 to 12 weeks beforehand is good for intense studying, either for taking a prep class or studying on your own.

-Tian Zhang CC’05, Biochemistry

When should I take the MCAT if I’m taking a year off?

If you’ll be applying in your year off (rather than deferring), there’s really no need to take the test in April. I decided to take the test in August because it seemed the more balanced approach for me. I was able to work throughout the summer and study for the exam without feeling overwhelmed.

-Natalya Hasan, CC’04, Religion

How should I decide whether to take a prep course or study on my own?

Prep courses really help you get the essential material organized. If you can do that on your own, and get hold of enough practice material, you don’t need a course. In the end, it is really your own effort that will count.

Surbhi Grover CC’04, Religion/Econ, Current applicant

Are my chances hurt if I don’t take a prep course?

No! Some people need the organization and a timetable to study that the courses provide, while others can do the same independently. The motto is–Practice, Practice and Practice!

Surbhi Grover CC’04, Religion/Econ, Current applicant

How do I choose which test prep to take?

Different people have different learning styles – you should definitely choose the one that seems to fit best with your learning style. For example, some of my friends have had great results with all the test prep materials at the Kaplan library – but if you’re not willing to seek them out (I believe they have about 11 or 12 sample full-length MCATs) and do them, all the material in the world won’t help. Also, how many books do you want to go through? Princeton Review has many many many. I have other friends who have also had wonderful results with studying from those books. Personally, I found the interactive “Salty the kracker” in the Examkrackers books to be very helpful. The character kept up my interest level and focus while studying, since it points out all the most important things to remember during the test. Good luck finding the one that fits your learning style!

-Tian Zhang, CC’05, Biochemistry

You should talk to people you know well and ask them what their experiences were. You might also want to look at the materials that each company offers (most large book stores have an adequate selection). I chose Examkrackers because I liked their emphasis on taking the test with confidence and the format of their books. I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that most of the test companies are offering the same information; trust the techniques of whichever course you take.

-Natalya Hasan, CC’04, Religion

How should I balance my classes with studying for the April MCAT?

Time management is key. Know what you’re doing and when. Don’t overexert yourself with extracurriculars. I found it hard but helpful to take orgo and physics that year because it helped to reinforce the MCAT material. Don’t forget to sleep once in a while. When you’re really stressing over all the work, keep in mind what you’re doing it all for.

-Harma Turbendian CC’04, Biology, Current applicant

Is there a “Golden Number” that I must get on the MCAT to get into medical school?

Above a 30 is what I’ve heard, but then again I’ve heard of people who have gotten below a 30 and have gotten into a school. There are many factors in your chances. Obviously, the MCAT is one of the more weighted ones.

-Harma Turbendian CC’04, Biology, Current applicant

I don’t really know if there is a number like that. But, if you get over a 30, you don’t have to take the MCAT again. There are a lot of people who don’t break a 30 and get into a medical school. Remember, MCAT is only one aspect of the applications.

-Surbhi Grover CC’04, Religion/Econ, Current applicant

When should I apply to medical school? Is it bad to take time off?

Depending on the year that you want to begin attending medical school, you should apply as soon as possible. AMCAS starts accepting applications beginning June 1st of the year before. So, if you want admission for the fall right after senior year, you should apply the summer after junior year. If you intend to take a year off, either you can apply and then defer admission (which some schools allow and others do not) or you can delay applying until later on.

-Tian Zhang CC’05, Biochemistry, AMSA Fundraising chair

Applying to medical school is a really personal decision and the timing is as well. Some people are not ready to apply right after college for many different reasons. Personally, I feel I need to explore myself and life in general before I commit to something like that. One thing I realized is that there is not any hurry. The average age of people entering school is about 25 or so. I think taking time off again is a personal decision. Some people do not want time between college and medical school. I have a burning desire to travel and see the world. I also do not have any idea what it actually means to be a doctor or if I do become one what kind of doctor I want to be. So I am going to spend my time off traveling and volunteering internationally with health and non-health organizations. I have heard my many residents who did not take time off say they wished they had because once you commit to medical school there are not really any chances to travel or do other things for at least the next 6 years of your life.

-Jennifer Bodine, CC’04, Chemistry, AMSA Co-President

How do I decide which medical schools to apply to?

This decision depends on what’s important to you. Medical schools differ in some pretty significant aspects, aside from the obvious (location, national rankings). It’s important to be aware that some of the more subtle distinctions will become clearer once you go to the schools to interview, at which point you’ll get a chance to talk to students at those schools. Medical schools differ in terms of curriculum (problem-based-learning involves more groupwork, more discussion sections, while traditional curricula focus more on lectures), scheduling (class schedules determine how many hours you spend in class/labs versus how much time you have to study independently/pursue other interests), affiliated hospitals (consider urban versus rural, or basic private hospital versus public hospital differences in terms of patient populations, etc.). I would say the initial schools to which you apply to might be based on geography and/or national rankings, if that’s important to you, but these subtler differences are important to consider when you’re picking.

-Payal Shah, CC’04, Biology, Current applicant

I basically wanted to study medicine in New York. As a result, I applied to almost every medical school in New York. I supplemented the list with the other top medical schools (ie – Harvard, Penn, Wash U, Hopkins, etc.)

I also applied to some schools that were not as competitive and to those that would offer a cost effective education. Overall, I applied to over 24 schools.

-Darshan Doshi, CC’04, Biochemistry, Current applicant

How do I prepare for the interview process?

I read anything they gave me, either in the mail, in an email, or on the web under a tab marked “prospective students.” Most schools have a bulletin or something analogous to that online. Then I listed things I learned about the school that appealed to me (to prepare for the popular question, “Why x-med school?”. I also listed some questions for my interviewers, and also listed questions for current students. Most importantly though, I’d advise people to think about themselves, their experiences, their motivations, because this is what I think is most important in an interview. The stuff about the particular school is useful, but they will likely tell you those things during the interview program.

-Payal Shah, CC’04, Biology, Current applicant

The first thing I did was buy a suit. I bought it in the summer before I had even received a single interview invitation because I did not want to have to buy my suit in a hurry. I decided to go the super traditional route: all black with a long skirt.

The night before each interview I would read over all the information I had on the medical school. Medical schools usually ask you why you would like to attend their school, so its good to really think about why you could see yourself attending that school. I would also read over my amcas application and supplemental application because they will also ask you random questions based on the information that you supplied to them.

The day of the interview I would arrive 15-30 minutes early so that I could be very relaxed by the time they called me. The first couple of interviews that I had I was extremely nervous, but after the 3rd or 4th interview you become accustomed to the routine.

-Celia Rivera, CC’04, Biology, current applicant

I prepare for an interview by reading over the school’s brochures and website, MSAR (Medical School Admissions Requirements) description, and past interview experiences of other students from Moreover, I would create a list of reasons why I was interested in that school. Additionally, I would try to stay up on current events and have some small talk ready to break the initial ice.

-Darshan Doshi, CC’04, Biochemistry, Current applicant

What is an interesting interview question or two that I’ve been asked?

What do you think about this country’s health system in comparison to those of other countries?

-Payal Shah, CC’04, Biology, Current applicant

There are a ton of interesting questions I’ve been asked. Below is a list of some:

What do you think are the most pressing issues in healtcare right now?
How would you fix the medical care system if you had all the money in the world?
Where do you see yourself in 10/15 years?
What do you want to be known for in 50 years?
Why medicine? Why this school?
What experience led you into medicine?
What do you want me to tell the committee about you?
What was the most interesting experience in your life?
What was the most difficult experience in your life?

The list goes on…check for interview feedback from many different interviewees and all the schools.

-Lucas Bejar, CC’04, Neuroscience, Current applicant

a. Why should I pick you for admission over any other student? You have 3 minutes to sell yourself.
b. When have you worked in a small group and it has been unsuccessful?
c. Name all 9 Democratic Presidential candidates. Who do you think will get the nomination? Why?
d. Explain the impact of the Mad Cow scare to the medical community.

-Darshan Doshi, CC’04, Biochemistry, Current applicant

How important are your GPA and MCAT scores?

In my opinion, your MCAT score weighs more heavily than your GPA. GPA tends to portray how well you “get grades”. Some of the classes you learned the most in weren’t necessarily the classes you earned the best grade in. The MCAT on the other hand, is a standard way to measure what you really know instead of how good of a “grade-getter” you are. I think the statistics will back this up too. If you do considerably well on your mcat, your GPA tends to matter a little less, but obiously it’s still important. You’re not going to have a good chance with a 34 and 3.0 GPA.

-Lucas Bejar, CC’04, Neuroscience, Current applicant

What do you think about problem based learning and how did you know whether or not it would be your learning style?

As Columbia is lecture-heavy for pre-medical courses, I did not have much experience with problem based learning (PBL). The feedback I received prior to attending Cornell is that it works for everyone but the overly quiet and the obnoxious overtalker in class. If you’ve made it as far as Columbia undergrad, you should not worry too much about being overly quiet in a small class setting. However, you will have to learn to tone things down if you are that student in the class who volunteers to the point that it makes everyone else in the room uncomfortable (you know who you are). I was particularly attracted to PBL because I wanted something that would force me to work on people skills related medical setting (how to be concice, how to give a good presentation, how to not talk medical jargon that my patients would not understand, etc). The science material you learn in the end is the same, and Cornell has various techniques to control for one particular group having a less than optimal small group leader or combination of students. Remember, unlike undergrad, where you are taking a diverse set of courses (at least by the core curriculum alone), in medical school, everything has some relation to medicine. It is nice not to have to learn everything via lectures, labs, lectures, lectures, and more lectures. In the end, no matter what your style, it is not hard to get used to the PBL format.

-Alex Arriaga, CC’02, Math, Cornell Med Class ’06

Could you comment on what med school is actually like and how it is different from what you expected.

Well, I guess you can expect each school to be different. Some schools are much more laid back than others. The important thing to remember is not that the material is all that difficult, it’s just the ridiculous amount they throw at you and expect you to remember. My all time best advice…go a pass/fail school (none of that high pass, low pass garbage). It will save you a lot of agony and believe it or not it really does get rid of the competition. Other than that though I study a lot more, it’s not THAT much different from undergrad.

-Hector Rivera, CC’03, Biology, Harvard Med Class ’07

Could you comment on what minority pre-med students should take into consideration when applying to med school?

Being a minority does not get you in….but schools work really really hard at recruiting minorities…so apply EVERYWHERE. ( Be realistic though, apply to a spectrum of schools but don’t go backrupt applying to all of them ) The med school process is so random that you never know where you’ll get in. I thought I wasn’t getting into my top choices when i got the rejection letters from Columbia and Cornell and then BAM, Harvard came through with the acceptance. And to think I wasn’t even going to apply.

-Hector Rivera, CC’03, Biology, Harvard Med Class ’07

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