Planning for the Upcoming Semester (2021-2022)
With the winter semester right around the corner, now is a perfect time to make a smart and realistic plan for a successful semester of classes!
Reflecting on Past Semester Grades
In any aspect of life, it is always good to have resilience. For us as pre-meds, this notion of resilience can be a bit tough to handle, especially when dealing with the stress of grades and the constant pressure that, to get into med school, you must get an A in every single class or have a certain GPA. While this is true to some extent, grades (and the MCAT) are not the whole picture and do not define you as a person, contrary to popular belief.
As seasoned pre-meds, we are here to tell you to fret not in the case of getting a “bad” grade(s)—whatever that may be to you. First, med schools look at your GPA as well as the trajectory of your grades as a student, meaning if you performed overall poorly as a freshman or sophomore but improved in the following years, med schools will notice this because it highlights your adaptation and resilience. Secondly, if you happen to do poorly in just one science class, again fret not because this can also be a prime opportunity to showcase resilience.
In both instances above, never elect to take a course pass/fail because med schools will look at this with a skeptical eye, wondering why you chose to cover a grade. Own the grade you got and then find a way to grow from it. We know it can be disheartening to receive a grade that is not “to the standards of med school,” but it is worth emphasizing again that this is not the end all be all. Rather, choosing to take a class again and receiving a higher grade would be a perfect example of showcasing one’s resilience and perseverance—something med schools look for, knowing that med school curriculum is demanding. On a different note, perhaps you experienced extenuating circumstances (e.g., covid) during a semester in which you performed poorly in a class. Med schools are not heartless; they will be understanding of these circumstances (especially during COVID-19 semesters) so long as you have something to show for it. In other words, if you are able to articulate, either in your application and/or at an interview, why you received that grade and potentially how you overcame the circumstances, this would be a big sign of resilience.
Many schools now pride themselves on a holistic review, and there have been plenty of instances where below-average-GPA-and-MCAT students end up getting into med school, so, as already stated, grades do not define you. Ultimately, med schools look for students who can acknowledge a failure, accept it, and shift to learning how they can change in order to grow from it.
Planning Your Upcoming Class Schedule
With all that in mind, to give yourself the best chance of doing well, we recommend you take no more than 2-3 STEM classes per semester, depending on the combination (for example, taking a lecture + lab). Taking three STEM lectures in a semester is technically feasible but will undoubtedly give you tons of stress. As everyone knows, STEM courses are nothing short of challenging; even taking 2 in the same semester is bound to cause some stress. Thus, balancing these courses across your semesters with other non-STEM courses that are of interest to you is the ideal way to ensure that you can devote a meaningful amount of time to your STEM classes while still enjoying your academic and social experience, minimizing stress, and avoiding burnout.
Speaking of other experiences, making sure to allot time for extracurricular activities is a crucial step in planning your semester. For instance, being a part of a research lab and/or clubs, having a job, tutoring, etc. are weekly commitments you should consider when choosing your classes. Those responsibilities take up time from your studying, homework, and other class assignments, which means taking multiple harder classes in addition to having other commitments can be tough to manage. A good rule of thumb is that every class credit equates to 2-3 hours of weekly work. For example, if you are taking a 3-credit class, you can expect it to take 6-9 hours of your week, which can include time spent in lectures, working on assignments, and studying the material. One of the most helpful exercises to do when planning your semester is to make a template weekly schedule on a calendar. Fill in lecture times, discussion sections (if applicable), labs, research, work, volunteering, and any other commitments you may have. Visualizing your week can give you a better sense of how much free time you have to complete assignments, study, and take a breather. Balancing your week with classwork, extracurriculars, and some necessary relaxing activities and self-care is the key to a good semester schedule.
Utilizing Rate My Professor and Atlas
When choosing classes and professors, we highly recommend looking at Atlas and Rate My Professor. Atlas is an academic tool that displays a variety of information on each course: the workload based on past student experiences, final grade distribution, the past course instructors (the number of terms they have taught and their ratings based on preparedness, clarity, and respect), student enrollment per semester, and what school/degree program people in the class are currently enrolled in. The most popular feature of Atlas is to identify the median grade of a course and the workload. However, the student enrollment per semester can help to identify whether the course is offered year-round and if it would be better for you to take that class during the spring or summer semester. Rate My Professor is especially useful in courses where there are multiple professors teaching the same class. For some large pre-med classes, such as the Orgo or Physics sequences, often multiple sections are offered – each with a different professor. Looking at professor reviews may help to identify which professor would be the best fit for you and some tips/advice from previous students in the course.
Non-STEM Classes are Important for Pre-Meds, Too!
It is a common misconception that non-STEM classes are not an important component in medical school admission considerations. Unfortunately, this means that many pre-med students are not aware of the opportunity to tell a story through their chosen humanity and social science courses. We know that medical schools appreciate applicants who have studied and demonstrate a commitment to topic(s) outside of the natural sciences. After all, in your training to become a doctor, you will not only be studying hard science-related subjects but also how to be an empathetic and understanding physician who can connect and learn from their patients. One of the easiest ways to prepare for this aspect of your training is by taking a few (or many!) relevant social science and humanity courses. Some students even decide to major in a social science or humanities field, which medical schools have stressed is 100% okay! You do not have to major in natural science.
If you are lost on what non-STEM classes to take, fear not. We have some suggestions! First, sociology courses are always a great option. This field essentially studies human interaction, which is obviously important in the medical field. Some classes for next semester (Winter 2022) that may be of particular interest to pre-med students are: SOC 302: Health and Society, SOC 346: Sociology of the Body, or SOC 347: Drugs and Society
Ethnic studies courses are also extremely beneficial for pre-med students. As a doctor, you will treat patients from many different backgrounds. These classes help to expand your understanding of identity and social issues that disproportionately affect certain populations in the United States–many of which are very relevant in the medical field.
Finally, women’s studies courses are a great resource for learning more about the experience of gender, which is again highly relevant in the medical profession. Some classes of particular interest may be:
WGS 220: Perspectives in Women’s Health, WGS 324: Childbirth & Culture, and WGS 323: Black Feminist Thought Practice.
These courses can also play a large role in improving your writing skills, which is relevant in constructing your personal statement. Being able to tell a concise and interesting story in your primary application and later in your secondaries is absolutely imperative to successful admission. If you do not consider yourself a particularly strong writer, it may be worth it to enroll in a humanities or social science course that fulfills a writing requirement. The most obvious way to improve your writing skills is to actually practice writing, and if you are only taking science courses (which you will likely do some scientific writing, wh is a very different style) then your non-scientific writing will likely not be as strong. Receiving constructive feedback is one of the easiest ways to improve, which is abundant in humanities courses.
Planning Around the MCAT + Application Cycle
When thinking about planning classes, it’s important to take into consideration first when you plan on taking the MCAT, but also which cycle you are planning on applying to. The core classes that are recommended to take prior to your MCAT are:
General Chemistry, Physical Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Intro Bio Sequence, Biochemistry, Physiology, Physics I and II, and a Psychology/Sociology class
If you are planning to take your MCAT sometime during the Winter 2022 semester, it’s advised to take a much lower course load so you can dedicate more time studying for the exam. Some may even decide to be a part-time students during the semester their exam is scheduled, to allow for more studying flexibility. Planning for your MCAT also depends on when you plan on applying, and which test day aligns best with your schedule. It’s important to note that the AAMC doesn’t offer any test dates in February or October – December. If you plan on applying in the 2022 – 2023 application cycle, we recommend taking your exam in January or March, to allow for time after you get your exam score back and before you submit your primary applications, since scores are typically released a month after you take the exam. Another option is to take the MCAT the summer before your senior year (if you are taking a gap year). This allows you to dedicate about 3 months to study, which is the typically recommended time frame for an optimal score. It could also be helpful to spend some hours of your week volunteering, working a part-time job, or partaking in research while studying to give you a bit of a mental break. However, those “breaks” should not be a source of added stress; if you feel overwhelmed, take a step back and think about whether your volunteer work, job, or research is negatively affecting your studying or focus.
All of these components can be overwhelming to think about at once, which is why it is so important to break down these pre-med components into separate categories. Set realistic goals about what you can accomplish during your semester classes, plan your weekly schedule ahead of time, and think positively! Starting a new semester with an optimistic mindset is a great way to set yourself up for success.