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So You Wanna Be a Doctor? by Chris S. '11

Premed @ MIT

I’ll give you snippets of three actual conversations first.


I.

I was chatting with this guy at one of my med school interviews –

HIM: “So where do you go to school?”

ME: “Oh, I go to school in Boston.”

HIM: “Do you go to Harvard?”

ME: “No!”

HIM: “MIT?”

ME: “Yes…”

HIM: “Funny how Harvard and MIT kids always tell people that ‘they go to school in Boston.'”

I never thought about it, but if you must press me for a reason, I do feel like sometimes saying “oh, yeah, I go to MIT” sounds rather pretentious, so I’ve unconsciously continually opted to say Boston, rather than MIT directly.

It’s almost like that with being Premed at MIT.


II.

For some reason, people HATE admitting that they are premed at MIT – consider the following exchange:

HIM: “So what course are you?”

YOU: “Uh…7. (or 9, or 10B)”

HIM: “What do you want to do after you graduate?”

YOU: “Uh…go to med school….”

HIM: “Oh, you’re a premed?”

YOU: “Yeahhhh…..”

This happens all the time at MIT.


III.

Additionally, premeds like to say that they are different from “all the other premeds.” cf. –

HIM: “You know, that 7.20 test was hard! I hope the curve isn’t too harsh though, but considering how there are so many premeds in that class…”

YOU: “Uh, aren’t you a premed too?”

HIM: “Yeah, but I’m not one of those premeds.”


I’ll admit upfront that I’m definitely guilty of both II and III. Part of the reason why I’m reluctant to say I’m premed sometimes is really because premeds get a bad rep as people with no life and study all day, or simply neurotic overachievers.

At the risk of violating III again, I just want to establish some ground rules about the kind of premed that I am, so you know the perspective that I’m writing this article from. If you are considering being premed at MIT, you will definitely meet other MIT premeds who will tell you their angle of the story, but here’s my honest assessment of being a premed at MIT.

I.

I didn’t come to MIT intending to be premed. My father is an urologist, and when I was growing up, he consistently told me that “if you don’t enjoy medicine, it’s not worth your time or energy.” I came to MIT wanting to be a chemical engineer. If you ask Matt McGann, he can dig up the essay on my MIT application where I wrote about my fascination with chemistry. To make a long story really short, I became interested in medicine after working with Chinese immigrants my freshman year of college, and since then I have worked with immigrants across three Chinatowns in America (Boston, SF-Oakland, NYC-Queens). I spent my past two summers participating in internships that gave me direct exposure with immigrant patients. This, combined with my disintest in engineering (too much programming and technical aspects…I like studying the “philosophy” of science, not so much the nitty-gritty of building something), incentivized me to switch from 10 to maybe 20 to finally 7. (in reality I should have been 9, but that’s another long story :p)

II.

This is how my last cycle turned out, from June 22, 2010 (when I submitted my AMCAS Primary) to right now. The MCAT scores and the GPA are all accurate. (note: we don’t get 0.3 or 0.7 for plusses and minuses in GPA – grades are assigned strictly by letter grade for the external transcript)

CLICK

III.

Now that you’ve seen my stats compared against MIT’s Premed Data stats, we can talk a bit more freely:

My MCAT is slightly above the MIT Accepted Mean (36 vs. 35), and my GPA is slightly below the MIT Accepted Mean (3.71 vs. 3.73 – adjusted from MIT’s 5 point scale to 4 point…the 5 point scale is rather silly because as long as you don’t fail any classes, simply -1 from your MIT GPA to find the “normal GPA”). There is no reference Science GPA (also known as the BCPM GPA, or the average of your GPA in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics classes ONLY), but I will venture to say that is the Achille’s heel of my application. 3.50 is rather low, and I expect accepted MIT Premeds to have numbers around the 3.6-3.8 range.

In terms of my GPA distribution, my science GPA is 3.50, but my non-science GPA is 3.92 (my entire History major is in this category). This probably gives you a sense of my strengths vs. weaknesses ;)

I applied to 23 schools, and received 5 acceptances (which is comparable to the average 3.5 acceptances by MIT applicants). I am attending Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

IV.

In April, I submitted a “rebuttal column” in response to this column posted in the Tech around CPW, which I consider to be overly optimistic to the point of naivety. I fully stand by what I have written, and some of the arguments I made in the column will be fleshed out a bit more here. I will also point out the parts of the original article that I believe to be correct, and the extent to which they are correct.


Premed @ MIT is special because you don’t feel like you’re directly competing against each other, which reduces a lot of the “cutthroat” culture seen in premeds elsewhere.

Referring again to the MIT Premed Data, only around 3-5% of each graduating class is premed (or at least applies as an undergrad), which means that it eliminates a lot of the direct competition seen at undergrads like Hopkins and Berkeley (where up to 25% of the graduating class can be premed). It helps that MIT is largely comprised of engineers who do not give two hoots about premeds, so it really reduces a lot of the “gunner” culture that people have come to associate being a premed with.

Of course, if you only survey Course 7 and 9 students, then the premed percentage might jump suddenly to 30-50%, but for the most part it still doesn’t feel cutthroat largely because MIT is so difficult. At the end of the day, you will feel like you are competing to gain a good understanding of the material so you can get a good grade in the course, not so that you can beat out your classmates for the A.

Yes, at the end of the day, the grades for the majority of the premed and biology classes are still assigned via an adjusted “curve” where only a certain percentage of the class gets As and the other portion of the class gets Bs and Cs, but I have never really felt (except for one class) like my classmates were “beating me out” of the A range. Coming from a student who had just as many Bs (mainly B+’s, since MIT doesn’t give extra GPA for +’s and -‘s) as As in science classes, that’s saying a lot.

This is one of the best things about being a premed at MIT – you can really focus on getting a good grasp of the material without being caught in the web of grade-grubbing which is so common among premeds.

MIT is THE PLACE if you want to enter into academic medicine (eg. MD-PhD) or you are interested in research in biomedical engineering or biotechnology.

I have yet to hear about a school that offers such a comprehensive package of research opportunities to undergraduate students through the UROP program (if you have, please let me know). The opportunities here to do research are simply outstanding, and it is incredible that students with NO benchwork experience can get a fully-funded research job as early as their freshman year (I am a case in point). We have several Nobel Prize laureates that you can work with, and recently I just realized that EVERY ONE of the three science professors who wrote my medical school recommendation letters are National Academy of Science members (not an easy feat). These kinds of opportunities and connections open a lot of doors if you are interested in academic medicine down the road, and if you can manage to squeeze in a publication or two before you graduate, you basically wrote yourself a ticket to one of the best medical schools in the country. Extensive connections with MGH (Mass General Hospital) and the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST, or one of the best MD-PhD programs around) are available to undergrads conveniently.

MIT applicants not applying as “research” MD candidates, however, have a more difficult time in the application process due to both stereotyping…

Just everyone who you will meet for the rest of your life, you will get stereotyped when you tell them that you are a “MIT student.” Medical school admission committee members (“adcoms”) are no exception. If you are applying from MIT and is not extensively involved in research, you better have something else that is strong to back up your application, because the logical question to ask is “why no research from MIT?” I am not saying that it is impossible to get into a top med school without research from MIT (I know many that didn’t go the “research route”) but it is most often the logical path for premeds here. If you choose to not follow that path, then you will have to be more of a trailblazer of sorts, because you really have to seek out the thing that interests you. Also, be prepared for that inevitable question from adcoms during the interview trail about research, because the commonly perceived notion is that undergrads go to MIT to do research.

…and the rigors of MIT coursework.

It is no secret that MIT is hard. Often, however, I believe that although the “training” and the dozens of hours that we spend preparing for a test really stretches or academic capabilities, it is excessive for the purposes of being premed and preparing for the MCAT. As I pointed out in my opinion piece, we have to study so much at MIT just to get a B in our premed classes that we are forced to sacrifice time that could easily be spent in pursuing extracurricular and research activities. This is fine if you are really smart and can get A’s at MIT without too much work, but for the rest of us, we have to sacrifice a lot of time just to maintain our GPAs at MIT so that we can be successful at jumping through the basic hoops of med school application.

The “MIT Effect” is often overrated.

Rachel Bandler points out in her piece that: “medical schools will understand that the work at MIT is harder than elsewhere, and so an occasional B is not a nightmare that will end your career.”

True, but multiple B’s (more Bs and As) will ruin your chances at a top medical school*. There is a “MIT Effect” in the sense that your interviewer is likely to look at your file and remark, “wow, you’re from MIT! you must be really smart” – but that is probably as far as the Effect gets you. You don’t get 0.2 magically appended to your GPA in the committee review.

* Studying != automatic A at MIT. You might try your hardest and still not end up with the grade that you want.


Keeping these points in mind, is it possible to succeed at being premed at MIT without too much stress? Of course –

HINDSIGHT IS 20/20: PREMED EDITION

1. Figure out where you stand in MIT academically ASAP (the GIRs will give you a good picture). Are you at the top of the class, the middle of the pack, or trailing behind? The earlier you figure this out, the earlier you can figure out the academic path that you should be taking at MIT (how many classes to take, how many activities you can be comfortably involved in…etc.)

2. Plan out your academic schedule carefully so you achieve a good balance of all classes as early as your freshman year. Aim to finish your premed science core classes (science GIRs and 5.12, plus 7.03 and 7.05 if you are course 7)  by the end of sophomore year, so you can take the MCAT sophomore summer.

3. Never take a class for granted and always aim for the A. If you can’t figure out what you are doing wrong in a course, seek help ASAP from TA’s, the prof, or upperclassmen. Don’t be afraid to drop and retake.

4. Get into a research lab ASAP (as early as your freshman year), and figure out whether you enjoy research. If you don’t, get the lab experience (that will probably be helpful for your lab classes if you’re a life sciences major or summer internships) and then use that time to do something else that you are truly passionate about.

5. Seek out meaningful clinical and volunteering activities. Do the things that matter to you, not just things to tick off on your application. Yes, a good GPA and a good MCAT are checkboxes on that list, but use your years at MIT to figure out about what it is about healthcare that interests you. Just like anyone can tell you, you will be asked this question a lot on the interview trail, so the earlier you can figure it out – the better!

6. Being a doctor is not a “fallback career.” I truly believe that MIT students should not be doctors if they don’t have an interest in going into medicine – there is probably something else that you are better suited (and gifted) to do. It is mildly irritating when people say, “oh, I started being premed because I didn’t know what else to do.” Part of the journey of being a premed is figuring out what exactly it is that interests you about the field of medicine, so don’t overlook this important part of being a premed.

7. Relax and don’t stress out too much. MIT is a fun place, and don’t spend all your time stressing about about MCAT and med school applications. Whatever comes will come. Foresight and planning is good, but obsession (especially about grades) is not.

8. Also, there is no rush to go into med school right after senior year. On the interview trail, many of the most interesting applicants are those that had taken time off to do cool things following graduation before applying for medical school. If you have something else you’d rather do, go ahead and do it! One of the applicants I met on my Harvard interview day took five years off to start a NGO in India, and I thought that was really awesome.


Good luck! As always, leave any questions you have in the comments about being premed and I will get back to you. :)

7 responses to “So You Wanna Be a Doctor?”

  1. Chris Peterson SM '13 says:

    I love this post but I’ll admit one thing stood out to me – $4500 for inclusive costs of applying to med school? Good lord, and I thought the LSATs were a racket!

    You’re going to be a great doctor, Chris. When I am terribly old and sick I would be glad to have had my physician once moonlight as Tim the Beaver smile

  2. Emad T. '14 says:

    Thanks for this post – it’s one of the most honest accounts I’ve read about premed at MIT.

    I might end up being a really non-traditional applicant, since I haven’t done any life sciences research yet, but I might instead be starting stuff in linguistics. Hopefully that counts too tongue laugh

    One thing you also didn’t note is that if you’re not pursuing any sort of PhD, then the top schools for you might be different than what you expect (i.e.: not just the Ivies). For example, my state medical school had the 8th best (!) primary care education in the country. I’m hoping to do well enough to get into there.

  3. qweerrty says:

    What medical school are you going to?

  4. Chris S. '11 says:

    ^ reading fail?

  5. qweerrty says:

    I got it

  6. s says:

    hi chris,

    this entry answers a lot of questions i had about the application process now that i’m a rising junior. thanks so much for sharing your experience

  7. Ji Hoon Lee says:

    Thank you, Chris. Although I am only a high school senior, I got a solid preview of what to expect as a premed at MIT. I hope to pursue academic medicine, so I think MIT would really help me in pursuing my goals (that is, if I do get in).