The classic image of the premed student is clear: after playing doctor at the age of four, she takes organic chemistry in her first semester of college, and heads straight to medical school as soon as she graduates. As Lauren Bowles ’09 put it, if you have not decided to be premed by your freshman year in college, you stand little chance of being the “perfect” medical school applicant.
But that classic image may no longer be the rule for many of the students who end up pursuing medicine, as medical schools have become increasingly accepting of students who do not make the decision to be doctors until well after they have completed their freshman year. Although some students said deciding to be premed late in the game can be challenging, medical school administrators said taking some time to find one’s way can sometimes be advantageous in admissions.
Sadiq Abdulla ’05 said he did not commit to applying to medical school until his junior year at Yale.
“Many people come to college knowing that medical school is exactly what they want to do,” he said. “But I think that my experience is more representative of most, who decide along the way.”
Other students have volleyed back and forth from conviction to indecision more than once throughout their undergraduate careers. Bowles said she came to Yale thinking she would apply to medical school at the end of her four years, but was quickly dissuaded by her experience in introductory chemistry.
“I stopped for a minute, and rethought it completely,” she said. “I realized I just didn’t like chemistry.”
But this year Bowles had another change of heart and resumed her original plan, deciding to enroll in Organic Chemistry, which she found to be a better fit.
Although students have a variety of reasons for deciding to pursue a medical career late in their undergraduate years, Edward Miller, director of the health professions advisory program at the Undergraduate Career Services, said a turning point often occurs when a student becomes involved in a research or volunteer experience in medicine.
Curtis Perry ’07 said he decided to apply to medical school after he shadowed a doctor and interacted with patients at the Yale Health Clinic.
“The process of how they thought about medicine was interesting,” Perry said. “It was really fun to try and think about how drugs were working, and to apply basic sciences to diseases.”
Another common factor that draws students to medicine, even as late as after graduation, is its interpersonal and humanitarian appeal, said cell biologist Thomas Lentz, former assistant dean of admission of Yale Medical School.
“Most commonly, students don’t feel fulfilled in the field they are in, and they miss contact with other people,” he said. “Through medicine, they realize they’ll be able to help peoples’ lives.”
Abdulla, for example, said his decision to apply to medical school was based on the realization that it would allow him to directly affect others.
But while administrators said more students are postponing the decision to become premed, some students said that the later it gets, the harder it becomes to follow through successfully.
Premed student Lauren Bell ’08, who decided to be premed midway through her sophomore year, said she does not think a student could decide to apply to medical school as late as his junior or senior year without having to devote time after graduation or during summer holidays to fulfilling requirements.
“Premed is almost a second major, especially if you’re not already doing a major in the life sciences,” she said. “It amazes me when non-biology majors can be premed.”
Bowles, a psychology major, said even though the requirements of her major are relatively flexible, she still finds it difficult to balance the premed requirements, which have prevented her from taking potentially more interesting courses and from pursuing the neuroscience concentration within the psychology department. Bowles said the requirements are also too “restricting” to allow students to take on a double major.
But other students who entered the premed track late say the requirements are manageable, even when they are combined with the requirements of a major. Perry, for example, came to Yale with a strong interest in the sciences, but had never formally considered a career in medicine. Having decided only the summer before his junior year to begin apply to medical school, Perry, a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major, said he nonetheless had lots of flexibility in his schedule.
Michael Yang ’06, who was a music major during his time at Yale, said he was initially conflicted between pursuing music and medicine in college, but ultimately decided to go with medicine in his sophomore year. Now a medical student at Northwestern University, he said majoring in music did not make it difficult for him to apply to medical school.
Richard Silverman, director of admissions at Yale Medical School, said that like its peer medical schools, YMS does not discriminate against students in admissions based on their undergraduate major.
“No one profile is preferred,” he said. “We have a tremendously diverse student body. What our applicants have in common is a strong aptitude for science.”
For those who are not able to complete the requirements for medical school within their undergraduate years, the options are extensive: students can enroll in a post-baccalaureate program, spend a fifth year at Yale or enroll as a non-degree student at another college after graduation, Miller said, all of which many students opt to do every year. Hertz said that post-bac programs and similar options available to students after graduation have contributed to the increasingly wide range of ages represented at YMS, where students can range from 20 to nearly 40 years old.
“The age of the medical school student is rising every year,” said Benoit Bewley ’05, who now attends Emory Medical School. “It’s a phenomenon that’s taking place around the country.”
Brendon Graeber, a pediatric resident at YMS, said more prospective medical students are increasingly comfortable with deferring the decision to apply to medical school.
“People have a sense that [postponing the decision] is more accepted, and that it doesn’t put them too far behind the game,” Graeber said. “In fact, medical schools look for people that have done something different with their lives … even if they have taken a few years off in which to do it.”
Hertz agreed that students who decide to enter medicine later can have an advantage if they spent their time on worthwhile or creative pursuits.
This trend might be translating into more flexibility for students at the undergraduate level, as it alleviates some of the pressure to decide early, medical school administrators said.
Bell said that like many students she knows, she is taking the basic pre-med requirements without having officially finalized her career path, and she plans to take at least a year off after college to explore and cement her interests. That approach makes it possible for her to keep her options open, she said.
“At this point, I’m really too young to know what I want to do with the rest of my life,” she said.