I need to thank the Clare at Fitting It All In for blogging about her experiences in a post bacc premed program. When I learned that this type of program existed for people like me — career-changers who wanted to go to medical school (or other biomedical or health sciences careers) with no science background — I got onto Google and typed in “post bacc premed blog.” Her site was one of the first to come up! Now I’m in medical school after five years in the professional and graduate school worlds, a year in a post bacc, and a glorious year spent as a nanny for the cutest two year old. So, I think it’s time to pay it forward.
Every post bacc is structured a bit differently, but they’re all geared towards to same outcome: complete the basic prerequisites for medical school admission, immerse yourself in medicine (to varying extent at different programs), prepare for the MCAT, and have an advisor to guide you through the application process. This last point is why I decided to pursue my coursework in a post bacc program as opposed to a DIY situation at a community college — with the added bonus that I could do it all in one year. (Some post bacc programs are two years; mine had the option of a one or two year track.)
I interviewed at and was accepted to three post bacc programs (George Washington, UVA, and Thomas Jefferson University) and loved each of them for different reasons. I was living and working in D.C. at the time I was applying and was not very interested in a serious move, especially since I’d most likely have to take a “gap” or “glide” year between my post bacc and medical school. [This occurs because of the timing of the med school application cycle in relation to the end of the academic year. I finished my post bacc in April 2017, took the MCAT in May 2017, and submitted my med school application in July 2017. The interview process occurs throughout the fall and spring. I started medical school in August 2018.]
In the end, I just knew I wasn’t ready to give up city life after living in D.C. for 5 years, so Jefferson it was. The GW program is on a satellite campus in deep suburban Virginia, so I would have needed to move out of D.C. And UVA is located Charlottesville, VA, a lovely town but too small for me.
On other factor a lot of people consider when selecting is a post bacc is the number of “linkage agreements” it has with medical schools. These agreements allow students to apply for immediate medical school admission (conditional on completion of prereqs and a certain MCAT that varies by school) — it means you don’t have to do a “glide” year. The number of linkage agreements a program has can be a big draw. [I did not participate in a link program. I had an undergrad chemistry grade that kept me below the cutoff for the programs my post bacc linked with.]
I also didn’t choose my post bacc program based on its linkage agreements — I wanted to keep my options open in terms of where I applied to medical school and linkage agreements are binding if you’re conditionally accepted and get a certain MCAT score. And this is not to knock linkage agreements — a lot of my classmates participated and started medical school just three months after we finished our post bacc and they’re all doing amazing!
So, what was the year in my post bacc really like? There’s no other way to say it — it was really hard. My grades actually mattered for the application process (I was battling a not-so-great undergrad science GPA) and I had to learn how to truly study for the first time. Before my post bacc, I wrote papers for a living. Studying chemistry and biology required a different study toolkit.
When I started my post bacc program, it had been nearly a decade since I took a basic science class. The year involved a lot of self-pep talks, tears, and long calls with my mom that always left me feeling confident enough to tackle the next problem set or lab report. But sometimes it was just really hard to see how understanding electron valence shells or thermodynamics would help me get into medical school — besides the obvious, of course: needing to know it for the MCAT.
But, my post bacc year was also amazing. I knew that the time and energy I put in would (hopefully) be rewarded with an acceptance to medical school. Yes, it was hard to adjust to the student lifestyle — graduate school wasn’t nearly as demanding for me — but I was excited to be around medicine and it’s potential every single day. There was a purpose to learning the Krebs cycle and benzene rings. I don’t know if my classmates felt that while studying biology and orgo chem in undergrad, but the post bacc experience seems to heighten everything.
Over the course of one year, I completed:
- 2 semesters of general chemistry +lab
- 2 semester of biology + lab
- 2 semesters of organic chemistry + lab
- 2 semesters of physics + lab
- 1 semester of biochemistry
Looking back, I honestly don’t know how I got through it. But it was probably the best preparation for medical school I could have asked for.
Anyone who has graduated from or is currently in medical school will tell you that it is hard. It’s not necessarily that the concepts are difficult (although I certainly struggle with a lot of topics!), but the sheer volume of material and speed at which you need to learn it is something I’ve never experienced before. But I do thank my post bacc for giving me a taste of what this would be like — my second semester, I took Physics II, Orgo Chem II, Biology II, and Biochemistry AND started studying for the MCAT. I was a hermit for five months (the Philly weather made that a bit easier) but it was the hardest I had ever worked at school in my entire life.
The goal of a post bacc premed program is to get you the bare minimum of prerequisites, not to give you an undergrad basic science experience. I’m also older than the majority of my class, but when you’re all trying to learn the same material to pass the same test, age doesn’t really matter. Except I like to go to sleep much earlier than most of them. There is no way I could have done more to prepare — I took the classes I needed, did well on the MCAT, and got into medical school.
Many of my medical school classmates studied basic sciences for four years in undergrad — and the majority of them graduated just a year or two ago, so it’s all still fresh. They also got to learn it over the course of a few years, not the fast one-year turnaround I had from my first gen chem class to taking my MCAT exam. But now we’re all on the same level. We just started our first organ module (cardiovascular) and for the most part, we’re all starting with a pretty basic, entry-level understanding. Some of it builds on our previous modules, but the majority of it is new material to everyone. We’re done with microbiology, immunology, genetics…and any other class that might have been a second or third pass for students coming from a premed undergrad track. [The only exception is our upcoming neuro module — psych and neuroscience majors will definitely have a leg up. But I’m sure they’ll help those of us who can’t tell the pituitary from the hypothalamus.]
I’ve found some study strategies that work for me, but they don’t work for every module and I’m constantly adapting. My brain likes to analyze and synthesize material together, not memorize bullet points from a slide. I think that will serve me well in the future when I take various bits of information from a patient history and physical exam and work up a differential diagnosis, but for now it makes the studying move a little slower. And that’s ok. I know I can’t know all of it. But I need to know enough of it — and I get to know enough of it. One day, all of this studying will help me counsel, diagnose, and treat patients. And that privilege is worth all the time I spend at my desk.