Med School Admission: Pitfalls and Myths

For half a dozen years after 1965 American medical schools were concerned by a slow ominously steady decline in the number of medical school applicants.

In 1962, however, this trend sharply reversed itself; and the number of men and women competing for one of the 8800 places available in the nation's approximately 90 accredited medical schools is expected to rise indefinitely, despite a slight sag in the applicant curve this year.

It is plainly a buyer's market for medical school admissions committees.

And because of the mystery of the process and the natural anxiety surrounding such a pivotal step in one's life, various myths, shibboleths, tutor's tales, halftruths and vast amounts of sage advice on how to finesse one's way through the medical school portals of one's choice circulate in dining halls, corridors, bachelor's corners at mixers, and any other places where premeds are apt to congregate.

Many of these bits of advice are patently false; others contain considerably more than a grain of truth. The following are a few of the more prevalent rumors and what students and officials at medical schools along the eastern seaboard had to say concerning them.

Organic Chemistry

Perhaps the greatest speculation concerns The Legend of Organic Chemistry. Much is said about how important a good grade in "organic" is, and horrible tales are told of grade-grubbing souls who audit lectures the year before they take the course and sabotage labs in the hopes of scrambling up the Almighty Curve over the bodies of fallen brethren.

Once upon a time before the revolution in molecular biology and while we were little more than undeveloped oogoniums rattling around some place, organic chemistry was indeed a most crucial subject for premeds. It reflected to a great extent the material that had to be mastered in medical schools. But since then, medical school curriculum has undergone fundamental transformations. Inertia is itself a fundamental element of any change, however, and it seems to have sustained over the years an overblown emphasis on organic chemistry, especially among undergraduates.

Admissions committees savor good grades in science, and there is no denying that an honor grade in organic chemistry leaves a pleasant taste in their mouths. (Although one doctor claims that "A" students in organic "worry" him, unfortunately he is an exception). These committees, however, are no more titillated by an honors performance in this subject than they are by similar success in any other moderately challenging science course.

Medical school officials patiently explain that the goal of today's medical education is to form an understanding of modern biochemistry, which more and more demands quantitative ability. Hence, emphasis shifting from formulas to mechanics.

Admissions people are impressed with a regal straight A in organic; but they are enchanted with a common B-plus in a stiff mathematics course; and they are orgastic over a vulgar C-minus in physical chemistry.

Indeed, it would be much more realistic to bestow to mathematics and "p-chem" all the attention now lavished on organic chemistry.

Some students seek to mitigate the trauma of organic chemistry by taking it in summer when it is supposedly easier. (It is not so, incidently, unless you thrive on two hours of class and six of lab every day). One can also spread the load, splitting lectures and laboratories, making it less difficult to receive an honor grade.

Medical schools do not mind such practices, but they do want to know why a student went about taking the course in this manner. The members of admissions committees are quite wise to the ways of the world, and patent attempts to build up med school brownie points are usually detected with an eye as jaundiced as it is sharp.

In recent years medical schools have been stressing the need for proficiency in the sciences. Some medical school rejects rationalize their fate, ascribing it to the fact that they were not science majors. All this helped perpetuate the myth that science majors have a considerable advantage in the competition.