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More Apply To Med Schools

News Feature

By Vivek Jain

"What hurt me was that I am a gov major," says Glenn M. Bianchi '94, a Quincy House resident. "They told me not to worry about research and lab experience, and that med schools were looking for more well rounded people."

"But when push comes to shove, they pick the science majors," he says.

Bianchi is just one of many students still awaiting the results of the medical school application process. Like a lot of his fellow pre-meds, he is as yet unsure whether any medical school will accept him.

"My anxiety is down; I'm not running to my mailbox any more," Bianchi says. "It's not a situation I want to be in, but it's a reality I might have to face--especially in this kind of year."

Seats in the nation's top medical school classes are going fast--so fast, in fact, that many students are finding themselves at risk of not gaining admission anywhere.

At Harvard College, the number of students wishing to enter the world of medicine has steadily increased since 1989, when 123 undergraduates applied to medical schools across the country. In 1990, 130 applied, and by 1992, that figure had risen to 176--a 43 percent jump in just three years.

Correspondingly, the percentages of Harvard students gaining admission to at last one school is dropping--from over 96 percent in the Class of '89 to 89 percent in the Class of '93.

Though these percentages are well above he national averages, they point to a trend that is worrisome to both pre-meds and their tutors. Nationwide, the numbers are far more alarming. In 1988, 26,721 students applied for admission to medical schools. Just four years later, in 1992, there were 37,410 applicants, the highest number since 1977.

Then, last year, medical schools received arecord 42,808 applications--breaking the previousall-time high set in 1974.

1993's total marked a 60 percent increase inapplicants over a period of five years. In thesame period, the number of acceptances hasincreased by a paltry two percent.

Sources at the Association of American MedicalColleges (AAMC) have confirmed reports that 1994will be another record year.

"As of March 2, we've tallied 44,213applications--and we're not even done," says PattyShea, assistant director of the Division ofCommunications and Public Relations at the AAMC.

The director of admissions at Harvard MedicalSchool, Dr. Gerald S. Foster, says that he hasseen a pronounced increase in the number ofapplications received.

According to Foster, in 1988 just under 2,400people applied for admission to HMS. Foster saysthat this year approximately 3,500 people haveapplied--a 45 percent increase in just six years.

Other Ivy-League schools have also seentheir pre-med populations burgeon. "We've gonethrough some tremendous increases in the past fewyears," says Kathryn B. Yatrakis, associate deanof Columbia College.

"There is a perception among students thesedays that [medicine] is a profession people willbe stable in," Yatrakis says.

"Ironically, this rise in applications is beingdriven by the economic situation," says Harvard'sFoster. "The market for engineers and lawyers isless than it has been. Economic factors aredefinitely playing a role."

The need for economic security--especially intimes of recession and financial turmoil--is apopular explanation for such rises.

Leverett House pre-med advisor Rodney J. Taylorsays that the start of the boom in applicantscoincided with the financial instability of thelate '80s and the stock market crash in October,1987.

"After [the crash], the numbers of applicationsto business schools went down," Taylor says. "Thiswas paralleled with an increase in applications tomedical schools."

Jane Y. Sharaf, director of health professionsadvising at Princeton University, says that thecurrent increases can be likened to those of thelate 70s--when financial security was of paramountimportance.

"A lot of students whom I advise have familieswho are going through tough times economically,"she says.

"Many of them have parents who have been laidoff by IBM, or have family businesses that aren'tdoing too well these days," Sharaf says.

Another issue on the minds of manydoctors-to-be is the Clinton Administration'srecently unveiled health care plan.

Experts disagree on the effect health carereform will have on medical school applications,but they do agree on one thing--there will be anincrease in the number of students going intoprimary care.

"We are going through a complete reorganizationand redefinition right now," says Yatraki, aboutthe state of the medical profession.

She notes, however, that the imminent upheavalis not deterring applicants.

Will health care reform ultimately attract ordissuade prospective med school hopefuls? Thequestion is drawing varied responses.

Harold J. Burstein, the pre-med adviser forLowell House, says he thinks it will actually lurelarge numbers of applicants.

"Medicine used to be attractive because youcould be your own boss and make a lot of money,"says Burstein. "But now, a primary appeal of theprofession is its commitment to public service andhelping others."

Burstein says that the humanitarianaspect of medicine has drawn many students tomedical school over the past few years.

"Many of my students in Lowell see [the medicalprofession] as a way to combine academic work witha commitment to helping others," Burstein says.

Paveljit S. Bindra '94, a Cabot House resident,is just one of many students who felt this callingand decided to apply to medical school.

"I spent a summer in India--in the state ofBihar--on a fellowship to educate children. WhileI was there, I realized that the medicalprovisions to the area were minimal," says Bindra,a Crimson editor.

"The conditions were bad--many children weremaimed by polio. I contacted the state governmentand, through the surgeon general, we were able toget vaccine for 1,700 children in 22 differentvillages."

"All of a sudden I felt that this is where Ishould be--in prevention, rather than ineducation," says Bindra. "It was satisfying, and Irealized that primary care is where I want to go."

Steve W. Hetts '96 says that he has wanted togo into medicine since high school. "My family hasa long tradition of community service and I wouldlike to continue doing just that," says Hetts.

"We are seeing three general 'archetypes' ofpre-med students," says Burstein, the Lowell Houseadviser.

"The first are those who want a career ofpublic service--who want to make a difference insociety and help those less fortunate."

"The second are those who have a commitment toscience and want to combine it with their love ofworking with other people," Burstein says.

"The third--which is a relatively newphenomenon--are those who want enter theadministrative, policy-making side of medicine.They are often government or history concentratorswho approach the field from different angle," hesays.

G. Sarah Gelberman, assistant director of theOffice of Career Services (OCS) and health careerscounselor, says that she too has noticed anupsurge of interest in the public service aspectof medicine.

"Many of the students I see want to make adifference in the lives of others," Gelbermansays. "In medicine, you see the results of yourwork on a daily basis."

"Medicine is a never-ending intellectualchallenge," says Foster, the Harvard MedicalSchool admissions director. "It's useful forsociety and it allows you to combine scientificand humanistic concerns."

Another factor contributing to therising numbers of applicants is the recent attemptby medical schools to diversify their incomingclasses.

An applications relations assistant at AAMCsays that many schools are trying to attractlarger numbers of minorities, women and alumniapplicants.

Sharaf agrees with this theory, and says thatshe has seen a rise in alumni applicants--peoplewho don't apply as undergraduates, but whodiscover medicine after a few years, or evenanother career.

"They have something unique to offer--which isthat by applying to med schools at an older age,they are showing a deep commitment," Sharaf says."They are showing that they've thought it through,and that they want to go to medical school."

Burstein says he has also noticed this trendwithin his house, as well as in Harvard as awhole. He says that about one third of the lettershe writes are for alumni.

Pre-med students at Harvard say they areaware of the sweeping nationwide trends, and arerethinking their strategies for applying tomedical schools.

"It puts more pressure on you, knowing thatthere are so many people applying," says Brian D.Saunders '96.

Things are not going to change, and it makes ituncertain whether I'm going to apply at all," hesays.

Saunders says that he was drawn to medicine byhis interest in the natural sciences, as well as adesire to work with people. "It's an idealprofession for me," he says.

But while some are feeling this burden, otherssay they are not affected by it.

"I've never been 100 percent sure about goinginto medicine, but the recent numbers haven'taffected my decision," says Hetts.

"It's in the back of my mind that there are alot of other people applying," says Erick P. Chan'95, "but it really comes down to me, and what Ido."

"I feel that if I work and do my best, thatthings will work out fine," Chan says.

Pre-med advisors, in an attempt to deal withthe rising numbers of applicants, are adopting newadvising strategies.

"The type of student who used to be a shoo-inis no longer guaranteed of anything," says Taylor,the Leverett tutor.

"We advise our students to apply to moreschools, and to apply to a broader range ofschools," he says. "The kind of school that usedto be a `safety' just isn't so anymore."

"Because so many more people are applying, thenumber of `safeties' has gone down--it's just alot harder these days," says Taylor.

Gelberman says that OCS has also changed itsadvising strategies. "We want students to lookmore closely at the schools they are applying to,"she says.

"We encourage people to look at curriculums,and to consider what they really want to do," shesays.

"Just applying to a lot of schools won't doit--there is no security in numbers," Gelbermanwarns.

Pre-meds know this, and are taking (or havetaken) the advice of their tutors.

Bindra, who has now successfully completed theapplication process, says he applied to 18different schools, a total considered to be quitehigh.

"I applied to so many because most of theplaces I'm looking at receive thousands ofapplicants for a few hundred places," he says.

"I was a biochemistry major and wasn't pre-meduntil the beginning of my senior year," Bindrasays. "My adviser told me to apply to a wide rangeof schools."

Diane E. Levitan '95 says that knowing aboutthe rise in applicants has made her re-think herstrategy.

"I will probably apply to more schools, butI'll still apply to the ones I want to go to,"says Levitan, who is a Crimson editor.

Streetwise pre-meds are taking care to planahead in an attempt to maximize their grades aswell as their MCAT scores.

"A student's GPA and MCAT scores are moreimportant then ever," says Gelberman. "They serveas one way of `weeding out' applicants."

Pre-meds are planning around the necessary (andpainful) ordeal of the day-long MCAT. "Sometimesyou don't want to challenge yourself as much asusual--especially during MCAT time. You need timeto prepare for that test," says Chan.

Unfortunately--preparation and strategyaside--some students are preparing for the worst:the possibility of not gaining admission anywhere.

"If it happens, I might just try to work in alab or hospital for a year. It will give meexperience and beef up my resume." says GlennBianchi.

Gelberman says OCS is equipped to deal withthis possibility as well. "When students don't getin, we're here," she says.

"What we do is re-evaluate the student, and inparticular, his or her weaknesses. We think abouthow to strengthen the student's application and were-think the application process," Gelberman says.

Depending on the student's area of weakness,Gelberman says, different strategies are adoptedfor "beefing up" the resume.

"If a student has had plenty of clinicalexposure, but is lacking in terms of `peoplecontact,' we might try a project for a year or twoto get that person in touch," Gelberman says.

But pre-meds seem, at least outwardly, to betaking it all in stride. "There's a lot ofcompetition," says Brian Saunders," but it'smostly what you make of it."

Others agree with Saunders, saying thatconditions aren't as bad as they seem.

"When viewed from the outside, [thecompetition] is probably a little exaggerated,"Chan says.

"Since the number of spots at medical schoolsis static, it makes things tougher," Bianchi says.

But whether or not these students get accepted,one thing is certain--more people are applyingevery year.

And with the increased competition in thepre-medical world, the road to med school isn'tgetting any easier.CrimsonJohn C. Mitchell

Then, last year, medical schools received arecord 42,808 applications--breaking the previousall-time high set in 1974.

1993's total marked a 60 percent increase inapplicants over a period of five years. In thesame period, the number of acceptances hasincreased by a paltry two percent.

Sources at the Association of American MedicalColleges (AAMC) have confirmed reports that 1994will be another record year.

"As of March 2, we've tallied 44,213applications--and we're not even done," says PattyShea, assistant director of the Division ofCommunications and Public Relations at the AAMC.

The director of admissions at Harvard MedicalSchool, Dr. Gerald S. Foster, says that he hasseen a pronounced increase in the number ofapplications received.

According to Foster, in 1988 just under 2,400people applied for admission to HMS. Foster saysthat this year approximately 3,500 people haveapplied--a 45 percent increase in just six years.

Other Ivy-League schools have also seentheir pre-med populations burgeon. "We've gonethrough some tremendous increases in the past fewyears," says Kathryn B. Yatrakis, associate deanof Columbia College.

"There is a perception among students thesedays that [medicine] is a profession people willbe stable in," Yatrakis says.

"Ironically, this rise in applications is beingdriven by the economic situation," says Harvard'sFoster. "The market for engineers and lawyers isless than it has been. Economic factors aredefinitely playing a role."

The need for economic security--especially intimes of recession and financial turmoil--is apopular explanation for such rises.

Leverett House pre-med advisor Rodney J. Taylorsays that the start of the boom in applicantscoincided with the financial instability of thelate '80s and the stock market crash in October,1987.

"After [the crash], the numbers of applicationsto business schools went down," Taylor says. "Thiswas paralleled with an increase in applications tomedical schools."

Jane Y. Sharaf, director of health professionsadvising at Princeton University, says that thecurrent increases can be likened to those of thelate 70s--when financial security was of paramountimportance.

"A lot of students whom I advise have familieswho are going through tough times economically,"she says.

"Many of them have parents who have been laidoff by IBM, or have family businesses that aren'tdoing too well these days," Sharaf says.

Another issue on the minds of manydoctors-to-be is the Clinton Administration'srecently unveiled health care plan.

Experts disagree on the effect health carereform will have on medical school applications,but they do agree on one thing--there will be anincrease in the number of students going intoprimary care.

"We are going through a complete reorganizationand redefinition right now," says Yatraki, aboutthe state of the medical profession.

She notes, however, that the imminent upheavalis not deterring applicants.

Will health care reform ultimately attract ordissuade prospective med school hopefuls? Thequestion is drawing varied responses.

Harold J. Burstein, the pre-med adviser forLowell House, says he thinks it will actually lurelarge numbers of applicants.

"Medicine used to be attractive because youcould be your own boss and make a lot of money,"says Burstein. "But now, a primary appeal of theprofession is its commitment to public service andhelping others."

Burstein says that the humanitarianaspect of medicine has drawn many students tomedical school over the past few years.

"Many of my students in Lowell see [the medicalprofession] as a way to combine academic work witha commitment to helping others," Burstein says.

Paveljit S. Bindra '94, a Cabot House resident,is just one of many students who felt this callingand decided to apply to medical school.

"I spent a summer in India--in the state ofBihar--on a fellowship to educate children. WhileI was there, I realized that the medicalprovisions to the area were minimal," says Bindra,a Crimson editor.

"The conditions were bad--many children weremaimed by polio. I contacted the state governmentand, through the surgeon general, we were able toget vaccine for 1,700 children in 22 differentvillages."

"All of a sudden I felt that this is where Ishould be--in prevention, rather than ineducation," says Bindra. "It was satisfying, and Irealized that primary care is where I want to go."

Steve W. Hetts '96 says that he has wanted togo into medicine since high school. "My family hasa long tradition of community service and I wouldlike to continue doing just that," says Hetts.

"We are seeing three general 'archetypes' ofpre-med students," says Burstein, the Lowell Houseadviser.

"The first are those who want a career ofpublic service--who want to make a difference insociety and help those less fortunate."

"The second are those who have a commitment toscience and want to combine it with their love ofworking with other people," Burstein says.

"The third--which is a relatively newphenomenon--are those who want enter theadministrative, policy-making side of medicine.They are often government or history concentratorswho approach the field from different angle," hesays.

G. Sarah Gelberman, assistant director of theOffice of Career Services (OCS) and health careerscounselor, says that she too has noticed anupsurge of interest in the public service aspectof medicine.

"Many of the students I see want to make adifference in the lives of others," Gelbermansays. "In medicine, you see the results of yourwork on a daily basis."

"Medicine is a never-ending intellectualchallenge," says Foster, the Harvard MedicalSchool admissions director. "It's useful forsociety and it allows you to combine scientificand humanistic concerns."

Another factor contributing to therising numbers of applicants is the recent attemptby medical schools to diversify their incomingclasses.

An applications relations assistant at AAMCsays that many schools are trying to attractlarger numbers of minorities, women and alumniapplicants.

Sharaf agrees with this theory, and says thatshe has seen a rise in alumni applicants--peoplewho don't apply as undergraduates, but whodiscover medicine after a few years, or evenanother career.

"They have something unique to offer--which isthat by applying to med schools at an older age,they are showing a deep commitment," Sharaf says."They are showing that they've thought it through,and that they want to go to medical school."

Burstein says he has also noticed this trendwithin his house, as well as in Harvard as awhole. He says that about one third of the lettershe writes are for alumni.

Pre-med students at Harvard say they areaware of the sweeping nationwide trends, and arerethinking their strategies for applying tomedical schools.

"It puts more pressure on you, knowing thatthere are so many people applying," says Brian D.Saunders '96.

Things are not going to change, and it makes ituncertain whether I'm going to apply at all," hesays.

Saunders says that he was drawn to medicine byhis interest in the natural sciences, as well as adesire to work with people. "It's an idealprofession for me," he says.

But while some are feeling this burden, otherssay they are not affected by it.

"I've never been 100 percent sure about goinginto medicine, but the recent numbers haven'taffected my decision," says Hetts.

"It's in the back of my mind that there are alot of other people applying," says Erick P. Chan'95, "but it really comes down to me, and what Ido."

"I feel that if I work and do my best, thatthings will work out fine," Chan says.

Pre-med advisors, in an attempt to deal withthe rising numbers of applicants, are adopting newadvising strategies.

"The type of student who used to be a shoo-inis no longer guaranteed of anything," says Taylor,the Leverett tutor.

"We advise our students to apply to moreschools, and to apply to a broader range ofschools," he says. "The kind of school that usedto be a `safety' just isn't so anymore."

"Because so many more people are applying, thenumber of `safeties' has gone down--it's just alot harder these days," says Taylor.

Gelberman says that OCS has also changed itsadvising strategies. "We want students to lookmore closely at the schools they are applying to,"she says.

"We encourage people to look at curriculums,and to consider what they really want to do," shesays.

"Just applying to a lot of schools won't doit--there is no security in numbers," Gelbermanwarns.

Pre-meds know this, and are taking (or havetaken) the advice of their tutors.

Bindra, who has now successfully completed theapplication process, says he applied to 18different schools, a total considered to be quitehigh.

"I applied to so many because most of theplaces I'm looking at receive thousands ofapplicants for a few hundred places," he says.

"I was a biochemistry major and wasn't pre-meduntil the beginning of my senior year," Bindrasays. "My adviser told me to apply to a wide rangeof schools."

Diane E. Levitan '95 says that knowing aboutthe rise in applicants has made her re-think herstrategy.

"I will probably apply to more schools, butI'll still apply to the ones I want to go to,"says Levitan, who is a Crimson editor.

Streetwise pre-meds are taking care to planahead in an attempt to maximize their grades aswell as their MCAT scores.

"A student's GPA and MCAT scores are moreimportant then ever," says Gelberman. "They serveas one way of `weeding out' applicants."

Pre-meds are planning around the necessary (andpainful) ordeal of the day-long MCAT. "Sometimesyou don't want to challenge yourself as much asusual--especially during MCAT time. You need timeto prepare for that test," says Chan.

Unfortunately--preparation and strategyaside--some students are preparing for the worst:the possibility of not gaining admission anywhere.

"If it happens, I might just try to work in alab or hospital for a year. It will give meexperience and beef up my resume." says GlennBianchi.

Gelberman says OCS is equipped to deal withthis possibility as well. "When students don't getin, we're here," she says.

"What we do is re-evaluate the student, and inparticular, his or her weaknesses. We think abouthow to strengthen the student's application and were-think the application process," Gelberman says.

Depending on the student's area of weakness,Gelberman says, different strategies are adoptedfor "beefing up" the resume.

"If a student has had plenty of clinicalexposure, but is lacking in terms of `peoplecontact,' we might try a project for a year or twoto get that person in touch," Gelberman says.

But pre-meds seem, at least outwardly, to betaking it all in stride. "There's a lot ofcompetition," says Brian Saunders," but it'smostly what you make of it."

Others agree with Saunders, saying thatconditions aren't as bad as they seem.

"When viewed from the outside, [thecompetition] is probably a little exaggerated,"Chan says.

"Since the number of spots at medical schoolsis static, it makes things tougher," Bianchi says.

But whether or not these students get accepted,one thing is certain--more people are applyingevery year.

And with the increased competition in thepre-medical world, the road to med school isn'tgetting any easier.CrimsonJohn C. Mitchell

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