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Jenny Pushner, class of 2021.5 and Harrison Knowlton ’19 are both considering medical school in their future, though they are at different stages in their preparation. Middlebury has enjoyed a high rate of alumni placement into medical school.

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Students Navigate the Complex Path to Medical School

October 31, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Roger Winters ’17 was backpacking the Appalachian Trail when he got the call of a lifetime.

“There was a huge thunderstorm, and I was alone walking through the woods as lightning flashed around me, the trees creaked and cracked, and the rain came pouring down. I made it to a shelter after a couple miles, and the storm passed. After drying out a bit, I checked my phone and saw a voicemail from Providence, Rhode Island.”

Brown University’s Alpert School of Medicine was offering him a spot.

“It was one of the most amazing feelings,” said Winters, “to go from feeling frustrated, alone, wet, and cold—to elated.”

Thousands competed for the 144 seats in Alpert’s class of 2022, which had an admit rate of 2.9 percent. Nationwide the picture was still daunting but more hopeful. For example, the year before Winters applied to med school (the most recent year for which data is available), 51,680 applicants competed for 22,266 spots.

The Association of American Medical Colleges reports that for the past few years the percentage of applicants who get accepted to a U.S. medical school has been in the low 40s (41–44 percent).

For Middlebury College grads starting med school in 2018, the admit rate more than doubled recent national averages: a whopping 89 percent.

“It’s truly a team effort,” said Director of Health Professions and STEM Advising Mary Lothrop, emphasizing the contributions of her advising team (Assistant Director Hannah Benz, MD, and Coordinator Nicole Veilleux), colleagues in the Center for Careers and Internships, faculty, alumni, colleagues at other colleges and medical schools, community partners, “and most importantly the candidates themselves.”

Middlebury’s approach combines laser-like attention to the nuts and bolts of what makes a med school applicant successful with a commitment to helping each student find his or her own path.

“While I was a student at Middlebury, the pre-health advisors guided me on my course work selection, connected me with students who could offer peer-to-peer advice, taught me how to network to identify summer research and work opportunities, hosted workshops, and more,” said Ariana Mills ’17, a research assistant at Columbia University Irving Medical Center who is now applying to med schools.

Alongside national and international opportunities, pre-health advising also partners with local organizations so students can shadow physicians at Porter Medical Center, volunteer at the Open Door Clinic, or serve as EMTs with Middlebury Regional Emergency & Medical Services.

Like many schools, Middlebury offers a rigorous internal Health Professions Committee process. Through a series of interviews, a student gets feedback on his or her own strengths and weaknesses. The end product is a committee-written letter that gives an overall picture of each student as an individual.

“The committee process at Middlebury really prepares you for what can be a daunting application cycle,” said Hosain Ghassemi ’17, who, like Mills, is in the midst of applying to med schools. Ghassemi spent last year as an AmeriCorps STEM coach and is now working with International Medical Aid and volunteering at a children’s hospital. “From shaping personal essays, collecting letters of recommendation, to narrowing down the school list and preparing for interviews, a lot goes into creating an application. The committee process really lets you be proactive about tackling each of these different hurdles.”

Foundational to Middlebury’s success is its careful parsing of the core competencies outlined by the Association of American Medical Colleges. Also key, said Lothrop, is its membership in the Northeast Consortium on Medical Education, which brings together nine undergraduate institutions and nine medical schools. Through the consortium, Middlebury explores best practices with peers and hears directly from med school admissions about trends, what makes a candidate a good fit, and what makes them competitive.

“All our rubrics and readiness guidelines are informed by those conversations,” said Lothrop.

Consortium membership also lets Middlebury hear about changes coming down the pike.

“Well in advance of changes to things like the MCAT or the curriculum,” says Lothrop, “we’re having conversations about how best to prepare our candidates. For example, when medical schools began shifting towards the multiple-mini-interview format, we developed a ‘boot camp.’”

Equally important is the soul-searching side of things.

“Just listening—listening to what they’re saying, and to what they’re not saying,” said Lothrop.

“When you can get students to pause and say, ‘I have some agency in this. What do I really want to be doing and what do I need to do to get there?’ that is one of my favorite moments, because then we can get to work to create a strategy for achieving those goals.”

Winters’s own path to med school, for example, was not straightforward. He loved science, did a research internship, but wasn’t sure what career path was right for him. Then the winter of his sophomore year he got some tough love from med school advising.

“I had a very candid conversation with Dr. Benz in which she gave me an honest assessment about my strength as a candidate. She told me that while I was involved and engaged with great extracurriculars, I did not have the grades for medical school and needed to make some changes. That conversation was transformative for me, and influenced how I shaped the rest of my time at Middlebury.”

Winters pushed himself to “study smarter.” He took on leadership roles in the extracurriculars that mattered most to him. He took off fall semester of his junior year to backpack through Chile and Bolivia. When an internship with an ambulance company fell through, he pounded the pavement until he got accepted at the oncology clinic of Valparaiso’s Hospital Carlos van Buren. Shadowing physicians half a world away from Middlebury, he realized “that medicine is the right path for me.”

For Jim Ho ’18, now a first-year medical student at Yeshiva University’s Einstein School of Medicine, Middlebury’s premed advising helped him fast-track his way through.

“I knew that I wanted to be a physician early on, so I began preparing to apply to medical school upon entering college,” said Ho.

Ho finished most of his prerequisites by the end of his sophomore year, took the MCAT that summer, then went through the Health Professions Committee process as a junior and began submitting medical school applications “on one of the first days.” He spent his senior year “juggling schoolwork with flying around the country for medical school interviews.”

“Hannah and Mary provided stellar guidance and unwavering support,” said Ho.

Relationships with advisees, said Lothrop, can sometimes span a decade. Many prospective students talk to premed advising before choosing Middlebury and many students apply to med school after graduation.

Jenny Pushner ’21, now in her second semester at Middlebury, is undeclared, but she knows her interest is science. She met with Benz her first semester at Middlebury and has just attended health advising’s fall kick-off info session.

“I'm not really sure if I’m premed,” said Pushner, “but I’m taking all the classes and following the path.”

Harrison Knowlton, a senior neuroscience major, is also president of the student Pre-Health Society. Like Pushner, Knowlton always knew he was a “sciencey kid.” As he’s gone through Middlebury, he’s considered research, teaching, and medicine. This summer he took the MCAT and then shadowed a neurologist at the Central Maine Medical Center.

Suddenly everything fell into place.

“Actually experiencing it for the first time, going behind the scenes. There I was actually in the hospital. We’d go to the intensive care unit. We’d go all over the place, and it’s one of these things where it’s like, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do. It’s so cool.’ There’s no eloquent way to put that, but just seeing it, I just fell in love with it.”

By Gaen Murphree; Photo by Yeager Anderson ’13.5

2 Comments

How many applied? 89% could be 9 out of 10, 4 out of 5, etc. Or 89 out of 100.

by Julie H. Parker (not verified)

I'm glad to see that so many Midd grads from the recent class have been accepted into medical school! It's also good to hear that the advising process has changed for the better since I graduated ('12). That process was one of my few regrets about my Middlebury education. Best of luck in med school to the new grads!

by Claire Bovet (not verified)

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