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September 20, 2012 8:44 PM   Subscribe

How much does a light courseload weigh against you on a medical school application?

I am in the process of preparing to apply for medical school, but I come from a somewhat non-standard background. My undergraduate degree is in music performance, and consequently I took essentially no undergraduate science courses the whole time.

I decided that I instead wanted to be a doctor, so I am now back in school to get the appropriate pre-requisite science classes. To reduce stress I figured that it would make more sense to take only one or two courses per semester while I studied for the MCAT, after which I would send in my application.

The problem is that I've heard now that some universities frown on having too light a courseload, and that it looks a lot better if you have a transcript that shows a few years of 5 courses/semester to back things up. As it stands I'm just now in the position where I could spend the next two years taking a whole bunch of not-necessary courses, or I could just finish up the few that I need and not worry about it.

So how much does it matter? Will they just toss my application aside because I took my science courses a few at a time? Is it one of those things that... does... matter, but with a good GPA and a good MCAT score, all can be forgiven?

(This is for Canadian/American medical school applications)
posted by anonymous to Education (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You'll hear a lot of advice when applying to medical school. I'm convinced most of it is bunk, meant to excuse those who didn't get in or scare people who are thinking about applying. Disclaimer: I'm still in the application stage, ask me next spring and I'll let you know how it went.

I can see two reasons people like this idea of a hard course load:
1. Applications committees need to see that you have done well in your science courses so that you won't be lost during biochem first year.
2. They want to know if you can work hard and handle a a grueling schedule - in school, and later, as a doctor.
Did your music training require dedication and long hours of hard work? The answer is, yes, yes, it did (right?).
As long as you can demonstrate both of these capabilities, and back them up with facts like GPA, MCAT, and an essay about how demanding your music training, rehearsals, and performances were (wink wink, you know what I mean, now is not the time to be shy about your accomplishments), you'll have these concerns covered.

Another thing you hear is that med schools LOVE non-traditional applicants, so you might have that going for you.

Think about your application as a whole. What is your story? What do your experiences say about you? They want to see that your previous experiences, in both school and life, demonstrate the competencies that they believe make for successful medical school students and good doctors. Frequently, med schools will have a web page outlining what they are looking for.

I would finish up the few more courses that you need and apply now. If you don't get in, it is acceptable to take a few years, get more experience in your weaker areas and reapply.

Good luck!
Also, ask your school's premed advisor.
posted by bobobox at 5:56 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

In Canada, the importance of course loads and prerequisites depend on which school you go to, and varies greatly. For GPA calculations, some schools will only look at years with full course loads, some won't count summer courses, etc. You should make a list of the schools you plan to apply to and look at their requirements individually - they will all differ.
posted by ghost dance beat at 7:06 AM on September 21, 2012

What I know about applying to med schools is from a close friend who is still working on getting in. He wasn't accepted straight out of college, probably mostly because of a not-so-great GPA. He got into a pre-med graduate program and will have a masters at the end of the year. He's taken 6 courses each semester, which is expected, and is ridiculously busy studying every single day. The second year of the program, which he just started, is comparable to med school (i.e. "Hey look I'm doing what I would do in med school and I can handle it"). It's a different structure but he's actively in class 5-6 hours a day, and usually studying more than that outside of class. He's working his ass off and is scared to hell that he still won't get into med school. Why? Because med schools, generally, are ridiculously competitive. I think he's got a good shot, but you never know.

In your case, I'd be concerned that you aren't showing the applications personnel that you'll be able to handle the amount of work required in med school. It's all well and good to get a good grade in your classes, but can you do that while balancing 80 billion other things at the same time?

But then your outside experience is valuable, too. Volunteer work, life experience, dedication, a job that you excelled at working 60-80 hours a week, that is the kind of stuff that can get you noticed and balance out a lighter course load.

But if ALL you're doing is taking 2 classes and studying for MCATs, I'd suggest you get a little busier. Maybe do that while volunteering 20-40 hours a week or something, if you don't want to add classes.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:48 AM on September 21, 2012

Another thing to think about: regardless of whether you are accepted or not, would YOU feel prepared to jump into a full load of sciences courses with your current background? You classmates likely will have done the 5 tough classes in a semester thing.

If you think you are ready and can prove it, then proceed. If you are having doubts about your abilities, maybe work on that, prove to yourself that you can handle it.
posted by bobobox at 7:49 AM on September 21, 2012

Your first priorities are to do well in the classes and ace the MCAT, because having poor results on those will sink your application much faster than a nebulous impression of not having a heavy enough schedule.

A full postbac pre-med curriculum is only about 3-4 classes at a time anyway since so many of them have prereqs. And plenty of postbac students only take 1-2 at a time because they're working or doing something else. (I'm speaking here as a former nontraditional student myself). Are you doing anything else with your time, like working, volunteering in a lab, etc? If you are, it shouldn't be a big deal. I definitely wouldn't bother taking any courses you don't need, just to have a heavier load.

On the other hand, if you have to devote all your time to keeping up with 1-2 classes with no time left for anything else, you should think about whether there are ways to improve your study skills to be more efficient. This is less because taking 4-5 classes per semester is some hurdle you have to jump, than because successfully doing that is a good sign that you are able to manage a heavy workload. The first couple of years of medical school simply involve a HUGE amount of material. People whose past success depended on putting in lots and lots of time without developing efficiencies drop behind really quickly. Medical school is competitive enough that the students who struggle are not stupid, but are usually very bright people who have simply not developed the skills to help them prioritize and synthesize large amounts of complex material. Selection committees know this, and are alert to any signs in an application that people have had this problem in the past, because these issues may not be reflected in grades and recommendations.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 10:22 AM on September 21, 2012

Disclosure: I successfully applied to, and did well in, medical school as a non-traditional applicant/student (although I came from a clinical background which does make a difference).

You don't give some fairly important pieces of information in your question (your age, what experiences have led you to know you want to be a physician, how well you do in science courses, etc), so the answer is really that it is hard to say. Your question is commonly referred to in the medical world as a "what are my chances?" kind of question, and really requires individual advising.

Having said that, I would say that in your case they will probably look at how many courses you are taking per semester, given that you do not have a science or near-science background. You need advising, and I would recommend getting it now while there is still a possibility of adding courses this academic year (depending on your own school's calendar).

The answer from Elusive Architeuthis is a good one, and I agree with their impression.

As an aside, there are two other reasons to take more courses (I understand that this isn't your question, btw). First, in my experience, you really need the whole pre-med course series near finished to do well on the MCAT. You can learn it just for the MCAT and take it before taking the courses, but I advise against it. Second, if you are older, time is of the essence as you have to consider that it's not med school that is harder for the older student, it is Residency. Residency is a young person's sport and the older residents do feel it.
posted by artdesk at 10:29 AM on September 21, 2012

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