Practical advice for the parent of a pre-med

For over a decade, I have advised pre-meds on how to maximize their chances of getting into medical school. During this time, as I witnessed thousands of anxiety-ridden pre-meds wade doggedly through the murky waters of medical school admissions, I have noticed pre-med difficulties often pale in comparison to those of pre-meds parents. It’s often much easier to be the athlete on the field than the coach on the sidelines. And so it goes with premeds and their parents.

My parents, a systems engineer and English teacher, knew little of the pre-med process. Taking a year “off” post-college, I lived at home while performing health policy research and applying to medical school. Despite their lack of expertise in medical school admissions, my parents thanklessly copy edited my application, served as sounding boards for secondary essay topics, and peppered me with practice interview questions. All the while, I stormed about the house in an anxious funk, snapping every time my parents asked if any news had arrived about interviews or acceptances. There was even a visit to the emergency department for stress-induced palpitations. It was not a pleasant time.

Though parents should feel no obligation to help their pre-med child get into medical school (it really is the pre-med’s responsibility), there are multiple tactics parents can take to maintain family harmony, ward off feelings of helplessness, and improve a pre-meds chances of achieving the dream of doctorhood:

Start early

From the minute pre-meds step foot in college their actions will be subject to scrutiny in one of the most competitive and complex of all graduate school admissions processes. Over 40,000 pre-meds apply to medical school each year with less than half gaining admission. Every grade, including study abroad courses, are “counted” by the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), creator of medical school’s primary application. Thus, there is little room for the traditional slump in grades freshman year while pre-meds ward off the transition blues. Further, pre-meds need more than stellar academics to get in. Medical schools are looking for well-rounded students, and rightly so. Great doctoring depends as much on interpersonal and leadership skills as on academic prowess. Given the rigorous nature of pre-med requirements, it’s important to start early and plan how to fit in academic, research, community service, extracurricular, and clinical experiences. I don’t want parents creating day-to-day schedules for their pre-med children. But I do suggest helping with a broad timeline starting freshman year allowing a pre-med to see how all of the prerequisites can be fit in by doing what one loves and doing it well.

Get informed

In order to help make an effective timeline, a pre-med parent needs to understand the intricacies of pre-med requirements. Many universities provide online resources through the pre-health advising office that serve as an excellent starting point. Then I suggest reading some of the many books written by admissions experts listed in Amazon’s Medical School Guides section. Pick up a book with the goal of learning the pre-med requisites and admissions process details. Then hand the book to your pre-med. Further, you can skim through the many website, blogs, and forums dedicated to helping pre-med students. But be aware that many of these sites, particularly the forums, are unregulated and contain misleading information. I beg my pre-meds to stay off forums not actively monitored by an expert, as such mediums tend to be sources of increased anxiety. As the time to apply nears, visit the AMCAS website, which has an excellent instruction manual and frequent asked questions section dedicated to the next application cycle.

Avoid nagging

One of the greatest difficulties faced by pre-med parents is becoming the dreaded nag. Pre-meds often need a gentle push to get going on a research project or start writing the application personal statement, but remember that becoming a physician requires intense self-motivation. Perhaps a pre-med dragging academically or in extracurriculars doesn’t really want to enter medicine. I always tell my pre-meds to only become a doctor if they can think of doing nothing else. Pre-med parents certainly want to avoid nagging a child into a profession that will not bring a lifetime of joy.

Ask for help

Even after a pre-med parent has started early, gotten informed, and avoided nagging, there will still be many questions regarding how to be pre-med and gain acceptance to medical school. The first stop for questions should be the university’s pre-health department. This is how I became involved in medical school admissions – I served as a pre-med tutor at Harvard’s Eliot House and spent my days helping pre-meds get in. However, not all universities have Harvard’s level of commitment to the admissions process. Many pre-health advisors serve hundreds of students and simply don’t have the time to provide individualized information. This has left the door open for admissions consultants to provide targeted, personal help. A simple web search reveals medical school admissions consultants of every expertise and price level. There are even multi-day, intensive medical admissions bootcamps dedicated to helping pre-meds gain acceptance to medical school. Premed parents need not feel helpless; support is all around.

Though the pre-med process is arduous, understanding what is required removes much of the stress surrounding being a pre-med and a pre-med parent. Pre-meds should do more than just check the boxes in order to get into medical school. As future physicians, they should embrace the beauty of curiosity, joy of discovery, compassion for those in need, and satisfaction of helping others. By following these tips, pre-med parents can guide their pre-med and turn medical school preparation from a time of apprehension to one of enlightenment.

Suzanne M. Miller is an emergency physician, CEO, MDadmit, and author of three books, including the newest release How to be Pre-Med: A Harvard MD’s Medical School Preparation Guide for Students and Parents.

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