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How to Pick BS/MD Programs and a College List (Part 1)

BS/MD Program QuestionsThere are so many questions to answer for yourself as you apply to college, but when you are applying to direct medical or BS/MD programs, there are even more! How does one go about choosing a list of BS/MD or direct medical programs to apply to? Gauri Patel, BS/MD program expert, offers her advice on some of the most important questions to consider as you choose the direct medical pathway.

When narrowing down your potential list of colleges, one of the most important factors to consider is the number of schools you’re applying to. Most guidance counselors recommend applying to anywhere from 8-12 colleges. Any number beyond that, they warn, can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety for students. And while this may be a valid point for any normal high school senior, any student looking to apply to BS/MD programs has to be cautious of such advice.
When I was first considering which schools to apply to, I had originally short-listed about 25 colleges. And while I was well aware and ready to dedicate all the time, effort, and money required into these applications, my guidance counselor did not have that same confidence. She warned me multiple times that this many applications were unnecessary, and that I needed to narrow the focus of my list a bit more. But what she didn’t understand was that when you’re applying to BS/MD programs, application season is a little different.
First, you have to note down a list of regular undergraduate schools that you’d like to apply to. This takes into account your safety schools, target schools, and reach schools. But in addition to that, you have to make another list of all the BS/MD programs that you want to apply to. Now the unfortunate part of BS/MD schools is that even if you’re only interested in the school for their program (which is a debatable topic that’s further discussed below!) you still have to complete their entire regular undergraduate application. The upside, however, is that if you’re interested in both the undergraduate school on its own as well as with the program, then there is only slightly extra effort you have to put in to apply to the program. This sort of overlap is extremely convenient and is the best way to get your total number of colleges down.
But before narrowing down your college list, you’ve got to decide what you’re looking for in a potential college. In regards to regular undergraduate schools, the normal conditions apply: how big is the school, what subjects is it known for, what types of extracurricular activities are available, etc. In regards to BS/MD programs, however, there are additional details that need to be considered. Below, I’ve listed some of the most important questions to ask when deciding which programs are best suited for you.

1. How long do you want your undergraduate career to last?

BS/MD programs can last anywhere from 6-8 years, with 6 year programs being slightly less common than 7 or 8 year programs. The benefit of 6 or 7-year programs is that they
allow you to accelerate your study of medicine by a few years. It’s no secret that becoming a doctor takes near 12-years of study, and for some people, minimizing that time is of upmost importance. Not only that, but by cutting your undergraduate education short, you get to save up some extra money that you can later use to fund medical school. The only downside to these accelerated programs is the quicker pace of study. 6-year programs will almost always require you to take summer classes while 7-year programs may at least recommend doing so (especially if that 7-year program requires taking the MCAT).

The best way to find out if an accelerated program is right for you is to determine how organized and confident you are what you want to study/how you want to pursue your interests during your undergraduate years.

Any accelerated program requires that their students be extremely proactive in terms of planning. It’s difficult to switch around majors and incorporate things such as study abroad (though it has been done before!) due to the limited time available. Depending on the program, though, there is some freedom given to you for extending your undergraduate times if you wish to do so.

8-year programs, on the other hand, have a completely different goal in mind. The purpose of these programs is to enrich your undergraduate education rather than accelerate it. Many of them, in fact, do not even allow students to enter medical school prior to four years of undergraduate education. Now that doesn’t mean you need to spend all those 4 years in school. Some people choose to graduate in 3 years and use the fourth year to take advantage of fellowship offers, study abroad programs, or pursue a graduate degree in some other subject. And if four years still isn’t enough time to accomplish all of your goals before medical school, then go ahead and take some gap years in between. In general, these programs tend to be flexible with increasing your education time before medical school but strictly enforce at least a four-year minimum. And that’s simply because they don’t any student to come into this program with the goal of accelerating their education; the goal is always enrichment.

In my opinion, one of the greatest advantages of an 8-year program over an accelerated program is the acceptance of uncertainty.

On average, the typical undergraduate college student changes his or her majors 3-4 times, and having the freedom to do so is one that should not be taken for granted. I can speak from personal experience on this; coming into college, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to study and had a full 4-year plan sketched out of every class I was going to take. But by the end of my first semester freshmen year, I was doubting my major choice simply because I had heard from older students that my academic department of interest wasn’t as strong as I’d hoped for. So at that point, I had to opt for a new major and completely change up my entire 4-year plan. But again, by the end of my second semester of freshmen year, I was doubting my new major choice because I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would, so I ended up keeping it as just a minor. At this point, I was back to square one with no major in mind even though one year of college had already gone by. But the point is, it’s okay to be unsure. In fact, it’s quite natural for your interests to change in college. No matter how confident you are in your choice of study or extracurriculars prior to entering college, something or another is going to change, and you are going to have to make adjustments in order to accommodate for those changes. In an 8-year program, its far easier to make adjustments than it is in an accelerated program, and it’s a freedom that I personally value quite highly.

2. What interests are you planning to pursue in college?

This is an extremely important question when deciding which BS/MD program is best suited for you. While some programs strongly encourage (perhaps even require) research and clinical experience during your undergraduate years, others want their students to focus more time on liberal arts activities and get a more holistic understanding of medicine. With some research of the undergraduate university, it is quite easy to determine the program’s focus (since most programs endorse the whatever philosophy holds true to the undergraduate school). There are, however, also schools that completely leave it up to you by minimizing requirements and maximizing opportunities. Take, for example, the BS/MD program that I am currently enrolled in: REMS at the University of Rochester. Though the undergraduate school is known for their strong research facilities, they also require students to take courses in all three-subject areas of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Natural Sciences. Due to the dual focus of the university, it is very easy to get involved with whatever you want, whether that be more research-oriented interests or liberal-arts oriented interests. And on top of that, the REMS program puts no requirement on you for any specific extracurriculars. As a result, the amount of diversity present amongst REMS students is large; about 50% of students are natural science majors and the other 50% are social science or humanities majors. Not everyone gets involved in research, and even if they do, it might not be the traditional lab-research that everyone associates with pre-meds. A large part of my college application was explaining how I’ve balanced science and art my entire life; with Rochester though, I didn’t have to choose. Some people may be more drawn to one area of study, and if that’s the case, then there is no point in going to a program that encourages an alternative area of study. It’s all about finding what program aligns with your interests, and the only way to determine that is through research.

3. Are you willing to stay in the same location for an extended period of time?

When I had finally decided to commit to U of R for REMS and starting informing friends and teachers of my decision, the most common reaction I got back was “Wow, congrats! But you’re really willing to stay in one place for 8 years?” This question confused me, since most of the people who asked it had been living in the same city (or at least nearby) for a good majority of their lives. But I guess what most people assume is that they’ll go to college in one city for 4-years and then hopefully relocate for graduate school or job purposes. To some people, location may be a factor of great importance (especially if you get there and find out you hate the area), and it is definitely something to consider when applying to BS/MD programs. Not all programs have the undergraduate school in the same city as the medical school (for example, the Baylor/Baylor program has Baylor University in Waco, Texas but Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas), but many of them do. So just to be safe, it’s best to do some research on it beforehand and make sure you’re really ready to commit to one general area for the next few years.

More questions to ask yourself coming next week!

Author: Gauri Patil
Gauri is currently a rising sophomore at the University of Rochester and part of their Rochester Early Medicine Scholars (REMS) program. One of her favorite parts of Rochester is how strongly they encourage an interdisciplinary education, and because of that, she has decided to pursue an economics major with a computational biology minor. Gauri is heavily involved with an on-campus club known as GlobeMed, which works with international organizations to develop long-term, sustainable solutions for social health justice issues. Recently, Gauri travelled to Odisha, India with 6 other interns from the University of Rochester to work more directly with GlobeMed’s partner. She is also involved with research on topics related to public health and health policy and is looking to further develop those interests as she continues down her career path.