Pre-med advising fails to meet student needs

Oct. 22, 2012, 10:54 p.m.

A quarter to a third of students in every incoming class enter Stanford with the intention of following a pre-medical track. Specialized advising for these students is only offered through three Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) premed advisers.

Students find that while UAR premed advisers provide useful resources for logistical questions, their lack of personal experiences as pre-med undergraduates is a setback.

“On an elementary level, [the premed advisers] did a great job, but they didn’t help me become a competitive applicant,” said Muthu Alagappan ‘12, a first-year medical student at the Stanford Medical School. “If I already knew what I wanted, then they were good at matching me to those resources, but I had to go in [to meetings] with a plan.”

Since Stanford does not offer a premed major, students are required to choose a major and complete its requirements while also fulfilling premed curriculum requirements, including a full year each of general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics and biology, among others.

These students have the option of working with a pre-med adviser in addition to their pre-major or major adviser and academic director.

UAR currently has two full-time premed advisers and one part-time adviser, who doubles as the primary pre-law adviser, on staff.

“We help students deal with scheduling, figuring out when’s a good time for them to take the MCAT, whether they need to get some clinical exposure, almost anything,” said Yunny Yip, a UAR pre-med adviser who also serves as the director of upper-division advising and preprofessional programs.

About 300 to 400 Stanford students and recent alumni apply to medical school every year and use UAR advising services.

Yip also stated that while none of the three pre-med advisers went to medical school themselves, all three have had pre-professional training and attend premed-related conferences in order to ensure that they know how to properly guide students.

“We’re not going to be a physician saying, ‘This was my path and this is what I did to get here,’” Yip said. “But we have the professional development and we’ve made connections with premed advisers nationally, so we know what medical schools are looking for.”

Despite these resources, pre-med students have expressed a desire to have access to advisers who have personal experience with medical school.

“I do wish they had someone in the medical school also advising undergraduates,” Monica Dey ‘15 said. “It would be nice to hear from someone firsthand what kind of things med schools are looking for.”

Some pre-meds have also expressed concerns regarding the pre-med advisers’ inability to answer anything beyond logistical questions.

“It’s much easier to shoot a text to a friend that I know, rather than schedule an appointment and have to calculate what you say,” Aishu Venkataraman ‘14 said. “My questions these days tend not to be about the logistics of applying but about personal experiences.”

Among Venkataraman’s questions that the pre-med advisers were unable to answer were such topics as, “Do you think it’s wise to be a resident assistant in a freshman dorm and study for the MCAT at the same time?”

Even in the case of logistics, pre-med advisors are unable to directly answer financial aid questions about applying to medical school. Instead premed advisors organize yearly events where they bring in administrative individuals from medical schools to talk about financial aid, Yin said.

For Judith Pelpola ‘15 this indirect assistance is not enough.

“I think it would help if [the pre-med advisors] knew more about financial aid or could point us in the right direction and knew who we could ask to get those questions answered,” Pelpola said.

Alagappan said most of his best advice came from other students, and recommended that the University create a strong pre-medical peer-mentoring program.

“I wish there was a stronger peer-mentoring program that was formalized,” he said, “mainly because those students are closer in age to us and just went through the process, so they know what works now as opposed to having a theoretical sense of application trends.”

“I did feel like the pre-med advisors were helpful in keeping me on schedule,” he added. “Being pre-med and applying to med school has a lot of deadlines that can be hard to keep track of on your own and they’re really aware of all of those and can keep students on track.”

An alternative for students seeking premed advice is the Stanford Premedical Association (SPA) run by Stanford School of Medicine faculty. It organizes events such as premed ice cream socials, mock MCATs and medical school admissions interviews.

“The point of SPA is to help bring pre-meds together and provide them with the information and resources that they need to be informed, while also providing them with a way to socialize and remove the stress from pre-med,” said Kathy Zabrocka an SPA board member.

While only SPA board members meet regularly, the association hosts events throughout the year while staying in touch with students through a Piazza forum, a regularly updated website and a mailing list.

“Students have really appreciated the weekly newsletter that SPA emails out because it includes research positions, volunteer opportunities, jobs listings and other things that can make being a premed easier,” Zabrocka said.

While the UAR advisers recognize that students may look to alternative means such as friends and the SPA for more relatable advice, they encourage students to build relationships with advisers.

“The more we get to know someone, the better the advising is for them,” Yip said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly paraphrased part of Muthu Alagappan’s sentiments; those parts have been removed and replaced with direct quotes. The Daily regrets these errors.

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