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Health Careers

Where to Begin

3 Questions on Personal Preparation

Success in the application process to professional school and success in the health professions depends on a passion for and commitment to learning, a breadth of life experience, well developed interpersonal skills, a well informed and mature understanding of the demands and requirements of the health professions, and personal energy and organization.  Note that a high GPA and platinum-coated Medical College Admissions Test scores (MCAT’s) are not in this list!  To the degree that they reflect your interest in learning and thinking skills they do count, but by themselves they are not sufficient!  Equally important are the interpersonal, social, and intellectual attributes critical to success in the health professions.  These are every bit as important and challenging a part of the preparation process as academics but are often overlooked by students - much to their dismay as the application cycle comes to a conclusion without success.

There is nothing magical about the four-year time frame to prepare you for medical school! 

Each year, only 33% of the first-time applicants from colleges are applying in their 4th year for matriculation to professional school right after graduation.  The majority have chosen to take an additional semester or two to complete their degree, to take some graduate courses or a graduate degree, or a period for work, or travel, or personal development.  Or, they chose to take advantage of College opportunities such as Study Abroad that extend the time needed to prepare for professional school.  In choosing the right path for yourself, try to remember that you have considerable freedom.  Your college experience is part of a continuum that should foster intellectual and personal development, not constrain you to a narrow path.  There is no advantage to be gained in rushing your preparation for a health careers profession!.  You are not in a contest that does to those who are swiftest or who take prodigious course loads in order to graduate early.  Professional schools are seeking applicants who have developed maturity based on experience with life and who have taken time to grow, to prepare intellectually, and to make a well informed decision to pursue a career in the health professions.  Give yourself every opportunity to prepare for the rigors and challenges of the health professions.


You must be able to answer the following three basic questions.  Failure to have considered these questions in depth is a major reason that an applicant who looks “great on paper” receives rejection after rejection following medical school interviews.  By working closely with your health careers advisor you can answer these questions for yourself and later for the admissions committee.  You should begin working on your answers the moment you first consider a career in the health professions.  For each of the three basic questions below I have suggested several derivative questions that will help you develop your own personal insights.  A good strategy is to write a paragraph or two on each of the derivative questions each year. 

Question One - Do you like to learn?

Why you should ask yourself this question: An effective lifetime career in medicine requires effective lifetime learning.  If you are not committed and comfortable with being a true student for the rest of your life, you will be neither committed nor comfortable as a health care provider.  Nor will you be effective.  Nor will you be successful.  Why do you need to continue to learn?  The advances in understanding of disease are rapid and continuous.  The evolution of technical tools and procedures is constant.  The environment in which health care is practiced evolves continually.  Consider the political, economic and legal climate; the evolution of patient populations. 

To help you explore your own person thoughts about this question, consider the following:

  • How do you know that you have made learning a valued element in your approach to life?  Can you give examples that show this?
  • Have you taken responsibility for educating yourself?  Again, can you give specific examples?
  • Have you formed educational goals for yourself and are you motivated to learn about subjects for their intrinsic interest or value to you irrespective of external influences?
  • Do you approach a subject with respect to its meaning fo you or in terms of what it takes to get an “A”.  Be honest here. 
  • How do you know you are pursuing an educational path that is yours versus somebody else’s?
  • Do you learn in order to fulfill your own goals, or do you compete with those around you?
  • Of your own volition do you explore subjects about which you know nothing both in or out of the classroom?  Are you able to initiate learning about something you are not interested in?
  • Do you have passion for some subjects?  Are you excited about achieving excellence and intellectual depth in a way that required caring and commitment?
  • Do you enjoy and draw on the enthusiasm of committed learners around you, students and faculty alike?
  • Do you like to learn science?  Are atoms interesting to you? Transcriptase? Natural selection? Polymers? Buckyballs? Gibbs free energy? DNA replication?
  • Do you like to learn broadly?  The health professions are practiced in an open arena in which knowledge of the human condition is key to being effective.  Politics, law, economics, sociology, psychology and the expressive and interpretive arts all inform the successful health professional.  How can you demonstrate that learning across many different disciplines is important to you?
  • Are you interested in contributing to new knowledge?  Advancement in the health profession si the result of new knowledge.  Research in disease mechanisms, etiology and treatment and research in basic science that might advance medical knowledge are all important.
  • Do you like to teach others?  A large part of medicine is teaching.  Every patient encounter involved teaching.  Leadership and advancement of the health professions depends on teaching.
  • Do you take risks in choosing your courses?
  • Is “being the smartest” important to you?

 Question Two - Is human service important to you?

  • Why you should ask yourself this question is simple.  An effective and successful health professional is committed to serving others.  There is no way you can fake this as the process goes on.  To explore your thoughts about this question, consider the following.
  • What specific acts can you draw from your life so far that demonstrate your commitment to service?
  • How much time have you spent so far in volunteering your services to others in need?
  • Have your volunteer efforts been motivated out of a genuine desire to help others or because you have heard that you need to have done volunteer work as a part of an attractive application to professional schools?
  • Do you wait for opportunities to be of help to arise, or do you have a regular program of proactive community service?
  • Can you say you have experienced the unpleasant, tedious and emotional aspects of human service?  Can you say that you have experienced these things to a degree sufficient to say that you can accept them?
  • What have you done to demonstrate to yourself your acceptance of the fact that much of the service you provide may not seem to have an immediate benefit or perhaps no benefit at all?
  • Do you offer your service because of how it makes you feel, or because of how it might make the recipient feel?
  • How can you further explore whether service is important to you?

Question Three - Have you made an informed, mature decision to pursue a career in the health professions? 

  •  The physical, emotional, and intellectual challenges in the health professions are immense.  They result from the serious issues that an individual human life can present when you are in a position of responsibility.  The workload is large and with you always, which requires physical and emotional stamina.  The problems faced can be a complicated mix of the most sophisticated and newest science, behavioral psychology, intricate politics and thorny ethical and philosophical considerations.  You need to be as certain as you can be before committing to a life in the health professions.  To explore your thoughts about this, consider the following questions.
  • What specific influences can you identify that have caused you to consider a career in the health professions?
  • What role have your parents played in your decision?
  • What role has your significant other or spouse played in your decision/
  • What role have your friends played in your decision?
  • Can you produce a listing of articles and books about the health care profession that you have read?
  • What other careers have you considered and rejected?  Why did you reject them?  Be specific!
  • What personal strengths would you bring to the health professions?  In what ways do you think you are ideally suited for the health professions?  What aspects do you think will be the most easy for you?
  • What aspects of the health professions will be a challenge for you?
  • What aspects of life in the health professions do you think might always be stressful for you?
  • Have you talked with experienced health professionals about their lives and profession?
  • Can you point to an experience that demonstrates your ability to work effectively as a member of the health care team?
  • What, that you enjoy or cherish, will you have to reduce or give up in order to pursue a career in the health professions?
  • Can you point to aspects of other careers that really appeal to you or play on a strength you have that you will not be able to develop because you chose to enter a health profession?
  • How important are prestige, money, and/or a respected profession to you?
  • Can you demonstrate your understanding of the power of cultural and societal issues in the maintenance of health and the prevention of disease?
  • Have you worked with persons different from you intellectually, ethnically, or socio-economically?  (This one is critically important!)
  • What can you do to provide further information or experience that will enable you to make a well informed decision?