When I became chair three years ago, my predecessor warned me about looming changes to the MCAT. We wanted to attract and support pre-med students, but I was not sure how. Therefore, I eagerly read a December 2012 Footnotes article by Ed Kain about how to “proactively plan for this change.” Below, I share what I learned as I followed his advice in hopes it will be useful to your department.
Collect Data & Advocate for Resources
Kain recommends seeking information from campus pre-med advisors, so I contacted my college’s medical careers advisory committee chair. She told me how many pre-meds apply (100/year at my public primarily undergraduate institution) and shared advising documents. My colleague Lynn Gazley and I used them to create a course planner for pre-med sociology majors.1
In anticipation of rising demand for our courses, Kain suggests advocating for resources. I was surprised to find out that no one knew how many of our entering students were pre-med. When I told my dean, he pressed for a “pre-med” designation on student software. The numbers helped me convince him we needed more SOC101 sections. Some departments have also gained faculty lines; we included this logic in successful bids to hire a medical sociologist and a biological anthropologist. MIT, lacking a major, even hired a post-doc sociologist to teach pre-med students.
Some sociology programs offer targeted courses for first-year pre-meds, and we considered this. Owen Whooley, who teaches “The Social Contours of Health” for the University of New Mexico BA/MD program that has long included sociology, said that teaching new pre-meds sets them up for more thoughtful doctor-patient interactions throughout training. The pre-health Intro course designed by Wesley James at the University of Memphis has a similar goal. Current instructor Kendra Murphy focuses assignments on health and medicine, including a field observation outside a hospital or clinic and dataset labs where students examine immunization and obesity rates. While targeted courses may appeal to institutions with many pre-meds, they were not a good option for my small department. Instead, like other programs, we recommend SOC101 to pre-med students and encourage additional health electives.
Relying on SOC101 means that professors need to be ready to address questions from pre-meds. Departments can help instructors to understand the MCAT: social science content is a quarter of the exam; sociology is about 30 percent of this section alongside psychology (65%) and biology (5%). While our learning outcomes for SOC101 provide a sound foundation, I was concerned about specific content coverage because so many professors, including adjuncts, teach it.
To respond, I created a workshop for SOC101 instructors. I presented pre-med demographics and gave an overview of the MCAT’s content knowledge and skills.2 We practiced questions from the Khan Academy to illustrate what students encounter.3 Attendees talked about which topics to recommend students study solo (see an Interactive Course Mapping Tool4). My favorite moment of the workshop was when we talked about how the MCAT emphasizes skills we already teach: critical thinking and research design. Instructors reported they were more prepared to address questions from pre-meds, including everyone’s favorite, “is this covered on the MCAT?,” and enjoyed brainstorming learning activities, including film clips, data projects, and in-class assignments. I compiled and circulated notes that I share with new instructors and can add to for future workshop iterations, appending materials from the MedEdPORTAL’s iCollaborative.5
Because my department is seeking to attract pre-med majors, we have employed a range of other tactics that seem to be paying off. We give presentations at Accepted Students Day (“Many Roads Lead to Medical School: The Social Science Path”) and offer a “Health and Environment” major specialization that signals health as an area of sociological interest and expertise. In our materials, we emphasize why sociological skills and content are important for medical schools and future health professionals by highlighting human and social aspects of medicine.
As we attract more pre-meds, we need to be prepared to advise them. Erik Larson’s research at Macalester College finds students prioritize social motives for studying medicine. As sociologists, we can help them to consider these motives. Anne Figert, who has advised pre-meds at Loyola-Chicago for over 15 years, told me that it is important to help with goal evaluation: “It’s a wonderful experience working with these students and helping them in their discernment process. They are amazing students doing so much for all the right reasons.” Good advising may entail tough conversations about how to prepare, even if it means waiting to apply to medical school and using the time to gain more experience shadowing or scribing in medical settings, boosting a weak academic record with a master’s, or gaining life experience.
We also need to be ready to write letters of recommendation for medical school admissions. A campus-wide process usually filters faculty letters: if you write one, someone on your campus will review it as they create a composite recommendation. In addition to assessing the applicant’s competencies in scientific reasoning, critical thinking, and writing, the Association of American Medical Colleges asks recommenders to note if the applicant has overcome adversity, and to detail intra- and interpersonal qualities.6 As sociologists, we are well-positioned to address these details and can help by including concrete observations from office hours, classroom interactions, and students’ community-engaged work.
Though I was skeptical at first, I believe the new MCAT allows us to support pre-meds as they think critically about the practice of medicine, patients, and medical institutions. It is an opportunity that goes way beyond “teaching to the test.”