Choosing an Undergraduate University and Premed Planning
Last edited August 26, 2001

Summary Facts:

Choosing a university

I only applied to two universities when I graduated from high school, and the contrast between the two could not be much more striking. The first university was the University of British Columbia (UBC), in Vancouver, British Columbia, while the second, and the one that I attended for three years before entering medical school, is the University of Victoria, in Victoria, BC.

UBC is a large university of 35,000 students in a city of 2 million. Vancouver has a large enough population to support an NHL team, and while the Canucks aren't spectacular, they're a lot better than nothing at all. However, while the diversity of both the city and the university is great, Vancouver's large population also leads to a harder, more competitive society.

UVic, on the other hand, is a mid-sized university with 15,000 full-time students in a city with a population of less than 300,000. The city is a lot more relaxed than Vancouver. Traffic is a non-existant problem. Conversely, you wouldn't come here for the shopping, or variety of ethnic restaurants (forget about finding any good Thai food here). As well, if you want to watch professional hockey, or see some concerts, you'll need to take the ferry out to Vancouver. The easy-going lifestyle in Victoria really fits my personality (being born and raised here must have been a huge influence), and even after two years of medical school at UBC, I still haven't fully adjusted to the go-go-go mentality in Vancouver. You really need to examine yourself to see what size and type of city will make you most happy and productive.

Initally, when I was debating between UVic and UBC for undergrad, a major reason that I picked UVic was the knowledge that the competition here is much less fierce than UBC. The biggest motivator was that many of my high school friends were at UVic, but in second place was the knowledge that heading into university, I wanted the skills and grades to secure myself a position in a highly competitive job market. Most of your fellow class-mates do as well. Because of that, there is a better chance in a larger university that people will be more desperate to do whatever it takes to get the best grades.

After talking to many UBC attendees and graduates, one conversation lodged itself firmly in my mind and was probably the pivotal tie-breaker in my decision to attend UVic. I met with an old family friend who had just graduated from UBC medical school, and also attended UBC for undergrad. He told me an anecdote about when he needed materials and references for an undergraduate lab report. Upon going to the UBC library, he discovered half of the material had been checked out, and the other half either sliced out, or defaced to illegibility. One consequence of grading on the curve is that you can not only do well by studying hard, but also by preventing others access to study materials. The truly desperate to attend med school will attempt both options. C'est la vie.

My friend then proceeded to outline his thoughts on medical school. Above all else, he emphatically stated that it was a job of interaction. Social skills are paramount in a profession where the nurse, janitor, and lab tech all play as great a role as the doctor in ensuring the quality care of a patient. Therefore, developing good personal character, and learning to socialize with diverse individuals must be the paramount priority for any aspiring pre-med student. He concluded that this was most possible in a small university which had enough students to present a diverse population, but not one so large it fostered class-mate backstabbing, and non-existant student/teacher interaction because of immense class sizes.

This is my conclusion as well. After my three years here at UVic, I can say that I don't regret my decision for a minute. Before I left for UBC, I was on a first-name basis with many of the Molecular Biology faculty members and graduate students. Even now, when I visit the campus, many of those professors still remember me. In addition, during my time at UVic, the campus was small enough that I saw friends and familiar faces each time I walked to another class. Perhaps most telling, I was friends with most of the pre-med students in the faculty; we are very self-supporting, rather than antagonistic with each other. I believe there is a genuine feeling of mutual support within this community as we pursue a common goal.

One friend of mine originally registered for first-year courses at UBC and purged her courses six days before classes, opting for Kwantlen Community College instead. For second year, she registered at Uvic and hasn't looked back since. As you can see, I come down squarely on the side of the mid-sized university versus the large-scale university, because I feel the close relationships I've made at UVic with friends and faculty are far easier to attain in a smaller and less competitive environment. I think the bottom line is to choose the college or university where you will be happiest, and best able to learn.

Year One of university

When you register at university, a common question is: "What major should I choose?"

In my humble opinion, the academic role of high school is to teach mathematical and linguistic fluency. If you've graduated from high school with the ability to read and manipulate numbers, you possess all the tools necessary for further education. The role of university is to use those tools to teach you to think critically. Therefore, any major will help you to develop the ability to analyze and interpret a problem, whether that be understanding biochemical site-directed mutagenesis of the Lac operon in E. coli, or examining the philosophical dichotomy of utilitarian/deontological theory in the application of biomedical decisions.

Pick whatever major tickles your fancy.

I don't regret one bit the knowledge I've acquired in Molecular Biology, but the verbal eloquence, logical coherence, and wide-ranging content of an Ethics presentation by the head of the Philosophy department leaves me filled with envy. I wish I had those skills, but they simply weren't emphasized in my major. I believe that most medical schools acknowledge that one major is not superior to another in terms of admission into medical school. Rather, a diverse medical student body is preferred. The upshot is that since most premeds tend to be Biology/Biochemistry students, you have to be top-tier in those departments to stand out, whereas the Philosophy applicant is unique and gains recognition solely on the basis of his/her major.

As a Biology major, my first year curriculum was taken completely from the "Recommended First Year Schedule" found in the UVic Calendar under Biology. I think most universities publish a list of the courses required for a given degree, and the years in which these courses are ideally taken; this is not a bad way to select your courses. First, as the list has been compiled by the faculty, it will contain all the required courses needed to graduate, thereby sparing you the pain of discovering in fourth year that the first year physics course you thought you didn't need is the last roadblock on your path to graduation. More importantly, many other students will take the easy way out as well, and thus you'll see the same faces in each of your courses. Get to know the people behind these faces! Many of them will become your good friends.

These were the courses I took in First Year:

English Literature
Full Year
Eng 121 + 122
Biology, Evolutionary
Half Year + Lab
Bio 210
Biology, Physiology
Half Year + Lab
Bio 220
Chemistry, Inorganic
Full Year + Lab
Chem 101 + 102
Math, Calculus
Full Year
Math 100 + 101
General Physics
Full Year + Lab
Phys 102
Half Year
Psyc 100A

My schedule was a fairly typical first year science curriculum. Tons of labs, and lots of piddling classes that I didn't need again until the MCAT (English Lit/Physics/Inorganic Chem). Labs teach you the skill of writing technical detail in a clear and coherent manner. The fact that you'll probably write your labs 2 hours before the assignment is due is a wonderful intro to stress management! Here you'll also meet your first Teaching Assistants (TA's), who are often starving graduate students. They'll often be able to give you academic insight from "the inside", which you might not gain from the official faculty advisors.

Finally, I entered UVic with first year credits from taking Advanced Placement courses in high school. I recommend retaking those courses in university, both for your GPA, as well as getting some valuable lab experience. Many medical schools want lab experience in your science pre-requisites; don't put yourself into a disadvantageous position by skipping those labs. The fact that you should ace these courses on your second time through, with time left over for extra-curricular activities goes without saying. Getting into med school requires high grades, and repeating your AP courses over will help you start off with a high university GPA.

One aspect to class selection which may make learning these science foundations much more solid, is to choose classes that slightly overlap and therefore interlock. I found it easier to understand, memorize, and apply some Physics formulas after I discovered how they were proved using basic calculus. Inorganic Chemistry also flows into Physiology when you start dealing with potential differences caused by ions such as in neurons, or when dealing with matters like pH and the human bicarbonate buffering system. Psychology often draws on Evolutionary Biology to explain the origin of certain behaviours such as reproduction, or the nurturing female. English Literature teaches you to read, which is the most fundamental requirement of university.

A person who goes through university without recognising the overwhelming overlap between different subjects is an unware person who has not yet realised that each subject owes many of its theories and tenets to other seemingly unrelated different disciplines. I truly believe that you have started to think, rather than memorise and regurgitate, when these inter-relationships start becoming apparent. I usually don't expect most people to develop these critical thinking skills until after a year or two at university; I didn't start picking up on this for the longest time, and now I don't know how I managed without them.

At this time, meeting professors is rather difficult because class sizes are largest in first year. However, this is certainly a good time to meet upperclassmen who are taking lower-level classes to flesh out their degrees. Here, you'll often receive handy tips such as the best teachers for each particular course, and also which courses to take and which to avoid. There's some incredible courses at UVic such as Human Anatomy and Biomedical Ethics, which I never would have known about without going "through the grapevine" because they are placed in the Departments of Physical Education, and Philosophy, respectively.

Also, start looking ahead a few years to see what courses you potentially may want to take, and see what prerequisites are needed. I burned myself in third year because there was a fourth-year Microbiology course that I really wanted to take, but I lacked the second and third year prerequisites, which I might have taken just to enter this class. Even worse would be discovering in third or fourth year just before applying to med school, that the prerequisite course that the med school requires has other prerequisite courses attached to it. I've used this example before, but I'll repeat it again. UBC med school requires that you have Biochem 300 to apply. However, at UVic, you need to have taken Biochem 200 the previous year, before you can even register to take Biochem 300. Therefore, if you aren't careful, and didn't check out this requirement, you could delay your med school application by a year if you forgot to take Biochem 200.

You'll also want to look at a second major of interest, and hopefully try to pick first-year courses that satisfy both majors. The reason I didn't transfer into a Biochemistry degree was that I discovered the first year Physics I took for my Biology degree did not satisfy the Biochemistry requirement; I would have had to take another different first year Physics. That second major could be a good backup (I would have had increased flexibility if I had the option to go into either Biology or Biochemistry). I don't know how useful doing a double major would be to your application, but I think the vast majority of my med school classmates only had one major. Similarly, doing an honours degree doesn't seem necessary to get into med school; I think the majority of my classmates didn't do an honours degree.

It is perhaps important to recognise that many high school graduates struggle academically in their first year. Living away from home, increased freedoms and responsibilities, and a teaching environment alien to most highschoolers often combine to yield a low grade point average (GPA). Knowing this, many medical schools tend to give less weight to the first year. UBC, the school with which I am most familiar, sets the minimal GPA required for acceptance at 70%, and closely monitors yearly trends in GPA to be fair to those people who have a low first year GPA and stellar GPAs in the following years. This varies from school to school, so you should go do some research in the schools that interest you. Still, ideally you want to start university with a high GPA, and never let it go down. Once your GPA goes down for any reason, it is very difficult to nearly impossible to raise it back up agan to the same level.

While med schools may still accept applicants who have had a bad academic year, the reality is that having a higher GPA, particularly in the med school prerequisite courses (which all applicants have taken, and therefore can be used as a comparitive reference) can only help you in your application.

Year Two of university

Still undecided about a major?

Second year is often considered more difficult than first year. First year is often the "feeling out" year, where the major goals are to become familiar in the university routine, and to pick a major that will be stimulating enough for a further three years of study. Second year is the first year where there is a real pinch to earn a high GPA. In second year, typically you finish taking the core pre-requisite courses of your major. It becomes crucially important to master this material, as it constitutes the foundation of knowledge over which third and fourth year courses are constructed.

My second year courses were:

Half Year
Bioc 200
Biology, Ecology
Half Year + Lab
Bio 215
Biology, Cell
Half Year + Lab
Bio 225
Biology, Genetics
Half Year + Lab
Bio 230
Chemistry, Spectroscopy
Half Year + Lab
Chem 213
Chemistry, Organic
Full Year + Lab
Chem 231 + 235
Phys. Ed., Human Anatomy
Half Year + Lab
PE 141A
Statistics, Life Sciences
Full Year
Stat 255 + 256

Once again, I was plagued with a glut of labs. However, it's important to know that I learned a very valuable lesson here. When writing labs, or anything else for that matter, write legibly! I got canned in a lab report for messy writing, and when I went to talk to my TA about the matter, even I misread my writing! Another friend received a: "Heroic Sunday night effort, and if I could read the lab you'd have passed for sure..." However, labs again are invaluable for meeting the TA's, and other students who share your major.

Again here, interlocking classes allowed me to learn at a deeper level than less cohesive classes. Material learned in Biochemistry was constantly re-emphasized in Genetics and Cell Biology, and vice versa. Having a Spectroscopy background helped immensely in deciphering Organic Chemistry chemical structures, as did Statistics when studying Ecological population distributions. Human Anatomy was the fun class that reminded me I needed to do well in the other classes to keep on learning similar material in med school!

After second year, you should have a desired major of choice, a fair idea of what teaching and learning styles work for you, and hopefully a few contacts in the upper levels of the department. Now is also a good time to do some volunteering in a professor's lab over the summer. If this is your second year out of high school, it's unlikely that you'll have enough research and lab experience for a professor to entrust sharing his/her lab bench with you. However, although he/she probably feels you aren't knowledgeable enough to be a researcher, you might just be qualified enough to wash glassware, restock solutions, and other menial tasks. Especially if you work for free.

Although this is tiresome, boring work that will sap your will to live, realise that you are building a relationship with a professor who may one day view you as a colleague. Even menial tasks allow you to show your discipline, scientific motivation, and personality to a professor. If you can demonstrate your reliability, you will likely easily find a lab job the following summer, if not with this professor, then with another via personal recommendation. Professors do socialise among themselves on coffee breaks, after all. After the volunteering, you will hopefully walk away with a future job, or at least one of the three reference letters you'll need later on.

In my summer after third year, I worked as summer student. I didn't get far along enough in my work to secure a publication, but that might have ben different had I done the lab work in the summer after second year, and continued on throughout third year. Also, while I was being paid, my professor needed an additional hand but lacked the funds to pay for an additional lab tech, and so one of my class-mates worked with me on a volunteer basis. As I was leaving for UBC that fall, there was an understanding that the funds for my paycheque would then be re-directed to my classmate instead. For her, it was a great opportunity to find out whether she was interested in research, secure a future reference letter, and guarantee an impressive and decent paying part-time job in the fall, for the cost of four months of volunteer time.

Also, in my opinion, the summer after second year is the time period where taking the MCAT is ideal. At this point, I had completed the courses that I felt would benefit me most for the four MCAT sections (Verbal Reasoning, Physical Sciences, Essay Writing, Biological Sciences). I felt it was to my benefit to take the MCAT as soon as possible after completion of those courses to maximise retention of material. Writing the MCAT now also gives you the option of applying to med school after third year, which I would recommend doing. In addition, this gives you the option of repeating the MCAT in April or August of your third year, which may strengthen your fourth year application.

Major Problems?

If, after second year, you have not yet decided on a major, reflection on the following questions may help:

1. Is there a field of study which interests me particularly?

I hope each person reading this finds a subject that excites them, where an hour of lecture seems to pass by in minutes. I've been riveted to my seat in my Biomedical Ethics class, yet have also fallen asleep in five minutes in Physics classes (and even that five minutes was too long!) When you find this subject, the interest will often be sparked by a persuasive and interactive teacher. It's up to you to take that spark and kindle it to a passion. I can't say enough about studying something that interests you. If you hate what you are studying, and your degree leads you into jobs that you also hate, then why are you studying that subject?

2. Does this major offer a back-up plan of employment to medical school?

Biology majors are a dime a dozen. Many of us think med school is the place we want to be, yet despite the very high rejection rate, we make no alternate plans in case we are rejected. However, student loans don't magically go away, and debt repayment must be planned to avoid drowning in interest fees. Statistically, not every who wants to be a doctor will get in. You'll need a job after graduation.

Engineering, Business, and Computer Science are the UVic faculties generally acknowledged to have graduates with a bright employment future. Co-op programs that mix work and study semesters will give you job skills in interviewing and teamwork, not to mention money. You'll need to do well in interviews before you'll ever be accepted into a medical school. I hear UBC's pharmacy program is clogged with med school hopefuls using pharmacy as their back-up plan. Some people consider this an abuse of that faculty, but I can say that the Pharmacy students in my class all have a very strong knowledge base that has proved extremely useful in the first two years of med school.

3. Are the upper level students happy with the professors, and the courses offered?

In this time of budget cuts and tuition freezes, universities are forced to educate more students using less money. Government grants and funds often operate in a trickle-down fashion, with each faculty receiving their portion of money based on student body size, and required lab and lecture teaching material. The upper level students and TA's are the best-placed to answer these questions.

After my three years at UVic, I am now very opinionated on the matter, and wouldn't hesitate to give advice or talk to incoming students. I think many senior university students and TA's are similar; just go and talk to them. Engineering and Business currently occupy the newest buildings on campus, while I've had to take Chemistry and Biology classes in the university movie theater to accommodate class overflow. I've also had labs and courses cancelled due to underfunding, and have seen the Chemistry TA's consultation office hours cut in half to save funds. Did I mention multiple choice Calculus, Economics, and Biochemistry exams where theory and understanding were emphasized in class, but were then marked via multiple choice because the funding was not available for the grading of essays, or paragraph written answers? You deserve a faculty that can support your education and garners your trust.

4. Will I still have the time to complete the pre-requisite courses for medical school?

I'm glad I'm not a Physics or a Chemistry student trying to enter medical school. The required Biology courses usually contain labs. Since your majored courses constitute the bulk of your classes, the medical school pre-requisites (ie. Biology, Organic Chemistry) will usually show up as your electives. I for one would not like to take a full suite of Chemistry lab courses, and then take on additional Biology lab courses as my electives. I don't know that I would have the time to really understand the material, and that might well prove to be fatal to both your GPA and MCAT results.

5. Can I see myself being happy in this major until I graduate?

Ultimately, this is the most important criterion to satisfy. If you are happy with the faculty and fellow students, are highly motivated and interested in the subject, I feel you will perform far better than if you select a major you dislike because you feel it may be impressive to med schools or other outsiders. After all, if you really hate a field of study, do you really want a career in that field, assuming you graduate and don't get accepted to medicine? Take the major that interests you most, and excel in it.

Year Three of university

Welcome to the upper level! Here, you will start taking courses that really focus on your major. Now you're old, jaded, and have been chasing after that dangling carrot for several years. Don't you feel lucky?

Here, you'll start seeing smaller class sizes, through the natural attrition of students over the years, and the increasing specialization of the lecture material. These were the courses I took in third year:

Full Year
Bioc 300
Biology, Cell
Half Year
Bio 360
Biology, Genetics
Half Year
Bio 361
Biology, Neurobiology
Half Year
Bio 409A
Biology, Molecular Epidemiology
Half Year
Bio 439
Economics, Micro/Macro
Full Year
Econ 103 + 104
Philosophy, Biomedical Ethics
Half Year
Phil 331

Notice the complete and utter lack of labs in this third year! Yippee! An extra twenty free hours a week! Of course, I need to gripe at this time that the lack of labs is due to the fact that the courses I had selected would have been prohibitively expensive to offer labs for the 100 or so students per class. The fact that the courses that interested me most had no labs is, of course, just a coincidence. Heh. :) As you can see, there is a considerable emphasis in the coursework towards my major of Molecular Biology. However, I made certain to add some diversity to my transcript. By third year, your courses should certainly interlock and be interrelated simply by definition of working towards a major. However, the value of taking some outside courses cannot be understated.

I would rank the Philosophy course "Issues in Biomedical Ethics" as the most enjoyable, enlightening, and fulfilling lecture of my undergraduate career. In this course, various ethical theories are discussed and actual cases in Canadian law are examined and dissected with respect to these ethical theories.

With the learning of ethical theory comes the ammunition to deal with many of the situational questions you'll encounter in your medical school interview. You'll also perhaps gain a deeper appreciation into the difficult choices a doctor faces on a regular basis. Hopefully, you'll gain a solid ethical foundation from which to make logical, reasoned decisions rather than being swayed by emotional arguments.

The Economics course came out of my realisation that one should not live in a world of scientific abstraction. It's all well and good to memorise the structures of the Krebs' Cycle products for a Biochemistry exam, but the real world focuses on money, and the distribution and allocation of scarce resources. Perhaps this is a bit of a cynical view, but I felt it was important enough to use the example of funding and money in one of my MCAT essays. Economics provides a numerical basis for evaluating the suitability of decisions that compete for the same resources. Economics often asks the question: "Should I invest that last $100 dollars, or should I spend it?" This type of cost:benefit analysis finds its way into many healthcare questions. For example, "Should I place $20 million of tax dollars into reducing surgical waiting lists, or into bolstering drug addiction education?" or "Should we spend $30 million dollars into new cardiac research, or spend it on preventative measures such as a public program to educate the population about healthy eating and exercise?" Even here, the parallels of scarce resource allocation ring true in medicine.

My Biomedical Ethics professor is fond of this saying:

"What you give to one, you must take away from everyone else."

Take note of these words, and never forget them, because they form the underlying reality of all medical decisions. Each medical budget, each available organ for transplant, is limited. Since there is a limited resource base, it stands to reason that helping each one person leaves that much less in the resource base to treat everyone else. This manifests itself in Biomedical Ethics situations such as allocating the last liver transplant, or the last bed in the emergency room. If you decide to give that liver transplant to one individual, it means that the next person on the list runs the risk of dying before receiving the next organ. Serious stuff.

Both Economics and Ethics attack the same problems of resource allocation, but using fundamentally different selection criteria. Both disciplines have something important to offer when it comes to making decisions regarding the allocation of medical treatment. Do yourself a favour and learn a bit more about them both. As a doctor, you will certainly find yourself in a gate-keeping role, as you apportion both your time and society's resources to each of your patients.

Here, the inter-relationships between such seemingly disparate disciplines as Philosophical Ethics and Economics begin to materialize and become apparent. If you'd asked me a couple years back whether a numerical science like Economics and a theoretically-grounded art like Philosophy could have anything in common, I would have laughed in your face. Not any longer. And it is at this time, this realisation, that marks the ability for critical thinking which is so crucial for evaluating problems in a clinical setting.

At this time in third year, you should hopefully know some professors fairly well. If not, this is the time to start, as reference letters for medical school must usually be written by October-December of fourth year undergraduate studies (if you intend to enter medical school the following year). Therefore, if you only start to communicate to teachers in September of fourth year, you only give the professor four months, at the most, worth of your personality from which to write a strong and convincing reference letter.

Possible ways to make the acquaintance of professors include going through their graduate students, who are likely your present and past TA's. Soliciting volunteer positions in their lab may also open a few doors. It also wouldn't hurt to show yourself to be an attentive student. As a former tutor, I'm always gratified when I'm asked questions for clarification, as it shows the student is actively trying to learn, rather than passively copying material. Of course, be reasonable, and make certain you've honestly tried to understand the concept before asking. There's a fine line to tread between genuinely wanting to understand, and appearing like a ladder-climbing suckup. Finally, NSERC offers Canadian undergraduate scholarships to subsidize a professor to hire summer students. While you need to have good academic credentials to access these scholarships, you'll receive decent wages while gaining research experience, with the possibility of even publishing a paper.

While the process of making yourself known to the professors might seem like a colossal headache, it ultimately returns rewards. You'll gain a bit more insight into the university and its functions. More importantly, you'll make many contacts and meet people who may share your ambitions and can contribute advice. You'll also gain the reference letters from faculty members that you often need for medical school admission. Naturally, this type of networking will serve you well throughout your career.

Do you have Pre-Med Syndrome?

I'm only half-joking here folks. I like to define Pre-Med Syndrome as the overly obsessive, and unhealthy desire to do whatever it takes to enter medical school. To those that wonder how I can be so arrogant as to draw a line between being hard-working and being a PMS'er, I'll note here that I certainly went overboard during my undergraduate studies. Stressing out over my exams and midterms throughout the entire semester definitely didn't make for a fun time, and it doesn't make you fun to be around. So, following on the age-old statement that an unexamined life is not worth living, I'll start by asking the inevitable question, which you will repeatedly encounter for the rest of your career:

"Why do you want to become a doctor?"

If your interviews are anything like mine, you'll be asked this question every single time. You'll also ask this question of yourself next time you study Organic Chemistry Diels-Alder reactions, or memorise the Biochemical structures of Krebs Cycle intermediates in the undergraduate "weeder" courses. I've asked myself this question repeatedly during long nights in medical school. I'm sure I'll still be asking this question as I proceed into residency training, and past that as a practising physician. Medicine requires a great deal of personal sacrifices. Therefore, you might want to devote some serious time towards this question. I wondered about my answer ever since Grade 11 of senior high school, six years before I entered medical school.

You should be very clear about what motivates you towards medicine, because it is this compulsive draw towards the art of healing that will determine your actions and stress levels while you jump through the hoops of medical school admissions. This desire to append the letters "MD" onto your name badge may also lead you to PMS. Is this healthy?

A brief example: In any university, there are pre-med students who feel they've got what it takes to be a doctor, and orient their entire lives towards achieving that goal. From sitting in the front row and hand-waving to ask inane questions of the professor in an attempt to gain facial recognition to get that reference letter, to stealing lecture materials stored in the library, these pre-meds want to be called "Doctor." Sometimes, it doesn't even matter what kind of doctor they become.

I knew at least one UVic person who was contemplating entering the naturopathic (ND) doctorate degree versus the allopathic (MD) doctorate degree simply because the competition is less fierce, not because of any belief that the naturopathic stream is more effective. As my sister is a recently-graduated naturopath, I can attest that while the mindset of helping the patient is the same, the methods of treatment can vary dramatically versus Westernized allopathic approach. You should be very sure to be informed on the naturopathic philosophy before applying and taking a spot away from someone who genuinely wants to be a naturopath. Using the naturopathic profession as a backup to what you really want is an extraordinarily poor choice if you don't embrace their ideals.

The same principle applies to applying to other healthcare professions as a backup. If you don't think you'd be happy being a dentist, or an optometrist, or a chiropractor, or a podiatrist, etc then you probably shouldn't be applying. If you don't have enough information to make that kind of a decision, then try to find mentors and current practitioners in that profession to shadow, so that you can find out first-hand whether that career fits with your personality and future goals.

I think that currently, you really need both academic achievement in addition to a well-rounded background to be a very competitive applicant. Without the marks and MCAT scores, you will be weeded out and rejected without receiving an interview (and all your extra-curricular activities and travels will never be demonstrated). However, without an interesting and diverse background, you run the risk of being passed over at the interview stage by another applicant who has a stronger set of interviews. My point here is that you need moderation and achievement in both areas. However, if you need to prioritize one above the other due to time constraints, you should probably work more on your GPA. You can always add more volunteering and travelling in after you have graduated, but it's nearly impossible to bring up a low GPA.

On the other hand, being well-rounded is important. The attainment of a sky-high GPA and stellar MCAT scores are no longer a guarantee of acceptance, although they are the first step. An example is a good friend of mine, who applied to two medical schools with a 34 MCAT, and an AMCAS cumulative GPA of 3.9. He did not even receive interviews at either UBC or U of Calgary. Another friend with a 38R MCAT and AMCAS GPA of 3.93 was rejected after interviews at U of Calgary and U of Saskatchewan. I can only conclude that there was some non-academic issue in their applications that led to them being stonewalled.

As far as marks go, there is a minimum level of academic achievement before you'll be asked for an interview. This will no doubt vary for each individual medical school. My advice is to contact each school to obtain this information, and then work only as hard as is necessary to comfortably achieve this threshold. Past that, devote your energies towards non-academic pursuits. That's what will allow you to excel on your interviews. Remember that not passing the interview usually means you won't get in. Remember, you are seeking to become a balanced and well-rounded applicant.

I've already betrayed my bias that a good doctor must first be a good human being. Many medical school admissions committees apparently believe the same. The Dean of UBC's Admissions Committee, when asked about the grading criteria of an interview replied simply:"What do we look for? Remember the last time you went to your doctor? What aspects of him/her did you like, and what characteristics did you dislike? Those features are what we look for in all of our med students, as they are the doctors of the future."

What I'm trying to bring across is that academic qualifications are not the raison d'etre of a doctor. I've met many undergraduate people whose intellectual insights I could not match even if I were to live for a thousand years. On the flip side, I sure don't want any of them to be my doctors! The weighting for UBC medical school admissions in 1999 was 50% interview, 40% GPA, and 10% MCAT and three reference letters. Flunk your interview, and you'll never enter medical school. However, you do need to have the academic standing to get those interviews.

I've had the opportunity the past two years to observe the applications of many friends. Almost without exception, those who were interviewed had a strong pre-requisite GPA, and a good overall GPA. From that point on, the personal characteristics are responsible for the acceptance letter. However, since the pre-req GPA is one of the few standardized characteristics that all applicants must have, it can be used to weed out the applicant pool. So, it's important to maintain your GPA, especially the pre-req average. Without it, you may not get the interview where you'll hve the chance to talk individually with admissions committee members to explain why you would make an excellent doctor.

Because of this year's showing, where many of my friends didn't receive interviews (although I think they would make great doctors), I have concluded that maintaining a high pre-requisite GPA is very important, and one factor of your application that you cannot compromise. If you have the choice of keeping a good GPA, or of doing several volunteer jobs, get the marks and only as much volunteering as you can handle without sacrificing the GPA. After all, you can always volunteer more after you've graduated; it's much harder to "fix" a low pre-req GPA average.

On the flip side, the honest truth is that a super transcript doesn't necessarily yield an acceptance letter. So why fixate on it, when you need the rest of the package to be a truly competitive applicant? That only leads to PMS. Instead of studying that extra hour, take a break and go join the pottery club, or intramural sports, or take music lessons. Learn another language, read up on your cultural history, and go volunteer. Broaden your learning perspective, and meet people at the same time. After some relaxation time, you'll be more motivated to hit the books again. Don't forget to take time out for yourself.

Medicine is a social profession. From the time you have your admissions interviews, throughout the years of medical school, and while you are a doctor helping patients, you'll be interacting with a great many people coming from an unimaginably diverse set of backgrounds. I feel the people most adept at navigating through this sea of interaction are the ones I want to be my doctors and specialists when I become a patient. Keep your marks up, but also develop the other areas of yourself and your application. You'll need both the academic and the non-academic facets to have the best chance of a successful med school application.

Keep that in mind the next time you are PMS'ing over a Biochemistry exam.