Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Cheerleader vs. The Gatekeeper

I advise a lot of students that want to go on to health professional schools. Doctor, Physical Therapist, Physician's Assistant, Veterinarian wanna-be's.

Overall, SRU (where I work, see intro) does a decent job of getting the students into those schools. We beat the national average by a wide margin. It has been this way for 40 + years. There could be two ways to achieve this high ratio. For one, we could only let students apply that have a good chance of getting in, OR we could do a really good job of preparing them through our curriculum and/or advising (or use screwy stats).

In the olden days, the leader of the pre-professional group was a "gatekeeper". That is, if he didn't think you could get in, he would strongly discourage you from applying. If you weren't approved by Dr. Pre-med, you didn't get to apply to Med school. Of course this is terrible and fraught with bias, (and that person is looong gone) but it is really only one end of a spectrum.

On the other end of this spectrum is "The Cheerleader". Like your mother, the cheerleader believes you can be anything you want to be- even a doctor if you have a 2.8 GPA and score a 24 on the MCATs. You can do it! You can make it, if you only try hard enough! Stick around for 6 years and keep retaking that Organic Chem class to raise your grade...

I think that I/ we fall in the middle, or lean a bit to gatekeeper side, but only a tiny bit. Schools look at a whole package, but for seriously low scores you have to have a very compelling life story to get into a top school (like, you were a child soldier in Rwanda before being rescued and going to college). Therefore, we have to guess a little as to whether a student can make it into a certain school.

What do you do if you have a student with low scores that wants to get into TopMedSchool? What do you say?

Here's what I and my colleagues do. We use clear but gentle language. And we guide students to apply to schools they can get into.

Your scores are very limiting = your grades are really bad and MCATS are low.

Our challenge is to find school for which you are a good fit = we have to seek out schools that have lower standards.

Let's put TopChoiceMed at the very bottom of your list of schools = don't waste your application fee.

Consider these schools. They are nearby, their incoming class scores are quite close to yours, you are a competitive applicant because of your work in a chiropractic setting, and your philosophy matches the school's philosophy = you should apply only to osteopathic schools.

You are still going to have to scrap for it = you can make it but your application is not as competitive as others.

We will heartily endorse a students application to the schools we recommend. We can't write "Stu" a good recc for a school that is too far out of reach. If Stu applies to that school, we will tell Stu directly that the letter won't be a glowing recommendation due to a (perceived) poor fit.

So, is that Gatekeeper-y? Cheerleader-y? Some of it is just plain-ol' good advising. Stu needs to know that Stu can't get into TopChoiceMed. But on the other hand there ARE schools Stu can get into. Good advising includes informing Stu of the options and non-options. And there's no reason to be the hammer if Stu does have options.

And as for the stats? We count osteopathic schools (I would say 20-25% of our pre-med students become DOs). We also count it as a success when a student applies, doesn't make it, but then has a successful second try.

Pre- health takes a LOT more time than I'd like, but it has its rewards, too. PrayGod that I do it fairly and kindly...


  1. I think you guys have the right approach. I mean you have to tell some of them or they will blindly waste years and a ton of money trying to get into med school and never make it. I'm sure you all are proven right infinite times more than you have ever been proven wrong.

  2. Actually, cases like the one above are pretty rare. Most of the time we sending our students off into the alligator pit with MCATs of 29-32 (had 2- 34s since I've been here). They tend to do well in general. I can count 3 iffy cases in 4 years of doing this- so no, I wouldn't say that I have a long record of being right over the student. In fact, One kid I didn't think would get into PT school got into a decent one. So its a toss-up.