doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Month: July, 2014

Rising Death Toll

My car ride home yesterday was quiet. Normally NPR is on, but the moment I heard the word “Gaza” I switched it off. I have heard too much about the rising death toll there—around 600 yesterday morning, if memory serves.

Rising death toll: I can’t count how many times I have heard iterations of that phrase since the current conflict in Gaza started. Or during others—Syria, Egypt, Iraq—the list goes on. It is a cold euphemism for loose limbs strewn about the street. A cold euphemism that protects us from other people’s reality: life among the grim reaper. A cold euphemism that allows us to hear the news, frown, throw up our hands, and move on with our day. I am as guilty of this as anyone.

How is this OK?

Yesterday morning, I heard that a hospital was hit. People died. There were supposedly military supplies nearby. And? This is justification? As a future physician, I am tasked with looking out for society’s most vulnerable—especially people who are sick or wounded, like those in that hospital, and those without physical protection or resources. The very people lumped into this rising death toll. This is unacceptable, in the worst possible way.

Don’t construe this as me siding with a political group. I don’t know who is right. No, I take that back—neither side is right; both are very wrong. Because their dual inability to keep even a temporary ceasefire is pushing that death toll ever higher. No, I’m not siding with politics. I’m siding with people. People who didn’t sign up for this. Who just want to eat and drink in peace. Say their prayers in peace. Work and play in peace. Live in peace. Instead, they are dead.

There seems no good way to conclude these thoughts except to say: I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t even know what to do with this information anymore.

And today, again, the death toll rises.


MCAT2015: Here’s the Scoop

The MCAT is my friend.

That was my mantra for three months, the amount of time I spent studying for this infamous medical school entrance exam. While content is clearly important, so is the mental component of this test. It wasn’t until I conquered my major fears and anxieties that my scores really soared, from upper 20s to mid 30s. (To answer the unspoken question, I got a nicely balanced 33: 10PS/12BS/11VR.)

With the new MCAT2015 approaching, I get the sense that this mental component continues to be key. People I have talked to seem more afraid than ever of the MCAT. While a healthy respect for this exam is important, fear will get you nowhere. It only makes things worse, actually. While I certainly never plan on taking the MCAT again (whew!), I am learning what I can about new exam to help those of you who are where I was a year or two ago—trying to make it into medical school. The purpose of this post, then, is to demystify the MCAT2015 using information from official sources (everything here comes straight from the AAMC) and to point you toward trustworthy resources to help you prepare.

Why change?

The current MCAT exam (last test administration date: January 23, 2015) has been around, in more or less the same form, since 1991. A lot has changed since then, say people at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)—in science, medicine, and in standardized testing. So the AAMC put together a committee in late 2008, called MR5. This committee gathered survey information from more than 2,700 medical school and university faculty, medical students, and residents, as well as compiling data from outreach events and other panels. The result was a set of recommendations that became the MCAT2015. The new test will be divided into four sections. Click on the title of the section to access the AAMC’s description of what the section will cover.

  1. Biological & Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  2. Chemical & Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  3. Psychological, Social, & Biological Foundations of Behavior
  4. Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills

Rather than focus on requiring specific courses, the new exam aims to focus on competencies. These competencies include topics in the biological and physical sciences of course, but extend to the social sciences as well—and this is new MCAT content. Each of these competencies aligns with what the AAMC calls a “Building Block” for learning in medical school. In other words, there is supposed to be a direct link between what you learn as you prepare for the MCAT and what you will learn in medical school.

In addition to these 10 foundational concepts (aka competencies), AAMC expects students to have mastered some specific Scientific & Inquiry Reasoning Skills. These include (1) knowledge of scientific principles, (2) scientific reasoning and problem solving, (3) reasoning about the design and execution of research, (4) data-based and statistical reasoning, and (5) general mathematical concepts and techniques.

What’s the big deal?

The big deal, for one, is that this exam will cover more content. In addition to the concepts usually taught in general chemistry, general biology, physics, and organic chemistry, content from the first semester of introductory biochemistry, psychology, and sociology is tested.

The MCAT2015, clocking in at 7 hours and 30 minutes of seat time, is a marathon exam. It’s 2 hours longer than the old MCAT, in fact. That requires dedication to prepare for, both mentally and physically (you think I’m joking—I’m not).

In addition to content and length changes, there are also changes in administration. While AAMC says there will be the same number of seats available for the MCAT2015, they will be spread across fewer dates (14 testing dates to be exact), with most test administrations on Saturday or Sunday. All tests now start at 8 a.m., and there are no more double-day administrations. (There used to be administrations in both the morning and the afternoon on the same day—no more with MCAT2015.) Click here for MCAT2015 test dates.

How is MCAT2015 scored?

According to the AAMC, MCAT2015 score reports will be more comprehensive and useful. Along with a total score (ranging from 472 to 528), there will be four section scores and several interpretation tools. These include:

  • Percentile rank for each score (applicable to THAT year’s test only)
  • Confidence band for each score (reliability and accuracy of the score)
  • Score profile (to highlight strengths and weaknesses of the test taker)

This new scoring system, says Scott Oppler, PhD, director of MCAT Development and Psychometrics, is “designed to draw attention to applicants who might otherwise be overlooked.” It does this, he explains, by highlighting the middle of scoring pack rather than the top third. (I’m still not quite clear on how this works, but I’m not a standardized test designer, or an ADCOM.)

In the beginning, percentile ranks will be based on a small number of test administrations (simply because there is no other data). This, and all the new analysis being done, will slightly delay scores for people who take the test first in April/May. Although AAMC is offering an incentive to those people: a $150 Amazon gift card.

Where are those resources?!

Right here:

  • MCAT2015 Offical AAMC site for the new MCAT
  • Which exam? A site dedicated to help students decide between the old and new MCAT tests (for those who have the option to take either exam)
  • What’s on the MCAT2015 Exam? An interactive site put together by the AAMC that lists the competencies, links to the content you should know, has videos and practice questions, lots of good stuff
  • Khan Academy partnership AAMC teamed up with the great people at Khan Academy (yes, that’s an endorsement) to create content to help students prepare for the new exam; there are free videos and tutorials, as well as practice questions
  • Resources for Administrators This site is geared toward administratos (like pre-health advisors), but it’s publicly accessible content, and you may find it helpful
  • the e-mail address for questions related to the new MCAT exam

In addition, AAMC says a full-length practice test will be available this fall, MCAT2015 Study Sets (question compilations) available early 2015, and the Official MCAT2015 Practice Test #1 available fall 2015.

Given that no one has even taken the exam yet, it’s far too early to make any sort of judgment about it. The fact is, it’s coming. And AAMC’s goal is for it to last for 15 years. The best thing to do is prepare yourself as best you can. And as always, remember: Take a breath.

Priced out of a Medical School Education

Above is a screenshot from HOMEROOM: The Official Blog of the U.S. Department of Education. Click on the screenshot to read the post in its entirety (the article will open in a new browser window). This article was also cross-posted on the White House Blog.

Higher education should be affordable for everyone who wants it badly enough. Who has worked for it. That’s the message I get from President Barack Obama’s words – and deeds – of the last several months. Years, even.

But guess what, President Obama? This year, I was priced out of a higher education. At Weill Cornell Medical College, an Ivy League medical school, no less. Why? Because I can’t get a federal Grad PLUS loan. I find this unacceptable. I think you should, too.

When the U.S economy fell to its quivering knees in 2008, my credit fell along with it. Why? I was laid off. So was my husband. Bills piled up. We lost our home to foreclosure. We got divorced. I got sick. More bills piled up. Bills I couldn’t pay because I couldn’t find a job.

Somewhere in the chaos, this former journalist found another passion and purpose: medicine. After completing my medical school pre-requisites, I took the MCAT and applied to medical school. I was accepted – not once, not twice, but three times. Finally, I decided on Cornell.

But even Cornell, a private institution with an enormous endowment, couldn’t offer me enough financial aid. I still need a credit-based PLUS loan. And with my credit history, the U.S. Department of Education says “no-go.” Federal Student Aid refuses to even process my appeal, having returned my substantial documentation to me – clearly unread – in 24 minutes. (Yes, that’s a denial-to-process in 24 minutes, not hours.) That documentation was evidence of my extenuating circumstances, which the Department of Education says it will consider in an appeal. But apparently, the Department of Education takes a very narrow view of what “extenuating circumstances” means. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? Nah, that doesn’t count. Try again. Only this time, with a co-signer. Except, both my parents are nearing retirement age. Both co-signed on loans for earlier college coursework. So taking on more debt, for them, is highly inadvisable.

I have been granted a one-year deferral from Cornell to resolve my loan situation. But I seem to have exhausted most of my options. So I am making noise. Banging what pots and pans I have left, trying to get someone to hear my plight and help my cause.

Previous to today, my efforts included contacting:

  • The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (all 22 senators)
  • The U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Higher Education & Workforce Training (all 21 representatives)
  • Elected officials from my home state of Illinois

To date, I have heard back from 3 politicians:

  • U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), whose office is in the process of working with the U.S. Department of Education my behalf
  • U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), whose field representative told me that my issue is an important piece of the student loan puzzle
  • U.S. Congressman Lou Barletta (R-PA, 11th District), whose office staff told me that unfortunately he cannot help me because I am out of the Congressman’s district

Today, I sent 64 more e-mails. Recipients included:

  • The White House
  • Multiple contacts at the U.S. Department of Education
  • The American Medical Association (all 16 people on the Board of Trustees, 2 staff members from the Section on Medical Schools, and 6 staff members from the Medical Education Group)
  • The Association of American Medical Colleges (the Chief Academic Officer and 5 staff members from the FIRST for Medical Education group)
  • Reporters and blog writers (from more than a dozen different media outlets) who cover higher education or health/medicine

I was certainly not the only one who lost a job and a house and a marriage during the economic collapse. I  know I am not the only one dealing with this student loan denial, either.

Please, help me spread the word. Because I completely agree with President Obama – “no hardworking young person should be priced out of a higher education.”

Together, let’s make sure that happens.

Weill Cornell Medical College, Class of 2019!

It’s been a busy 12 months, a veritable medical school roller coaster:

  • Applications: 25
  • Interviews: 6
  • Acceptances: 3

But as of last week, it’s finally official. I will be attending Weill Cornell Medical College, class of 2019.

Initially, I received acceptances to University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Colorado School of Medicine, and a wait list offer at Cornell. Initially, I accepted at University of Colorado. On July 3, I got the long-awaited e-mail from Cornell. Did I want to come after all? I didn’t have to think twice. Cornell it is.

The roller coaster ride continues, however. Class of 2019 – that’s 5 years away, if you do the math. Wait, you might be asking – isn’t medical school 4 years long? Yes. Due to my financial circumstances, I am deferring for one year, hoping to matriculate next August (2015). In the meantime, I am trying to resolve my student loan situation. That is, trying to GET a student loan.

More about that soon …