COVID-19 And The Pre-Med Experience

By: Shoshanah Marcus  |  August 31, 2020

By Shoshanah Marcus, News Editor

For the students with aspirations of becoming a physician, the coronavirus pandemic has posed particularly challenging dilemmas. 

Not only are medical school applicants expected to have stellar grades and Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) scores, but they are also tasked with the mission to demonstrate their passion for the medical field through various extracurricular activities. Such activities include volunteer work and laboratory research, both require hands-on experience rather than online commitments. Moreover, medicine itself is a hands-on experience; in order to become a physician, one is required to complete several years of residency and fellowship training designed to train future practicing physicians with some hands-on experience. However, with the rampant spread of COVID-19, aspiring medical school students are faced with several challenges.

While there is certainly a range in testing scores for students in various medical schools, it is common knowledge that in order to be accepted into medical schools, one needs to have a particularly high grade point average (GPA) and MCAT score. Since classes have been transferred to an online format, many pre-medical (pre-med) students in Yeshiva University’s undergraduate schools have felt that this has not only impacted their performance in their Spring 2020 classes, but also has hindered their ability to perform experiments effectively in their laboratory sections. According to a survey that I spread among the student body via social media, when students were asked if the COVID-19 outbreak impacted their performances in their Spring 2020 courses, 33.3% of respondents replied that the pandemic had no impact while the remaining respondents replied that the pandemic had either impacted or somewhat impacted their performance in their courses.

The coronavirus’ interference with the extracurricular activities of many undergraduate students has left pre-med students especially worried. According to the survey, 97.6% of students answered that the coronavirus pandemic has interfered with their extracurriculars in some way.  One second year student in Stern College remarked: “All of my volunteering and shadowing opportunities were cancelled due to the coronavirus. I feel as though I may end up behind in my studies and my extracurricular activities.” When asked on the survey: “On a scale from 1-10, how has the pandemic impacted your stress and/or anxiety levels regarding your pre-med experience?” with 10 being: “The pandemic has caused my stress and/or anxiety levels to increase dramatically” and 1 being: “The pandemic has decreased my levels of stress and/or anxiety,” the average response was a 7.28.

With the heavy workload during the semester, many pre-med students usually designate the summer as the period in which they will be able to commit to more time-consuming tasks such as laboratory volunteer work. However, the coronavirus has posed issues that have caused summer plans of many pre-med undergraduates to be cancelled or conducted remotely. When asked: “Have your summer plans been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic?” 52.4% of students answered “yes,” and 35.7% of students answered: “My plans have been altered to adapt to the new reality presented by the pandemic, but not cancelled.” According to the survey, 73.8% of respondents are taking science related summer courses either as planned or instead of their previously scheduled plans, and 38.1% of respondents are studying for the MCAT.

Opinions on the pandemic vary greatly. Some students have responded with further interest and commitment to their studies, looking at the coronavirus as a springboard for greater medical interest and opportunity. “It has only further piqued my interest within the field of medicine, and the ultimate goal of keeping everyone safe!” remarked a first year student at Yeshiva College. Another second year student at Yeshiva College added: “Obviously everything got more difficult and the quality is less, but the teaching has been improving and lab experience too so that being out of the physical classroom is not as much of a knockout punch to my experience.” Despite some students’ positivity, there are major difficulties for many pre-medical students.

Upper undergraduate students have faced serious setbacks due to the coronavirus with regard to their MCAT exams and application to medical school. One fourth year student at Stern College explained: “The coronavirus has delayed my application to medical school because I will have to make up for all the extracurricular[s] I was supposed to do in the spring semester and in the summer.” Another fourth year student from Yeshiva College added that “[a]ll the libraries are closed so it’s made studying for classes/MCAT much much more difficult.” 

Since many pre-med students are not gaining valuable hands-on experience, some students look to the medical school admissions to reconsider their criteria for future applicants. Mili Chizhik (SCW ‘22) explained, “Many people are able to volunteer on the front lines which would then give a lot of experience and value to one’s medical school application. However, there are also many people who are unable to volunteer because they do not want to risk getting COVID-19 and potentially spread the virus to their families and those around them. Obviously there are other ways we can give back to the community or build up our applications and extracurriculars, but this whole crisis creates an atmosphere of uncertainty beyond just the global health status but our future careers and how the admissions committee will look at the applicants. … The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of financial uncertainty and many prospective medical school students do not have the luxury of having it paid for by their families, therefore it must come from their own pockets. Thus, to ensure a fair and a just, non-privileged application cycle, medical schools should modify their admissions criteria to give each student an equal chance.”

As the coronavirus continues to pose challenges to pre-med students and medical school applicants, now more than ever students need medical schools to be understanding. While students are challenged to search beyond what is conventionally expected from them for medical schools, this is a joint venture that requires both sides to start looking at things differently.

Author’s note: Thank you to everyone who contributed to the survey!