Laurence Savett, M.D., can rattle off a list of qualities that medical school admissions committees seek in prospective students. They include motivation, maturity, judgment, realistic self-appraisal, emotional stability, intellectual curiosity, oral and listening skills and the ability to relate to others.
Pre-med students also must have a commitment to doing good, according to Savett, a retired internist who has served on the admissions committee of the University of Minnesota Medical School (www.med.umn.edu) and now advises pre-med students at the University of St. Thomas (www.stthomas.edu).
"I want to find out if they have worked, either for pay or as a volunteer, in a hospital or nursing home or hospice or as a personal care attendant," Savett says. "I tell them that's not simply because it looks good on your résumé, but rather because it will help you, the student, validate for yourself that this is what you want to do."
Grades are also important, especially in the sciences. But Savett says pre-med students need not major in biology or chemistry. He advocates a strong liberal arts education, and says admissions committees want to see depth in an area, science or non-science.
"When one decides to become a doctor, one is committing oneself to four years of medical school and at least three or four years of post-medical school training and life-long learning," Savett says. "That's a huge commitment in terms of both time and money."
Learning to be a physician
Savett wants students to understand what it's like to be a patient as well as a physician, and has written a book on these topics. He also asks about their concept of the doctor-patient relationship and tries to diffuse some of the myths of medicine. These include the beliefs that physicians rarely get to spend enough time with patients, and that the volume of paperwork is overwhelming.
He also strongly encourages them to spend a few days with a practicing physician to get a feeling for what his or her workday is like. "I like to speak to them as early as possible in order to lay out some of these issues and to give them advice about opportunities for volunteer work, and to help connect them to physicians they can shadow," Savett says.
Most importantly, he says, an aspiring physician must have "a good head and a good heart." After listening to a patient's story, examining the patient, reviewing test results, making a diagnosis and deciding on treatment, a good physician will do one more thing, Savett says: "Take a step back and ask oneself, `Is there yet another way to look at this?'"