The Medical School Doctor is In

by Amherst College

Summer days at Amherst College are among the busiest of the year for Dr. Richard Aronson ’69, a physician who spends his days reviewing medical school applications, writing letters of recommendations, mentoring students and alumni and doing anything else needed to help prepare Amherst graduates for careers in health.

Dean Aronson, the health professions adviser at Amherst’s Career Center, says he might be one of only a handful of physicians in the country working as an undergraduate career adviser and mentor in higher education.

He believes – and his colleagues agree – that his professional background as a clinical pediatrician for 10 years, and as a public health official in Vermont, Wisconsin and Maine provides Amherst students a rare opportunity to gain perspective from someone who’s been through what they aspire to achieve.

Richard Aronson, M.D. ’69 advises a student about medical school.

The soft-spoken and unassuming Aronson is a passionate mentor to his students, and he tirelessly reaches out to anyone who can help students achieve their personal and professional goals. Working from his College Hall office but willing to venture wherever he’s needed, Aronson estimates he’s had more than 500 meetings or encounters with students and alumni in the past six months alone.

Aronson, who also has a master’s in public health, recently took a break from his busy summer to discuss his important job with Peter Rooney, Amherst College’s Director of Public Affairs. An edited transcript follows below. 

Q: Compared to when you were at Amherst, are more or fewer students interested in becoming doctors?

A: I don’t think [the number] has changed. Every year we have approximately 50 to 60 applicants for medical school, but these days, that number spans several graduating classes. So this summer we’re working with 50  applicants for medical school, along with one dental school applicant, from the classes of 2014 to 2009.

Another thing that has changed in a significant way is that most students don’t go right to medical school from Amherst. Most students who go onto med school take one or two or even three years between college and starting medical school.

In a broader sense, the number of students interested in public health and global health has skyrocketed.  While some of these students incorporate this interest into medicine, an increasing number discover ways to integrate public health into a wide variety of other health professions careers.

Q: Why are students taking that extra time before medical school? 

A: Students want to get more experience and to do something concrete in the world before going into another intensive period of study.

Taking time after Amherst also makes them a stronger candidate, because they have that much more experience and maturity to balance out their application.

Q: How is your advice to students informed by your experience as a physician?

A: I feel very strongly that it’s important [for students] to really explore why they want to pursue the health professions, to be sure that it’s their passion and they love it.

I also emphasize that having a low grade in one class isn’t the end of world. There are many paths to medical school, and if medical school doesn’t fit, there are many other professions in health. I’ve had the opportunity to work with all sorts of health care professionals, not just many kinds of physicians, but also nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, social workers, dentists, mental health professionals and public health professionals.

The other thing that being a doctor helps with is that I’m able to connect with the alums in the health professions to create some amazing mentoring opportunities.

But perhaps most important is that I try to convey from my experience the central importance of learning how to honor and respect the dignity of patients, to listen intently and humanely to their unique stories. This is a lifelong journey, and students can start to develop and value this approach while  at Amherst.  There’s a relatively new field of medicine called Narrative Medicine, and Amherst is a natural match for exploring it – the nuance and sensitivity of honoring the stories of illness and healing.

Q: Your own major was religion. Other distinguished alumni in medicine, such as Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus ’61, studied English. These aren’t typical “pre-med” majors. How common are they at Amherst?

A: Amherst has a tradition of turning out humane doctors who have a broad exposure to the liberal arts. We have a substantial number of students who go on to medical school from here who major in non-sciences, probably roughly 1/3. This year, for example, we have students applying to medical school who majored in music, English, history, anthropology, sociology, political science, black studies, psychology,  Spanish, French, and Asian languages/civilizations.

It does require planning and time management and we provide a lot of that support throughout the year from this office in the Career Center and from Professor of Physics William Loinaz, who chairs the health professions committee. We strongly encourage students with even a slight interest in health professions to come and meet with us early on in their Amherst careers so we can get to know them and provide resources for them – connecting them with alumni through the Pathways Mentoring Program who are of great help, dynamic student organizations on campus, the Center for Community Engagement, and many community partners. And for students majoring in science, we strongly encourage them to take a wide variety of courses in the humanities and social sciences.

Q: Why is summer your busiest time?

A: Summer is when students apply to medical school, to dental school and to other health profession schools. They apply in the summer a year before they matriculate at medical school. This summer, our office is working intensely with this year’s cohort of applicants as they write applications. We provide support, advice and guidance as they try to figure out and navigate this very complex and often daunting and competitive process. Also, we work with the large number of professors, coaches, deans, and other staff who spend countless hours writing detailed individual recommendation letters, and to whom we’re always grateful.

Q: How does your office help these students distinguish themselves?

In the summer, in addition to advising students as they apply to medical school, I write what’s called a committee letter. The committee letter is an in-depth portrait, in a sense, a mini-biography, of each applicant in which we tell their unique story – academic, extracurricular, and personal – in a way that’s going to be the most compelling for their candidacy.

We do this in partnership with the health professions committee that consists of four faculty members and is chaired by Professor Loinaz.  I work very closely with Professor Loinaz throughout the entire year.

 The committee letter is a summary of a student’s presentation as a candidate for medical school. It’s drawn from the individual recommendations letters, transcript, resume, personal statement, questionnaire, and my personal knowledge of the applicant gained over the years I’ve worked with them. The personal statement – where the student writes in essence why they want to be a doctor – is a key part of the process. The Writing Center is a key partner in this.  This committee letter takes a lot of work to produce. It has to go through the health professions committee for review and approval. This whole system was created by Professor Stephen George 20 years ago, and fine-tuned over the years by (associate dean of students) Carolyn Bassett. I’m grateful to them for setting it up. Our office is an integral part of the Career Center. In fact, under the direction of Ursula Olender, the Career Center is moving to build on the model of the health professions program and apply it to other fields such as education and the arts.

Q: Has the system been successful?

A: Yes, very. The key is that students apply when they are competitive and ready. We probably average in any given year a roughly 75 to 80 percent acceptance rate. Many students who don’t get in will reapply, and the combination of applying once and then reapplying takes our acceptance up to more than 90 percent.

We pride ourselves at Amherst in not being a cutthroat pre-med environment. We don’t have a pre-med track or major. The students here are collaborative with each other. We’re proud of that.

Our job at Amherst is to provide optimal support so our students will do as well as possible. We have a great group of candidates for medical school. [They represent]the kind of doctor we will need in the future, someone who is  not just a technician and expert in the science of disease but also a healer who is able to combine the science of medicine with the art of medicine. That’s a unique and important contribution. We feel that Amherst is great at turning out that kind of doctor. The same applies to those who end up working in other health professions fields, as an increasing number of students are doing.

Q: Are the common reasons for going to medical school the same as they were a generation ago? 

A: Compared to when I was a student, more and more students are interested in medical school as a path to addressing deeper issues that concern them, [such as] unequal access to healthcare, health disparities, and public health issues such as  obesity and diabetes. There also are many students who have a passionate interest in the science of human health and disease and already have done incredible work in biomedical research.

Q: Does today’s U.S. healthcare system discourage or encourage interest in health care and medicine?

A: I think students are wisely exploring health care in the U.S. today and becoming aware about the immense challenges we face. They come out of Amherst wanting to make health care more accessible, more affordable and more humane.

Q: One hears about parents wanting their kids to be doctors, and pushing them on that path. Do you see much of that at Amherst?

A: Yes, we do have students whose aspirations when they arrive here have been shaped in large part by their parents. One of our responsibilities is to work with them and help them clarify what they themselves want to do with their lives, and help them answer what they really want to do to make them feel fulfilled, productive and happy in their professional life, and not what somebody else will feel is best for them.

Q: How concerned are students about the working conditions and the loans they’ll have to take on if they go to medical school?

A: The students  I work with are overwhelmingly motivated by service, by a desire to alleviate suffering and be involved in a profession that’s fundamentally about healing and helping people in need.

Students are very concerned about the financial aspects of medical school, though. One thing that is fortunate is that Amherst provides need-based support for its students. That means that [our] students are typically not going into medical school with as much debt as students from other colleges.

Even so, the cost of medical school is a huge issue that’s not easily solvable. In spite of that, students who are passionate about medicine as career are going ahead with it.  

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