Pre-Med Study Abroad? What the Ivy League Advises Its Own

Should you study abroad as a pre-med? It’s certainly not required, and given the unique challenges of the pre-med curriculum, pre-meds have fewer options that fit their requirements. Is it worth it? Top universities mostly lean towards “yes” as an answer to that. The opportunity to study abroad (including possibly shadowing abroad) in a foreign setting (medical or not) can assist with med school admissions as well as help pre-meds become better doctors.

Study Abroad and the AAMC Competencies

One of the 15 AAMC competencies, which med schools use to assess students, is none other than intercultural perspective. Could that be obtained inside the U.S.? Certainly. But even a healthcare experience (e.g. shadowing at a clinic) in a very diverse U.S. setting still comes with U.S. expectations, U.S. regulations, U.S. customs, and all manner of U.S. nuances. Moreover, it’s hard to argue for how curricular or extracurricular experiences in the U.S. require just as much “resilience and adaptability” (another of the 15 AAMC competencies) as going abroad to a new place with a different language, culture, timezone, and expectations. And these are just two of the most obvious AAMC competencies that study abroad develops (and allows pre-meds to highlight in essays and interviews).

Atlantis is just one of several programs, but it’s worth stating that, in 2019, a PhD-authored Outcomes Study of over 1000 Atlantis pre-med study abroad alumni, found that 93% of them progressed on the AAMC Core Competencies. 

Why Listen to the Ivies’ Advice to Their Own Pre-meds?

Many schools offer study abroad programs for pre-health students, but to condense the most important knowledge undergraduates need to know, we are looking at what some of the handful of Ivy League institutions are advising their own pre-meds. Why these universities? Because they have the most resources, and some of the highest admissions rates from undergraduate to MD programs. Although Ivy League schools are generally not in the top 20 biggest emitters of applications to MD programs (since they are not nearly as large as state schools), their percentage success is impressive.

By seeing what elite universities are telling their own pre-meds about study abroad, you can be better equipped to determine whether study abroad may be a fit for your own pre-med path, regardless of the college that you attend. As always, do complement the below with your own institution’s advice.

Princeton University

Princeton University, widely considered as one of the top 4 institutions for undergraduates (along with Yale, Stanford, and Harvard) gets very close to recommending that pre-meds interested in study abroad go, for intellectual and personal growth alone, at least. However, the school’s Health Professions Advising (a very helpful site that we can’t recommend enough to all pre-meds regardless of University) goes into more detail about the importance of an international experience for future medical professionals.

The advising office explains “Future health professionals will need to be broadly-educated, mature, adaptable citizens who have had significant experience in the world beyond the classroom. Study abroad is an ideal vehicle for developing some of the skills and attitudes that are valued in the practice of medicine—flexibility, self-reliance, and sensitivity to other cultures.

The third on the list, “sensitivity to other cultures,” is, as mentioned above, an important AAMC competency. Cultural competence, or the knowledge and respect of socio-cultural differences, helps medical professionals interact effectively with people (both peers and patients) from diverse backgrounds. This is not only important today, but demographics strongly suggest that it will become even more important in the upcoming decades.

Beyond the general benefits of study abroad for pre-meds, Princeton HPA also gives sound advice on the logistics of study abroad. They remind pre-meds of something most of us know but can benefit from being reminded of: “Most medical schools will not accept pre-requisites taken abroad,” meaning study abroad is there to build competencies, not to provide the few core pre-med courses. Additionally, some pre-med students might choose to take a few core courses in the summer to carve out an earlier semester for their abroad experience (though this may not be recommended by your school).

Above all, Princeton recommends discussing your situation with a pre-health adviser (that applies to most pre-meds even if they do not attend Princeton). With an understanding of your coursework, GPA, and expectations from study abroad, they can help you decide when the best time to study abroad is. Incidentally, more than one out of every ten U.S. pre-health advisors has visited in-person one or more of Atlantis’ study abroad programs in Europe and beyond — so ask yours for their view on whether Atlantis may be a fit for you, or whether another program is better suited to your situation.

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Columbia University

Columbia University, the one Ivy League in New York City, at their pre-health advising office, reiterates the importance of study abroad for pre-meds, highlighting that it prepares future medical professionals to engage the world in meaningful ways. While much of the advice is identical to that given by Princeton, Columbia provides more advice about when the best time to go abroad is. Almost all of this advice applies to students at other universities since the dynamics are the same.

The university explains that going abroad depends heavily on your professional, academic, and personal timeline. The university’s very helpful Premedical Handbook goes into more detail, explaining that, “Students who pursue opportunities abroad should ensure that the tasks they assume are commensurate with their experience and training and the work is conducted under the supervision of a healthcare professional.” This is crucial. 

It’s recommended that pre-meds study abroad after most of the pre-requisite courses are completed (because core pre-med classes such as Organic Chemistry need to be taken in the U.S.). That’s why many pre-med students study abroad in their junior year and finish these requirements in their senior year — they have a solid foundation of credits under their belt and understand what they can handle in their final year of school. Another option is to complete all of your pre-requisites by the end of your sophomore year, leaving the next semesters available for going abroad. Consider, however, that of the approximately 300,000 U.S. college students who study abroad every year, about two-thirds do so in the summer. For pre-meds, this number is even higher. 

(As an aside, we here at Atlantis should note that a large share of our alumni went abroad with us earlier in college, and that is because Atlantis programs come in many lengths and are always during breaks such as summer break or winter break, fitting into many schedules.)

No matter when you decide to go abroad, Columbia recommends that “Prior to volunteering abroad, students are also encouraged to review the AAMC reference Guidelines for Premedical and Medical Students Providing Patient Care During Clinical Experiences Abroad.” If your study abroad experience involves a healthcare setting (which is the case for instance with Atlantis programs), these guidelines are crucial. 

Cornell University

Out of the eight Ivy League institutions, Cornell produces the most applicants to MD programs in the U.S. (15th place overall among medical school application producers). Cornell Health Careers Advising provides valuable insight that surely comes from the combination of having great pre-meds and having many of them go on to attend medical school. One of their pieces of advice to these students is to truly seize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of studying abroad. In their words: “Once you start medical school, you’re on an unstoppable train. It’s true, you might have clinical rotations abroad, but you will never again have dedicated time to build a deeper understanding of yourself in the context of another culture.”

While courses abroad do not count towards your GPA, the experience will last you a lifetime. The advising office also emphasizes that pre-med students are not licensed healthcare professionals. During your time abroad, you will not be providing care, but you will be shadowing and soaking up the experience of being around working medical professionals.

Finally, the office explains the importance of study abroad in the bigger picture of a pre-med’s career. “Your personal statement should show who you are beyond your GPA and MCAT score. If you had a meaningful experience abroad, this is a great opportunity to put your personal experience and perspective on paper.” We also believe the same Cornell advice could be applied to interviews — just as much as with essays. Atlantis alumni often have their Atlantis experience be one of the most discussed topics in med school interviews. In a survey of Atlantis alumni who went on to med/PA school, the vast majority said Atlantis “strongly” or “very strongly” impacted their admittance. 

Advisors at Cornell further recommend that when you interview for a graduate program, you speak to how your experience abroad impacted your strengths in each of the AAMC’s Core Competencies.

Dartmouth College

Finally, Pre-Health Advising at Dartmouth College provides a well-rounded overview of how their pre-health students study abroad. “Some students come in with the misconception that pre-health students cannot study abroad or take off-terms due to the many prerequisites and major courses needed to graduate and apply for med/dental/vet school. While this is true for a very small percentage of students, many Dartmouth pre-health students have taken a term to study abroad or a term off,” the office explains.

Like with the other Ivy League schools, Dartmouth recommends every pre-med student speak with an advisor. “It is important to speak to a pre-health advisor to come up with a [Plan] that works best for you and includes your pre-health requirements, major requirements, and intended time to apply to a health professions school.”

Conclusion

Study abroad isn’t required for pre-meds. However, it may be one of the best ways for students to build many of the competencies that medical schools clearly value. Study abroad should always be secondary to grades and healthcare exposure, but, particularly if you can make pre-med study abroad also a highly valuable healthcare experience, it may be an experience worth considering. 

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About Atlantis

Atlantis is the global leader in healthcare experiential education. Atlantis has run programs for almost 15 years, and Atlantis alumni, after participating in Atlantis and graduating from college, have gone on to attend almost all medical schools in the U.S. Atlantis operates short-term programs (1-10 weeks) over school breaks, aimed at U.S. undergraduates, and taking place primarily in the U.S. and Europe. Medical schools want 3 things: healthcare exposure, GPA/MCAT, and AAMC competencies; Atlantis programs contribute on all 3 fronts.

Explore shadowing opportunities with Atlantis by starting your application process, or by connecting with an Atlantis alum.

Atlantis does not imply an endorsement (of itself nor of pre-med study abroad as an activity) from these institutions; however, it seeks to disseminate important truths about medical admissions to as many pre-health students as possible, in order to help students navigate the often stressful pre-health path. The access to quality information varies substantially across this population.