The Problem with Pre-Med Forums
Pre-med forums are tricky beasts. They have a huge allure for students desperate for information, validation, or even just commiseration. Preparing for and applying to medical school can be emotionally taxing, socially isolating, confusing, intimidating, stressful, and expensive. It’s natural for students to seek out advice wherever they can find it, and to try to surround themselves with people they believe are going through (or have gone through) the same things they’re experiencing. The fact that such forums are free, easily accessible, and have a perceived sense of authority about them makes them all the more attractive. However, there are many reasons students should be wary of pre-med forums, even above and beyond the fact that much of the advice found there is frequently cringe-worthy for those who are admissions experts.
This is an article written from a place of love. The intention here isn't to "throw shade", or even to suggest that "we-and-only-we" can give you the advice, information, and guidance needed to help you maximize your chances of getting into medical school. There are lots of options out there, and you should choose the ones that work most effectively for you. The intention here, rather, is to issue words of caution to students who have big dreams and who want to know and do everything they can to make those dreams reality. There is a wealth of free, reliable, expert advice on medical school admissions out there, composed and distributed by people who are deeply devoted to student success. With all of that available, there really isn't a need to frequent spaces that are prone to error, misinformation, or inaccuracy, even if that information is given in good faith (and that's a pretty substantial "if"). If you're looking for a space to connect with others who are going through the same things you're going through, that's understandable, and I'll speak more to that momentarily. If you're looking for actionable advice, though, pre-med forums are simply not the best resources out there, and they can do as much harm as good.
Peer Review vs. Peer Support
If you’ve ever seen a professor’s eyes pop and jaw drop in abject horror upon seeing a student essay citing Wikipedia, then you may already have an implicit understanding of a key reason pre-med forums are so problematic. While some pre-med forums are part of larger websites that publish articles by verified professionals who have demonstrated that they have something to contribute to the field, those who post in the forum often are not, and – even for those who are “verified” users – the process of verifying one’s basic identity is not the same as demonstrating one’s bona fides in contributing to the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Similarly, Wikipedia articles frequently contain citations that often lead to reliable, peer reviewed, academic sources, so such articles can act as a starting point or a trigger for ideas, but they should be just that - a starting point. While pre-med forums are often moderated and there are community standards – just like Wikipedia – that in no way guarantees that the information you’re getting is accurate, sustainable over time, or even shared in good faith with others’ best interests at heart. Anyone can contribute to an online forum, anyone can say or fabricate just about anything they want as long as it’s not excessively inflammatory, no one has to represent themselves authentically, and mistakes, errors, inaccuracies, or even flat-out lies or disinformation can slip by. Wikipedia is not an acceptable scholarly source because all of these things apply there, as well, and some of the things students claim they’ve learned in such pre-med forums give admissions experts and established medical professionals the same eye-popping, jaw-dropping reactions your profs have when you cite Wikipedia in an essay.
In this blog, I want to break down some of the key issues with such pre-med forums by asking you to consider three things: the sources of the information you find there, the content of that information, and the context in which that information is being posted and accessed. Going to a forum looking for emotional support, camaraderie, or empathy from your peers, which I’ll address later, is quite different from going there hoping to get reliable, actionable advice to help guide your education and application to medical school. To become an expert in any field, information discernment is crucial. There is so much at stake – your goals, your dreams, your future – and it's just not worth risking all that when the source, content, and context of information can be so problematic.
Pre-Med Forums: Information Sources
Authenticity (or Lack Thereof)
Back in 2014, social media users around the world found themselves giggling when reports of a Dutch woman faking a 5-week vacation across South East Asia populated their feeds. Using mostly photo editing and some novel staging (like visiting a Buddhist temple in her town), she did this as an experiment in order to explore the power of social media and the kinds of fabrications that so easily circulate in this medium. Even in 2014, we weren’t all simply naïve to the existence of such inauthenticity online, but the idea that a person could convincingly stage a 42-day adventure, to the extent that it fooled even family and friends, was perplexing and troubling, if admittedly pretty funny.
Today, there is now a company that exists solely to help you fake a luxury vacation, and – rather than a warning – many have taken the Dutch woman’s experiment as inspiration for their own “fake-cation”.
The extent and growing popularity of such artifice across social media points to the first issue worth considering with regard to pre-med forums. It may seem obvious that you don’t know who you’re actually talking to – and some of the more established and popular forums even encourage anonymity (more on that later) – but the problem goes deeper than that. It’s not just that you don’t know these people, it’s that you don’t even know if they truly have your best interests at heart. Moreover, even if they genuinely do want to help you and others, any and all information must be taken with a proverbial grain of salt.
The Well-Intentioned Helpers
Let’s start with the best-case scenario: A person who is contributing because they want to be helpful and see others succeed, so they share their information, their success stories, their missteps, and all the advice that (they think) has served them effectively. First – let’s all raise a glass to these people, because they mean well, and people who are generous with their time and information deserve our appreciation. But, even in this ideal context, there are problems with the information shared in pre-med forums.
First, what works for one person is not likely to work for everyone. I know every aspiring med student wants to figure out the “secret” to gaining admission to medical school (or even to receiving an interview invitation) – that ONE THING that every successful applicant has, does, or doesn’t do – and there are many who claim to know exactly what moves to make to get that acceptance letter. The truth is much more complicated than that, though. In reality, while there are certain fundamentals that must be maintained (e.g., no one’s getting into medical school with a 2.0 GPA), at a certain point, generalizations become rather problematic. Two people can have nearly identical CVs, the same GPA, and the same MCAT score, but one may get an interview and the other may not, because the evaluations aren’t just quantitative. There are so many factors that go into your evaluation, even before getting to the interview stage, and there is no one, singular, guaranteed “path” to med school.
Building on that, when reading the advice offered by others in these forums, you are likely only going to get only a partial picture, both from others’ successes and their failures. JoeGuy234 may think he has great advice, but all he really has is an understanding of what worked or didn’t work for HIM – and even then, that understanding is partial, since there are any number of qualitative elements of each person’s evaluation as a candidate, and you’re not generally privy to the “why” behind your acceptance or rejection. Whether encouraging you to do or avoid certain things they did, there are any number of things they may be overlooking, things in their history or application they may be hiding or forgetting, things they may be misrepresenting or misinterpreting. The point is, you just don’t know. You don’t know that person, you can’t access their file, you don’t know their whole story, and even if they are writing honestly and with the best of intentions, there’s no way of confirming that you’re seeing the whole picture, so making generalizations from this information is just not smart.
Now, for the more nefarious scenarios. Everyone knows that med school admissions can be cut-throat and the competition is sometimes ruthless. That’s one of the things that draws students to pre-med forums like those on Premed101 – they’re desperate for advice, hope, and help. Sadly, this competition can bleed over into those very forums. There are those who would give legitimately awful or misleading advice, simply because they want to see you (and anyone else) fail – that, they believe, would bring them one step closer to success, eliminating yet another competitor. To those of us who have devoted our lives to student success, who have mentored and developed strong professional relationships with students as we help them work toward their goals, this idea is chilling; it is a sad reality, but a reality, nonetheless. In those forums that do attempt to verify the credibility of those who post, it is simply not possible for every contributor to be vetted and every post to be checked for accuracy – far from it. Bad contributions from bad-faith contributors are not uncommon, and most students simply don’t have the discernment tools necessary to separate gems of wisdom from fool’s gold. You may want to believe the best of everyone and think that everyone has your best interest at heart, and I wish that was the world in which we lived, but it’s just not.
As well, whatever their intentions, these contributors may just be flat-out fake. People make up stories and identities online all the time, just like those making up their fake vacations – sometimes to impress others, sometimes to make them feel good about themselves, sometimes just “for the lulz”. We all know this – we know that these things happen, that you “can’t trust anything” online, and yet we still fall for it all the time! Many of us trust way more than we really should when interacting with strangers online, because we want to trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt. But, remember, being a strong student (in medicine or otherwise), means refining your critical thinking abilities, and that often means asking difficult and uncomfortable questions.
Really, Who Has the Time?
Think of it this way: How many doctors, 3.5+ GPA students, community leaders and humanitarians, etc., do you think have the time to spend hours every day posting on forums or social media? The answer is “few, if any”! Yes, there are doctors, professionals, top students, etc., who post online – most of us have some form of social media presence these days, and there is certainly overlap between our online and offline lives in the present media era. But, there’s a big difference in the type and frequency of posting when most of your day is spent practicing your craft, working in your community, honing your skills in the lab or in the library with your nose in a book, while also taking care of yourself and your family. That’s certainly not to say that there are no top-tier, working professionals or thriving students with an active online presence, but those with 3+ hours a day to spend on such things are a rarity.
Here's a video with our take on Premed101 forums:
Pre-Med Forums: Information Content
“I’m not sure, but…”
“My best guess is…”
“I’d imagine that…”
“From what I understand…”
“I’ve heard that…”
“My [friend, mom, neighbor, anyone-but-an-admissions-expert] said…”
Browsing through pre-med forums, you’ll see a lot of these kinds of statements. If you’re frequenting these forums because you want reliable information that will help you reach your goals, then you should turn and run the moment you see anything like this. Guesses, hearsay, speculation, subjective experience, and advice from well-meaning others are – quite simply – not expert advice. These will not help you. If anything, they’ll make your task even more difficult, because you’ll walk away with partial, incorrect, or simply misguided advice. If you want authoritative advice about a particular school or program, it would be far more productive and advisable to contact that school or program directly, either by reaching out by phone or email, or by simply visiting their website.
Herd Mentality and Confirmation Bias
Worse than that, though, is the echo chamber effect of such pre-med forums. If we hear something frequently enough, it can be easy to assume it is accurate. A great example of this is the oft-repeated claim that it’s not possible to prepare in advance for things like CASPer or MMIs, when we know for a fact that effective CASPer prep and MMI prep can work very well, so long as it is connected to the core values and principles of the discipline and helps students articulate their best individual qualities in ways that connect with those values and principles. But, if we perceive a claim to be in the majority, we tend to believe it – hivemind and herd mentality are common in both pre-med forums and other public forums. Worse, humans have a frustrating tendency to hear only what we want to hear, and even refined professionals can be prone to confirmation bias. No one likes to hear this, but it’s just a quirk of human psychology and working against it is a constant challenge for anyone. People often most readily believe those things they want to be true.
Unfortunately, all of this means that we can’t trust what we’re told in such forums, we can’t trust any consensus formed in those forums, and we can’t even always trust ourselves to be able to discern good advice from simply loud or repeated advice.
Time Spent vs. Value Derived
The messy, imprecise, and unverifiable nature of the content in such forums means that the amount of time needed to actually go through and separate good advice from mere hot (virtual) air is excessive. Sorting through the sheer volume of material to isolate any genuine moments of wisdom would be a daunting task even for a seasoned professional. The value derived from the time spent on such forums is thus minimal, and ultimately not worth it, considering everything already discussed above. If you’re genuinely seeking information to help advance your education and make your application the best it can be, your time would be better spent pretty much anywhere other than pre-med forums.
Pre-Med Forums: Information Context
Med School Social Media and Online Activity Monitoring
There’s one other important word of caution with regard to posting in online forums, and it relates back to something mentioned briefly earlier. Some of the more popular pre-med forums specifically recommend against using your real name or any other traceable identifying information in their forums. Such advice is repeated by some users in these forums, as well. It is an established fact that many schools, employers, and professional organizations see forums and social media as “fair game” in evaluating candidates (in fact, a recent survey found that 68% of admissions officials surveyed think social media review is an acceptable evaluation tactic).
As such, it is crucial that you bear in mind the context in which forum discussions take place. Whatever you put out into these forums is public, searchable, and easily accessible. Even if you use a pseudonym (a fake name), you might not be a sneaky as you think you are, and it can be easier to connect the dots between your false and real identity than many assume, if someone is invested enough in finding out information about you. And things posted online, including in pre-med forums, have been used against students, who’ve seen their offers of admission rescinded. In June 2017, Harvard rescinded 10 offers of admission after reviewing students’ behavior in a Facebook group, and similar tales can be found in these pre-med forums. Now, in the Harvard case, the students’ offers were reportedly rescinded because they were allegedly making blatantly racist and sexist comments, engaging in Holocaust denial, and things like that (pro-tip: don’t be a racist, sexist, Holocaust denier!), but the point is: you may be being watched, and your words can absolutely come back to haunt you in the digital era, as we’ve seen both inside and outside the world of admissions.
Pre-Med Forums: Seeking Commiseration and Support vs. Seeking Advice
Community – whether online or offline – is important. We need to feel heard, we need support from those who have experienced (or, are currently experiencing) the same struggles as we are, we need empathy. Being able to commiserate with others, particularly when going through something as challenging as medical school admissions (or, just school in general!) is necessary for our mental well-being, to keep us from feeling isolated, alone, and hopeless. In that sense, the draw of forums is understandable. You want to walk into a room and feel you’re among people who will show some compassion, who can nod knowingly, who can say, “Me too.” If you need that and can truly find it nowhere else but pre-med forums, then use it for that, if anything (though you’ll likely find the same sympathies in other students – or even professors and administrators – on your own campus!). But bear in mind that those same saboteurs who would set you up for failure could also prey on your fragility, if they sense it. Online bullying is very real and very intense, and it often comes with devastating results. You need to take care to protect yourself in a variety of ways, should you choose to go to online forums, especially for such sensitive and difficult issues as these.
But if it’s advice you’re after, there are plenty of free, reliable, trustworthy sources of information available to you. Read blogs written by experts, listen to podcasts (the AAMC even has 5 recommended podcasts for pre-meds), go to official websites for universities and related organizations, spend time – online and IRL – in spaces where experts are offering their time and knowledge for free. There are a lot of people out there who do want to see you succeed, who do know what they’re talking about, and who are happy to make their knowledge openly available to you. Your time is precious, so spend it wisely.
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Image credit: Kiki Sorensen, via the Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode