Applying to medical school can be extremely difficult and tricky. Not only does the process take almost an entire year, but the planning starts years before with scheduling out required courses and taking the MCAT. The personal statement writing process alone can take months! If this does not sound like enough obstacles to jump though, one additional challenge that I was not even aware of when I applied was having to understand all of the different medical school curricula (okay people this is the plural for curriculum… I wanted to write curriculums but spell check taught me otherwise – you really are constantly learning in med school! haha). When I applied, I understood the basic framework for medical school: the first two years are spent in lecture/class learning the material out of textbooks, and the 3rd and 4th years are spent doing clinical rotations where you are learning in a hands on environment in the hospital. It wasn’t until I had attended a few interviews that I started to realize just how different medical school curricula for years 1-2 can be! Because of this, I wanted to write a blog post that could perhaps shed a little light onto this topic for anyone going through or who will go through this process.
The first difference between curricula, and perhaps one of the biggest differences, is between course based (sometimes referred to as block schedule but this can also mean different things) and integrative organ based curricula. In a traditional course based system, students will take one or a few different courses at a time, similarly to how courses are designed in undergrad. For example, anatomy and histology can be taught together in a block. This means that during that specific block, say for 12 weeks, the students are only studying anatomy and histology, but they are learning all of it during that time. Other courses that are often put together in blocks include genetics & biochemistry, and microbiology & pharmacology (aka Bugs and Drugs). This is drastically different from an integrative curriculum where all of these different topics (anatomy, genetics, biochemistry, pharmacology, ect.) are taught together with regard to a particular organ system (often also organized in ‘blocks’). For example, during one “organ block” (ex: 8 weeks long), students take classes that all have to do with the cardiovascular system. Therefore in a given week, they may have a thoracic cavity anatomy session, a lecture on the physiology of the heart, and a lecture on cardiovascular pharmacology. After one organ system block, they then move onto another organ system (examples: endocrinology, pulmonology, musculo-skeletal system). If you can understand these two types of curriculums, then you have a good grasp on one of the major differences between schools! But as if things are complicated enough, some schools do a combination curriculum where the core basic sciences are taught alone in blocks (such as biochemistry, genetics ect.) and then organ block systems follow (looking at physiology, pathology ect.).
Within integrative curriculums, there are also differences with regard to whether or not physiology is taught along with or before pathology. Some schools like to teach all normal physiology the first year so the students understand how the body is supposed to work, and then dive into pathology, or what can go wrong, during the second year. This is nice because you get to see different organ systems twice, but it can also make for shorter looks at the organ system each time. Other curricula tend to dive all the way into the organ system that they are focusing on – showing both the normal and the abnormal at the same time.
The last curriculum buzz word that you might hear more of, especially as the years go by and curricula get updated, is Problem Based Learning. Problem Based Learning typically refers to small group classes (for example around 8-12 students in a group) where students work together to solve different problems or patient cases. These types of classes focus on integrating concepts, working with others and being a team player! Typically Problem Based Learning is used in addition to traditional lectures or seminars where a professor is teaching the material. They can be really helpful in actually applying the material to more realistic and patient focused situations.
I hope this blog post will be helpful to at least one med school applicant! If you have any questions with regard to curricula or want my opinion on the different pros/cons – feel free to reach out to me on instagram @beingfranke!
Hi! My name is Caroline Franke and I am a second year medical student in North East Ohio. I love cooking, running, and playing with dogs and kids. I am on a mission to learn as much as I can about nutrition, mental health, and physical well being. Feel free to join along as I try to navigate the world of wellness.
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