Sophisticated Program and Putnam's Leadership Mean Success for Davidson's Medically Inclined Students
May 3, 2001
Jerry Putnam is opening doors all over the country for Davidson students and alumni interested in medical school, and they're proving they can walk in and make the sale.
Putnam, a professor of biology and director of the college's premedical program, is capping a decade of activism in his profession this year by beginning a two-year term as president of the Southeastern Association of Advisors for the Health Profession (SAAHP). His work and leadership in that association, and its national counterpart, have given him and the college a high profile among deans of medical schools from coast to coast.
Those contacts, and a campus program that thoroughly prepares Davidson students and alumni to apply to medical school, has resulted in a long-term acceptance rate of about ninety percent--more than double the national average of forty-two percent.
Putnam will make even broader connections through his recent election as one of twelve board members of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions (NAAHP). Based on the success of the SAAHP conference he organized in San Antonio in March, the national organization has asked him and four other members to organize its annual gathering in Las Vegas in 2002. That meeting will attract as many as 1,000 people from medical schools and undergraduate institutions.
"I love this job," said Putnam, who came to Davidson in 1973 with no thoughts of involving himself with administration. But he began serving on the premedical committee during his first year on campus, and ultimately became director in 1991. "I thought of myself as purely an academician, but I find myself loving administration, particularly this type work that focuses on students. My goal is to help every student get to peak fitness in terms of their medical school application."
Putnam now has files on 250 Davidson students and alumni who have an expressed interest in medical school. He likes to begin counseling them during their first year of college "so they won't make rookie mistakes." The initial steps are scheduling the eight science and math courses most medical schools require, and then urging students to find a major they enjoy. A science major is not necessary, he said. "Students who are strong in the premedical science courses but have a major in the humanities often are golden," he said. "Their intellectual diversity can really pay off. Feeling excitement about one's major is the important thing."
Community and medical service is also an important ingredient in the success of an applicant to medical school, particularly in the latter aspects of the application process. Putnam commented, "Students with great grades and a good MCAT score may fall flat on their face in an interview if they don't have experience to back up their words. Medical schools want people who know what they are getting into. They are really looking for students with empathy."
Putnam knows what deans think because he visits eight to ten medical schools per year, and speaks with officials from dozens of others at SAAHP and other conferences. He said, "I go to find out about admission requirements, and how they evaluate students. When I visited the University of Chicago Medical School they permitted me to take thirty or forty of their admission folders back to my hotel at night, and asked me which students I would pick for admission. Then the next day they let me to watch the process as they actually did it. I think med schools want people to understand that process."
As the average age of medical school students has risen dramatically in the past few years, Putnam has extended the services of his office to Davidson alumni, and now works with some who graduated as long as ten years ago. Some had no interest in medicine at Davidson, and others have taken additional courses to bolster their academic standing. Putnam recalls one student who opened a business after graduation, then decided ten years later he wanted to go to medical school. He is now enrolled at the University of Virginia Medical School.
Alumni have access to the same services as current students. They get advice from Putnam on putting together the strongest possible resumé. They undergo an evaluation interview with the college's premedical committee, and Putnam prepares an essay that summarizes the comments of the evaluators and rates the applicant as either "outstanding," "highly recommended," "recommended with confidence" "recommended," or "not recommended." The essay takes him six or seven hours per student, and he writes about forty per year!
Long-term figures on Davidson applicants support the trend toward later application. He noted that 21 of 25 undergraduates in the Class of 1999 who applied to attend medical school the year following graduation were accepted. But with additional applications since then, the figures now stand at 37 of 39 Class of 1999 members accepted. Even more dramatic, the Class of 1995 had just nine of 15 applicants accepted as undergraduates, but now 34 of 40 applicants from that class have been accepted. The current senior class has 14 applicants, ten of whom have been admitted.
In addition to his leadership in the health advisors organizations and contact with medical schools, Putnam credits Davidson's success to many other factors. Foremost is high quality of Davidson students themselves, a reflection of the fact that the college is one of the most highly selective in the nation. In addition, faculty members on the Premedical Advisory Committee evaluate and counsel applicants on their interview skills. Davidson's chapter of Alpha Epsilon Delta, the national premedical honor society, also operates a program in which students who have already been through the application process give counsel to prospective applicants.
A new physician mentors program, established recently with the help of cardiologist and 1969 Davidson graduate Dr. K.D. Weeks, gives students a very personal view of the profession. The program includes eighteen doctors, who allow students to follow them in their practice, and often befriend them with lunch or dinner invitations.
Davidson's program in medical humanities gives many premed students an awareness of the ethical controversies in the field that prepares them to talk about those issues articulately. The college's willingness to spend significant resources on science facilities, and emphasis on cooperative research between faculty and students, provides valuable undergraduate experience with high-tech research methods and instruments.
Finally, Putnam credits Jean Newman, his departmental assistant, for keeping the program on track administratively, maintaining a database on acceptance rates, helping with recommendation packages, and assisting medical school deans with travel issues when they come to Davidson.
More broadly, however, Putnam said the process of a liberal arts education helps Davidson students stand out in the medical school admission process. "I think our students get lot of experience interacting with faculty, and that helps them tremendously in interviews. In all their classrooms, they learn to talk and interact with professors, so they do well in medical school interviews. The whole teaching methodology here supports them in projecting their strongest personal qualities."
Putnam concluded, "Davidson's premedical program is clearly an all-campus endeavor. And it relies not only today's community, but is built on a wonderful heritage of premedical studies left to us by those who have gone before."
In addition to the pure numbers of accepted Davidson applicants, Putnam receives other signals that the program here is on the right track. He recalls briefing a group of parents and prospective students about the premed program during a recent admissions event on campus. He recalled, "One of parents had been up at Duke recently, and said he heard from the Duke person that we have the best premedical program in the country. I didn't need to say much after that!"
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.