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July 28, 2000

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Carry on, doctor wannabes

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Shanthi Shankarkumar

Ashish Raju and Jason Yanofski revel in getting a head start. At an age when most of their compatriots are still in college, these two 20-year-olds are poised to enter medical school. By 24, they should have their medical degrees in hand, at an average age lower than that of those entering medical school.

How did they do this? They decided to chart a short-cut to becoming doctors since they didn't want to spend four years in college and another four to six years in medical school. So they both ended up in an accelerated medical programme at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where after two years they stand ready to enter medical school -- MCP Hahnemann University -- this fall.

The two enterprising boys didn't stop at that. They decided to share their information on getting a medical degree in the fastest and most efficient way possible. The result of months of interviews and working on weekends is 'From High School to Med School: The Definitive Guide to Accelerated Medical Programs'.

"We decided to write a book about a subject we knew a great deal about and for which there was not much information available," said Raju. The book is self-published and in just two months has sold 300 copies online.

Accelerated medical programmes are programmes where qualified students can gain conditional acceptance to a medical school directly from high school. They provide a condensed track through college of only two or three years (as against the normal four years of college). After completion, if the student has met all requirements placed on him or her by the programme (one needs to maintain a certain GPA and pass MCAT requirements) he or she will matriculate to the medical school affiliated to the programme.

Accelerated medical programmes first appeared in the 1960s, when universities were unable to get enough applicants for their medical seats. Medical schools then came up with the idea of shortening the amount of time students had to spend in school before becoming doctors. They hoped this would attract more students to medicine.

The scenario has long since changed, but the accelerated programmes remain. Today, according to Raju, just one out of every four applicants gets into medical school. "This is not because the rest are not smart enough or don't have the drive. There's just not enough room," he said.

The duo decided to self-publish the book after one publisher asked them to wait a few years. "It was disheartening. We were 19 at the time we wrote the book and the fact that we were teenagers writing the book was a selling point. In a couple of years we'll be 23-24 and then it won't be a big deal anymore. In addition, if we had waited for a few years, thousands of pre-meds would have missed out on the programmes," said Raju.

The 300-page book includes an appendix of more than 40 US colleges with accelerated medical programmes and ranks the top 15 by competitiveness, curriculum flexibility, quality of life, affordability and prestige of undergraduate and medical school. Rice University is rated highest. Lehigh, where Raju and Yanofski studied, is ranked seventh.

The book, which was initially planned as a handbook, exploded in size to 20 chapters, with contributions from students, doctors, admissions officials, professors and authorities in the field. Dr Balamurali Ambati, the world's youngest doctor, has written the foreword with his brother Dr Jayakrishna Ambati.

The book examines the pros and cons of an accelerated med programme, gives an overview of the competition, and gives tips on how to succeed in high school (academically and outside the classroom). It also discusses the kind of activities one needs to be involved in to maximise the chances of being accepted into a programme. There are chapters that explain the application process -- how to fill out forms, write personal statements, acquire effective letters of recommendation and prepare for interviews.

The book also gives useful suggestions on how to take and prepare for the Medical College Admissions Test and even how to choose a college meal plan and get your laundry done.

"We think our book will revolutionise the college application process for these programmes," said Raju. Though the programmes have been around for 40 years, the only way one can get information about them is from people who went through them.

Raju adds that they are not trying to "sell" the programme. "We are just trying to present an objective picture. For a long time there have been myths about this programme which we have tried to dispel. People have said it is impossible to get in, that only the really smart people can get in. Others have said that you get into secondary medical schools and are locked in," he said.

The programme does offer advantages like the saving of time (1-2 years of the traditional route), saving of money (Raju and Yanofski saved $ 64,000 in Lehigh tuition) and the freedom to dabble in courses for the sheer enjoyment of doing them and not for embellishing a resume. But according to Yanofski, "the biggest advantage is the guarantee of a seat".

He also cautions that only those with a big interest in medicine and strong background in science should attempt to do the accelerated programme. The environment in an accelerated programme is also more relaxed than in a college course, maybe because of the conditional guarantee of a medical seat later on.

"People in this programme help each other. They are not competing with each other. I took philosophy, economics and English classes because I did not have to worry about my GPA scores," said Raju.

The disadvantages are that your choice of a medical school is limited to the one in which you did the accelerated med programme. Choosing between an Ivy League school and a programme might be a difficult decision for many. Also for those students who are not sure if they want to pursue medicine, a longer college life gives them that extra time to work things out. The accelerated programme also calls for working during some summers, a sacrifice some kids might not welcome.

Many medical school professors are not very enthusiastic about BA-MD programmes because they feel that by cutting short the time spent in school, students don't get to work on their academic and social skills to the extent they should and would in a regular programme.

The evaluation process for admission to the programmes is so tough that only students who have proved in high school that they can combine intense studying with active outside interests are selected. Of course, it also helps to be super-smart. Raju was a valedictorian of Bayside's Benjamin Cardozo High School class of 1998; Yanofski aced the MCAT -- the Medical College Admissions Test, known for its tough science and mathematics questions -- during his junior year in high school.

The boys are not only academically brilliant, they also have the energy and talent to indulge in a wide range of activities. Raju, who lives in Queens, New York, was born in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh. He came to the United States as a two-year-old with his Malayalee parents. His father is a banker, his mother a nurse. Friends describe him as a true "renaissance" man who has tried everything from dancing to research. While in high school he was captain and coach of the speech and debate team, editor of the science paper and member of the Arista Honors Society. He has studied martial arts, the tabla and Bharatanatyam. He was accepted at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell and Lehigh.

"I think it is important to try everything and not focus on one thing. I also believe that one should work on one's weakness. When I was in high school people said I could not write, so when I went to college I took three English classes just to prove them wrong. I worked at it and worked at it. I won an award and even wrote a book," said Raju.

He also insists that like any other American youngster, he likes to hang out in the malls, watch movies and TV. He doesn't have a girlfriend though and says it is not because his schedules are so tight. "It just has not happened; maybe you can put out an ad for me," he jokes.

Jason Yanofski of South Orange, New Jersey, has also dabbled in diverse activities. His parents run their own real-estate company and there are no doctors in his family. He has volunteered as an emergency medical technician, worked as a science researcher at Rutgers University, taken advanced college courses at night, was captain of the school wrestling team and did computer consulting work. He was active in the National Honour Society and received countless academic awards.

The twosome's amazing ability to balance brilliant academic achievements with activities outside the classroom made them prime candidates for the BA/MD programme. According to Yanofski, "Schools with the accelerated programmes look for a well-rounded person. They want to see that you do other things than simply study."

The programmes call for rigorous standards to be met. Applicants must score a minimum of 1,360 out of a possible 1,600 on their Scholastic Aptitude Tests. They must also be interviewed by both the college and medical school admission panels.

The two met in Lehigh and became good friends. Raju is president of his dormitory, executive member of the Indian Students Association. Yanofski had enough credits from the college courses he took while in high school that he even had the time to join a social fraternity at Lehigh -- the first time anyone in the accelerated programme has done this.

With their book being sold online, the duo has been busy appearing on TV and in the print media. They were also invited to speak at a National Student Leadership forum and have received hundreds of e-mail from students from all over the country.

"We've met such wonderful kids and if we can help even one kid through our book, it will be very rewarding," said Raju. The two boys plan an update on their book in the future -- this time they should have publishers lining up.

"I definitely don't want to be a traditional doctor," says Raju. "I want to make changes in the way medicine is administered -- the medical landscape is changing and I want to be a part of that. An MD will help me get into a position where I can actually have an effect. I like engaging in big activities."

How true, how true.

Next: India applauded for use of ayurveda, Unani

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