Student Profiles: Success and the ILP Experience

Meet Sarah. Sarah is an internal medicine resident in Indiana now. When we first sat down with her, she was a Trinity student wrapping up her clinical rotations. She stood as an excellent example of what the ILP could offer students: the chance they deserve to succeed.

When we spoke with Sarah, the ILP was limited in scope, created as a separate track through the MD program. That scope has expanded and, in some way or another, each student at Trinity is on an ILP to make sure they have everything they need to be at their best.

Her early story is common of premed students (although she, herself, is exceptional, as you’ll soon learn). She has a BS in biology from the University of Illinois and boasted a strong GPA. She had significant and diverse clinical volunteer experience coming into the application cycle, and picked up a number of incredibly inspirational stories about patient interactions that deepened her commitment to medicine. In the middle of all of that, she worked full-time at a neurologist’s office and volunteered as a teaching assistant in EMT certification.

She came to Trinity for a couple of reasons, initially interested in our small class approach, as she does her best with conceptual learning in small group discussion. Our curriculum’s opportunity for just that obviously appealed to her. She also ended up our way because her MCAT was, in her own words, “Not great, not really competitive.”

We have spoken, time and again, about the inflated competitiveness of US medical school admissions and their over-reliance on the MCAT exam, how the MCAT is not an effective predictor of success in medical school. Sarah is a great example of that.

Sarah was admitted to Trinity School of Medicine’s MD program on the Individualized Learning Plan (ILP) track. For those who don’t know, the ILP program is a reorganization of the early basic sciences that “ramps” the course work up to the standard track’s load at the start of term three. ILP students aren’t separate in any regard other than scheduling, and given the small size of Trinity’s student body, the only real noticeable difference from a social aspect is that they are in St. Vincent for one additional term. Trinity’s tuition is also pro-rated for these students. There is no additional tuition cost for ILP students, even though they are on the island for an additional 10 weeks.

Back on topic: Sarah utterly thrived in Trinity’s ILP track, taking that “not really competitive” MCAT score that many students feel would keep them out of medical school, and going on to score a 244 on the USMLE Step-1 exam, and a 265 on the USMLE Step-2 CK.
Illustrated a different way, Sarah had an MCAT score that had her anxious about being admitted to medical school at all. Given an opportunity to thrive, and in an environment where she could do so on her own terms, she proved herself to be in the 93rd percentile of not just Trinity students, or Caribbean students, or IMGs in general, but the top 7% of all US and international medical students combined.

This is important for a number of reasons. First, it should send a clear message to students about what they can accomplish in the right envornment, but it’s also a major signal to residency directors. Year after year, the Step-1 score is the top criterion for matching.

What follows are answers straight from Sarah. How she felt along the way, what worked for her, what didn’t, and how she built success in Trinity’s ILP program.

How was the MCAT prep process for you?
I did not feel good going into the MCAT. I did a Kaplan classroom course. I was there three times a week for a couple of hours, but even still, I was very stressed. I had a lot on my plate. I had a full time job, I was attending undergrad, and had a lot of extra-curricular activities.  I do blame myself, I think my downfall was time management. I felt I knew the information, I was still very anxious, though. To this day, I still think the MCAT was the hardest exam I’ve ever taken. (USMLE) Step-1 and 2 were much easier by comparison.

What was coming to Trinity like?
In my first couple of days at Trinity, before classes started, I was talking to the students, “I’m on the ILP” and they’d respond, “I’m on the normal track. Why are you on ILP?” I admit, I felt bad at first, but I quickly realized that it was much better for me. It gave me just enough time to adjust to the adventure I was on. I’m from the Midwest, it was a big change heading to the Caribbean, as well as transitioning from undergrad to medical school. Trinity’s ILP gave me time to figure out exactly what I needed to do to be successful. It worked out and was a big advantage in the long run.

What was your Step-1 prep like? On your own and with Trinity?
I personally started studying for the USMLE Step exams the moment I started medical school. Throughout my classes, I was compiling my own notebook to study for Step-1 in particular. When students ask me why, I would tell them the truth: it was good time management for me, and it helped me start studying way in advance of the exam. When it came time to do more formal reviews, I was very familiar with not just what we’d learned, but the way Step-1 approaches the information. It was a huge load off. ILP helped me have the time to strategize appropriately from the start and make that choice. It let my personal approach flow right into Trinity’s own methods for Step-1 prep. 

Trinity’s 5th term was great. Among other things, we did an organ system a week. We reviewed what we learned in the earlier terms and preceptors from the hospital would help us continue to develop our own ability to apply everything we’d learned in a clinical context. This is crucial for Step-1. It’s all about taking that foundational knowledge and not just recalling it, but understanding it. Trinity was a big help, there.

Where are you now? How do you feel looking back?
I’m in my elective rotations, and throughout I find people from other international schools, and you can always spot the Trinity students, we’re much better prepared. It’s blatantly obvious. The residents and attendings notice us, too. It’s definitely part Milton Cato [ed. note: the teaching hospital in St. Vincent where students start clinical immersion in week one], but I also think it’s the culture of the campus.

The students they let into Trinity seem to have a different kind of approach to learning and becoming doctors. Everyone in my class and the class above me (I interacted with different groups because of how ILP folds back into the standard curriculum), was so driven and so helpful. It was always so easy to make study groups, and if you didn’t understand something, we were all always willing to help each other out. We had each other’s back. There was competitiveness, but it was friendly. There were none of the horror stories you hear about “gunners” out to get each other to make themselves look better. It was about seeing how good we could all really be. And that really shows when we get to clinicals, I think. 

You’ve said the ILP was great for you, would you recommend it to other students? Any regrets?

I’d recommend the ILP for certain types of students, and not just for those who can benefit for academic reasons. That extra term is such a small part of the overall education, but it can provide such a major benefit. For me, while my less-than-competitive MCAT lead me to the ILP track, it really helped because I’d never traveled alone. I’d never lived anywhere else but my home outside Chicago. It was a major adjustment. My only real issue was it threw off my timing, a bit. My turnaround time between undergrad and going to Trinity was tight, so I’m used to a certain momentum. The way it all worked out for me, I’m going to have a few months before it’s time to start my match process. Anyone can and should do the ILP, but if it’s something you know early on that you’re a fit for and you want to hold tight to a specific schedule, January and May are also options to start.

Again though, I enjoyed having time to learn, to adapt. I think that’s why it’s the “individualized” learning plan. It comes down to the individual student, and it offers you time that you can use to be at your absolute best.

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