Pre-Med Tips & How To Get In to Medical School With Dr. Shirag Shemmassian

by Jen Barna MD | Character Strengths, Physician Coaching, Podcast, Programs

“Learning how to position yourself to impress admissions committees and seeing that happen and then helping other people and then through word of mouth, someone telling someone else that they wanted to go into this field as well and really helping them, I think just further reinforced that my role was to help other people become wonderful physicians.”
– Dr. Shemmassian

Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is the founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. He’s one of the world’s foremost experts on medical school admissions, college admissions and graduate school admissions. For nearly 20 years, he and his team have helped thousands of students get into medical school and top colleges using his systematic and proprietary approach. A lot of our physician listeners may get questions often, but there also may be parents listening who have high-school-age kids thinking about where they’re going to apply to undergraduate school. Or they may have kids who are pre-med in college applying to medical school. Here, Dr. Shemmassian shares his wisdom and gives us insights into the process, which can often be stressful and overwhelming.

From a young age, Dr. Shemmassian knew he wanted to go into healthcare. His immigrant parents were always talking about going to school and getting a job in a helping profession to earn a living. He really enjoyed science and was always drawn toward medicine. when I was in college, I was pre-med the whole time and taking all my courses, I did quite well. However, as someone who grew up with Tourette’s Syndrome, over time, he was nudged towards psychiatry and mental health. When he graduated, Dr. Shemmassian decided to make a pivot and did his Ph.D. in clinical psychology rather than go to medical school. Even when he was in college, he was helping people get into medical schools and things like that. His parents didn’t know how to navigate the educational system here in the states. Continuing to help others around him get into schools further reinforced that his role was to assist people in becoming wonderful physicians.

In this engaging conversation, we discuss whether a school’s status or prestige plays a critical role in getting accepted into a good medical school. We also talk about combined programs and the difference between an M.D. and a D.O. Dr. Shemmassian shares his opinions on choosing between traditional medical school and P.A. school and who it would benefit. We wrap up with tips for nontraditional students who are interested in becoming a physician and what that admissions process could look like.

What’s Inside:

  • School prestige and its impact on getting accepted into medical school.
  • Differences between M.D. and D.O. programs.
  • P.A. school and who it’s best suited for.
  • Tips for non-traditional students.

Mentioned In This Episode:

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Please enjoy the full transcript below


Dr. Shemmassian: Learning how to position yourself to impress admissions committees and seeing that happen and then helping other people and then through word of mouth, someone telling someone else that they wanted to go into this field as well and really helping them, I think just further reinforced that my role was to help other people become wonderful physicians.

Jen: Welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. I’m Dr. Jen Barna and I have a terrific guest today with me here. And I have a ton of questions for Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, who has joined me as the founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. He’s one of the world’s foremost experts on medical school admissions, college admissions and graduate school admissions. And for nearly 20 years, he and his team have helped thousands of students get into medical school and top colleges using his systematic and proprietary approach. Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. 

Dr. Shemmassian: Thanks so much for having me. Glad to be here. 

Jen: Well, I’m excited to ask you so many questions, as many as we can fit, because I get a lot of questions myself and I’m sure a lot of our listeners as physicians may get questions often, but they also may be parents listening who have kids who are now in high school thinking about where they’re going to apply to undergraduate school. Or they may have kids who are pre-med in college applying to medical school. And so a lot of our physician listeners may have questions themselves for their kids. And then our pre-med listeners and high school listeners have questions for themselves. So I’m going to try to hit on as many of these as I can and hear your expertise and your advice. So this is a terrific opportunity. 

Dr. Shemmassian: Let’s do it. 

Jen: All right. So I think basically, you know, of course, a pre-med student can be at any age. A lot of our guests on the podcast tell us from the beginning that they knew they wanted to be a doctor from the time they were maybe four years old or something like that. And so I’m sure we have a subset of our audience who are listening in, maybe even junior high or high school, and already thinking ahead about how they can best position themselves to become a doctor down the road. So I guess my first question is, number one, tell us a little bit about your history, how you went through the process of applying to school and figured out a lot of things for yourself and how that has led you to where you are now and what you do. 

Dr. Shemmassian: Sure. I always knew I wanted to go into healthcare when I was really young. You know, it’s one of those, what really started it all? I’m not quite sure. You know, I have immigrant parents and they were always talking about, go to school, get a job where you can help people and is stable and all this kind of stuff. And I call it the immigrant menu of job options like doctor, dentist, lawyer, engineer kind of thing. But I really enjoyed science and I really enjoyed like human anatomy. I would read about the body all the time. And so of the immigrant menu of choices, I was always drawn towards healthcare and medicine and all those different areas. And then my older brother, who’s a physician, he also was really excited about that work. And so we sort of went to school developing this interest over time. And I just kind of never really questioned it. I mean, the only other thing I would really want to do is become a professional athlete. But I realized when I was younger, I’m like, I don’t think I’m at that level, so I really gave myself to my studies and I wanted to go into this space. And so when I was in college, I was pre-med the whole time and taking all my courses, I did quite well. I was doing research, I was, you know, doing service work. I actually was doing a lot of work in mental health. So I was doing research within psychiatry and neurology. A lot of my service work was related to that as well. And then as someone who grew up with Tourette’s Syndrome, I was sort of getting nudged over time towards just psychiatry and mental health. And when I graduated, I actually decided to make a pivot and did my PhD in clinical psychology rather than go to medical school. And that was, it was funny because up until graduation, I was all about medicine and getting ready to apply. And then I realized, well, I know what I want to do within healthcare. And so rather than go to medical school and, you know, learn about the adrenal glands and this and that, I just decided to pour myself into mental health. And so that’s what I pursued. But this entire time, even when I was in college, I was helping people get into medical schools and things like that. Having parents who grew up elsewhere, they didn’t really know how to navigate the educational system here. And so when we got to applying to college and we turned to our parents, they’re like, “We don’t know. We just told you what you need to do. We don’t know how to do it”, kind of figure it out. And so learning how to position yourself to impress admissions committees and seeing that happen and then helping other people and then through word of mouth, someone telling someone else that they wanted to go into this field as well and really helping them, I think just further reinforced that my role was to help other people become wonderful physicians and do great work to help people. 

Jen: So speaking to someone who is pre-college, someone who has just begun the college admissions process or is about to embark on that stressful time in their lives and potentially hopefully we can maybe answer a couple of questions that might help it to be less stressful. One question is if you know that you want to go into healthcare and you’re thinking about medicine as the option that you’re aiming for way prior to getting out of the gate, what would you recommend in terms of where you go to school? Do you get the question often, does it matter if I go to a state school or if I go to an Ivy League school or somewhere in between? Does it matter? 

Dr. Shemmassian: I get it all the time. The question is it matters to a degree, and we can unpack that. So the question really is, does undergrad prestige matter? Does where I go to school matter in terms of making me seem more impressive to a future medical school admissions committee? The answer is “yes, but” and I’ll clarify. If I may back up a little bit, so there are sort of two paths to go to medical school. One is the direct med path, which is pretty rare, where students get accepted to a combined undergraduate and medical school program. It could be six to eight years, usually seven or eight years where they’ll complete their bachelors and then they’ll be assured a spot in medical school. Some schools have minimum requirements for the standardized test, the MCAT for medical school and GPA and things like this, but for the vast majority of students, the path is traditional where they go to undergrad, do their degree, four years, and then they go to medical school. They might apply near the tail end of undergrad or take a gap year or two. But to answer your question directly, yes, it matters the same way any brand name matters. Right? So if you had a prestigious internship, does that put you in a better position to get a nicer job later? Yes, it works in the same way. So if you go to a prestigious school, you go to an Ivy League school or a Stanford or a Notre Dame or something like this, then yes, the brand name on your resumé will carry some weight. Now it’s not everything. You can’t go to an Ivy League school, get a 3.3 GPA and expect to go to a top medical school. So it’s a nice brand name that adds something to your application, but it’s not a foundational piece, in my opinion. So, much more important are your grades, your test scores, and certainly the extracurricular activities that you pursued. So, you know, if you go to a school that’s less prestigious, but you pour yourself into a lab, have multiple publications, you develop service initiatives and develop clinical initiatives and what have you. We’ve helped people who go to less prestigious programs who then ended up getting into top ten medical schools. We also know students who go to a top undergrad, like a Stanford, really struggle there. They get into medical school with our support, but it’s not a top ten or top 20. So it’s nice to have, but it’s not a need to have and that’s the way that I think about it. The other thing I want to clarify is sometimes this black and white thinking around quote unquote fancy famous private school, like an Ivy, versus a state school. But there is a lot of variance within each of those categories. For instance, if you’re talking public school, it’s one thing to go to a state school that few people know. It’s another thing to go to UCLA, UC Berkeley, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina. Florida is a great school. UC San Diego is a great school, all of these places are great schools and they’re public schools. And people then worry about, well, but I heard you can get lost there and there’s grade deflation and all this kind of stuff. And people like to categorize schools in certain ways. This is a prestigious school with no grade deflation. This is a prestigious school, but a grade deflation. I don’t know if I should go there, etc., etc. So there are different places that are well-suited for different types of students. And when we guide students into making that decision, I think it’s really important to incorporate who the person is and what they’re trying to get out of the experience, because some people, no matter where you put them, there are going to be stars. Others need more of that perfect fit to make sure that they’re going to excel. 

Jen: You make a terrific point by mentioning the type of six year accelerated program. There’s only a handful of those there in the country, but that’s a terrific thing to know about, if you are someone who very early on knows that that’s what you want to do. And so is there any particular advice you would have for someone who may be looking into those programs? 

Dr. Shemmassian:  Yes. So, some of the most prestigious programs have decided to remove that offering. So Northwestern was one of the ones that in recent years decided to remove it. Now you’ve seen a rise in some osteopathic schools doing a combined B.S./D.O. or a combined B.A./ D.O. program, so those are available as well. When thinking about a combined program, my number one piece of advice is to educate yourself on all of the fine print associated there, because not all combined programs are created equally. First of all, they have different lengths of time. So there’s a six, seven, eight year. Most are seven or eight. Some have very stringent minimum requirements for acceptance. So, yes, you’re assured a spot in the school if you maintain that 3.8 plus GPA and a 515 plus MCAT score. But a 515 is a 90th percentile score roughly. And so that’s not just a cakewalk to get a score like that. And you also have to ask yourself the question of, okay, let’s say I go to this school and I decide I want to explore other options. Do I lose my assured spot or does the school allow me to apply out? Because there’s a subset of schools that says the moment you apply to another medical school, your spot is no longer guaranteed at ours. And then others say your spot is assured, feel free to apply out. That’s another thing to consider. And then also students who aren’t 100% sure whether they would want to stay at that medical school versus apply out. Consider the strength of the undergrad, because going back to the brand name question, where if you’re at an undergrad program that’s a little less prestigious, you do well there, and now you want to apply out and go to a top 20 program because you’ve protected your downside. Well, what’s the school you’re applying from? Because if that school is less prestigious, it’s going to have a slight negative impact on your odds. So you have to think a few years in advance about the level of assurance they’re providing if there are any restrictions, if you apply out. But also, if I were to apply out, what’s my baseline, what do I have to show on my resume? So those are pretty big things. I have plenty of families who have contacted me two years into the B.S. M.D. Program. They say, Oh my gosh, I thought I wanted this, but then things changed, and now I feel like I have restrictions and constraints. What do I do? And we help our families navigate that. But I always want families to say, okay, the B.S. M.D. Sounds nice, feels like a guarantee, everything’s good. And then you go there and sometimes your mind changes. So I’m not warning people against direct programs. In fact, we guide students into them all the time. They have a great time. But I just want families to understand what they’re getting into. 

Jen: And you mentioned another thing that’s a really interesting and important distinction that I’m sure people ask about all the time, which is M.D. versus D.O. What’s your advice there? 

Dr. Shemmassian: Okay. So, D.O. is osteopathic medicine versus M.D., which is the traditional allopathic medicine. Most people in our country, when they think of a physician, they think of an M.D. Students and parents, I think intellectually understand that, okay, D.O. physicians are also medical doctors, they can do anything that an M.D. does. They can practice in any specialty. Although it might be tougher for some D.O. graduates to obtain residency spots in certain competitive places like derm or ophthalmology or what have you. So there’s that concern. At the end of the day, in my experience, when parents and students really open up to me, there is no you know, there’s no sugarcoating or smoothing of it. I think they’re concerned about prestige. A lot of students have come to me and said, I always envisioned being an M.D.. So almost feeling like they’re settling for something different. And so it’s more so of, you know, figuring out for every single student, okay, what’s the goal? Is the goal to be an M.D. or is the goal to be a physician? Because look, our goal, 99 plus percent of the students that we support when they want to go to medical school, they want to become an M.D. And, you know, when students have the background, the requisite statistics, you know, grades and MCAT scores as well as extracurriculars, we can help them get there. Usually we can help them outperform even the stats that they’re bringing. But there is a subset of students where their stats or their extracurricular profile is really going to make getting into an M.D. program a challenge. And then so the really frank conversation we have to have is, what is your goal? Is it to become an M.D. or bust? Or is it to become a physician? And if it’s to become a physician, while there are terrific D.O. programs, a lot of people think that D.O. programs are all created equally. That’s just not the case. You know, going back to undergrad prestige, Harvard Medical School is not the same as a far less competitive M.D. program. Right? In the same way, there is variance within the D.O. sphere. So there are some really terrific ones. And thinking about, okay, I’m not saying you have to go to a D.O. program, but let’s include some on your list, because if you do an all M.D. list that’s overly competitive and now you risk maybe not getting anywhere versus if you have some more spread, you maximize your odds of getting into medical school, reducing the number of application cycles, having an extra year of career pay, assuming that you retire at the same age but started a year earlier post residency. So there are a lot of perks. And so a lot of times there are students who their goal is to become a physician at the end of the day. It’s not to become a physician or, you know, an engineer or something like that. It’s to become a physician. And so these are just things that we have to work through with our students. So my take is D.O. programs can be an excellent fit for a lot of people, although I understand that people are hesitant due to that prestige issue, worried about what their prospects might be for residencies and so on. And those are conversations we can have. 

Jen: How often do you get the question of M.D. or D.O. versus P.A. school? 

Dr. Shemmassian: Not ultra-frequently, but it happens. I would say once a month, once every two months, there will be a situation where a student is thinking about going into healthcare, but they’re a little bit on the fence. And Jen, what I’ll say is most people who come to college wanting to be physicians, they’ll stick with it until they struggle. So usually these questions around I’m thinking about another field like, I don’t know, maybe I’ve thought about dentistry, maybe I’ve thought about P.A., maybe I’ve thought about, it usually comes after a struggle. It’s rare that I see a student come to college, ace their first year, ace their second year and say, P.A. school. It’s usually when students are starting to experience some doubt about their prospects for medical school, where they start thinking about P.A. school. And that’s not a knock at all on P.A. school, it’s just that most students coming in want to make sure that they’re sort of at the top of the healthcare field or what have you. But P.A. school is, of course, another wonderful option. I’ve had students who actually do well. I mean, it’s rare, but students who do well and say, look, my goal is just, you know, I want to minimize the years that I’m in school. I want to begin to assist patients earlier in my career. And the whole thing about being the person who makes the final call, like, that’s not what drives me. I want to focus on patient relationships and I want to do it sooner and get started in my career sooner. So if you want to go to school for two years, you know, have a pretty nice salary coming out the gate, have a lot of flexibility. You know, if you’re an M.D. physician and you specialize in vascular surgery and two years in, you’re like, I want to do something else, 99 times out of 100, you’re not going to do something else because you think about what that means for going back to residency. You’re not doing it again versus if you’re a P.A. and you’re working in the O.R. and then you’re like, You know what? I want to work in a different setting now. You can move. So if you value flexibility, you value being able to work on your career sooner rather than be in school or training for a long, long time. If you’re not the type of person who’s like, look, I really want to make the final call in all cases, then P.A. school might be for you. And I think it could be a terrific option for a lot of students. 

Jen: I agree. I do see people making that as a lifestyle choice. I think it’s an interesting option. And another question, as we were talking right now, everything that someone can do to better prepare themselves, the better off they’ll be if they know in advance that that’s what they want to do. And of course, even if you don’t know what you want to do, maximizing your GPA just opens options for you later if you decide you want to go to medical school. But what do you recommend to someone who is what I would consider a nontraditional student, someone who is making the decision to go to medical school after undergrad school or maybe in their senior year of undergrad. 

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah. So nontraditional is a big word, right? Nontraditional can mean so many different things. You have nontraditional, you know, the 28-year-old pastry chef who decided that they want to switch gears and go into medicine. There’s also the person who started out as an art history major and said, after second year, I actually want to be a doctor. There’s also the person who is nontraditional, who finish undergrad but with lower grades and has to do a post-bacc or an SMP program and maybe take two, three, four years post undergrad to apply to medical school. 

Jen: Tell us what an SMP program is.  

Dr. Shemmassian: Sure, an SMP program is a special master’s program. A special master’s program. They could be different. It could be like a master’s in medical physiology or medical science or have some other term. So it’s kind of an umbrella term where it’s a terminal master’s. So you get a master’s degree with coursework in the sciences. And the point in these programs is to boost your GPA. So if you had a harder time in undergrad and you want to show more recent strong academic performance, essentially to get admissions committees to say, ah, I’m going to sort of discount some of the earlier struggles because in the last two years, you know, Billy, you did a great job in school. That’s when you might want to go to a post-bacc or an SMP program. And so that’s what that is. So it really depends on when someone makes the decision and what their circumstances are. Because the art history major could have had a 4.0 and then after sophomore year decides, I want to go into medical school. Now it’s a question of, okay, how quickly can we finish your pre-med requirements? Might you need a fifth year? Might you just finish out your degree? And then, do a career change or post bacc or an SMP post undergrad to make that up? Or it could be someone who struggled in undergrad who needs to enhance their grades. So there’s academic enhancer programs rather than career changer programs. And then also we have to do an extracurricular analysis. During your undergrad years, maybe your grades suffered, but do you have the requisite research and clinical experiences and service experiences? If yes, great. Let’s continue with that. If not, well, we got to think like a freshman in terms of extracurriculars and really build that from the ground up. If you’re the pastry chef, same thing. You know, from the time you decide to the time you apply, it’s minimum two, sometimes three years. So a lot of times when people are really nontraditional, let’s say I’m a lawyer or an accountant or a baker or whatever, we have to have the conversation. Okay. You made the decision today, but you’re not applying this year. You’re applying in two, three years. Okay. Now you’re a 28-year-old pastry chef. Now you’re 31, four years, med school residency, etc. You’re coming out as an attending closer to 40. And so a lot of times people, especially if they’re comfortable, like earning a paycheck, letting that go and paying money to go to school can be really difficult. So having conversations around what is your family life like, what are you looking to do there, etc., who do you have to support and stuff. So I think it’s a whole life conversation sometimes, depending on how nontraditional the person is. So we treat it individually. 

Jen: What would you say is the most important of the factors in the application process? So we have GPA, MCAT score, personal statement, extracurriculars. I’ve heard for law school, for example, I’ve heard that it is very much about scores. Is that what you see with med school applications as well? 

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah. So you’re absolutely right. Where, you know, with law school admissions stats carry so much of the weight, I would say relatively in medical school stats are critical, but they don’t carry quite as much weight. So in other words, I think of stats as sort of your ticket to be seriously considered. It sort of gets your foot in the door for consideration, but it doesn’t take you all of the way. So if you have strong stats but you haven’t demonstrated through your extracurriculars a commitment to medicine, you know, patient care research in a medical space or medically adjacent space, a heart for service, these kinds of things, you’re not going to get there. Same thing if you have an amazing extracurricular profile, but your stats aren’t very good, you’re going to have a major uphill climb. But then taking all of those experiences and being able to communicate it on application essays is huge. Sometimes people have everything, they don’t get in. I’ve talked to people, Jen, who have a 3.9, a 518 on their MCAT, they’ve done all this. They don’t get in. They say, I honestly don’t know what happened. And then you read their applications and it just kind of fell on deaf ears. And so you have to make sure that you position yourself. It’s very awkward talking about ourselves, writing about ourselves. We don’t get that training in school and we think we’re bragging. So it’s really uncomfortable for our pre-med students who don’t have that same writing training as maybe like a humanities student to pull that off. And so all of these things matter. Your rec letters, what others say about you, do they corroborate what you’re saying about yourself, your ability to present yourself in an interview? You can look great on paper, but then if you come to an interview and you’re robotic and people just can’t envision you interacting with patients, that’s it. That’s, you know, that’s where the road ends. So we have to make sure to come at it from every angle and prep our students at every stage to make sure that they’re getting it. 

Jen: That is brilliant insight, and I’m sure working with your team must be a huge help to people to have some reassurance that their application is helping them to put their best foot forward. If people want to reach you and learn more about how your team can help them through this process, how should they go about finding you? 

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah, sure. So, I know it’s a mouthful. I’m sure you’ll link to it in the show notes, but really there’s an easy way to get in touch. There’s a contact button at the top right corner of the page and they can get in touch by sending an email or filling out the form on our site. And it would be a pleasure. 

Jen: Absolutely. We will link to this in the show notes. So if you’re listening, please check out the show notes and click the link and Shirag, thank you so much for joining me today. I really, really enjoyed your insights and appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today on DocWorking. 

Dr. Shemmassian: Yeah, thank you, Jen. This is great. 

Jen: Thank you so much for listening with us today. If you have further questions, please reach out to me, [email protected]. Please check us out at to find out how we can help you in a career transition with coaching courses, arming you with the tools that you need to put yourself in the driver’s seat as you’re making these important life decisions and defining success on your own terms. Thanks for joining us today on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. 

Board-certified practicing radiologist, founder and CEO of DocWorking, and host of top ranked DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast

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