Ask an Alumni Anything: Jamie Grunwald ('19 BSc)

Augustana alumna Jamie Grunwald gives advice on making the most of your time at Augustana, tailoring your degree to your interests and anything medical school-related.

06 August 2020


During her time at Augustana, Jamie took part in various activities across campus. From working as a resident assistant in first-year dorms to acting as president of the Augustana Science Club to being a Campus Visits ambassador and Pathways Scholar, Jamie has intimate knowledge of resume and experience-building opportunities on campus that are still available to current Augustana students. 

Now with her bachelor of science (major in biology and minor in physical education) and going into her second year of studying medicine, Jamie has answered questions on making the most of your time at Augustana, tailoring your degree to your interests and anything medical school-related.

Q: What is a big transition that you found between undergraduate studies and graduate studies?

A: Assessment and content were the most significant areas of change for my undergrad to medical school transition. In undergrad, I was consistently writing papers, lab reports and doing assignments on top of studying for finals and midterms. Comparatively, most med courses primarily assess comprehension through examination—some combination of midterms and/or quizzes plus a final exam. The idea of “schoolwork” is almost completely embodied in studying, which has both pros and cons. 

Content volume in medicine is (unsurprisingly) quite large. There is a degree of content “mastery” that can be achieved in undergraduate courses because of how the course is designed around what professors think is manageable for students. In med school, there is some understanding that the content volume is generally beyond mastery which is in part why courses are pass/fail in the U of A med program. The focus is on how you apply what you have learned (i.e., in a clinical scenario), not specifically on the details of what you have learned. Grades then, in a sense, matter less because of the pass/fail protocol, but truly understanding the content matters more because it can save a life someday. 

As a clarification: the Doctor of Medicine (MD) program is considered undergraduate medical education. Getting your MD is what you need for becoming a clinical physician. This is distinct from a Master’s Degree (MSc) or PhD in medicine which are academic graduate and post-graduate programs. 


Q: How adequately did your time at Augustana prepare you for medicine?

A: From an academic standpoint, medicine (or any professional healthcare program) inherently differs from undergraduate studies in the type of content you are learning and how you are applying it. I think my undergraduate degree helped me learn the basics of physiology and biology which built a good foundation for success in medicine, but there is no Cardiology 100 course to “prepare” you for cardiology block in med school. I have good friends in my class who did not take science degrees who are still doing well in medicine too. 

From a non-academic standpoint, I think my Augustana experience was exceptional in preparing me for medicine. I developed skills in teamwork, leadership, communication, problem-solving and critical thinking throughout my undergraduate experiences both in and out of the classroom. Your experiences will differ from mine and the skills you learn will vary too, but being intentional about your goals and the person you want to become is the best way to maximize the potential of what your time at Augustana can be.


Q: I have a low GPA that isn't competitive, what can I do to make up for it after grad?

A: Students will sometimes opt to take graduate studies, enter a professional program, or work for a few years to develop their educational or personal experiences before entering medicine. Many of my classmates have Master’s degrees, but I would encourage you to consider applying with what you have. Not having a competitive GPA doesn’t automatically mean you’re not a qualified or competitive candidate. Building the other portions of your application can help mitigate having a less strong section - remember the importance of being balanced!


Q: Is it a good idea to take the second biochem, AUBIO 381, in order to prepare for the MCAT?

A: I asked this same question when I was in undergrad, and a professor pointed out that making that decision mostly depends on how comfortable you are with your capacity for self-directed learning. If you think you can learn that content relatively well on your own then I wouldn’t worry about it, but if learning in a classroom environment works well for you then I think it’s a reasonable option (which applies to any course related to MCAT content).

Personally, I would have liked to take AUBIO381 because I think the content is interesting and valuable but did not due to scheduling purposes and the rigour of the other courses I had that semester. It may be a good idea for you, I do not think taking it is essential for the exam. Keep in mind as well that biochemistry is only one portion of the MCAT—how much a section is weighted can help determine how much relative studying investment should be placed on that subject. 


Q: Did attending a smaller campus help you achieve better grades?

A: It’s hard to say because I never attended a larger university for comparison ;). From the first time I visited campus for Preview Day, though, I knew Augustana was the right fit for me. The environment that my Augustana experience provided was compatible with promoting my personal development and well-being which I think had a positive impact on my education and learning. So indirectly: absolutely, but that might not be the same for everyone or for every small campus.


Q: Would you suggest a biology undergrad if one is interested in medical school?

A: If you enjoy studying biology, absolutely. I mostly enjoyed my biology/science degree because I am curious about how the body and the world work (and dissection labs are my jam). Dedicating yourself to four years of study in a subject you are not really interested in, though, can cause more harm than good. There are a lot of elements involved in medical practice and it’s impossible to be equally competent at all of them. A biology degree gave me a good foundation for medical biology, but having an engineering degree can make understanding the physics of congenital heart diseases more clear, or people with a pharmacy degree have prior experience working with medications and are good at remembering which drugs are used for which conditions, and my friend with an art degree is incredibly innovative about how health care practice can be improved. It’s been said before (and with good reason) that the best suggestion is to take an undergraduate degree in something you are truly interested in—medical students come from much more diverse backgrounds than people realize! 


Q: How did you find mentors in the medical field?

A: I do not have much experience finding mentors and have also been personally exploring this question. There are numerous initiatives for students to find mentors once they are in medical school. Within my first year, I was paired with a second-year peer mentor, a clerk (medical student in 3rd or 4th year) and a physician mentor with opportunities to find a resident mentor as well. Some clubs also have resources for finding mentors within specific fields. I am currently considering asking one of my instructors to be a mentor, but my interest in their mentorship is based on traits and experience they have that I want to learn from and it wasn’t something I would have sought if I hadn’t met and gotten to know them personally. 

As for finding a mentor before you enter medicine: my best advice is to first determine what kind of mentor you are looking for and why you want a mentor. Networking events and getting involved with a community initiative in something you care about (e.g. hospital volunteering, shadowing, first aid volunteering) can create connections and opportunities for mentorship as well. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call or an email to connect to someone, so don’t be afraid to put yourself out there! Reaching out to older peers who are in medicine can be helpful too ;) 


Q: I was wondering what kind of extracurriculars you did while in university, how you maintained a competitive GPA and how you studied for the MCAT?

A: Extracurriculars: My extracurriculars were quite varied and posting my exact resume probably wouldn’t actually be particularly valuable. As a way of organizing my experiences, there are three general categories based on my values that I tried to target when considering what opportunities were most worth my time:

  • Personal Growth: roles that challenged me to develop my capacity as a leader, team member and communicator; most valuable when there was longer-term commitment and the chance to grow within the organization (e.g. Club President, transition from Ambassador to Senior Ambassador to Student Program Coordinator with the Campus Visits Program).
  • Community Involvement: engage with the broader community, build connections with others, and increase my knowledge of social issues outside of academia (e.g. playing rugby, community band, Building Capacity for Reconciliation workshops).
  • Healthcare and Academia: opportunities to learn about the area I wanted my future career to be in (e.g. first aid volunteering, hospital volunteering, directed reading in obesity and the microbiome). 

Note: just because something may seem more “relevant” to medicine doesn’t mean it will be more meaningful. I did not put hospital volunteering on some of my medical school applications because folding laundry did not have as much impact on my development as volunteering as a group leader at summer camp. Having diverse experiences that you can speak meaningfully about will likely be the most beneficial for you overall. 

Competitive GPA: I was a diligent student who worked really hard to maintain my grades. For the first two years of undergrad, though, my drive for academic excellence was at a significant detriment to my emotional and mental well-being. In the later two years of my degree I was then much more intentional about getting involved with groups and initiatives that I enjoyed and found fulfilling, and I also strove to take more courses in subjects I liked engaging with. Balance is the best way to avoid burnout and facilitate your success in school, both academically and personally, so know your limits and be intentional about curating your passions, too. 

MCAT: I bought MCAT study guide books and dedicated about two months to working through them before writing my exam. Practice questions and tests were the most helpful for me and my learning was augmented by using videos (e.g. Khan Academy) and notes from undergrad. Study strategies mostly come down to personal preference and what is feasible for you—some people I know have taken MCAT prep courses and liked the structure, others studied independently over a number of months while also working part time or while in school. Finding peers who are also studying for the MCAT and sharing studying tips, resources and words of encouragement with them can be helpful for your studying process as well. 


Q: Any tips on studying for the MCAT? I am so, so nervous.

A: Studying advice is tricky because you know yourself best and know your studying habits as well. As general pointers:

  • Be diligent in your studying. Cramming doesn’t work normally, and it definitely won’t work for the MCAT. 
  • Focus on the process and practice of taking the exam in addition to the content. Part of the purpose of the MCAT is to test your ability to take a test, so don’t discredit that aspect.
  • Practice questions are your friend. They help you develop skills for application of content, not just regurgitation. 
  • Keep the exam in perspective. As I’ve said before, there are many elements of medical school applications and the MCAT is only one of them. 
  • Take care of yourself first. 

The fact that you are even considering taking the MCAT and starting to work towards it shows a lot of grit, and I encourage you to remember that and channel that grit any time the studying gets tough. I’m cheering you on from afar, and wish you all the best!


Q: What qualities/life skills are most important for those of us wanting to become doctors?

A: Personally, I think the most important skills are self-awareness, compassion, communication and the humility and confidence to be a life-long learner. I’m sure my 166 classmates would answer that question in 166 different ways though, as would all physicians across Canada and beyond. I encourage you to answer that question yourself by looking at what traits and skills you can identify in the people you admire (whether they are doctors or not) and then work on developing them for yourself. 

My medical school also emphasizes the CanMEDS Roles, which is “a framework that identifies and describes the abilities physicians require to effectively meet the health care needs of the people they serve” according to the Canadian medical regulating body. That may help give you some inspiration, too!


Q: What's the most important thing in the application that an admission office pays the most attention to?

A: To answer this question you would need to contact the admissions office of the specific school you are interested in applying to. There can be variations from year to year on what schools focus on, so I would start with checking out the admissions website to see if they have a weighted admissions criteria list posted and go from there. Interviews are usually one of the higher-weighted categories because people from the school are actually getting a chance to meet you and get a truer sense of who you are as a person. 


Q: What's the major difference between a bachelor of Arts and Science with the same major?

From my understanding, the main difference is the balance of courses you will be required to take. Depending on whether you choose to do a BA or BSc will determine whether more of the credits required for you to complete your degree will come from arts courses or science courses, respectively. More specific information can be provided by the admissions advisors at the Student Academic Services office on what those differences would look like for your situation. 

If you’re someone who really likes both arts and sciences, there are different ways you can approach that balance. I have a BSc degree but going to a liberal arts campus granted me ample opportunities to take courses in subjects like sociology, band, ethics and Shakespeare. Community theatre was also a supplement for my artistic interests outside of school. Alternatively, I have a friend from another campus who completed a BA because they determined it was easier as an arts student to take science courses related to the MCAT than take art electives as a science student. It can be fun to explore the different options, just have to get creative and see what works best for you!


Q: What advice would you give or how would you go about doing research that is appropriate for Medical school as a Math & Physics student? 

First of all, thank you for your question (and kudos to you for doing a math and physics major—I think that's sweet)! A caveat for my advice is that I do not have a math and physics background, but as general pre-med school research insight: you don't need to have research that is specifically based in medicine, nor do you need to have research experience at all, to be a strong applicant. As an example, my main research position in undergrad was on teaching pedagogy and the impact of midterm exams on student learning. I also did ecology conservation research that had virtually nothing to do with medicine, and my directed reading on obesity was more medically-based but the research "experience" was relatively limited compared to the other two opportunities. Many people don't decide to go into medicine until after their degrees too, so there is no expectation that you have research in medical-related subjects in undergrad especially if there are other areas in your application where you've shown interest in healthcare. 
On that note though: I encourage you to be creative! As I said, many of my main undergraduate research experiences were not directly related to medicine, but I did other projects in my courses like term papers on the motif of disease in a Shakespearean play and parasite transfer in tropical bats that allowed me to explore the intersection between medicine and my other courses. The top of the list for me where math and physics might intersect with medicine are projects related to nuclear medicine (which I personally find FASCINATING—I even briefly considered taking an M&P route to go into nuclear medicine research), radiography, cancer radiation research (e.g., gamma knife things), or biomechanical engineering-type work. 

One of my classmates took a degree in Mathematics and Physics before medical school, and when I asked them your question their response was similar. Their one-sentence summary was to do whatever interests you because (and I quote): "my math research had absolutely nothing to do with medicine (at least so far) and I'm still here."
In summary: all research is appropriate for medical school, and if you choose not to do research that's okay, too. Focus on what you're passionate about and that should serve you best in the long run!