Carnegie Mellon University
March 04, 2021

Mentored Success

MCS alumni build successful mentorship program for CMU students applying to medical school

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS

Four years ago, Alex Pomerantz and Susheel Khetarpal were applying to medical school. The experience, they recall, was nerve-wracking, exciting, uncertain and emotionally draining. But they did it. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, Pomerantz enrolled in Harvard Medical School and Khetarpal stayed local, attending the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Not long after starting medical school, both were invited to join their institutions’ respective mentorship programs for undergraduates. Thinking back to their own application experiences, the pair decided to give back a little closer to home by starting a mentorship program for pre-health students at Carnegie Mellon.

The Mellon College of Science is home to CMU’s Health Professions Program (HPP) and is run by Director Jason D’Antonio.

“Dr. D,” as many students call him, guides pre-health students in selecting classes, finding research and volunteer experiences, choosing the right program, connecting with alumni and prepping for the MCATs and later medical school interviews. He advises hundreds of pre-health students and invests as much as he can to each student who comes through the program.

That was another reason Pomerantz and Khetarpal wanted to focus their efforts on their alma mater.

“Dr. D has such a personal touch with so many of his applicants. I thought we could expand such a program and make it more formal,” said Khetarpal. 

A Personal Touch

The biological sciences alumni founded the medical school application mentor program (MSAMP). By starting with nothing more than D’Antonio’s rolodex – yes, a real rolodex — and informally recruiting their own CMU peers, they steadily built the program from the ground up.

Over the last three years, the program has flourished into a robust resource for students as they themselves enter the medical school application process.

In the first year of the program, Pomerantz and Khetarpal recruited about 20 mentors, themselves included. By the next application cycle, the vast majority of mentees had gotten into medical school and became the perfect candidates for the next round of mentors.

“The logistics of medical school are so complicated and intricate. It’s better for those who have fresh experience to mentor,” noted Khetarpal.

So, the pair built an official database with a self-refilling supply of new mentors. They now have roughly 50 mentors available each application cycle.

Given that applying to medical school can take nearly a year, from primary and secondary applications to interviews and acceptances, Pomerantz and Khetarpal wanted a program that would give students a strong support system.

As a mentor, Pomerantz takes an informal approach, assuring mentees they can text him with questions at any time. While mentors give formal feedback on personal statements and interview tips, they also act as a sounding board and reassuring presence for a very difficult process, Pomerantz said.

“I had formative life experiences when I was younger and was given conflicting advice for how to use that. I took a huge risk and decided to write about them, and it ended up paying off for me,” Pomerantz shared. “I wanted to help students who were in similar boats — those who weren’t sure if they could write the real reasons they were interested in medicine because they felt it was oversharing or an uncomfortable emotional place.”

Experiences like that are exactly why Pomerantz and Khetarpal devote a lot of time to bringing together symbiotic pairs.

“There’s a very personal touch,” said Khetarpal. As young alumni, they know many of the current students applying and the alumni who are mentoring. Equipped with their personal knowledge and the program’s mentorship questionnaire, Pomerantz and Khetarpal can pair mentees and mentors with similar experiences, such as applying as a first-generation college student or a gap-year student.

Both the alumni drive and personal touch are what make the program uniquely successful.

Passing the Baton

As Pomerantz and Khetarpal near their residencies and become further removed from the application process, their goal is to make sure the program carries on as they take more of a backseat role. 

Each year, they pass the baton to annual coordinators to run the next round of the program. This is what helps keep that personal touch — making sure those involved know each other.

“The logistics of medical school are so complicated and intricate. It’s better for those who have fresh experience to mentor."  

2017 biological sciences graduate Timothy Gao, also at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and 2018 graduate Carolyn Vanek, currently at Baylor College of Medicine, served as the first MSAMP coordinators in 2019.

Vanek said she wanted to give back to the program because it had given so much to her. And even though she’s no longer coordinating matches, she was excited to finally have a mentee of her own during the 2020-21 application cycle.

“It's been such a joyous experience seeing their success throughout the cycle, from receiving interviews in the fall to the slow trickle of spring acceptances that are starting to come in."

Taking over from Gao and Vanek, current coordinator Prerana Katiyar saw the program reach a new milestone this year — matching 30 mentor/mentee pairings, the highest number since the program began.

“Many of our mentors are many years out of school, as are many of our applicant mentees, so it is really fulfilling to see the CMU pre-med/med community be so tight knit and willing to stay involved,” said Katiyar, a 2019 biological sciences graduate and first-year Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons medical student. “This is a community I am proud to be a part of, and I hope I can continue to contribute to its growth.”

Though the program is still young, it has certainly made an impact both inside and outside of CMU. “It has been a fantastic success and wonderful addition to our HPP resources,” said D’Antonio. “Since I made it public, other pre-health offices are calling for our help in creating one at their home institutions.”