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From the Issue: Postbac to the Future

In honor of our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine, Bwog offers a preview of the December issue of The Blue and White—which will be welcomed by campus next week. In this piece, contributor Channing Prend, CC ’17, takes a look at the post-baccalaureate students that are changing the chemistry of pre-med classes. Note that names have been shortened to initials for privacy concerns.


Illustration by Anne Scotti, CC ’16

“Fuck no. I would probably be failing all my classes if I acted like I did as an undergrad!” S.K., GS ’15, exclaimed. “When I was in college, I went out at least four nights a week.”

I first met S.K. at Professor David Reichman’s Gen Chem office hours. She seemed aggressive, and I avoided making eye contact with her at all costs.

“Will we be expected to know this for the midterm?” “Does this principle extend to polar covalent bonds?“ “Do we need to be comfortable applying this model to heteronuclear diatomic molecules?”

She, and the other students in the room, interrogated Professor Reichman. I recognized them as the overachievers who frequent the front row of lecture and stay after class every day to ask questions. Furthermore, they all appeared to be upperclassmen. I was wholly aware of my inferiority.

About a month into the semester, S.K. and her cohort accepted me as a constant fixture in office hours. One day, I was deemed worthy enough to warrant pre-class small talk.

“Are you a freshman?” E.S., GS ’15, asked.

“Yeah… What about you?” I stammered.

“I’m a postbac,” she replied. I nodded, not wanting to reveal my ignorance. Through a subsequent Google search, I learned of the School of General Studies’ Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program.

The program was founded in 1955 and currently enrolls more than 350 students. Eligible applicants, according to their website, are “college graduates who have taken few or none of the basic science requirements needed to apply to medical school.” Postbac students come from a wide range of academic backgrounds, including English, psychology, law, political science, and finance. For most, coming to Columbia marks a change in professional identity.

“I originally wanted to become an attorney.” E.S. explained. “Let’s just say that after a few years working in a public defenders office, I realized that the lawyer-client relationship isn’t the most direct way to help people.”

Since postbacs previously attended a four-year undergraduate institution, they have no illusions about this being an exhaustive college experience. “We’re not here to have fun.” S.H., GS ’15, remarked. “I think most of us treat this as a job.”

The postbacs are motivated by a very specific goal: medical school. For this reason, very many take advantage of resources like office hours. “I gave up my entire career to be here.” C.C., GS ’15, stated. “So obviously I’m taking my academics more seriously than I did as an undergrad.”

“Members of the postbac community are bound by a shared and deep commitment to academic excellence,” said Victoria Rosner, Associate Dean of the Postbac Program.

C.C. put it more bluntly, “We’re all trying to get good grades.”

With acceptance rates as low as 2.1 percent for the top medical schools, its not surprising that postbacs are so concerned with their academics. “Med school admissions is less holistic than undergrad,” S.H. commented. “GPA and MCAT scores are some of the most important factors.”

The postbac program has many resources to help students through this ruthless application process. “We have a staff of full time advisors, study groups, academic tutors, MCAT prep, and even some linkage programs that allow students early placement into selected medical schools,” Rosner listed. These opportunities result in nearly 90 percent of Columbia postbacs being accepted into medical school upon first application.

This statistic, however, doesn’t always comfort. “I’m trying not to think that far ahead,” S.K. stated. “Right now I just need to make sure I don’t fail all my classes.”

Postbacs share many of the same goals and values. “Students in the program feel an immense amount of camaraderie,” Rosner declared.

For many, these relationships are confined to the classroom though. “We see each other in office hours and at study groups,” S.H. stated. “But the foundation of these friendships is essentially doing work… and bitching about classes.”

“I think there was some sort of postbac Halloween party recently,” A.P., GS ’15, noted. However, no one that I spoke with actually went. (“I don’t have time for that,” A.P. said)

However, there does seem to be a common culture that surrounds studying and overachieving. This characteristic attitude often makes it easy to determine which students are in the program.

“Basically, if you come to office hours, I assume you’re a postbac,” my Chemistry TA, who preferred to be kept anonymous, told me. “Unless you look blatantly prepubescent.” (He said this while staring right at me).

Classification is not always so simple, though. The average age of a student in the program is twenty-seven, so many of the younger postbacs are not visibly distinguishable from the rest of the undergraduate population.

“Where did you go for undergrad?” Professor Reichman asked me as we chatted, pre-interview. “I’m eighteen,” I replied.

According to Dean Rosner, in a typical Gen Chem class about 25 percent of students are postbacs. “I would think that young undergraduates perceive them as role models,” Rosner said. (Asked to comment on the postbacs however, the prevailing response among freshmen in my class was: “The what?”)

Most postbac students are similarly uninterested in their younger classmates. “I didn’t come here to make friends with a bunch of immature freshmen,” S.H. told me.

“I don’t give a fuck what they think of me,” S.K. professed. “They’re all a bunch of little shits.” (When I informed her that I am a freshman, she held fast: “I stand by my comment”).

For the few underclassmen that were aware of the program’s existence, their view was hardly one of admiration. “It’s not really that fair. They’re only taking two classes, so they have more time to devote to Chem,” stated Tatini Mal-Sarkar, CC ’17. “I don’t really care except that they screw up the curve.”

These two groups, though they share Havemeyer 309, are inherently different. “The postbacs really capitalize on the resources available to them,” Professor Reichman said. “But many of them have been out of school for years. They don’t have an immediate grasp of the material, like a freshman who took AP Chem last year.”

To make up for this discrepancy, postbacs will continue to overachieve in Gen Chem classes throughout Columbia. “It’s never too late to pursue something you’re passionate about,” A.P. exclaimed. “Oh God, that sounded so cliché. But it’s actually true!”

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  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous I took a night time gen chem class my first semester freshman year and it was like 50% these people. I totally agree they screw up the curve because they only have to take one or two classes. I switched into a morning section for the second semester and ended up with a better grade while doing less work. It doesn’t matter because they pay to be here, so Columbia will always take them with open arms.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Have you considered that people who leave careers to go back to school to prepare for many more years medical school might skew the curve because of their academic strength, not because of the number of classes they take?

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Also I wouldn’t care that much except this article encapsulates their attitude pretty well. They’re not interested in learning the material either, just getting the grade (like typical grade-grubbing premeds I suppose, except even less concerned with helping/interacting with their classmates since they’re not really Columbia undergrads…)

  • GS BA'15 says:

    @GS BA'15 lol, incredible article Channing.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Ever GS student I’ve met has taken their education way more seriously than most other undergrads and been more proactive about office hours/TA meetings/extra help sessions etc. They may only have to take one or two classes, but most are also working at least part-time. Their small courseload isn’t the reason they screw up the curve, they just have better priorities and time-management skills.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous “I don’t give a fuck what they think of me,” Karron professed. “They’re all a bunch of little shits.” (When I informed her that I am a freshman, she held fast: “I stand by my comment”).

    Hahahaha, this article is beautiful

  • chem TA says:

    @chem TA Postbacs are infamous in the chem dept. Some are great; the other 92% are the most annoying grade-grubbers imaginable.

  • GS BS Dec '13 says:

    @GS BS Dec '13 The absolute best part is when you, as an undergrad, do better than them. Suck it Trebek.

  • CC '13 says:

    @CC '13 Thank you for this article. I’ll preface this comment by saying that I geniunely love most postbacs. I became good friends with a fair amount of postbacs I met in classes, and see nothing wrong with them as a population. However, this program is detrimental to both the undergraduate and postbac population. It is entirely unfair to put these two groups in one classroom. I say this as I apply to medical school with good chances of getting in. I am not bitter because I believe “postbacs ruined my chance of getting in.” Sorry in advance for this rant. I tried to bring attention to this while I was an undergrad, but wasnt able to accomplish anything. This is truly something that has to be fixed. So:

    1. It is truly wrong to say that these two populations experience the same rigor. The VAST majority of postbacs are not working part time. This program is made for them to get into med school. They usually have plenty of experience from college/the time in between college and the post bac program and focus solely on classes. Undergrads need to volunteer, join clubs, do research, etc for med schools to consider them (and in reality undergrads should be, its college, time for a bit of fun!). In reality, its most unfair for the postbacs who have a part time job (or even full time job) and take classes. I am currently working with a guy who is working a two jobs to pay for the postbac program and taking classes, and I really don’t understand when he sleeps. He was under the impression that he was entering a program that was with people like him. When I was in bio, there was a 30 year old with 2 kids, who also worked full time and took classes. That was absolutely nuts. With those two exceptions, I have not met a post-bac who truly works full time. Some might have internships/research, but in reality it was for the same amount of time as undergrands per week. In comparison, undergrads are taking the core, adapting to college life, completing other major requirements, and sometimes also have part-time jobs. How can you possibly compare 5 classes to 2 per semester?? With your final alone counting for more than 30% in some classes, how can undergrads as a whole perform as well? While I was writing thirty page term papers my postbac friends were completing 300 practice problems. And as this article touched on perfectly, postbacs are always at office hours. When I was able to attend office hours (rarely, b/c of other class conflicts, I could barely get a word in because there were SO many of them. The most common comment I heard from postbacs was, “I am happy the undergrads are here, they boost my grade.”

    2. Undergrads are not told about this program when applying, and there has been NO information on how the postbac program has actually affected undergraduate medical school admissions. When I asked the undergrad premed advisors about it, they truly had no idea what to say. I knew tons of pre-med students, but very few who actually applied to med school right out of college. Whether the statistics will show that the postbacs hurt med school acceptance rate for undergrads or not (and vice versa), it is unbelievable that this has not been looked at (or maybe just not released).

    3. POSTBACS GET TO REGISTER BEFORE UNDERGRADS. POSTBACS, WHO HAVE TWO CLASSES TO SCHEDULE, GET TO REGISTER FIRST. I had to schedule orgo lab and art hum, but with all of the MWF orgo labs and TR art hums already taken, it was miserable. I ended up being in class until 10 pm.

    Being pre-med at columbia (as a post bac or an undergrad) is already tough enough. Most other Ivy leagues have SEPARATE programs for postbacs and undergrads. This is a huge money maker for the university. There is no financial aid for postbacs, so they are making a ton of money per student. Meanwhile, the resources they have to provide do not cost much. Im not sure they’ve added any sections (but if so having a tenured professor teach would not be uber expensive) and extra TA sections are covered by grad students (or even undergrads, for bio). There arent that many advisors for the program, so its really a huge net for the school. About 1000 per credit, 4-8 credits a semester, around 100-150 students (maybe less?) per year. Plus, all of the medical school admission looks great for the school.

    Again, I have nothing against postbacs themselves. If I was in their shoes, I would take advantage of the program too. I know that its not any “easier” for them, the classes are still hard. But more time to study inevitably leads to a better chance of getting a good grade. Plenty of postbacs are weeded out in the first year, but there is a similar phenomenon for undergrads. THANK YOU for writing this article, I really urge you to look further into the issue. I’m sorry for not putting my name here, I know it looks cowardly. But in the end, the school needs to support my application, so I dont want to anger the powers that be at this point (trust me, I did enough of that in undergrad).

  • SEAS '15 says:

    @SEAS '15 So yeah let’s continue welcoming every GS/post-bac student into Columbia with open arms. If I hear another comment about how “OMG I AM GS I TOTALLY DESERVE TO BE HERE YOU IMMATURE KID” I’m just going to assume you are one of those who don’t work part time, take two classes, neglect to give two fucks about anyone in CC and SEAS, and ruin all the curves in my premed classes.

    The highest grade in my orgo class was a 98 last test while the mean was around a 50. It is just sooo plausible that a student taking five classes and work in a lab twice a week while participating in clubs have that amount of time to study for a single class. This is not to insult the postbacs but rather to shame Columbia for the greedy cash-guzzler that it is.

  • Dan McConnell CC'14 says:

    @Dan McConnell CC'14 I’m going to throw some information out there. I am a CC senior who has had the privilege to work with many post-bac from my time on CU-EMS. I have provided a general post-bac schedule below.

    1st Fall:Gen Chem 1, calc 1, physics 1, physics lab
    1st Spring: Gen chem 2, gen chem lab, physics 2, general physics lab
    1st Summer: stats

    2nd Fall: Orgo 1, bio 1, orgo lab
    2nd Spring: orgo 2, bio 2, bio lab
    2nd: Summer: study for the mcat

    Now this pretty much negates the point that post-bacs only take 2 classes. I’d argue they have a much more rigorous schedule than many of you. They have to take what’s know as the killer: orgo and bio at the same time. They have only 2 years to complete what most have 4 years to complete. On top of this, post-bacs have to have 120 hours in a clinical or research setting. They have to do many of the other peripheral activities that are required to get into medical school.

    These are people who are trying to get the coursework they need to go do a job that by its very nature is in the business of saving lives. The average age of a post-bac student is 27. I don’t know about you, but my parents will not be paying for me when I’m that age. So on top of med school, they have to take on dept or work a part time job just to finance their education. Get over your privilege and stop whining about the curve. If you can’t handle the stress or the difficulty, you have no business being here in the first place. Grow up and be an adult.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous It isn’t some dick-measuring contest about who has a more rigorous schedule (and I would contest your claim about that anyway.)

      Rather it’s about their behavior in classes, i.e. their insularity and their general tendency to grade-grub and mob profs and TA’s, whilst being thrown into the mix with first-years who are still adjusting to college life and would as a result be slightly (or more than slightly) intimidated.

      May be I would have more sympathy for them if they had “grown up and been adults” /their/ first time around in undergrad and taken the premed curriculum then, like the rest of us who apparently aren’t grown up and adult (and why should we be at that point? It’s introductory chemistry. I’m not even premed btw, I graduated from SEAS.)

      –same anon as at the top

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous post bacterial?

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous I just want to make a certain distinction, as I notice the lines often blur…
    NOT all GS students doing the premed program are PostBacs…!
    Many of us are GS undergrads taking a full class load + working/volunteering etc…

    I have had many PostBac friends as well as many CC/SEAS/Barnard friends during my time here (I’m a senior).
    Yes the student culture is different in each of these groups, but I am sure we can all agree that sweeping generalizations are NEVER accurate. I have met uber competitive CC students and some pretty chill PostBacs.
    That being said, I do agree that their grades need to be placed in a separate curve (as is done with Dr. Mowshowtiz’s bio courses) because their class load is lighter than most students (in CC/SEAS/GS).

    Nevertheless, I would urge everyone here to avoid attributing negative stigmas to entire student populations, it isn’t conducive to a positive University environment. And please, don’t forget that GS isn’t just a PostBac college- but rather that it is one of the programs our college offers…
    The majority of GS students are actually NOT PostBacs, they’re undergrads- and in many ways just like you- first time in college, not all of us are 30, or 40 are 60 as CUMB likes to mock- some of us are just a few years older than you (early 20’s)

    Happy Finals to all and to all a good night!!

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