Each year, tens of thousands of aspiring doctors enter their first year of college. Many are confused about what it means to really be a “Pre-med” (hint: this isn’t your major–it’s just a designation).
The schooling it takes to officially become an MD is legendary for its grueling workload and long hours. So, why take it on? Hopefully, because you’re passionate about becoming a doctor and making a difference in people’s lives. (You’ll need that passion later when you’re cramming for the MCAT at 4 AM).
As I, myself, enter into medical school, I want to leave you with some tips for surviving this journey:
1. Realize what you’re signing up for
As a pre-med student, you’ll first and foremost be a student. You’ll be expected to complete tough courses in math, chemistry, physics, biology, and English, among others. The course load can be daunting and time-consuming, but it is doable.
In addition to school, you’ll participate in diverse and interesting extracurricular activities to gain exposure to medicine and related fields. Research, volunteering, part-time work, and shadowing are common premed extracurriculars.
Being a pre-med is time-consuming, but you should still have some time to spend with friends and family and on hobbies. Just be prepared to sometimes make sacrifices, when your friend has free time and you’re busy working on something outside of class.
2. Meet with your pre-med advisor
Most colleges offer pre-med advising. This is a great resource for any student considering going into the health sciences, as a pre-med advisor can help guide you as you choose your class schedule, and potentially help you find extracurricular activities at your school.
3. Start planning early
Medical schools look for students with well-rounded experiences, which show the candidate is smart, committed, and interesting. It’s also necessary to get experience working or volunteering in a clinical setting and many schools also like to see that you’ve tried your hand at research.
Doing all these things while you go to college may seem impossible. The key is to plan ahead. Will you start working or volunteering your freshman year? Or will you take the year to develop good study habits? What sorts of things can you do over the summer to lighten your load during the school year? Your pre-med advisor can give you tips for planning efficiently.
4. Learn to study early on
College classes are a lot tougher than high school classes and require a different kind of studying. Even people who flew through high school without having to study find they have to spend time in the library as pre-meds.
Different study methods work for different people. If you’re not sure where to start, you can try talking with your academic advisor or your professors during their office hours.
5. Pay attention in your classes NOW to save you trouble on the MCAT later
If you take the pre-med requirements (including biochemistry and psychology), you’ll learn almost everything you’ll need to do well on the MCAT. Each year, prospective medical school applicants spend thousands of dollars on MCAT prep materials–even though they’ve already spent tons of tuition dollars on the same classes!
Make sure that you’re doing more than getting good grades. Making sure you understand the underlying topics you’re learning in your classes will serve you well.
6. Don’t overload your class schedule
If you’re planning to go into medicine, chances are you’re interested in science. It can be tempting to enroll in every science class that piques your curiosity, but overloading your schedule can be detrimental to your grade point average. Your academic advisor can help guide your registration decisions, but the general rule of thumb is to take no more than 3 science classes per term.
7. Do interesting research
Not only does biomedical research look great on an application, it can also help you confirm that you really want to go into medicine rather than science. Some ways to get involved in research are to get to know your professors and ask them if they have any open positions for undergraduates in their labs
Some colleges also have websites where they post campus jobs open to undergrads.
8. Volunteer at a hospital–and/or elsewhere
Medical schools want to see that you’re an empathetic person. They also want to make sure you get exposure to the medical field before you decide to commit to medicine. While clinical volunteering is a great experience (and essentially a prerequisite at some med schools), don’t pick your volunteer position solely based on how it will look on your application.
Volunteer somewhere you’ll feel passionate about the difference you’re making. Some non-hospital settings you could look into include nursing homes, animal shelters, soup kitchens, and crisis centers. You’ll get more from the experience if you enjoy it, and your enthusiasm will shine through when you write about the experience on your applications.
9. Shadow doctors in various specialties
Another great way to get an idea of what it’s like to be a doctor is by shadowing. Many pre-meds will shadow physicians in more than one specialty to get a feel for some different medical careers.
Many doctors are amenable to shadowing and there are a number of ways to find doctors who will let you tag along and observe. Pre-meds commonly ask their personal family doctors if they’re open to having shadows. Some college pre-med societies also have shadow matching programs that can help you get your foot in the door. If all else fails, you can always email hospital departments and individual doctors to see what their shadowing policies are.
Your shadowing experience could be for a few hours, a day, or even a whole week. Some pre-meds who develop good relationships with doctors shadow a few hours every week. Just make sure to be courteous and to dress professionally.
10. Get to know your professors
If you’re struggling in a class, go to office hours. They have them for a reason, and that is to help you understand the material they’re talking about in class. Getting clarification on tricky material can help you improve your grades and meeting with your professors may also help you get valuable references and recommendations later.
10. Major in something you’re interested in
As I mentioned before, “pre-med” is not a major. So, you’ll have to study something more specific during your undergrad years.
It turns out medical schools don’t care what you study as an undergraduate as long as you meet their minimum prerequisite requirements. Medical schools appreciate diversity in undergraduate majors. Interested in history? English? Philosophy? Go ahead and feed those interests.
That being said, many science majors come with the pre-med requirements built in, so it may be easier to fit them in if you major in a science.
Consider double-majoring; your pre-med advisor will tell you more about the prerequisites you need to apply to medical school, but generally, these include inorganic and organic chemistry with labs, introductory biology, physics, and English composition.
11. Join the pre-medical society at your college
Not only is joining the pre-medical society at your college a great way to meet new people with similar interests, pre-med societies often have more sway than individual pre-meds. They may be able to help you secure shadowing opportunities, make you aware of volunteer positions, and sponsor college visits and physician lectures.
12. Break your big goals up into smaller ones
As a pre-med, sometimes it can feel like there are more things to accomplish than humanly possible. That’s when it helps to take a step back and look at all the pieces individually. Instead of trying to accomplish everything at once, think about small things you can accomplish now. Take it one test or volunteer shift at a time!
13. Don’t neglect your social life
It can be easy to get buried in schoolwork and extracurriculars in the thick of the school year. But make sure you don’t burn yourself out!
One way to maintain your sanity is to make time for your friends. Obviously, school should be your priority. But it doesn’t need to be your whole life.
14. Take time for yourself and hobbies
In that same vein, make sure you leave yourself time for your hobbies and relaxation. Hobbies are great for handling stress, but the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) also allows you to include hobbies on your med school application. Some premeds even report being asked about their hobbies during interviews.
Additionally, exercise is a great way to deal with stress. Research even shows that it can help boost your brainpower and overall outlook on life.
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