How to Succeed in Pre-Med Lab Classes

Posted by Nikita on 3/23/16 9:30 AM


Nearly all of the science pre-med requirements (intro bio, intro chem, org, physics, sometimes biochem) come with an associated lab class that counts either for a significant portion of your class grade or for an entirely separate grade listed on your transcript. Regardless, it is just as important to succeed in these sections as it is in the exam portion of the class. Unfortunately, many students who excel at learning and applying the challenging concepts seen in lecture struggle with the hands-on aspect of lab-work. Here are some tips to help you do your best in the lab sections of all of your medical school prerequisites.

1) Prepare!!!

I get it -- there's preparing for lectures, finishing problem sets, writing papers, eating, sleeping, extracurriculars, a social life -- life can be really busy, and it can be really tempting to skip over the 'recommended reading' for tomorrow's lab. Looking at the plan, however, can be really helpful and save you a ton of time during the actual session. There's no need to do a detailed read of every mass required, but definitely skim the handout to get the basic idea of what the lab will be about. For example, if you know you have to boil a beaker of water, start that first so you don't have everything ready to go and then wait 20 minutes for water to boil. Also take note of the specific data that you need to collect -- there's nothing worse than realizing you forgot to take the mass of a sample that you've already cleaned up.
How-to: Underline/highlight/circle any steps that seem particularly time-consuming or challenging, to make sure that you focus on them and seek any necessary help during session. Write out or copy any data tables that need to be filled out so that you can quickly take information during the session.

2) Trust your lab partner

This may seem obvious, but I've encountered students who put in a lot of work to achieve the 'perfect' lab results; sometimes, a lot of work meant doing the lab themselves. Assuming that your lab is set up in partners or groups, remember that there's a reason for having multiple people on the same team. If there's a lot of down time in the lab or some steps that really only need one person, the other(s) can start to look at the analysis to help the team out. Remember that most of the time (unless your class specifies otherwise), your lab work doesn't have to be perfectly accurate to get a good grade. If you're comfortable collaborating with your group, you're much more likely to be able to perform a thorough analysis and discussion which will help you out when writing a lab report.
How-to: Delegate different parts of the work between yourself and the other member(s) of your lab team (also easier to do if you have read it beforehand!) and check in periodically during the lab to make sure you're still on the same page.

3) Befriend the TA (or leader of the session)

One of the inevitabilities of lab classes is variability between TAs/lab discussion leaders. A report that would get an A in one section might yield a completely different result in another, and you might hear conflicting opinions about the same pieces of information (ex. What should be in the introduction, or how the results section should be written). The best way to find out exactly what your TA thinks is to simply ask them. Prior to writing your first lab report, clarify any big questions you have about the write-up (ex. Does he want to see an 'objectives' section? Is it okay to reference the lab handout for 'methods' or should you paraphrase in your own words? How much repetition of data should be present in the discussion/conclusion?). If the section leader offers to review reports before the deadline, take them up on the offer! If the first report goes more poorly than you were hoping, ask them to sit down with you and talk you through the problems they saw -- you can change these for next time, and the fact that you're showing effort will also help.
How-to: Unlike large lectures, lab sections are usually small enough to personally interact with the  leader of the class. Take advantage of this by specifically clarifying what your TA is looking for!

While labs can sometimes feel like the hardest part of pre-med requirements, hopefully taking a couple of these steps will make it easier to perform at your best. As always, if you need help performing a lab analysis or structuring a lab report, reach out to a tutor at Cambridge Coaching!


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More on applying to medical school: 

How To Apply To Medical School: Making Experiences Relevant to Your Application

Medical School Admissions: How to Be Pre-Med and Still Enjoy College

How Can I Study Abroad as a Pre-Med?

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