Surviving the MD admissions process as a student-athlete

MD/PhD admissions medical school admissions strategy
By Cole

student athlete

For those of us who are pre-med collegiate athletes, or those considering this route, there is one inescapable and terrifying truth: the day consists of only 24 hours. While I was playing NCAA ice hockey at Wesleyan University, 5 hours each day were devoted to athletics. Additionally, most weekends were spent traveling for games and sleeping in hotels. This wouldn’t have been an issue if the MD admissions officers didn’t expect so much on top of the normal course load. As a student-athlete, it felt like I was demanded to play my sport while also taking orgo, physics, chemistry, English, bio, labs, conducting research, tutoring, volunteering and winning a Nobel Prize all at the same time. We student-athletes spend endless hours competing on the ice, field or court, but we are also expected to compete with others as an MD applicant. At times (most times) this process seems overwhelming and impossible. You might be sitting there, right this second, thinking this process is impossible. Before I was accepted to Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons, I was right there with you. Student-athletes are presented with unique challenges due to our athletic and academic demands. However, we are also uniquely positioned with an edge over other MD applicants.

Having completed my undergraduate career as a student-athlete, and (thankfully) underway at Columbia University VP&S, I wanted to share 5 simple but critical lessons I learned along the way. Not only did these lessons keep me sane, but they readied me for success in the MD application process. For any student-athlete out there, I encourage you to consider these tips as you plan your own path. Learn from my mistakes rather than making them yourself! 

Tip 1 – Become a Scheduling Master

This one is by far the most important – SCHEDULE EVERYTHING. Guess who your new best friends are? iCalendar and Google Calendar! First step, put your class schedule for the whole semester (along with exams and assignments) in there. Next, put in your practices and games. Like to workout as well? Schedule it. Conducting research? Schedule it. Have office hours for the class you TA? Schedule it. Like dinner at a specific time? Schedule it. Mom coming up for dinner? Schedule it. You get it, schedule everything. It seems psychotic, but believe me, this will be the best remedy for your anxiety. Scheduling will allow you to visualize when there is free time, and when there isn’t. It will help you organize your studying for the upcoming exams, determine where you can fit in volunteering, and reveal when you need to insert some much-needed free time (see Tip 5). With this schedule, you have a roadmap to the upcoming days and months. What initially felt like an INSANE semester with courses, research, athletics, volunteering and tutoring was just boiled down to one easy question, what’s next on the calendar?

Tip 2 - Plan Ahead using Specifics

One of the biggest challenges for athletes (or any premed in general) is figuring out how to fit together all of the requirements. The most common pitfalls are overloading courses early as a freshman or scrambling as a senior to finish the requirements. Thankfully, if we simply adapt some of the ~amazing~ skills we previously learned from Tip 1, we can avoid both these tragedies. If you are early in your undergraduate career, sit down and map out what you will be taking each semester and how it all fits together. Things to keep in mind; first, what are your major requirements? Get those in place as the primary structure. Next, what else is needed for your premed requirements? Schedule that English course and reluctantly schedule that physics course. Next, when can you fit in research? How about volunteering or being a teaching assistant? Doing all of this earlier than later will prevent you from cramming too much too early and burning out, or missing a course come graduation day. 

Tip 3 – Take Advantage of Mentors

This one is less tangible, but equally important – befriend your professors! If I were to ask you right now to pick 6 professors/mentors to write you glowing recommendations for your MD application, could you? If the answer is yes, keep doing what you’re doing. If no (like most people), go ahead and make some friends! Professors are an amazing source of wisdom who can help you learn about your interests and what your career path could be. Additionally, they love to help aspiring physicians. So, help you help yourself and reach out to your professors! A cup of coffee one morning can go a long way.


It would be pretty cool if hospitals called you and asked, “Hey, are you premed? Do you want an awesome clinical experience? Want to learn first-hand what working with patients is like while also rounding out your MD application?” Unfortunately, they probably won’t do that. So, until then, call them! Likewise, pester professors to get into labs, and be your own leader. The majority of people around you are willing and helpful resources, but it’s up to you to engage with them.

Tip 5 - Have Social Time and Enjoy It

This one should go without saying, but for the competitive and fast-paced individuals out there who think every waking second should be spent studying, think again. This is your life, and as adamant as you are about scheduling study time, schedule social time as well. There is no end to the demanding work – undergrads have the MD application, MD students have step exams, then residency, then jobs, then promotions, etc. – don’t live your life thinking you can relax once you get to the finish line, there is no finish line. Study hard when you need to, but also go out to dinner with your friends, sit on the quad and read. Have fun during the crazy, fun, chaos that is college.

In conclusion, let me end on a high note. Student-athletes have extensive experience working on teams, and that is a massive bonus for the MD application. You consistently refine your capacity for communication, regularly collaborate with others, lead when necessary and are wildly dedicated to your craft. Remember these attributes – they are the same ones that will make for a great doctor, and MD admission officers would love to hear all about them.