If you had asked me as a freshman in college where I was going to be in 4 years, I don't know what I would have said—but sitting in a medical school library (especially at Harvard) didn't even cross my mind. I was going to be a helicopter pilot. So, how did I ultimately end up in med school when everyone was saying that I had to be “perfect” in undergrad and could not lose focus for a second if I wanted to get into any medical school? Well, I can say I was most certainly not perfect. I made mistakes, I had fun, and I didn't start shadowing till the end of sophomore year. But, I did focus on 3 big things:
Sacrifice the small things, not the big things
Anyone who tells you that medical school is not a sacrifice is lying. Medical school students as a whole are highly successful, motivated people and they could have chosen an easier road with better salaries and less stress. Choosing to do medicine is a calling and I'm not saying it isn't 100% worth it, but it requires sacrifice. It requires studying more than your roommate and saying no to some of those thirsty Thursdays. BUT do not sacrifice the things that are going to bring you joy in the long term. For me, this was going to the gym every day and taking 3 weeks in the summer to travel and learn another language instead of taking another chemistry class or doing more research. I would not have had the energy or the motivation to work nearly as hard as I did without this “me time.” So many of my incredibly smart (-er than me) and motivated pre-med colleagues dropped out because they worked 12 hrs/day doing everything they could to pad their resumes and they just couldn't keep up with it. So, sacrifice some nights out, some Saturdays on homework, but don't sacrifice your wellbeing. This brings me to #2...
When you make the decision that medical school (or any professional school) is what you want, then work hard—but don't forget that work-life balance is not just some fancy phrase made up by hippies. It is a multi-billion dollar idea that has companies all over the world trying to force employees to take time to help themselves before they hurt the company. Burnout is a large problem in the medical community and medical schools recognize how important this is. I was asked more about my cooking class than my research at more than one school I applied to. Take the time to reinvigorate yourself before you drop off the map completely (my school ended with about 90% of premeds dropping by self-selection). When you start to feel tired and are just not in the “pre-med mood,” then take a step back and reassess where you are spending your time. If you are volunteering 20 hrs/week and spending every other day in the lab, and studying for that exam, and tutoring, and...and... then pare it down a little. A medical school will not care whether you have 250 hrs or 275 hrs of community service. Take a few weeks off and remember you are in undergrad. Enjoy it while it lasts. Build some friendships. Find your favorite workout. Try some different recipes. And when you feel like you have a better handle, add back in some of that volunteering.
Just because it isn't a medical opportunity doesn't mean that it isn't an opportunity
Some of my best memories are volunteering to build a house for Habitat for Humanity. My college did a yearly trip down to Texas during spring break to help with HFH, and one year my friends and I jumped at the opportunity to go somewhere warm and get away from the literal 6 feet of snow we walked through to get to class. I learned more about teamwork from building a house then I did volunteering to help with a cancer charity. I am not saying that volunteering for medical positions can't teach you things (and that it isn't important)—but I am saying that there are experiences out there that can enrich your life without being about anything medical. This is so helpful on the interview trail—they don't expect you to have dealt with complicated medical problems you might have seen while volunteering. But, they do ask how you deal with teamwork stressors and difficult problems. I can say that stopping a wall from falling down on you by creating a system with your classmates is a quality answer to both those questions. So, take the opportunities that at first glance don't “apply” to medical school and you might be surprised by what experiences you end up talking about.
This can apply to so many aspects of life and not just getting into medical school. Sacrificing everything for one thing is generally not advisable, and anything can be an opportunity if you do it well. If medical school is your dream, then work for it and if it is something else, then work for that.