As I suddenly realize that I am halfway through my gap year and that 2020 has been swallowed by the gaping maws of that-which-shall-not-be-named, I find myself with more time than usual to sit still. To be quiet and reflect on the years that have led me to the point at which I find myself.
Much of what I reflect on these days is gratitude. And I have realized, now more than ever as the final goal of an MD admission becomes a reality rather than a dream, that I do not think I would be where I am today without the mentorship of my older pre-med friends – those who are now studying for STEP diligently and who have unknowingly shaped my academic and professional path.
Someone I know from the distant memory that is high school recently reached out to me asking to meet for virtual coffee – she is a pre-med in her sophomore year of college, and had questions about what she should be doing to prepare for the mystery-shrouded event of MD admissions and the beastly MCAT. Her questions struck a sentimental chord in me, and it was the most incredible feeling to be able to answer the very questions I had stressed over and had answered by my own mentors.
Here are some of the most valuable things that my pre-med mentors have taught me over the years:
On the subject of choosing classes
When do I take organic chemistry? What about orgo lab? Can I pair it with physics, or will I want to rip my hair out? When do I squeeze in the English class amongst all the molecules, formulas, and labs?
My personal comfort zone was four classes per semester, along with three to four credits of independent research. Choosing your classes every semester can be incredibly overwhelming, and my strategy changed many times over my college experience. Still, there are three pieces of advice I stand by today.
One: Create a list as early as possible in your college career that includes every class or type of class you must take to satisfy both medical schools and your major by the time you graduate.
Two: When choosing which semester to place each of these required classes, speak to peers in the year immediately above and two years above you. Their insights and experiences can inform how you build your schedule. Also, talk to your health/career advisor to determine what students have found manageable in the past, and what number of credits will be feasible for you and your habits.
Three: Create space for the classes you will never have the chance to take again. At my school, one of the most famous and must-take classes was related to wine. Another must-take class was dedicated to the study of food science, where the final project was the creation of an ice cream flavor (best flavor was sold at the college dairy bar!). Not only do I recommend taking these kind of courses in terms of personal development, but I think it’s important to demonstrate that you as a student have a desire and willingness to broaden your scope of knowledge and step outside your comfort zone. Your minor (if you want to pursue one) can also fit here!
On the subject of research
Choose wisely, and choose early! My older premed mentors pushed me to quickly become involved in a lab. I highly recommend becoming involved in some form of research that you are interested in during your first or second year of college. I found my way to a lab by way of speaking with an older peer and discovering that the research he did matched my own interests. There are many strategies students use to begin doing research in a laboratory. Using a mutual connection, cold emailing professors (make sure to reference specific projects in the lab!), emailing graduate students, or going to an undergraduate research board are all great places to start.
On the subject of medical school applications
When you begin your college education and attend those early health careers workshops, you are exposed to the boxes you need to check for medical school: research, clinical exposure, a certain number of volunteering and shadowing hours....But the most valuable advice I ever received was to do what I loved, and to do it consistently. As I have undertaken the winding interview trail these last months, I have heard time and again from admissions committees that applicants are chosen for their passion, the true dedication that shines through the paper of their primary and secondary applications. My passion manifested itself as a four-year long commitment to martial arts. What will your story be? Think long and hard about this – the sooner the better! – so your narrative stands out in its commitment and personal truth.
On the subject of the dreaded exam
Facing the MCAT was terrifying. I still remember cold-sweating while reading through pages upon pages of SDN and Reddit prior to beginning my own studying. The most important advice I received on MCAT studying was to create a very detailed and carefully advised study schedule. The pearl of wisdom I discovered on my own, however, is that the ability to be flexible and change that schedule is almost as important as the schedule itself. During the period of time that I studied for the MCAT, I had to remember to be kind to myself.