Each year, I end up working both with high school students who plan to be pre-med and with med school applicants. That got me thinking: Why don't I just ask some of the Essaywise alumni for pre-med advice? Here is the unedited, unvarnished advice I received from my students.
Advice from a Stanford Sophomore
Like many college freshmen, I started out as a pre-med in the fall of my freshman year. I'm still pre-med, and I enjoyed taking my pre-med classes, but if there's one thing I regret and highly recommend that you do as a freshman, it is to take classes that seem personally interesting to you. At Stanford, for example, there are a few introductory classes that are well-taught and required as entry classes into different majors - CS 106A, Psych 1, Econ 1. I didn't take these classes as a freshman because I was concerned with doing well in my pre-med classes. Freshman year is really the year in which you should try out different subjects. Of course, if you're pre-med, it is natural to be concerned with your GPA, but the fact that you are already thinking so far ahead means that you are a good student and you can take the liberty to try out other classes and enjoy your freshman year! Who knows - maybe you like CS 106A or Econ 1 and you decide to switch to a CS or Econ major. It's better to try than to spend the rest of your college life wondering what other interests you may have.
In general, this concept of trying new things extends beyond just academics - try rock climbing, go on hikes, make new friends, join the orchestra, play frisbee. Work hard and play hard - and most importantly, savor and enjoy your freshman year!
Advice from a Recent WashU Graduate
My advice for incoming freshman interested in medical school is to start exploring the field early to see if it's right for you (physician shadowing is especially helpful), try to do well in the introductory science courses through getting extra help and studying hard (it makes life a lot easier later on), and take as many classes in fields outside of the sciences as possible. The reason why I mention the last one is because undergraduate is probably the last chance for those students entering medicine to take classes that can broaden perspectives and add a lot of variety to your education -- like a foreign language, history, anthropology, economics, etc. So many fields intersect with medicine, so a broad education is really important at the end of the day.
Advice from a Recent USC Graduate
A Guide to Surviving Pre-Medicine by ddrsoba
If you are reading this, then you have either demonstrated an interest, or have already decided on embarking in pre-medicine, colloquially known as premed, eventually reaching a career goal as a physician and beyond. There are a lot of things that can’t be fully explained in this blog, but I will cover as many points as I can, at least the ones I find critically important.
Finding the right undergraduate institution is probably the most important factor of having a solid premed career. I have seen many peers and students who immediately commit towards the highest ranked school without a second thought, only to meet with dire consequences. The brutal and honest truth is that any school you go to, you always will be graded on a curve. Most schools range from a B to C+ average, and it is NOT true that Harvard, Yale, or Stanford inflate premed grades. Especially the basic introductory science courses, each and every school and program’s job is to weed out the less fortunate students who have not the commitment and desire to slog through hours of studies. I understand that most of you are struggling in keeping up with the Joneses, of trying to reach the school of their dreams based solely on prestige. If you continue to be blinded by such mindset, then I can tell you with certainty that medicine is not right for you. Be prepared and accepting of uncertain fallbacks and failures.
The two most important metrics in applying to medical school are the GPA and MCAT. Grade point average is broken down into two components, the cumulative GPA (cGPA) and the BCPM gpa (sGPA). Both are critical. The BCPM gpa consists of all science classes, including the core pre-requisites needed for medical school (one year of biology, one year of general chemistry, one year of organic chemistry, one year of physics, one semester of calculus, one semester of statistics). The MCAT 2015 exam, a new, 7-hour sitting, consists of not only the basic sciences, but now includes statistics, sociology, and psychology. Plan to take these three classes into your pre-requisites prior to the MCAT. In the past, it would have not been necessary to take a prep course for the old test. Now, I recommend that it is prudent to take such courses in preparation for a relatively new formatted exam. As for GPA and MCAT goals, that will be up to your own personal goals. There are scores of websites that detail such information that I won’t get into.
With that in mind, I want to move onto major selection. While it is true that most premed will major in biology, it is perfectly to major in anything else and still be able to do premed. At a price. While it does add dimension to your overall application profile, keep in mind that most medical schools will still focus on the your performance in the core science pre-requisites, so while purposely taking an easy major may boost your overall GPA, it will not account for a poor performance in key science courses.
We then move onto extracurricular activities. Without a doubt, the first priority is getting clinical experience in BOTH volunteering and shadowing. Consistent levels of commitment over a long period of time are unspoken requirements at this point. I will tell you this; medical schools will be able to sniff out from a mile away whether or not you have truly committed to such an activity through secondary responses and interviews. As for research, while most students will engage in it, the same rule applies. What you get out of it and the work and time that you put in is of utmost importance. Publications, abstracts, presentations, leadership, and personal growth are all important factors when engaging in pre-medically related extracurricular activities. Nevertheless, it is always important to have 1 or 2 activities that are for personal enjoyment, and that do not have to be medically related. These can add a further dimension to your application, and once again, especially in interviews.
I know this may come as a shock to some, but I STRONGLY suggest that you seriously consider, if not decide, on taking a gap year between college and medical school. Just over 50% of medical school matriculates over the past 4 years have taken at least one or more gap year. Many options exist during that gap year, such as further clinical/lab research, job/work experience, intense volunteering/teaching, or even just traveling. Such experiences will not only strengthen and enrich, but also build a dynamic of maturity and growth that medical schools will see and appreciate.
Most importantly, I want you to understand that there is so much that college has to offer. You want to choose a school where you can excel, but also have a good time with your friends, peers, loved ones. The cliché, “best four years of your life” can come to fruition if you approach undergraduate life with a positive mindset. By having a tunnel vision of getting into a top medical school as your only goal and day-to-day living for the next for years, I can guarantee that you won’t be as fulfilled in comparison to having an open mind. I can tell you numerous stories of premed gunners whose only goal in college were to get into (insert top 20 medical school here), and ended up ostracizing themselves away from everybody. Don’t be that person. While pursing such lofty goal is admirable, keep in mind that in the big picture, getting into medical school is only one step in the long ladder towards being a physician. While grades are important, building meaningful relationships with faculty, colleagues, peers, trying new things, pursuing meaningful hobbies, are tantamount to a well-rounded and balanced college experience that will manifest itself come application time.
I hope this blog will help you in making the best future decisions. Remember, the journey is the destination. ddrsoba
Advice from a UCLA School of Medicine Student
Here are some pieces of advice that I would share!
- Don't worry necessarily about what you are going to major / minor in and don't feel pressured to major in biology or something else that is stereotypically "pre-med". It is certainly a good idea to plan out which core pre-med courses you will take and when you will take them, but other than that try to explore subjects you are truly passionate about. Core classes you should plan out are biology (one year with lab), general chemistry (one year with lab), physics (one year with lab), organic chemistry (one year with lab), calculus, statistics, one year of english, and biochemistry.
- Each medical school has a different set of required courses. Check with specific schools you think you may end up applying to (these will likely include your state schools) so that you can ensure you meet those requirements. For example some schools highly recommend a foreign language or specific statistics courses.
- Start shadowing physicians and getting clinical experience early! Going to medical school and becoming a doctor is a long and difficult path. Getting clinical experience early on with let you know if it is something you are truly passionate in pursuing. Medical schools will certainly be asking how you knew medicine would a good fit, and you can draw on experiences you have had in a clinical setting. Also, starting to shadow physicians early will allow you to develop mentor relationships with doctors who can be valuable resources for advice and letters of recommendation.
- GET TO KNOW YOUR PROFESSORS / ADVISORS. Go to office hours even if you do not have questions. The application for medical school requires 5-6 letters of recommendation and you want them to be from people that know you very well. Approximately two of these letters will be from science professors who often teach larger classes. Although professors may seem intimidating, they generally are really eager to get to know their students, so do not be afraid to meet with them outside of class.
- Start documenting anecdotes from important activities in your college career early. Let's say you are shadowing a doctor and come across a really intriguing case and the doctor handles it in a way that really resounds with you - write it down! Or maybe you are doing research in lab and you run into some difficulties that you are able to work through. Or you could be on a sports team and you are able to help a teammate through a time of need. Specific anecdotes like these will be very helpful for when you are writing your applications for medical school because they will make your essays stronger and more personal.
- Many people think that in order to go to med school you have to do EVERYTHING. This is not true. It is better to find a few activities that you are really passionate about and stick with them for a couple years so that you can dedicate a lot of time to them and perhaps take on some leadership roles. Medical schools really want to see that you have a good deal of clinical exposure (physician shadowing, volunteering in a hospital / clinic), research or lab experience, and some sort of volunteer work. It will be more meaningful if you have a few experiences that you are incredibly passionate about than if you have 20 experiences that you did not dedicate much time to.
If you identify the issues, then you can address them. Here are the issues I see these students working through:
- Selecting courses.
- Selecting extracurricular activities.
- Cultivating relationships with professors and mentors.
- Defining the relation between success and prestige.
Thank you to my students for your insights. This was the easiest blog post I've written in a long time. You guys are great!