Advice for Premed Students
College is a time to party hard. It is also a time to play hard. Do this right and you will not only have the time of your life but you will be well-prepared for what follows: life after college. Spend some time reflecting starting your first term once the overwhelming novelty begins to wean and you have taken stronger command over your college experience. What do you want out of it? Find time to explore. Take opportunities to explore. Join interest groups and clubs. Ask around, both upperclassmen and faculty. As you’ve probably realized by now, much of your learning experience at the university is from your peers and faculty—not a textbook. Especially for nursing students, you’ll be hands on in learning.
Whether you’ve known that you wanted to be a doctor since you were five, fifteen, or twenty-five, there are certain steps that can greatly help you towards that white coat ceremony. Like many other aspects of college, if done strategically, it will be very manageable. Start early and be smart about it. The first thing to remember is that medical school admissions committees like to see longevity of your experiences. Show that you can sustain interest over years, even if the engagement is a meager two hours a week.
Probably the most essential component to your application is demonstrating your ability to academically thrive in your pre-med coursework. Although there is some room here, your excellence in biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics coursework is almost a preliminary requirement to your pursuit of medicine. Plan your schedule as you see fit. Your major is not important as long as you do well in these courses, and it doesn’t really matter if you only take two or three per term as long as you ace them all. Learn to enjoy these courses and to have good study habits. Life beyond undergraduate in medicine will be a nightmare if you are not studious or effective at learning a lot of information. As a corollary, when the MCAT rolls around, you will be much better off if you actually learned in these courses. The MCAT can be either a nightmare to learn like six subjects at once or a chance to make connections and consolidate learning you have already done over several courses. I hope you will decide to take the latter! Also anticipate asking for at least two letters of recommendation from faculty who teach you in these subjects, as well as at least one from a faculty member who has taught you outside of these subjects.
Another critical component is volunteer experience. This does not have to be clinical, but it will be quite necessary at some point to demonstrate that you know what it’s like to work at a hospital. It is also important to show your humanistic elements, and this is probably better done through humanistic work, even if it is outside of the hospital, rather than volunteer hospital positions where you are performing secretarial work. Of course, you may have more than one type of volunteer experience (e.g. one clinical and others at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, etc.). Look up local hospitals. Most, especially those near universities, should already state their policies and procedures relating to volunteers. There may be waitlists and applications. If you are fortunate, you will find a hospital that has a formal internship program which facilitates many students and trains you as a volunteer to directly work with patients. This is godsend, and also anticipate requesting a letter of recommendation from your supervisor here. Consider opportunities for working with the medically underserved. Ask around to find out what your pre-med friends are doing, especially upper-classmen who have learned to navigate this realm over years. Make sure to be smart here and to embrace a few hours a week over years. Volunteering at a hospital and working with patients will also be a nice change of pace from the university atmosphere where you are almost exclusively surrounded by people your age, so embrace it. And don’t forget to apply your studies while being exposed to medicine! Think about the mechanisms of the medications administered and the scientific process that underlies clinical practice. It is great motivation to see your classroom knowledge save lives.
A next essential is physician shadowing. This can be quite awkward, as it is difficult to procure, but once it is established, it is a very fruitful experience if done regularly. Reach out to local physicians. If your university is affiliated with a medical school or if you have an active pre-health club on campus, try to find out if any programs are in place to connect you with a physician to shadow. Most physicians are humanistic people and will love to take you under their wing (this applies for most careers in healthcare—definitely one of the benefits of medicine: being surrounded by people who care about other people), but there are practical issues that make it difficult (namely, HIPAA). Make an effort and show how much you would appreciate their time. Be on your best behavior and maintain great etiquette and thankfulness both when asking the physician and when actively accompanying her or him in the hospital or clinic. Ask questions and, again, exercise your classroom knowledge in the field. Anticipate also requesting a letter of recommendation from a physician you have shadowed several times over a period of months to years. As a corollary to this, speak with the physician you are shadowing about your interest in medicine. Ask them what got them interested in the field. You might be surprised to find that they were just like you at your age!
Finally, an increasing initiative in medical education is to connect medicine with research. We want physicians today to know the scientific process, to be able to think at a level of molecular mechanisms when weighing treatment options, and to engage with the frontiers of biomedicine to bring breakthroughs from the laboratory bench to the patient bedside. Seek research opportunities while at the university. Most of your professors will spend their time predominately undertaking research and managing a laboratory. Attend office hours and show interest. A few weeks into the class, after you have demonstrated your mastery of the subject, ask them if you may volunteer in their lab. If you are studious and hard-working, it will be worth it for them to take the time to train you and they will be happy to help you and watch you grow as a budding scientist. As with the above, anticipate requesting a letter of recommendation from your research adviser.
In sum, there are five basic components to medical school applications which you can easily build up over time as an undergraduate: an excellent academic record (GPA and MCAT), volunteer work, physician shadowing, research, and letters of recommendation attesting to the previous four. In addition to these, being a well-rounded person with interests and with ways of dealing with stress is important. Work on your hobbies. Spend time on your interpersonal relationships. Have the college experience, and do so while embracing this dynamic balance of actively working towards and building your future while engaging in and loving the present.