Most people, at one time or another, optimistically thought they might be a doctor. Or, at the very least, had a relative tell them that they should consider a career in medicine. During my days at Cornell, it seemed like every year a new freshman class would enter with half of the cohort claiming to be "pre-med".
While many people initially think pre-med is right for them, different options and obstacles (I'm looking at you organic chemistry) may challenge the projected career path. Others, who may be well into college, might start considering medical school and feel trapped; starting late could mean graduating late, taking post-bac classes, or feeling way behind.
With med school as such a popular attraction, it's logical that so much uncertainty surrounds the decision making process.
Jeanie and Alain both graduated from Cornell University in 2015, and are in their first year at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Below they both answer the questions prospective and current pre-meders probably have on the process of pursuing and attending medical school.
What is the best piece of advice you have for taking the MCAT? And for applying to schools?
Alain: Study however works best for you, but make sure to leave enough time for practice tests! When you do the practice exams treat it like the real deal: be diligent about timing, not looking at your notes, keeping your phone out of sight, etc.
My strategy was content review for four weeks with one practice test per week mixed in, followed by two weeks of mostly practice tests with occasional content review mixed in - but again, nothing is set in stone, find your formula.
In applying to schools my best advice is to think a lot about the things that might not seem as important at first glance. Things like location, housing, grading policy, etc. It's easy to pick schools based solely on academic prestige, but at the end of the day, every school teaches the same stuff, and residency programs really don't care all that much (if at all) where you got your MD.
What will vary school-to-school is your quality of life - and this is where the other aspects come in. Will you be close to family/friends? How is the weather? Is there enough outdoor adventure to be had? How about the living, is it shared-room dorms or apartments? Do you want to live on or off-campus? Can you afford to live in this city? Are pre-clinical years pass/fail? How are tests administered? Is the class ranked?
Jeanie: For the MCAT - pace yourself and take breaks. It's less about the hours you study, and more about the productivity you have in those hours. For applying to schools - apply early, and apply far and wide.
As for building your list of schools to apply to, keep that long and broad, as there often seems to be no true rhyme or reason when it comes to medical school admissions. You want to be the one to ultimately narrow down options -- try to avoid making them too narrow to begin with.
2. What is something you wish you knew about med school before applying? Before attending?
Alain: Applying to med school is expensive. Each primary application costs between $70-100, and most schools charge you another $50-100 for secondary applications too. Add to that the cost of traveling to interviews, staying in other cities, and buying yourself some formal clothes, and you could total well into the thousands. All before you even know if you'll get in. If you can, try to save up some money so you won't have to go into debt before you even get to med school.
Jeanie: I wish I knew a bit more about the timeline of the application process - it can last for a year or longer from application preparation, through interviews, to final acceptances. It is helpful to be aware of these expectations so that you can better manage what you will be doing during that year, whether that be working, traveling, or taking classes at school.
Before attending medical school, take some time to get to know your new home. Everybody adjusts to medical school itself in different ways and at different paces, but if you spend some time beforehand to become familiar with your local grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants, you'll help to quicken the adjustment to this new phase of your life.
3. What is the biggest misconception you had about med school before actually going?
Alain: I definitely thought that med school was going to be 100 percent work 100 percent of the time. I thought I would be stressed every day of the week. And while it is certainly not easy, you will learn to manage, and believe it or not, to have fun. Like anything new in life, it's a transition. But you can do it and will do it - and there is ton of help out there if ever you are struggling.
Jeanie: I was concerned that I would feel overwhelmingly stressed and that medical school would take over my life - and that is absolutely not the case. While school can certainly be busy and at times stressful, medical school is not the end all be all, and there IS time to explore, have fun, and take advantage of your twenties. Make sure you prioritize that!
4. What is something you love about med school? Something you hate?
Alain: Something I love: the wonderful classmates I have. Everyone is incredibly kind, collaborative, and hard-working, which makes for an awesome learning environment.
Something I hate: LOANS AND DEBT.
Jeanie: I absolutely love the people - both the faculty and medical education, as well as my classmates. Everybody is truly invested in you and your success and the collaborative atmosphere is very refreshing, particularly when coming from a large and relatively intense undergraduate university. I wouldn't say there is anything I "hate" - I will say that it's not the happiest feeling to not have an income, especially if you've taken time to work before medical school and now lack that cushion. That can be stressful on the day-to-day, but ultimately it all works out, and you can work with your medical education team to sort through any issues that may arise.
5. What is the best piece of advice for deciding if med school is right for you?
Alain: You have to love learning. If school is not your thing, maybe consider another career path.
Jeanie: Experience, experience, experience! Shadowing and taking advantage of other related opportunities are the best way to envision the ins and outs of any field. Longer term experiences, on the order of weeks rather than days, will be even more helpful in terms of envisioning whether this is the type of work that would interest you long-term. And don't just shadow physicians! Take the time to explore the broader healthcare field - nursing, hospital administration, research laboratories, etc are all related fields that you may find interest in as well!
6. What is the best piece of advice for surviving med school?
Alain: Balancing schoolwork with personal life in medical school is very different and very challenging at times. Everybody struggles at some point - don't be afraid to ask for help!
Jeanie: I try to avoid the phrase 'surviving' med school, which sounds somewhat ominous. Some of my best memories - both school and non-school related - have happened during my time in medical school so far.
Don't lose the forest for the trees - remember the big picture of why you are in medical school, even when you are neck deep in physiology or biochemistry. It's extremely unique to have four years in which your only responsibility is to learn and take advantage of amazing opportunities. Take time for yourself and remember that being a medical student is an awesome and impressive accomplishment - but it by no means has to define you! Enjoy it!