Advice for Pre-Meds and Medical Students from a Seasoned Doctor

Despite concerted efforts not to be melancholy and reflective, it is an unavoidable rite of passage. To traverse this rite of passage and return to a productive state, I am going to provide some words of ENCOURAGEMENT TO STUDENTS as if I were talking to my younger self in order to create a vicarious “do-over” through you, so you may have the most productive and healthy career as a physician. 

Do Not Rush the Timeline of Starting Medical School

I was completely fixated on the length of the educational process of becoming an attending physician (undergrad-medical school residency). Looking back, these were some of the most challenging, but also the most exciting and rewarding times in my life. I made incredible friends through the “band of brothers” phenomenon that surviving stressful situations produce. I am being 100% truthful when I say I would do ANYTHING to repeat these experiences.

Also, I acquired so much knowledge, maturation, and life experience during my “gap year” between college and medical school. In my opinion, admissions committees (ad coms) are more and more choosing students for matriculation that have gap years because of this. Do not ruin your gap year by stressing about how you did not get into medical school on your first attempt.

Take this gift of time and gain some life-changing experiences. The only mistake you can make with a gap year is by wasting it through Netflix and napping. Showing the ad coms your growth during this time will greatly enhance your chance of successful matriculation into medical school. 

Find What You Are Passionate About and Get Involved!

I chose to embark on endeavors that I thought were the “right” things to do, instead of activities that I enjoyed the most and was passionate about. Passion and emotional investment are where the power of creativity, innovation, and success comes from. Also, this creates a “narrative” throughout your application to medical school that tells a compelling story to the ad coms of why you want to be a doctor, but more importantly, why you WILL BE A GREAT DOCTOR. Travel abroad…apply to colleges/medical schools that you feel are “dream schools”…submit art for competition…play a musical instrument…major in theater…run a charity marathon.

When I counsel students about building a strong palette of experiences for medical school application through “Pre-Med Coach”, I encourage exactly this, as this provides a unique and memorable profile for the ad coms. Too many times, students feel like they have to impress upon the ad coms that they are “halfway prepared to be a physician.”

One of my beloved mentors so eloquently stated, “If you were a competent physician already, why would you need to go to medical school and residency?” The admissions committees are looking for attributes that will make you a great doctor (leadership, communication, empathy, cultural awareness, teamwork, etc.), but you do not have to display those qualities solely in a medical setting. Showing these qualities to the admissions committees in a unique, memorable, and exciting fashion will be much more fruitful. 

Failure Is the Best Way to Learn

I was TERRIFIED of failure, to the point of physical symptoms; i.e. diarrhea, headaches, insomnia, etc. I expected perfection of myself but was compassionate to others that were not perfect. One of the therapists I have visited with over the years said, “That is one of the most arrogant things I have ever heard. Why do you expect perfection from yourself, but nobody else?

I had never been accused of being arrogant about anything in my life. In fact, most who know me would verify I am lacking in self-esteem. As I have grown older and wiser, I understand that failure is a good thing. It shows you put yourself out there and challenge yourself. It affords an opportunity to grow and learn.

I tell my students in the ER, “I want you to make mistakes as this opens a window for me to teach you something.” I then reassure them that I will supervise them so they don’t harm anyone with their mistakes, but I push them to do things outside their comfort zone. One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela: “Do not judge me by my successes, but by the times I failed and got back up again.” 

Sometimes You Have to Say “No”

Have you ever noticed on an airplane during the “safety instructions” they say, “put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others”? For many years I did not comprehend the profoundness of this simple instruction. Without a healthy work-life balance, physicians are no good to their patients.

Looking back, I wanted to pay off student loans and be the “go-to” person if someone called in sick or there was a shift that needed covering. Working more led to significant burnout, alienated friends/family, and took a physical toll on my body. It is healthy to set boundaries and say “no” when appropriate. You cannot help patients if you are not taking care of yourself, so put your own oxygen first. 

Learn Something Every Day or Teach Something Every Day

There is not a single day working in medicine that I did not learn at least one thing.

The best physicians I have seen are lifelong seekers of knowledge. When appropriate, offer to share your knowledge with others. Learn from everyone around you. I love asking respiratory therapists questions about ventilator settings; nurses about incompatible IV medications; paramedics about transporting patients out of tight spaces; housekeeping about the best solutions to use for getting blood out of fabric; etc.

Educational humility is a vital component of a successful physician. 

It’s OK to Say “I Don’t Know”

Gaining trust and rapport with patients is an art that takes years of practice to do well.

The ER is particularly challenging because of the brief time available with patients. I was fortunate to have some amazing physicians train me through medical school and residency, and one of the best lessons I learned early on was to tell patients “I don’t know” when the diagnosis is uncertain. This must closely be followed with, “But, we are going to work hard to figure it out and will do whatever we can to make you feel better.”

It drives me particularly crazy when in the civilian world in healthcare settings with family where I intentionally do not identify as a physician, and I see physicians bury their patients in medical double-talk and deceiving jargon.

For example, “You have idiopathic chest pain”. That means “chest pain of unknown cause”! Just say that! Patients will respect you more for being level with them than for pretending to “know everything” and playing “smoke and mirrors” with medical verbiage. (OK, rant over!) 

Have Fun at Work

One of the greatest compliments I receive is when staff say, “I am so glad you are working tonight”. Medicine is stressful, especially in the ER, so when possible (and through appropriate measures) have some fun and remain lighthearted. Everyone has good days and bad days.

If you have a bad day, apologize if you are short with someone. Treat people with respect and kindness. Look for ways to brighten others’ days who are obviously struggling. Bring food/snacks for everyone. Don’t take yourself too seriously. There are a lot of hours spent at work, so make it fun. 

Stay on the Road!

The road to becoming a physician is a marathon, not a sprint. Enjoying each part of the journey will bring more joy and success. If you are overwhelmed at any point, ask for help. MedSchoolCoach has a veritable cornucopia of services to meet the needs of most students. 

Best wishes on your journey and hope you don’t have too many regrets when you turn 50. I look forward to hearing from you.

Blair Nelson MD

Dr. Blair Nelson graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of North Dakota with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology. He then worked as a rural ER doctor in Fargo, North Dakota and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. During his years as an attending physician, he became director of medical education for his department and was named affiliate professor for the University of Minnesota and University of North Dakota medical schools. Dr. Nelson is an enthusiastic educator with many success stories assisting students obtaining entrance to medical school.

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