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Seeing Beyond the Checklists

Pre-med mentality shouldn't be all about ticking the boxes to get to medical school

By Meg Gerstenblith, M.D.

Often, the advice given to individuals applying to medical school is geared toward improving their chances of getting those sweet acceptance letters.  That may be in large part because those passing on advice are those recently accepted within the past few years or perhaps a pre-med or pre-health college advisor.  In either case, the advice may very well help someone get accepted and that has value certainly; however, it may not be the kind of advice that will serve the applicant well into the future.  The advice I am about to give comes from my perspective—that of a practicing physician who graduated from medical school almost 15 years ago; meaning, I applied to medical school 20 years ago.  What could I possibly know about today’s medical school admissions process?  I happen to know a lot.  Yes, I served on the admissions committee for my medical school and participated in the entire admissions process.

Yes, I pursued a competitive residency in Dermatology and subsequently participated in several rounds of resident applicant selections as a resident and faculty member.  I am well aware of the boxes that need to be checked for a medical school application.  However, I want to give a different flavor of advice—one that is not heard too often when advice is doled out to prospective medical students and one that should be given along with those check lists.  My advice is to think about your path to medical school not just as something that will shape your medical school application but, more importantly, as the path that will shape the person and physician you will ultimately become.

This approach takes the long view—and asks you to think about what will keep your fuel burning throughout your career as a physician more so than what will get you accepted into medical school in a few years.  Interested in volunteering at a free clinic for the uninsured? Do it to learn about our health care system—why some people don’t have health insurance, what the impediments to receiving health care are, and what the repercussions are to the individual and society when people have no health insurance.

Interested in shadowing a physician?  Do it to meet Mrs. Jones, who is dying from pancreatic cancer but who will take the time to ask you who you are, to hear about what you enjoy doing in your spare time, and to encourage you to be dedicated to your studies so you can one day “find a cure” for the disease that will take her life.  When you’re studying Anatomy over Thanksgiving break while all of your non-medical school friends or family are partying, or you are writing what feels like your 100th admission note as a resident at 2AM, your recollection of Mrs. Jones may be what you need to keep you motivated, maintain your focus, or just get you through one more long night.

Interested in medical research?  Do it to watch the fast pace of the lab stumble when being translated to patient care, so you can be in awe of the scientists making exciting discoveries—and even possibly be one of them—while realizing the tremendous task of translational medicine and maintaining a sense of awe each and every time you use a new drug on a patient who, a few years ago, would have suffered with a disease or perhaps died without any available treatments.

Interested in a non-science major?  Do it because there actually is more to life than biology, organic chemistry, and physics.  Some of the best moments in caring for patients is talking about mutual interests, whether they are the Revolutionary War or modern Italian artists or 20th century New York City architects or the 1918 Influenza Pandemic—or whatever areas of academic interest you had or have that you actually immersed yourself in.  There is more to life than being a doctor.  You will appreciate this most when you’re fully in the swing of being a doctor—for that is when you discover the real joy in caring for patients is not talking to them about their diseases but connecting with them beyond their diseases.

So—go ahead and find those volunteer activities, those shadowing experiences, those research projects—but when you pursue them, don’t just check off a list of “must-do” medical school application activities.  Instead, participate and take along your valuable observations as you study medicine, start your practice, and settle into your journey as a physician.

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