Dear Newly Enrolled, Overly Enthusiastic, Pre-Med Freshman: So I hear you want to be a doctor? Perhaps the medical profession runs in your heritage, or you’ve learned to adopt it as your own destiny, or your parents convinced you of the romantic life of a doctor bereft of any insecurity. Regardless, you now enter college as a “pre-med” student.
With a shortage of doctors projected for the next decade, the success of medical aspirants like you is desperately needed in the future of healthcare. But consider why such shortage is expected. One of the reasons for the decrease is the mere difficulty for a normal college student to achieve the level of academic Ubermensch that medical schools often seem to require. Sure, you understand that the pre-med path is arduous, overly competitive and rarely fulfilling, but aren’t you brilliant, hardworking and competitive? Yes, you understand the requisite pre-med courses that you must slave through and the de facto requirements of experience in research and leadership, but won’t the struggle be worthy in the end?
Perhaps, but I’m no arbiter of such worth. I’ve gone through two years of college as a pre-med with a gap year in between, and I see my duty not as judge but as a giver of the lessons I’ve conglomerated as an on-off-then-on pre-med student. So I hope to impart to you the lessons that I wished to have learned myself as a rosy pre-med freshman entering college.
1. Don’t Fall Victim to the “Premedical Syndrome”
Since the 1970s, a few published studies attempted to address what is called the “premedical syndrome,” or the stereotype that pre-meds tend to be cutthroat competitive, less social and more concerned with money and prestige than other students. Granted, the more recent studies on the fabled syndrome suggest that pre-meds are more open to liberal arts education than previously thought, but nevertheless I can attest to the fact that all of the pre-meds I’ve met are obsessive about the quadripartite formula for admissions into medical school: grades, clubs, volunteering and research.
I understand that such obsession is nearly required to be competitive in the pre-med market, but don’t jettison your compassion in humanity and yourself for a lighter load.
That’s what medical school is for. Instead, try to have a mission, purpose, theme or goal that you want to pursue throughout your four years in college. Have the dignity to find something at which you can persevere. Set yourself apart from the thousands of other brilliant pre-meds by not hopping from club to club and lab to lab. Stick to one or two research positions and organizations, and help them grow for the long run. You will find the experience of long-term, theme-driven commitment to be more potent on your resume and more fulfilling in your personal life than that of multiple, half-assed and soul-grating decisions you’ll make otherwise.
2. Don’t Be Scared to Take a Year Off
You can take this advice from someone who has done it. After my first year of college, I had an impeccable pre-med resume: a merit-based scholarship, an academic award, volunteering experience both on and off campus, research assistantship for a semester, two leadership positions and a 4.0 GPA.
But I grew tired of having to prove myself for the future imprimatur of medical school committees, and, having seriously considered for the first time that the medical profession wasn’t right for me, decided to take a yearlong respite. It was not an easy choice, but it did change my life for the better. During that year, I learned more about myself than I ever had up to that point.
I understand that such an abrupt break from college is not fitting for every student, but I implore those who are considering it not to be afraid of taking one. During mine, I had chucked away my pre-med ambitions and instead explored other career options like real estate, investment, entrepreneurship and even writing.
Most importantly, that special year grounded me from my own desires and temperaments and helped me realize that being a doctor is simply a job, one out of a million others through which you can also “help other people.” A time might come when your freshman year adrenaline dump wears off and the realities of the pre-med struggles come to light. And whenever such crisis visits you, and you feel less like you’re in college and more like you’re in a midlife crisis, don’t be afraid to step back and reassess your situation, even if it means taking a break from your studies.
3. Strive to Become a Good Doctor (Not to Just Go to Med School)
Medical schools require certain courses to gauge your intellectual competence, and also highly recommend extracurricular activities to assess your character and potential as a leader. Utmost competence, character and leadership potential are the essential ingredients in the forging of a great doctor.
The best way to convince medical schools that you possess those three qualities is to have a meaning to your college existence. When you have a personal endeavor on which you focus your studies and extracurriculars, then your intellectual competency, teamwork ability and moral character will all be tested. You will have also proven a level of maturity, perseverance and dedication that most other pre-meds—hell, most other young adults—will have yet to achieve.
You will also no longer feel like a prisoner to your circumstance, but rather as the sculptor of a fruitful and fulfilling future. Don’t be like most other pre-meds who work for the vanity of an acceptance letter (remember that you must also survive medical school), and start forging yourself as a future doctor wrought by meaningful work and grit.
Take my three advices with a pinch of salt. For some readers, they might only be distillations of what is already known, and for others they might be of a stronger force. Regardless, if an underlying purpose drives your college existence, the external pressures, no matter how formidable, will only strengthen the sculpture that you forge for yourself.
You should probably stop procrastinating now and get back to your studies.
An Older, Pre-Med Brother