How to prepare for a medical career in the U.S.: a student’s perspective
By Lucy Chen
Washington University in St. Louis
B.A. Biology: Neuroscience 2008
In retrospect, my journey to this point has been incredibly long and a bit daunting. I stand at the threshold: I have just graduated from college this past December and I plan on attending medical school in the fall of 2008. I have spent countless hours doing research, community service, writing applications and taking tests. But where did it all start? The purpose of this article is to narrate my experiences in preparing for medical school: what I did in my undergraduate career to create a cogent, solid record to present in my applications.
To be honest, I did not have my sights on medicine when I first matriculated into Washington University in St. Louis. Many of my peers were like me: unsure of what classes to take, so why not select a little of everything? My first semester I chose General Chemistry, Psychology, Calculus 3 and Writing. In my General Chemistry course, there were a lot of “Pre-med” students. That is, students who were on the track to go to medical school. In order to “pre-med” at my school, one had to take the following courses: one year of General Chemistry, one year of Organic Chemistry, one year of Physics, one year of Math, and General Biology and Physiology. These general requirements are decided by medical schools. I found that I really enjoyed Chemistry and enjoyed the challenge of studying science. Coupled with the fact that my father is a practicing physician, I stayed on the “pre-med” track.
Through my college academics, I took all of the aforementioned courses and declared a major in Neuroscience. I had a lot of interest in the detailed aspects of this field and complimented my studies with a minor in Anthropology, a subject I found to be incredibly interesting. I want to emphasize this point: one does NOT have to be a Biology major to go to medical school. In fact, medical schools encourage applicants to major in whatever they like: some choose English or Chinese, Engineering, Political Science or even Art History! The only required courses are those basic sciences courses.
This discussion leads me into another big aspect of the medical school application: the MCAT, or Medical College Admissions Test. This is an entrance exam which all students must take. This standardized test acts as a barometer to measure all students. This test is usually taken in the spring semester of one’s third/junior year. Inorganic and Organic Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Verbal are the only topics tested on the MCAT. It is a grueling test, and one usually starts preparing four to six months prior to the test date. The preparation is difficult and time-consuming. The maximum score is 45, but any score above 30 is considered competitive. I took this test twice: once at the beginning and once at the end of my junior year because I was not happy with my score. However, I would recommend taking it only once.
Finally, besides studying, I took time to fill my application with research and community service/volunteering. I did research in the summertime. I worked at my hometown university, The Ohio State University in a Pharmacology lab. I was given my own project in molecular biology constructing DNA plasmids and assaying cells. It was a big responsibility and it shows medical schools your dedication to scientific endeavors. Also, I did a lot of volunteering in the local community. I worked at a community clinic, giving advice to young women about their health. I also worked in a physician’s private clinic communicating with patients and doing office work. My advice would be to find medical activities that one is interested in, in a field that you might specialize in. Finally, I shadowed many physicians such as a Neonatal surgeon, a Ob/Gyn, an Emergency Room doctor, an Internist and many more, to confirm my desires to enter this field. I thought their jobs were very challenging and ultimately, knew this was going to be a rewarding career!
The application process started the summer before my fourth/senior year. I compiled all of my grades, activities and letters of recommendations (these are letters from professors or mentors who can speak highly about your accomplishments). I began crafting a “personal statement”: this is a one page essay that details WHY I wanted to be a doctor. I wrote many drafts and made many corrections. I would recommend having a few friends or teachers proofread this essay because it is a very important component of one’s application. Each medical school will read your accomplishments and personal statement and each school has their own set of essay questions. In all, I did a LOT of writing that summer. I chose to apply to fifteen schools and was invited to interview a 9 (totaling about $2000 of application fees and travel expenses). On average, most students will apply to 10-20 schools depending on how much money they want to spend on fees. Choose low-tier, middle-tier and upper-tier schools by comparing your GPA (Grade point average: calculated from your school grades) and MCAT score to each school’s averages. Out of those 9 schools, I was accepted at 3 and waitlisted at 6. I will make a decision to attend one of those accepted schools and stay on the waitlists until I hear some news.
My advice to those students just beginning this journey or contemplating changing their life path: take the time to understand what a life in medicine entails. Shadow some doctors, talk to some patients, figure out if you are comfortable talking to people about their private health issues or would like to have the responsibility to make important decisions. I know that medical school will be challenging, but I’m excited to take it head-on! I know this is the best career for me, but to each his own! Good luck!