Thoughts about becoming a pre-med

I recently had an intriguing conversation with a friend regarding his wishing to become a pre-med.  Since an interesting happening that I alluded to in an earlier post, I’ve had several individuals ask questions about what precisely the pre-med and med paths entail, why medicine interests so many people, and what I have to say about it. My assorted, fragmented comments are below, then.  Please note that I’m speaking solely from my very limited experience as a student researcher who’s had the opportunity to be involved in related disciplines, and who is contemplating a graduate degree program involving medical science.

1.  Who are you, in relation to medicine?

I’m a student who has received an interesting opportunity for study.  I will not explore this further, as you will be aware of what I’m alluding to if I know you personally, and I have been asked to keep this reasonably confidential.  I’m also in research; I’ve worked in medical biophysics, quantum cryptography, and protein folding, and am hoping to secure placements in laser physics and ophthalmology later this year.  In September, I hope to be shadowing a physician with whom I’ve established correspondence.  Earlier this year, I contributed some thoughts on the subject of the M.C.A.T. and medical practice to M.C.A.T. Question of the Day.  Where standardized testing is concerned, I intend to sit the M.C.A.T. in September, the G.R.E. Revised General Test in either August or September, and the G.R.E. Biology Test in October of this year.  I’m nothing special – in fact, I would label myself sub-par on all accounts – but I’ve always been deeply interested in essentially all of the sciences and most of the humanities.

2.  I want to be a pre-med in the States! Specifically, I want to attend Harvard. Am I aiming too high?  What should I do when admissions roll around?

Please think hard before you decide that you want to go into medicine.

This isn’t about your caliber. This is about the fact that medicine really may not be for most people who think it’s ideal for them. I’ve had chats with medical school students, practicing physicians, surgeons, and researchers who have devoted their lives to practice and haven’t ever looked back. However, I’ve also spoken to other researchers, as well as lawyers, authors, and, briefly, all kinds of individuals who wished, at one point, to be doctors, but found this path to be quite different from that which they’d envisioned and desired. Albeit that I cannot say this with complete confidence, I think that you simply won’t know until you try it.  Unfortunately, in this particular case, in order to “try it”, you’ll need to undergo relatively rigorous review by admissions committees, will have to complete certain standardized assessments, and will need to maintain an excellent G.P.A.  And often times, you will need to find ways to work towards your desires that may not be precisely conventional.

This is one reason why, for practical purposes, I’d suggest that you don’t make “Harvard pre-med” your goal. I would work, instead, towards Harvard.

My hypothesis here – and this is solely something that I’ve arrived at via my experience with admissions – is that people reviewing undergraduate applications probably don’t wish to see you saying that you’re dying to enter their institution’s pre-med program and solely the pre-med program.  Why?  I think they would want to see that your goal is the academic enrichment provided by the school in question, not the generic “Go to med school and become a doctor!” Why? Quite simply, that’s what far too many children wish for; very few of them end up successful doctors.  The medical sciences are not analogous to politics. You cannot, typically, excel in the applied science necessary for success as a doctor whilst you are in high school, and your school of choice therefore has no reliable way of ensuring that you are their kind of material. The same applies to law. This means that, if you apply for pre-med or pre-law, all of your skills must be absolutely outstanding, else your potential must be overwhelming. Even then, it’s difficult to be convincing about the fact you actually know you want to go into medicine. As I noted, you can’t know before you’ve done it, and you really can’t do it in high school.

So, what does this mean? I’d advise you to apply as a pre-med major, but one with diverse tastes. There are tens of thousands of individuals applying for pre-med studies. There are tens of thousands of people applying for bio.  But very few people bring a cocktail of interests to the table.  Do you enjoy black hole thermodynamics as much as I do? If so, emphasize a bio-physics focus. Continually thinking about how humans think, and how we could utilize technology to emulate and streamline this thinking? Merge bio and AI! Do you have an interest in aerospace? Why not strive for a career in astrobiology? Any interesting combination, really, but a combination nonetheless.

3.  So, how do I know that medicine is for me?

Given what I’ve experienced, I’m uncertain as to whether or not you can know prior to entering the field.

  • Try following the blogs of current medical school students, scheduling a meeting with a biomedical researcher, volunteering in a hospital environment, or talking to a physician you know.  Ask, listen, and observe.
  • “Medicine” does not translate to “GP”.  Consider other careers or specialties in the field, like those involving research, nursing, technical writing, computational biology, or surgery.
  • Think about the difficult stuff.  Internationally renowned clinicians frequently have to contemplate ethical issues that are extremely problematic to resolve.  For an idea of what I’m discussing, read my other post on this subject.

4.  I want to go for it!  Harvard is clearly the best undergraduate program for these purposes, right?

Keep your options open.  Whilst Harvard is a name and a wonderful institution, you can get into medical school via other undergraduate programs.  If your strengths lie in one specific area of academic work, it may be slightly problematic to attempt to enter the liberal arts.  Certainly, there are some courses that you may not excel in that you may nevertheless have to take in order to gain admission to certain medical schools.  However, if you’re a bio and physics person who hasn’t exactly received the best results where the social sciences are concerned, try to find an undergraduate program with, for example, narrower breadth requirements.

It’s also important to consider that, if you want to practice, it may be wise to study where you want to work in the future.  If you’re looking to be a physician in Canada, then you may want to consider programs like McMaster’s Health Sciences or U. of T.’s Life Sciences that will allow you to look for research and in-hospital opportunities even prior to your graduating.

Finally, if your only goal is medical school, study responsibly.  By this, I mean that though you should be striving to challenge yourself, you shouldn’t take enormous risks in your academic life.  Heard of a truly impossible set theory course available to first-year students that requires the equivalent of two years of specialized knowledge and regularly has second-year students receiving sixties?  Don’t take it.

Holistically speaking, you may want to consider entering a program that’s regarded as less competitive.  I’m not suggesting that you enroll in some school that may or may not be accredited, is devoid of application procedures, and is situated in the center of a forest.  Simply put, explore all of your options – don’t disregard a program at a smaller institution because it hasn’t received the recognition that another has reaped.  Talk to friends you may know, and ask them how their averages are looking.

5.  I want to go to Harvard anyway!  What can I do now to better my chances of gaining admission?

This is where I can offer very limited advice, given that I was not admitted to Harvard.  If you’re interested in learning more about this or any of the other Ivies, however, I may be able to direct you to helpful individuals.  Send me an e-mail.

On a final note: the medical field is confusing. I’m fairly deeply involved in the life of many medical professionals, I’m considering a career in the area, and I still feel as though I know very little.  If you’ve any questions or wish to talk further, feel free to contact me.  I will do my best to be of help.

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This entry was posted in Advice on Academics, Admissions, & University, Biology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Thoughts about becoming a pre-med

  1. adn says:

    Excellent response to the pre-med ‘issue’. An exercise I recommend all my premed obsessed friends to ask themselves why they ever wanted to be doctors in the first place and how could they learn more about their decision. Its appalling to see how many people, when you get down to the heart of the matter, discover they only wanted to be doctors due to constant reinforcement and encouragement from their parents to the point where they no longer wondered where their desire came from.

    • Sophia says:

      Hi there! Thanks for the kind words, but this truly was just a short attempt at summarizing my relatively limited experience.

      That sounds like a thought-provoking thing to suggest to potential pre-meds. Thanks for sharing! I’ve occasionally advised others to ask themselves similar questions (e.g., “Why am I even sitting the MCAT?”).

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