What I Wish I Knew Before Medical School
By: Kamali Thompson
After receiving a phone call from Robert Wood Johnson, I was overjoyed because of my first medical school acceptance. However, I had yet to realize I was at a significant disadvantage. I had no academic mentors, no physician family members, no one who could guide me every step of my medical education. As a result, ten-foot tall obstacles I encountered seemed like speed bumps to my classmates. Here is some advice on what I wish I knew before medical school:
Find a mentor
Actually, find two mentors.
The first mentor should be an older student whom you feel the most comfortable speaking to about classes, exams, and basic requirements of each year of school. These mentors should be able to provide information on:
- The high yield topics of each subject/clerkship.
- Which books to use when studying for your exams.
- How to study for major exams: Step 1 and Step 2.
Why is it important to find a student mentor?
Because they just encountered every obstacle you are about to endure. They can assist you based on their own experiences, as well as the experiences of their 150+ classmates. As soon as medical school begins, seek out an interest group and find someone who you think you can bond with. Medical school (or any higher level program) operates too quickly for you to attempt to figure things out alone.
The second mentor should be a physician in your chosen specialty.
Now, this is the key: It’s important to make sure this physician is involved in the academic aspect of medical training. It’s great to have someone to show you the ropes of their specialty, but you will also need them to provide specific and accurate information for matching into residency.
What step 1 score do you need? Do you have to do away rotations? How/should you get into research?
Most importantly, you’ll have access to their connections. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. (But you do need a decent Step 1 USMLE score).
Finding mentors is ESPECIALLY important for someone who has no other contacts in the medical profession. It didn’t take long to realize, while I was struggling to understand new and completely foreign topics, several of my classmates called their parents to review practice exams or find resume-boosting activities during summer vacation. You cannot get lost in the shuffle. This is a must.
Experiment with Every Specialty
Everyone comes into medical school with a specialty in mind. I wanted to be a pediatrician and there was no talking me out of it…that is of course until I decided on primary care sports medicine….and then orthopedic surgery. In all honesty, you won’t know where you’re truly happy until you are exposed to new specialties.
While this may sound exhausting, I don’t mean EVERY SINGLE specialty. I would suggest starting with general specialties (e.g medicine vs surgery), followed by subspecialties you wouldn’t experience otherwise (e.g dermatology, radiology, or anesthesiology). The level of involvement is completely up to you and how much time you can allow. Sometimes, shadowing for one day is enough to deter or pique an interest. For more exposure, join an interest group and spend more time with that specialty.
The reason for experimentation is to avoid doing more work later in your medical career. For example, if you decide in 3rd year to apply for a more competitive specialty, research or extracurricular activities may be required to increase the competitiveness of your application. You also want to avoid the feeling of uncertainty many students experience as third-year is ending because they haven’t discovered their true passion in medicine.
Step 1 is everything
Before I applied to medical school, I was aware Step 1 was an important exam. While researching medical schools, my decisions were heavily based on average scores of the students. However, it wasn’t until I started school until I discovered how much emphasis was placed on Step 1 scores when applying to residency. Make sure the schools you’re applying to have scores that will get you into residency. 100% of the students just barely passing does not guarantee the school will prepare you adequately for the exam.
How to study for Step 1
This is a completely different post on its own, but the simple answer is: don’t wait until the end of second-year to start studying. After the completion of first-year, you should be aware of the subjects that are your strengths (e.g cardio, pulm) and your weaknesses (e.g microbiology). Look for methods to improve your understanding of your weaker subjects about half way through second-year (some people even start at the beginning of second-year) to give yourself enough time to absorb all of the information and perform your best.
If it turns out you don’t score as high as preferred, it’s not the end of the world. I repeat IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD!! “Average” means there are 50% above the listed score AND 50% below. There are other methods of improving your application (that you can get from your mentor wink wink).
Network! Network! NETWORK!
This isn’t something that comes automatically to many med students because it’s not part of our academic upbringing. Early in our education, we acquired success based on our performance in the classroom, not phone calls made on our behalf. As a result, unfortunately, many of us don’t start networking with professors and doctors until we need something: an internship, a recommendation letter and that’s too late. When I went to business school, I truly learned about the power and technique of networking. See we’ve been doing it backward this whole time, you meet people first and then you call them when you need them.
So how this whole networking thing supposed to work!??
The key is to cultivate relationships with people who peak your interest. You never want people to forget you. Now, this doesn’t mean strike up a conversation with every guest lecturer or take total control of Q&A sessions. Please don’t be that person.
First, introduce yourself to your professors. They should definitely know your name and your face. Next, whenever you are introduced to physicians, through extracurricular activities or lunch lectures, if you have the smallest interest in their specialty introduce yourself and ask a question from the lecture. Now here’s how you maintain the relationship:
Find their email address and send an email the next day.
“Hi Dr./Mrs./Mr., thank you for speaking with me yesterday. I had another question about ___.”
Now you actually have a slight chance of them remembering you and if you need something in the future it won’t be as weird that you’re emailing out of the blue. The best thing about maintaining connections is if you decide to switch specialties, you’re not starting your network from scratch. You should know someone who can guide you or put you in contact with the right people.
Hopefully at least one of these points will be beneficial in your career!
Good luck future healthcare professionals!
Kamali Thompson is an MD/MBA student between 3rd and 4th year who recently started a blog, Saber & A Stethoscope. The blog shares experiences gained through medical school, business school, and as an international fencer/2020 Olympic hopeful! Give it a read and follow along on twitter (@kamali_thompson) or on Instagram (@dr.mali.malls)
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