Completing prerequisites, gaining clinical experience and volunteering are surefire ways to get exposure to the medical world before entering medical school. But there's much more to making the transition from an undergraduate. Casey Pagan, a second-year student at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, shares her experience and gives advice to upcoming students. Following these five tips during senior year of undergrad can help you prepare for medical school and student life.
1. Take fun classes.
Casey didn't realize she wanted to go to med school until her senior year, so she couldn't apply until after completing a post-baccalaureate program. Before that, she majored in psychology and cognitive science. Because she wasn't going straight to medical school, she had some flexibility during her senior year. So she took courses that supported her interests, including nutrition, glass-blowing and nuclear science and society.
"For many, the gap between undergrad and medical school affords a unique opportunity for learning, reflection and growth — even if it's just a summer," she said. "It can be a time to push boundaries, grow or explore. Take a cooking class. Study abroad. Learn another language. Get a job working in a field you find interesting, or work on research."
2. Read. Read. Read.
Aside from undergrad being the last opportunity for leisure reading for many students during studies, reading physician memoirs or biographies can help set realistic expectations for what it means to enter the medical profession. Casey said she read books by Atul Gawande in particular as well as others with hands-on experience in the field.
3. Refine time-management skills.
Medical school is fast-paced and forces students to study within limited time frames. Casey worked two jobs throughout undergraduate school and found that medical school wasn't such a shock because she had grown accustomed to always being busy.
"I had highly restricted free time, so I've always had to be intentional about how I spend it," Casey said. "In medical school, I still have a small amount of free time and have to plan how to spread it across extra-curricular commitments, self-care or investing in relationships."
4. Practice interviewing.
Interviewing can be one of the most stressful parts of the medical school application process, and it's a new experience for many people. Casey had an advantage on interviews thanks to her introduction to counseling course, which taught her about body language, how to respond in tense situations and how to actively communicate. But she still practiced heavily in preparation for interviews.
"Mock interviews are one of the best ways to prepare," she said. "My mom and boyfriend took me to the park with a list of questions, and we practiced interviews together. It was immensely helpful." She also recommends finding a pre-med department on campus that does formal mock interviews.
Additionally, Casey emphasized the benefits of practicing alone.
"Set a timer for eight or nine minutes, and make yourself answer a question — bonus points if you record yourself," she said. "By watching yourself, you get a sense of how you come across, and whether you have any involuntary habits you didn't realize and how you can improve."
5. Learn to study effectively and work with a tutor.
Med school requires absorbing large amounts of information quickly, and learning how to parse out key information is an essential skill to prepare for medical school. Tutoring can be a big part of the student experience, and it never hurts to start early.
"I had to re-evaluate how I studied in the post-bac program," Casey said. "I wasn't used to the volume of science curriculum. First I panicked, then I got a tutor. I continue that in med school to help me stay on par. Tutoring is a wonderful resource and something you shouldn't wait until failing to use."