How to Get Into UCLA Medical School
Growing up in Guinea, medical student Aboubacar Cherif knew he wanted to be a doctor.
“My dad was working as a doctor, and I would go visit him at the hospital,” he explains. “Seeing my dad and other healthcare workers try to help the huge lines of people made me realize I wanted to help too.”
Even as a child, Cherif understood the medical resources available in Guinea fell short of matching medical needs.
“The ratio of patients to doctors was just terrible,” he says.
When Cherif’s grandfather needed brain surgery, he had to leave Guinea to access adequate care.
“Many people have to go elsewhere if they need or want good medical care.”
Sadly, Cherif’s grandfather never returned from his journey. Witnessing his grandfather’s suffering solidified Cherif’s desire to become a doctor serving communities in need. His conviction grew stronger when his family immigrated from Guinea to the United States.
“I came to the States and saw similar inequities,” he says. “Being part of multiple minority communities emphasized this. Every day, people suffer from illnesses that could be benign if adequately treated.”
A Specialty Close to His Heart
Now part of the Charles Drew University (CDU)/UCLA Medical Education Program, Cherif is well on his way to becoming a doctor. He also has a strong idea about what specialty he wants to pursue: cardiology.
“I used to make this joke that cardiology has had my heart since I was nine,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in the heart and electrophysiology. It reminds me of plumbing. It just makes sense to me.”
Heeding advice from mentors and faculty, Cherif plans to explore other specialties. He acknowledges rotations can change everything, opening doors to unexpected interests, passions, and skills.
He remains firm on choosing a field where he can be hands-on.
“I’ll be happier in a field that allows me to interact with patients while also staying physically active,” he says. “I know I’ll be mentally active in any field, but physical activity will not necessarily be there for all of them.”
(Surviving) a Day in the Life of a Med Student
So far, Cherif finds med-school exciting.
“I think before going to medical school, you think it’s going to be so hard. You’re going to have to study so much,” he says. “There’s definitely a lot of information to learn but you also have enough flexibility to let that information sink in.”
Cherif appreciates med school’s flexibility and minimal busy work.
“We’re not given a lot of homework just to make us busy,” he says. “The tests make sure we actually understand things. In college, I felt like they were just more focused on us memorizing things.”
He notes a strong support system and a deep interest in the med-school curriculum makes what might otherwise seem like a massive workload feel more manageable, despite the added stress.
“Medical school is definitely a bit more stressful than college, chronically, but not acutely. We will be doctors, so we care more about this,” he explains.
For Cherif, it’s easy to see the benefits of all that stress. He’ll notice himself thinking or talking about something in a certain way — the stranger at the grocery store exhibiting symptoms of spinal stenosis, for example — and realize he’s seeing the world through a doctor’s eyes.
“What we’re learning in class is shaping our view of the world. I never would have thought of that before.”
He notices the same thing happening to his classmates as well as his partner, also a medical student. A casual complaint about a headache might lead to a patient-intake questionnaire.
“I have to get ready to be asked 15 questions about the onset of my pain,” he explains, laughing.
Where are you from?
Explaining “where he’s from” has been a constant challenge for Cherif. In 2010, his family immigrated from Guinea to Kentucky, where he completed high school before moving to New Hampshire for college.
“My family is in Kentucky, but I only spent five years there versus seven years in New Hampshire. So I guess I’m from both Kentucky and New Hampshire.”
However, when he tells people he’s from Kentucky and New Hampshire, they continue pressing: But where are you really from? Where are your parents from?
“Your past will always follow you, especially in my particular case. I have a slight accent. When people hear it they think: Okay, he’s not actually from here.”
Cherif often feels trapped in a liminal space — not being Guinean enough for Guineans or American enough for Americans. Guinean culture remains instrumental to an identity now being shaped by American environments and interactions.
He considers these feelings of displacement and duality part of the immigrant experience, something he shares with friends from other countries.
“It’s nice for us to find a community with each other,” he says. “But it’s also good to be part of two different communities, because at the end of the day, I think it reminds you that while we are different, we have a lot of things that are similar as well. We each have hopes and dreams and people we love. We value, more or less, the same things.”
Working Toward a Future of Global Impact
When envisioning what he’d like to achieve in the future, Cherif returns to the same goal that inspired him to pursue medicine in the first place: Helping communities in need.
“I want to give people the chance to have a healthy life.”
He also wants to balance school and social responsibilities while working toward his long-term goals.
“I don’t want being a student to totally define me,” he explains. “I want to grow in my faith and not put things that used to be important to me aside simply because I’m busy.”
Most importantly, he wants to make sure his parents know he’s grateful for all they’ve done for him.
Cherif’s father had to stop practicing medicine when the family immigrated. Seeing his son in medical school brings even more meaning, and a sense of pride, to his own career sacrifices.
“Having everything my parents have done for me in the back of my mind is something that has always pushed me forward,” Cherif says. “Their sacrifices allowed me to be where I am right now.”
Med School Advice - Quick Tips
- When choosing a specialty, consider what activities make you happiest on a day-to-day basis.
- Instead of getting bogged down with stress, consider how much progress you’ve made toward becoming a physician.
- Identify specialties of interest but remain open to exploring others during clinical rotations.
- Maintain interests and relationships beyond medical school, no matter how busy you get.
Med School Advice - FAQ
What Is a First Generation College Student?
A first-generation college student is the first in their family to attend college. Read more about first-generation medical students at the DGSOM.
How Much Does Medical School Cost?
According to the most recent report available from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC):
- The average cost of attending one year of private medical school in the United States is $39,905.
- The average cost of attending one year of public medical school in the United States is $62,570.
See the costs associated with attending medical school at the DGSOM.
How Long Is Medical School?
Many medical schools offer a four-year medical education curriculum. After students complete this core curriculum, they spend several (3-7) more years in residency training for their chosen specialty.
How Hard Is Medical School?
Medical school is hard because being an outstanding physician or physician scientist is hard. Most medical schools design rigorous curriculums that prepare medical students for the range of challenges they’ll encounter every day as practicing physicians.