Getting A's vs. Getting Life Experience

Every year thousands of students enter medical school, with a growing number coming from a nontraditional path. As the competitiveness of medical school continues to grow, coming from a nontraditional path may provide an applicant with several unique advantages. Nontraditional students generally possess more maturity, work experience, and are committed to this career choice since they are either switching from another career path or have already spent several years in the medical field.

If the nontraditional path seems so advantageous, what’s the rush of matriculating right after college?

Beginning medical school, I, like most, was academically successfully in undergrad and expected similar results in medical school. I soon discovered that was not only the academic side of medical school strenuous, but the clinical side would also provide some challenges. Never having any experiences in a hospital setting, I was unprepared for handling patient interactions. “Do you have a history of cancer in your family?” “Do you smoke cigarettes?” That was the easy part. Our 2nd year we had a death and dying Patient Centered Medicine (PCM) session and took turns delivering bad news to a standardized patient. My discomfort rose to a new level. My delivery was terrible. I could barely remain serious, partly because I felt I was acting and partly because of my discomfort. At the end of second year, my PCM attending pulled me aside and told me she thought I would be great as a physician but felt I need some maturing, referencing that encounter.

After my second year I took a rather nontraditional route to matriculate into business school and qualify for the U.S Olympic fencing team. When I returned to medical school, I was unaware of the effect my two year hiatus would have. I felt more mature having been around other working adults and having an internship myself. I was ready to treat the remainder of medical school like a job, which meant learning and performing to the best of my abilities.

Similar to my mindset before my medical school hiatus, my classmates focused on their books and less on their clinical experience. Who could really blame them? Our grades were weighted heavily on the shelf exams and less on the clinical reviews. Regardless, in two years we were going to doctors. Nobody was going to ask us intern year if the answer was A ,B, C, or D. We were soon going to be faced with real situations we could only understand from previous experiences, aka third and fourth year rotations. How do I build trust with patients who don’t speak my language? How can I convince the worried mother to pick the right treatment for her child? Yes, we need to know the information, but most of the qualities you need to be a great physician don’t come from a book. My nontraditional path opened my eyes to realize there was more to learning than passing or getting honors or high honors.

The nontraditional students had always seemed older, wiser, and more mature. They handled most situations better, from the SGA leadership positions to the patient simulations in small group sessions. Now being a nontraditional student myself, it’s safe to say life experience matters. You attack school from a completely different approach. The maturity found from outside experience cannot be attained by getting all As in premed courses.

Most pre-med students, myself included, matriculate directly into medical school because we wanted to get started on our career. Imagine what we could have accomplished if we knew prolonging our entry would actually help our development as physicians. I believe it would make a tremendous difference if students had more life experience before entering medical school.

Kamali Thompson is a MD/MBA student completing a research year in orthopaedic surgery and will be applying for the 2020 match. She is a team USA fencer and 2020 Olympic hopeful. She is also an active blogger on her website, Saber & A Stethoscope, and active on twitter (@Kamali_Thompson) and Instagram (@dr.mali.mallz). She is also a 2018-2019 Doximity author. 

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