What I Wish I Knew Before Medical School

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 that would have made first and second year a little smoother.

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 and clerkship, which books to use when studying for your exams, and how to study for major exams, like 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. 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, like "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 and surgery), followed by subspecialties you wouldn’t experience otherwise (e.g dermatology, radiology, 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 third 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. If 100% of the students are just barely passing, it 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 cardiology, pulmonology) and your weaknesses (e.g microbiology). Look for methods to improve your understanding of your weaker subjects about halfway 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 off 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 backwards this whole time, you meet people first and then you call when you need them.

The key to networking is to cultivate relationships with people who pique 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. Then, to 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!

Kamali Thompson is a MD/MBA student completing a research year in orthopedic 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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