Avoiding Burnout

Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner

Burned out: What occurs when you overwork yourself into a state of limited mental acuity, depleted emotions, and strength completely drained from your body. (1)

We’ve all seen it: A student who seems to be a great candidate for a health professional program hits a bad patch and ruins their chances for their desired career. Because of the difficulty and competitiveness of the coursework required, pre-health students are at higher risk of “burning out,” and for that burn out to lead to an academic slump.  Regardless of the year in school you are in (undergraduate, graduate, etc), it is challenging to recover from the impact of a bad burnout.
I have talked to both well-prepared students and ill-prepared students who have burned out and given up on pursing a career as a health professional. I have also met students who burned out but are now starting over. They hope that a fresh start will show character and will be looked kindly upon by admissions officers.
Andy, a pre-Dental student from Garden Grove, California, is entering his fourth semester as a renewed undergraduate student.  “I wasn’t really prepared the first time through,” he said.   “After one or two bad grades or so, the slump grew faster than I could ever imagine. All I can hope is that dental schools will see more of the new me than the old me.”
Starting over can have mixed results and consequences. The extra time and costs are intimidating, not to mention the risk of another burnout. Anxiety and feelings of apprehension are common when a student starts a life-changing process again.
Therefore, having strong performance in your coursework is critical. Even if you strengthen other parts of your application and perform well on your standardized exams (MCAT, PCAT, etc.), there is no guarantee that a professional school will sympathize with a slump in your course performance. With many other highly qualified students applying to the programs, these schools have little to no incentive to stop and consider why you had a rough patch in your career. There is also no way to predict the impression these schools will extrapolate from the given data.
The damage of a burnout does not lie only in its short-term effect on a single semester’s grades, but in its ability to initiate a devastating chain reaction. Each event in the chain creates a deeper and deeper rut that causes greater damage to overall GPA, exam scores, and student morale and preparedness.
Many factors can contribute to student stress and lead to burnout.  Below are some factors surveyed students said contribute to their stress level. Even if you are familiar with these factors, it’s always a good idea to see how stress affects other students and if it can affect you in the same way.

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1.  Course Load.

Most of us overestimate the amount of time we have. When determining your schedule, make sure that you take into account other responsibilities that may consume your time, including work and personal commitments. Most of us want to finish our undergraduate coursework in the least amount of time possible, but that is really no reason to cram units since having too much on your plate at one time is a quick way to burnout. For example, for undergraduate students on a semester system, the average graduation requirement is 120 units (yours may vary depending on your program, campus, and system so check with your counselor) with 12 units being considered “full-time.” If a student takes just 12 units a semester, it would normally take five years to graduate. Although at first it may seem too long of a time to stay in pre-professional study, keep in mind that a couple of summer and winter courses here and there will correct for the difference and you may just graduate in exactly four years.

2. Course Distribution.

The impact of course distribution is best illustrated by a real-life example. Christine, a former university pre-med student in southern California, admits to taking all General Education courses and no pre-requisite science courses her first two semesters in college. “I wanted to take an easy first year, to start out with a high GPA and to hope that the momentum would carry me through the rest of my education.”
As well intentioned as this plan was, three units of a science course differs entirely from three units of, let’s say, a GE communication class. When you don’t distribute your course subjects well, you may end up with semesters that are unusually easy and semesters that are unnecessarily difficult. This can reduce your mental preparation for upper-division courses and increases your risk of a burnout. As Christine recalls, “Eventually, taking 12 or more units of all science classes per semester took a mental toll on me. I lost my interest in science and I switched into something other than medicine.” Even if every class you take does count for your degree, it doesn’t hurt to spread out the easier and the more difficult classes. You’ll have more time to explore college life and strengthen yourself to prevent mental fatigue.

3. The Global Economy.

This factor is out your control, but it is still important to recognize how it might affect you. The economy increases your risk of a burnout in two ways: increasing the time you spend completing pre-requisite coursework and increasing your personal stress. For students who attend state universities and colleges, this factor may weigh more heavily than for those attending private institutions. Public schools are cutting the amount of classes being offered and capping the number of students in whatever classes are left to record low numbers.  If you can’t get into the classes you need, it will lengthen your time in pre-professional studies, and the longer it takes for you to reach your goal, the higher the chance of becoming mentally fatigued.
The best option may be to not cram unnecessary courses just to earn credits, but to pursue other things that can contribute to the strength of your application and personal growth. My advice would be to find research programs or student leadership programs that pay you for your time, or at least would provide a great recommendation.

4. Your Personal Financial Situation.

Although the nature of your coursework has nothing to do with your financial situation, stress and concern about money issues can discourage and distract you from focusing on your studies. If your finances distract you enough where your grades suffer, you may lose interest in your future goals. Graduating college is not a cheap venture. Chris, a California State University student from Long Beach, has made plenty of cutbacks in his educational expenditures. “I’ve limited my textbook purchases altogether. I’m relying on lectures and notes a lot more and am hoping that it’ll be enough.” Other students, who wish to be unnamed, are planning to take academic leave to focus on paid work. However, they are not sure if they will want to resume their studies, even after the economy improves.

5.  Not maintaining your momentum.

In college, we spend a lot less time in the classroom compared to secondary school. Although we can use this to our advantage, we are usually more inclined to take an extended rest period when we do not really need it. If you’re coming off of a great semester, it is necessary to maintain this momentum. Students normally look forward to a long break as a chance for recreation and renewal of motivation, but the opposite may prove to be true. If you are already feeling burnt out, taking an extended break might actually make those feelings worse.
I’ve noticed that it’s not really necessary to take classes to keep my momentum. Any activity that relates to an interest can be helpful.  Long breaks are the perfect time to beef up your resume. Volunteering for a hospital, shadowing someone in your profession, or participating in paid summer research can all help you to stay focused, keep your mind intellectually challenged and make you more appealing to health professional schools. Too often, students who lose their momentum never gain it back when they reach upper-division. This proves especially devastating since most professional schools consider the last two years of study to be the most telling of your abilities.
Maintaining your momentum is a great way to start conditioning yourself for your professional lifestyle. Unfortunately, in some ways, college life does not represent the professional life. For instance, there is almost no job that allows for a more than two month break in the summer and a month break in the winter with a week break in between in the Spring. When you study or participate in projects during extended breaks, you can also simulate what your professional life may turn out to be. The sooner you can come to terms with the lifestyle, the less your chance of quitting mid-way.

6. Not Understanding the GPA Impact of a Slump.

My friends always ask me why I am constantly crunching numbers into my calculator. My reason is simple: grades can change quickly in a negative way. It’s not immediately apparent how fast grades can go south. Similarly, it’s not readily apparent how little grades can go up, even after a good semester. For instance, if you have 90 semester units and a 3.5 GPA, you would have 315 grade points. Even if you earn straight A’s for 30 more units and graduate, the maximum your GPA can be is slightly above 3.6. Of course, earning straight A’s for your final units are harder since those courses are upper division and are requirements for your major. You would have to put in a tremendous amount of effort for a tenth of a grade point increase.
Just by looking at the letter grades, you might get the feeling that you’re on track. However, if you carefully calculate what the numbers will turn out to be, you may be surprised. If you don’t realize this effect and you continually believe that you always have the chance to offset average grades, you might unknowingly put yourself behind by the time you start considering your choice of professional schools. Students who realize this at too late a time might give up on their goals since continuing would mean a longer path and they’re simply burned out after the fact.

Of course, these are not the only factors that can derail a student’s plans.   Stressors often occur in combination with each other and other things as well. Depending on your personal experiences and motivation, you will be affected by these factors in different ways than your colleagues. The important thing is to evaluate your progress regularly, so that you know where you stand.   Good luck avoiding burn out and moving forward in your professional career.
Andrew Ngyuen is a student at Cal State University in Long Beach.
(1) Urbandictionary.com: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=burned+out

16 thoughts on “Avoiding Burnout”

  1. Where was this article 2 years ago when I really needed it??!!!!! I am starting over too! I violated at least 3 of those factors. If only I had this information back in undergrad.

  2. Seems helpful for undergrad students but not for people who are already in professional school. we don’t have a choice for course load or distribution or financial stuff either. So any advice on this kind of burn out would be nice.

  3. I think another thing to keep in mind is that EVERYONE gets burned out at one point or another. For some people, burnout can even take place more than once – if you’re a premed who has experienced burnout during your premed years, you can almost plan on it happening again if you end up getting into medical school and spending the rest of your life in a high-stress environment. As a 2nd year med student, I get burned out all the time. I think the key is to recognize when you’re experiencing burnout and counteract it by doing things that will relieve stress and bring you back into productivity.

  4. WOW. This article was incredibly thorough. My scope of what a burnout is was much more narrow before reading this. Great stuff, definitely helpful.

  5. I’m with oog on this. As an undergrad I could control how many hours I took. But now, my school tells me what classes I’m taking (21 hours this semester).
    Thank you MSR for your post. I think you are on the right track.

  6. I really like this article. I just declared my pre-med major.
    @oog and @ooh: if you look at the student examples, it’s clear that this article is more for undergrads since all those students were obviously undergrads.

  7. Thanks everyone for your feedback! I’m glad that some students found the information useful.
    @Oog and Ooh: My original intention actually was to make this article appeal to students of all levels. Unfortunately, I didn’t get as much participation from graduate and professional level students as I had hoped. But I think #3-6 still would apply more broadly than #1 and #2
    Good luck to all!

  8. I’m a graduate student and I found this article helpful. I can’t speak for everyone, but this article really addressed some issues I had but didn’t know that i had.

  9. Yes, where was this article when I needed it?! It is right on, and I am very sorry no one was there to give me this kind of advice in my undergrad. Great article!

  10. incredible article! Too many of my friends burned out mid-way and this article covered all the reasons why!Like others before me, if only they had this article.

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