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Leveraging Pre-Med Learning Experiences for Success

Created December 10, 2014 by Anubodh Varshney, MD

Pre-medical students can – and should – take advantage of the many opportunities available to them to gain valuable insight into what it is like to be a physician. Some of these experiences involve clinical shadowing, some encompass biomedical research, and others even expose students to alternative career paths for doctors.

Given the diverse options available, it is important for students to leverage these experiences to not only increase their competitiveness for medical school admissions, but also to understand exactly what kind of medical career they desire. Below are four tips to help you do just that:

1. Use clinical experiences to identify and build a relationship with a mentor

Clinical experiences that allow you to shadow physicians are great for exposure to a variety of medical fields. However, most students do not realize that working with a physician one-on-one is also a prime opportunity to gain invaluable career advice from someone who has stood in your very shoes. Each time you shadow a physician, ask him or her for advice on applying to medical school, selecting a specialty, and developing a career in medicine. Though the advice you receive will vary in quality, try to take away the most salient and important pieces of information from each mentor with whom you work.

Furthermore, keep in contact with these mentors as you progress through college, as a letter of recommendation from a physician who has observed you in a clinical setting and who knows you well can be highly valued by many medical school admissions committees. Your relationship with your mentor should not end after you have reached medical school, either. This mentor can help you choose the specialty that is right for you, suggest strong residency programs, and even serve as a connection to research projects, so be sure to stay in touch and continue to foster the relationship!

2. Consider biomedical research to gain in-depth knowledge of a subset of medicine and to build crucial scientific skills

Although most medical school graduates will have largely clinical careers, experience in biomedical research can only help pre-medical students in further understanding what a life in medicine entails. Biomedical research is the engine that propels clinical practice forward, and in order for physicians to provide their patients with cutting-edge care, they must be able to critically appraise research findings as presented in scientific articles, abstracts, and presentations. By working on research projects, students can expect to not only delve deeply into a specific area of medicine, but also to learn about research methodology, statistics, experimental design, biases, conflicts of interest, scientific presentation, and manuscript publication.

In addition, research experience can serve as another outlet for finding mentors who can offer career advice and support your application to medical school. Lastly, working on a research project and actually producing a piece of scientific work – whether it be an abstract, presentation, or publication – demonstrates to admissions committees your determination, work ethic, and passion for advancing medicine as a whole.

3. Work in a less traditional medical setting at least once in order to gain perspective on healthcare

As reflected by the recent restructuring of the MCAT, the social, economic, cultural, and political aspects of medicine greatly affect the American healthcare system. As a future physician, it is crucial for you to understand the interplay between non-biomedical issues and traditional medicine. There are many internships, fellowships, and experiential opportunities available in these areas – in private industry (e.g. healthcare consulting), government, and non-profit organizations. Try to engage in at least one such experience and examine healthcare from a different angle. Many medical schools now include curricula on these different aspects of healthcare, and several also offer dual degree programs (such as MD/MBA and MD/MPH). After gaining experience in non-biomedical areas of medicine, you may realize that a dual degree track is right for you.

4. Volunteer in a resource-limited setting to understand what it truly means to serve the suffering

Being a physician is ultimately rooted in helping those who are most in need. As such, it is crucial for students to learn first-hand how to aid the suffering. Though you will have the opportunity to shadow and work in established clinics and hospitals, it is also important to understand the consequences of insufficient healthcare structures that are present in some parts of the United States and of the world. There are a variety of local, national, and international groups that can provide students with this incredibly valuable exposure. Students can participate in local free clinics, health fairs, and international aid trips to directly take part in this kind of care.

Overall, there are many opportunities available for pre-medical students to learn more about a career in medicine. I encourage you to engage in clinical shadowing experiences while seeking out mentorship, to complete a biomedical research project on a topic about which you are passionate, to work on the “other side” of healthcare, and to volunteer in areas that need our profession’s help the most.

Anubodh “Sunny” Varshney is a professional MCAT tutor with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. He earned his Bachelor of Science from Washington University in St. Louis and attended medical school at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He is a resident in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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