Conquer the Obstacle Course of Medical School By Building Multiple Strengths

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

Everyone has this perfect image of how fun medical school is when they enter. You daydream about working with patients and saving lives from your first year, but the reality is, medical school is a giant obstacle race. Many people say that it is a marathon, but I do not think that this is accurate. A marathon requires you to be a good runner. Marathon training is gruesome and tiring, but the focus is on increasing your mileage until you feel confident that you can achieve the 26.2 miles on race day. Obstacle race training, on the other hand, is a little more dynamic. You must train yourself to be able to handle the long mileage of running the course, but you also have to develop your body and mind to conquer obstacles requiring strength, agility, strategy, and overall grit. In my drawn-out analogy here, obstacle race training is the “preparing to apply for medical school” stage and the actual application and interview seasonCon is the beginning of your long obstacle race that ends with a medical degree. I will come back to these two points, but first I would like to elaborate on why medical school is an obstacle race.
On the first day of class, I remember the excitement and nervousness on everyone’s face. It was especially evident on the first day of gross anatomy lab when we were told to start dissecting and my tablemates and I just stared back and forth at each other and the cadaver in front of us. It wasn’t until one of the anatomy professors (who is also the Dean of Admissions) came over to our table and explained how we should remove the fascia and what we should be looking for, that we all realized medical school had officially started. Making the first incision was like approaching the first obstacle. I was excited and full of energy. However, the first obstacles once you get to medical school are meant to be some of the most difficult, to really ensure that you can handle the next four years. Many of us say that the first semester of medical school can feel like a general haze and it really is about survival. For example, at my school, we take 30 credits in the first fall semester. That’s the greatest number of credits we take in one semester in the entire first two years.
If I were to expand our first semester classes out into something like undergrad classes, it might look like this:

  1. Musculoskeletal Anatomy (every muscle, bone, tendon, ligament, and the respective arteries, veins, and nerves),
  2. Biochemistry,
  3. Medical molecular genetics,
  4. Metabolism and metabolic disorders,
  5. Thorax Anatomy (mediastinal anatomy – heart, lung, diaphragm),
  6. Gastrointestinal and perineum anatomy (penis, vagina, scrotum, uterus, bladder, rectum)
  7. Pharmacology,
  8. Medical hereditary genetics,
  9. Head and Neck anatomy (including all cranial nerves),
  10. Biostatistics and Epidemiology.

Of course, on top of this, we also have our clinical medicine classes where we are learning the basics of the history and physical exam and practicing those skills weekly at our preceptorship with a local physician. With all of that in one crazy semester, one can see why admissions committees care so much about a student’s undergraduate GPA and MCAT. It is simply their way of guaranteeing that you can pass the tests and won’t flunk out. It is an easy litmus test for them, just like how a marathon runner would likely be successful in an obstacle race because they are not easily fatigued by the distance. However, it is important to realize, that being a great runner is not the only way to successfully complete an obstacle race, just like being a top student does not necessarily mean that you will become a top doctor. The key to that is being well-rounded.
Being well rounded means identifying your core strengths and applying those strengths to a multitude of different activities and interests. Your GPA and MCAT can only take you so far. Sure, they alone might be able to get you into a medical school. While I was preparing to apply to medical school, I worked for a couple of years in a medicinal chemistry lab,  as an administrator at the central office of a city school district, and I spent a lot of time training for an ACTUAL obstacle course races (hence the strong usage of the analogy). These topics became the focus of all of my interviews, and I felt myself comfortable and relaxed during them because I was talking about what I love doing and how those experiences have helped me grow. During the interview season, I received kind remarks from my interviewers and was accepted to multiple schools in the end! It really helped that I was able to talk about how I have developed and prepared myself for medical school through doing what makes me happy in a multitude of areas. I prepared for the theoretical obstacle course that is medical school by exploring the world around me as a professional and a hobbyist. Furthermore, I saw my preparation pay off during medical school because of the skills and awareness I developed becoming more well-rounded. I feel as though I made the best of my first two years of medical school. On top of studying hard and being a strong student, I still put forth efforts to apply for a major research grant, four summer programs, and put together a street medicine program, UB HEALS. I could not do any of those things if I had not become the well-rounded person I see myself as today during the years before medical school.
So, how do you prepare for medical school and put forth an application that will get you accepted? Be yourself AND explore what you’re interested in with the purpose of becoming more well-rounded. Once you have a grasp on your “before medical school self”‘, you will know you are ready to go to medical school and make the most of your educational experience. Reflect often and ask yourself if you are where you want to be today. If not, what can you challenge yourself with to get there?

About the Ads