Confessions of a Former Mediocre Premed Student

By You Jung Kim

Many students start college gung-ho about going into medicine, and many end up falling short of their goals. Their reasons are varied. Some discover new careers that better appeal to their interests; others realize that they can’t stomach the long commitment required in medicine. However, the saddest group of people are those who come to believe that they aren’t cut out for becoming a physician because of their performance in science courses. I was very close in becoming one of them.

In my first two years, I was consistently under the curve in my premed classes. I wondered whether I could get into any medical school. Fortunately, I was able to regain my bearing by being honest with myself, asking for help, and becoming more efficient with how I approached my study material. Lo and behold, I racked up a 3.98 GPA in my last two years.

During this time, I took many of the “weed-out” courses like organic chemistry and physics. Excelling in those courses left me with an acceptable science and overall GPA to apply to medical schools. Many interviewers remarked on my stark academic improvement, which is why I believe that it is never too late to change, even after a semester or even years of mediocre grades in college. Here are some of the ways that you can start excelling:

Figure out how long you are actually studying
Disappointed with my first two years of academic performance, I went back to the drawing board as a college junior. I kept a detailed record of the the amount of time that I spent studying. I soon made the realization that despite whiling away my days at the library, I was only putting in one or two hours of solid work daily. A large chunk of my day was wasted on socializing and the internet.

I kept myself honest regarding how long I was working by timing myself with a small egg timer. (Notice that I didn’t use a phone timer!) In addition to the my list of topics I wanted to cover, I also set a goal to study at least 3 hours a day. Nearing finals, I ramped that up to at least 8 hours a day. This sort of improvement didn’t happen overnight, but with constant practice I noticed incremental but steady improvements in my ability to focus and in the quality of my study periods.

Set study goals
In addition to keeping track of my time, I started setting goals for my study sessions. I wrote down a daily list of topics. Checking off each item on my list provided an additional sense of accomplishment. Conversely, checking at the end of the day to see which items that I had failed to check off made me more motivated for the next day.

Be comfortable with saying no
In order to devote my time to studying, I also needed to remove myself from distractions. This typically meant secluding myself in the loneliest floors of the library stacks and saying no to club positions, exciting opportunities, and even friends. Saying no is an important part of keeping a proper work-life balance, and knowing when to say yes and when to say no will allow you to have the time you need to work and study while allowing yourself to indulge in a few outlets to pursue your most important interests.

Ask for help from near-peer mentors
One of the best things that I did for myself was connecting with successful near-peer mentors. Your neer-peer is someone who has recently encountered and overcome the challenges that you are currently facing. In practice, this means that your near-peers are the upperclassmen and recent graduates who are one or two years above you.

Professors and graduate teaching assistants are multiple stages ahead of you in training, and it’s easy for them to forget what they didn’t know when they were at your stage. On the other hand, near-peer mentors’ experiences are fresh in their mind, so they are suited to provide up-to-date advice, such as identifying the professors who are great at teaching and what external study resources you should use. You may be able to find your near-peer mentors in formal mentorship programs sponsored by your school, or by identifying some successful upperclassmen and asking them for advice.

I met my near-peers in my college’s science journal editorial board. They were upperclassmen whom I’d admired, and they were more than willing to give me advice when it came time for finals, MCAT prep, and medical school applications. I knew that their advice was solid because they had gotten into top medical school programs, and knowing that they had done it made me confident in my own ability to do well.

Know what you actually need to know
During my first two years, I wasted a regrettable amount of time memorizing unnecessary details because I didn’t invest time to figure out what would be most important for my tests. The most obvious place to check to determine what you should be focusing on in your studies is your syllabus. A good syllabus will explain the most important concepts to get out of each lecture. Read this resource at the beginning of the term and before every class so you can prepare yourself for what you need to pick up during the lecture.

Another tip is to ask the TA or the professor directly, since they know how you will be graded. When you have a large amount information you need to process in a limited amount of time, it’s smart to narrow down on what’s going to be tested. But rather than disrupting the class and asking, “Will this be on the test?”, a better way would be to ask would be after class or during office hours with a more tactful wording, such as, “What level of detail will we be expected to know about this subject?”

Have a Plan B (and C, D, E…)
Some readers may eventually realize that a career in medicine is not desirable or feasible based on their changing interests or limitations. For this reason, always have a Plan B (and C, D, E…), and set a date when you will look back to track your progress. For example, after each term, look back and be honest with yourself, “Am I on the right track, or is this the time that I make the jump to another field?” Because I loved biology, my backup plans were to apply to PhD programs in cancer genetics or go into science journalism. To maintain these choices as viable options, I continued to conduct research and wrote about science for my student newspaper. Having a safety net will allay your anxieties about your future, and setting aside time to think honestly about your fit for medicine can prevent you from spending more time and going into further debt to chase a goal that may not be in your best interest.

Conclusion
After I started doing well in school, I realized that many of my peers were still struggling. For this reason, a couple of my friends and I started interviewing highly successful science students at colleges and universities throughout the country to see what they were doing differently. From there we distilled those observations into a book. As I was working on the book, I interviewed at medical schools and landed a seat in my absolute top choice institution. My freshman year self, struggling with introductory biology courses, would have been absolutely gobsmacked. Too many college students planning to study science and medicine change their minds later in their academic careers. With hard work applied efficiently, you don’t have to let yourself be one of them.

About the Author

Yoo Jung Kim is a current medical student at Stanford University. She is also a co-author of What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Her writings have previously appeared in PLOS Science Education Blog, The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, and the Mercury News.