Top Tricks For Effective Studying

Pre-Med

Successfully finishing undergrad on a pre-med track requires strategizing. When I first started taking science classes, I felt like medicine wasn’t for me. I had zero background in science and I was working a full-time job. I felt like I’d never catch up to my classmates, or better yet, pass the classes I was taking. That was when I earned my first C freshman year. I was taking Human Biology at a local college in my hometown and thought my horrendous high school study habits were sufficient to get me through college level classes. I was rudely awakened to the fact that my method of studying was no where near what was required for a successful run at a college level class.

The process of perfecting my study habit and finding a flow that worked best for me was a slow a strenuous one. I’d say it took the entirety of my freshman year, and maybe even some of sophomore year, for me to start to really get the hang of it and not feel like I was in a constant state of TRYING NOT TO DROWN!


First, before I get into the tips, I want to introduce you to my 5 phases of studying. I’ve realized over the years that I study best and learn best when I follow specific steps and study in a certain order. I divided the process into 5 phases and I go through each in the same order every time. I try to not skip phases unless I’m falling really behind or feel like the material is easy enough to where I can jump straight into practice. All of these phases are after lecture and after I have skimmed through the material either before or after class (depending on my availability). The phases are as follows:

Recall Phase: The first step in studying the material I am learning. This involves me using active learning practices such as brainstorming what I remember from lecture, drawings pictures, writing out ideas, creating a song/poem or creating a poster board. The best thing to do is review information from class after a break in between, not immediately after lecture. This may seem difficult at first because you realize there are gaps in what you can recall, but that’s OK! It means you need to retrieve information from memory which is what we want to master anyways.

Action phase: This is where what I’m learning is put into practice. I do as many practice problems, exams, quizzes and tests that I can get my hand on. In this phase, I am not yet testing myself. I am using my notes and videos to guide me through the problems. I mark down questions I am getting wrong and do them until I understand my error and corrected it.

Testing phase: This is where I do exactly what I was doing in the action phase, but I use no help at all. I do everything by myself and grade my own practice as if I had taken an exam. This phase is extremely important because you may be do extremely well in practice when you have an aid and realize you are still getting stuck when you have to critically think through problems on your own.

Review phase: The review phase includes going over any final topic or material that you are still struggling with. If you are struggling after the testing phase, seek help from your professor or a classmate that understands the material better than you. Don’t be afraid to use outside resources for your own benefit. They are there for a reason!!!

Elaborating phase: This phase isn’t always possible, but it’s my favorite because it really helps me solidify what I know and makes me feel like I’m a smart cookie. I try to teach the material to either someone else or myself. This literally means talking out loud and, FROM MEMORY, going over everything I know from the topic and explaining it as if I was teaching it to someone who never heard of it before.

One of my favorite resources for learning better studying techniques is the learning scientists blog. On their website, you can find more resources on what they consider to be the best six strategies for effective learning. I personally practice at least 4 of them during my studying sesh on any given day.


1. Ditch the flashcards

Don’t get me wrong, flashcards can work wonders when you are trying to simply memorize information short-term. As you all very well know, if you are trying to pursue a graduate career past your undergradhate degree, a lot of the information you are learning (especially core science or science related courses) will come back to haunt you. You will either have to know it for the MCAT or for the first year of medical, dental, pharmacology and vet school. Don’t underestimate the future need for the information you are learning. Merely getting an A in the class should not be your main priority. You want to really learn and understand the material. Instead of flashcards, consider incorporating active learning into your studying. Refer back to my initial phase of studying description to get an idea of what active learning may look like.

2. Space out your studying

The worst thing you can do to yourself is try to cram an entire week of material into one day of studying. It doesn’t work! 7 hours of studying on a Saturday is not the same as 1 hour of studying 7 days a week. The latter results in you not retaining the information and is exhausting. Work out a healthy balance between your work, personal and school schedule and ensure you give yourself personal time for hobbies and relaxing. Space out your work over several days or blocks throughout your day so that it adds up to your goal time. For example, wake up an hour earlier and spend 45 minutes in the morning reviewing for course A. Then, at lunch from work, review what you did in the morning. After work, don’t do anything related to course A. Focus on a different course and swap the schedule the next day so that course A is your evening focus.

3. Make connections

Memorizing words, formulas or basic ideas can be fairly easy, but what is required for you to really learn and understand the material so that you never forget it again? How do you master a subject? My favorite technique for mastery involves making meaningful connections between what I am learning and something that is engraved in my brain. I read a book once about the mastery of memorization (click here to buy it on amazon) and I learned a thing or two about how to make things stick. One trick I found interesting in the book was making absurd connections to what you are trying to learn. So, when I say “meaningful” I mean something out of proportion, unreal or exaggerated. For example, mnemonics work best when they are funny or even slightly inappropriate. Mnemonics are not very useful unless you can memorize the phrase, right?

4. Condense information

I am a big visual learner and I believe most people are too. For me, fitting all of the information that was being taught (even if it was 70+ slides on a powerpoint) into ONE sole typed out sheet of paper helped me visually see the information in my head during exams. Sometimes, I have to make my letters really small, but I color coordinate the information and add tables or small figures to help. Adding figures is most effective when you are drawing them yourself and personalize them to what your understanding of the material looks like. I add the most important information from the entire powerpoint or chapter and study only this one sheet of paper. This helps the information not seem so daunting and you don’t have to flip through pages and pages of scribbled notes or useless information. You don’t feel as overwhelmed and when exam time comes, you are able to visualize what was written on that page to use either process of elimination or recall to answer the question. DO NOT READ THROUGH NOTES OR READ THROUGH THE POWERPOINT FOR REVIEW. I promise you, this is a waste of your time! The information will go in one eye and out any other hole you have except stay in your brain like it’s supposed to. Like I said, active studying is the most effective form of studying there is.

Here’s an example of a poster I made for organic chemistry to help me understand functional groups better:

5. Get a planner. Yes, like middle school

Remember when you were in middle school and you would get personalized planners for the school year? Your teachers would have you write down your homework for the day or assignments that were due in your planner so that you wouldn’t forget? I know it sounds childish but there is nothing better than being organized. Even if your brain is moving at 100 mph all of the time, you can still learn to slow down buy using a calendar. There is no task too small for planning. I like to plan out my entire week on Sunday evenings. I sit down at my desk at home and I write down everything that is due that week on a sheet of paper. Then, I write down things I want to accomplish that week that are not associated with school such as gym time, personal time, mediation, grocery shopping, errands… literally ANYTHING else.

I divide my tasks into blocks on my schedule and don’t ever schedule over 2 hours of studying in one sitting. We think we get more accomplished based on the time we spend doing it, but that’s not necessarily true. I decided that my max time was 2 hours but every person’s stop time may be different. A good way to know when it’s time to stop is when you no longer feel focused on the material and are just reading through or trying to rush through the information to finish the task or assignment. The extra time you spend doing that is ineffective and wasteful. You could be spending that time doing something for yourself like going for a run or playing with your dog. Take breaks and make time for healthy habits in your life. You will never be a good doctor if you are not in good health. Personalize your calendar to best fit your sleep schedule, life and goals. Being organized is important in every aspect of life. Remember: the only way to not get behind is to stay ahead!


My International Medical Volunteer Trip

Pre-Med

This week’s blog will be a little different than the usual. Instead of me taking the lead, I let you guys ask questions about my volunteer trip abroad. In December of 2019, I went on a 1 week medical mission trip to Costa Rica. I graduated that same month and that was my graduation gift to myself. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and it made me realize how much I love volunteering and why I want to be in medicine. I could sit here and write 10 pages on my experience and why I think everyone should do an international volunteer trip at least once in their life. Instead, I’ll answer questions you guys have about my trip.

Here are answers to the top asked questions about my trip:

1. What organization did you use?

I volunteered with International Volunteer HQ. I researched different organizations for a couple of weeks, and decided that IVHQ was the one for me because it was affordable and I felt safe traveling with them. I joined their facebook group and asked questions to current and past volunteers about their experiences and how they liked it. Every person I asked said their trip was very safe, the organization was reliable and their experience was life changing. IVHQ also had the most destinations available in comparison to other organizations. Their projects aren’t all medical, this means that if you want to volunteer in a different area or let your talents shine, you can.

Aside from Medical and Health, some of their other projects include:

• Childcare
• Teaching
• Wildlife and Animal Care
• Construction and Renovation
• Environment and Conservation Arts and Music
• Sports
• NGO Support
• Refugee Support
• Women’s Empowerment
• Community Development
• Elderly Care
• Special Needs Care

They have volunteer opportunities in:

• Africa (Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Victoria Falls, Zambia)
• Middle East (Jordan)
• Asia (Bali, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam)
• North America (Mexico, United States)
• Central America (Costa Rica, Guatemala)
• Caribbean (Belize, Jamaica, Puerto Rico)
• South America (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru)
• Europe (Belgium, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Spain)
• Pacific (Australia, Fiji, New Zealand)

2. How much did it cost?

Every project and destination will have a different cost. The cost depends on where you go, what project you are doing, how long you will be staying and whether you will want to do other “touristy” activities before you leave. The Costa Rica medical trip I went on was only $445 for 1 week. The rest of the cost covered flights, a background check, transportation and other small fees like lunch and snacks. The program was very independent. We were volunteering through their local organization called Maximo Nivel and aside from being dropped off at our host family’s house, we had to get around on our own.This meant taking the bus to and from work and doing anything else while we were there. In total, I spent about $1,300 for everything. The most costly were the flights because I booked them last minute and couldn’t find any deals ($600 for round trip, ouch!). I didn’t have to pay for breakfast or dinner because my host mom cooked for me and of course, I stayed at her home for free. I only had to pay for lunch and transportation. Tourism was an option, but the cost of my trip would’ve increased and I would’ve had to extend the trip to accommodate the extra activities. Considering I was there to primarily volunteer, I didn’t worry too much about the extras. I wanted to volunteer and live like a Tica for a week. I rode the bus, ate Gallo Pinto, and practiced my Spanish. Depending on how much money you have to spare, you can add different excursions and activities to your trip to mix tourism and volunteering. It’s entirely up to you!

3. Were you allowed to do “hands-on patient” work?

Yes and no. I was required to submit proof that I was a pre-pa, pre-medical or pre-dental student. I also had to submit proof that I had some sort of experience in the medical field. Not every volunteer needs to do that though. Depending on how many science classes you’ve taken and your major, you don’t have to provide proof of Certification or health care experience. Since I was just starting my pre-requisites, I submitted proof that I was a Certified Expanded Functions Dental Assistant (CEFDA) and had 2 years of experience. I worked in a nursing home and was able to shadow the nurses, doctors, nurse practitioners and physical therapists. I was also able to feed the patients, transport them, help change their clothes and participate in fun activities. Aside from patient care, I helped with laundry and cleaning. My house-buddy was in nursing school at the time and she volunteered with me at the same nursing home. She was allowed to do a little more than I was, so it really depends on your experience and how much you know. Everyone was very supportive and trusting. They let you get as much hands-on as you want, you just had to take the initiative.

4. Were translators provided?

No! Translators were not provided and we had to get by on our own. This was intimidating at first but I am so thankful for it. I practiced my Spanish the entire week and came back home speaking Spanish 10x better than before I left. A lot of my friends there had google translate open and used it to communicate. I spoke the most Spanish out of our group, so most of the time, I was translating for them. Costa Ricans are very welcoming and had no problem trying to communicate with us. Don’t be shy if you don’t speak Spanish or the language spoken in the country you volunteer at. Embrace the experience and communicate through compassion. A smile is understood universally, so is a hug, a handshake, a pat on the back. Use hand gestures and body language to communicate. If you want to practice and learn the language, they did offer Spanish classes for students who were interested. The classes were divided into different levels and ranged from $125 to $390 a week depending on whether the class was private and the size of the group. So if you are intimated by the language barrier, that is always an option. A little costly, but, an option.

5. Did you volunteer the entire time or were there other activities?

I mostly volunteered, but there were options to do a lot of other activities. Some volunteers were planning on staying for weeks or months, so they traveled during the weekend to different tourist spots. I was only there for 1 week, so I wanted to spend 95% of my time volunteering. Various activities and excursions were offered through the organization and they were affordable. Some volunteers decided to explore on their own and utilized Uber or public transportation to site-see on their own. Unless you are with a group, I wouldn’t recommend that because it’s not as safe as having a guide. I volunteered the entire week and on my last day went to La Paz Waterfalls with friends I made on the trip. It was a lot of fun and since there was a big enough group, we were able to split the fare making the excursion fairly inexpensive. If you have more than a week to spare, you can chose different volunteering and tourism options. Some volunteers will work for 1 week and travel for the other or will travel on weekends and work the full 2 weeks. It all depends on how much money you want to spend and how much time you to have to spare.

6. Did you pay for everything alone?

Almost. I had $200 in donations from family and friends to help fund my trip. The rest was paid 100% by me. If you are concerned about how you will afford the trip, try fundraising. You can use Go Fund Me or sell baked goods to raise the money. I didn’t sell any goods to fund my trip because I didn’t have the time. I was working and finishing up my Bachelor’s, so I decided to bite the bullet and gift myself the opportunity. From my personal research, IVHQ seemed to be one of the most affordable organizations to travel with. There are also church and school organizations that participate in international volunteer trips. If you don’t have the money to spare for IVHQ, you can always seek opportunities at your University and church.

7. Did you feel safe throughout the trip?

Yes. Costa Rica is a very safe country. Did you know they don’t have a military? Since I was traveling alone, safety played a big role in me picking Costa Rica as my destination. Of course, I took extra precautions because there are bad people everywhere. I did not travel with any expensive jewelry, kept my phone put away, and didn’t go anywhere alone. Like I said, we traveled around the city by ourselves and utilized public transportation because it was cheaper than Uber. Not once did I feel unsafe. I always had a friend with me and maintained full awareness of my surroundings. Unfortunately, I can only speak for Costa Rica. Check out the IVHQ Facebook page and ask around. There are volunteers in that group from all over the world and they can give you more insight on the safety of their destination.

8. Did you learn anything important that you’d like to share?

Oh, absolutely! First, I learned that I am 100% meant to be in medicine. Costa Rica was beautiful and traveling was fun, but my favorite part was being in the nursing home and working with patients. I loved spending time with the residents, getting to know them, and being hands on. When the week was over, I didn’t want to come home. I wanted to stay and work more. It really showed me how much I love what I do and how much compassion good quality health care requires. It takes more than being clinically sound to be a good physician or any provider of care. It takes patience, compassion, understanding, and love for your neighbor. This is one of the reasons I think everyone should volunteer abroad in a health care setting. You will know right then and there if you are seeking medicine because you love it or not.

Advice to Pre-Med High School Seniors

Pre-Med

These last few weeks I have received so many messages from high school seniors who want to go into the healthcare field. Many of them asked for advice regarding what to major in, classes to take, and what to do to prepare. These messages prompted me to write this post to serve as a simple guide to these students. First thing’s first, don’t stress yourself out trying to plan out every single moment of your life for the next 4 years. I did that and it was ridiculous because at the end of the day, nothing happened the way I planned. Life gets in the way, classes get full, you have to pick up a job, and stuff happens. So plan and prepare yourself but also relax and enjoy the ride. College is fun and you learn a lot about yourself in those (very) short 4 years.

1. If you’re going to screw up your grades, do it freshman year

Of course, you shouldn’t fail any of your classes but if you are going to party a little too much or have a hard time getting accustomed to college life… do it sooner than later. Most people think that medical schools will only look at your GPA, but in reality, they look at your application holistically. That means grade trends matter. Sometimes, a student with a 3.4 GPA is more competitive than a student with a 3.6. WHY? Because the student with a 3.2 failed a few classes freshman year or so but then had all As sophomore, junior and senior year. If those As were in classes that were harder, required more effort and were pre-requisites or science based (such as organic chemistry or biochemistry), that student is competitive. The 3.5 student may have excelled in the beginning during their general education credits, but proceeded to not do as well in their upper level science courses during junior and senior year. These classes best represent what graduate school will be like, so that student is not as competitive as the 3.2 student. The 3.2 student made a few mistakes in the beginning or had a difficult time adjusting to college, but their upward trend conveys they are prepared for graduate school. The 3.5 student on the other hand, may not be as prepared for graduate school (or at least that’s what the admissions committee will think). UPWARD TREND MATTERS. Don’t get all As freshman and sophomore year and then slack off junior and senior year. This will hurt you more than if it was the other way around. Don’t plan to fail at all. Aim for all As and settle for Bs. That should be your mindset throughout all of college, but if it happens, don’t stress too much. Learn from your mistakes and do better the second time around. If you haven’t read my post about whether you should retake classes or not, I talk about it here.

2. If you can take science AP classes senior year, do it

These courses most likely won’t count as pre-requisites for medical school BUT, when you retake them in college, you will be a step ahead of everyone. This means you will have a better chance at getting an A and retaining the information you learn, which is the most important thing. Just keep in mind, AP classes may transfer into your college transcripts, but they aren’t accepted at many medical programs. Your best bet is joining a dual enrollment program in High School and taking actual college credit courses at a community college instead of AP. If that option isn’t available at your school, then at least get a head start in the race and take AP classes. If anything, the general education courses that aren’t pre-requisites will absolutely count and will mean you have one less class to take in college. OH, and did I mention it’s FREE? Free college people, DO IT!

3. Do not take more than 2 core science/lab classes at once

You know your study habits better than I do, but I’m here to remind you that core science classes are not a piece of cake and you want to allow yourself the fair chance of not only getting an A in the course but also retaining the material and making time for extracurricular activities. I worked full-time throughout undergrad, and for me personally, two lab classes was pushing it. First, at my University, science classes were hardly ever offered at night, so taking more than one just wasn’t feasible with my schedule. Second, I was taking 5-6 classes while working every day. This meant I had to be strategic with my time. I was able to get straight As for three years and I strongly believe it’s because I planned my schedule out very strategically to ensure I maximized my efforts.

Take core “hard” science classes in conjunction with easier “soft” science/health/medical classes or classes in whatever major you chose. For example, if you have to take Chemistry II + Lab, don’t take Microbiology + Lab, Anatomy + Lab and then another 2 classes all in the same semester. Those classes require a lot of effort, so biting off more than you can chew will hurt you in the long run. Unless you are a genius, you are risking failing, getting a C in the class or not truly learning the material as well as you should because you were trying to survive the semester. Take the chemistry II class with 3-4 other soft science classes like epidemiology, medical terminology, health policy and etc. Don’t get me wrong, if school is all you are doing, go for it. You probably will be okay, but in reality, you shouldn’t JUST be taking classes. You want to volunteer, gain PCE, join clubs, get leadership experience and get involved in extracurricular activities that will make your application stand out in 3-4 years.

Also, don’t get caught up in feeling like you MUST major in a science related field. The science degree will allow you to complete your required major classes and pre-requisites faster because they will overlap. Depending on the school you attend, classes aren’t always available or science majors get first choice when registering for science classes. This means that if you major in a non-science field, you may be in school for longer than expected because you will have to complete all of your general education credits, your major credits AND the pre-requisites required for medical school. If you chose this route, try to take the pre-requisite classes early on so you can apply your Junior/Senior year while you are completing your major requirements instead of the other way around.

Your major isn’t as important as your GPA, MCAT scores and the rest of your application. Schools want to see well-rounded students. You don’t have to be the cookie cutter “pre-med biology major” student. Make your college experience enjoyable by doing something you like and you will be more successful for it. If you are passionate about music, major in music! Open a club that plays music on weekends for nursing home residents. Start a band that plays at functions to raise money for a specific organization you want to support. Use your passion and skills to your advantage!

5. Try to find Patient care experience as soon as you can

Many students put off getting PCE because they think they have time and don’t have to worry about it. In reality, finding PCE can be hard if you don’t have experience or underwent a training program. Network early on and try to get a job as a scribe for a few years until you can find better hands on experience. Scribe America is a great company to get started with. They hire students with no experience, train them to be scribes and offer flexible schedules. If you have a hard time getting a PCE job, volunteer! Go to a local clinic or offer to be a support volunteer at a hospice. Many of these places want volunteers to come in and talk to patients or even help clinically. Volunteer experience is still experience and getting the right connections may help you land a job later on. It’s all about effective networking. This leads me to my next advice: build your network!

6. Build your network

The best way to build your network is to get involved. You want to be a well rounded applicant. This means that aside from good grades and exam scores, you want to have other great things to add to your application. You will need recommendation letters and good experience. The right network will allow you to become more competitive. Get involved in clubs that interest you. If you like fishing, join the fishing club. If your school doesn’t have a fishing club, START A FISHING CLUB! Spend time with friends, volunteering and doing things that interest you and make college less stressful. Work your way up and hopefully get a leadership position in one of the clubs you’re in. Join the pre-med club or the international volunteer association. Do a semester abroad if you can financially afford it or get a scholarship. Take in every moment of college and cherish it because it flies by and you will regret not doing it.

Getting Patient Care Experience with No Experience

Pre-Med

I was a dental assistant for 3 years before deciding to find a job as a medical assistant. When I made the decision to transition from pre-dental to pre-med, I knew that my dental assisting experience wasn’t going to be ideal. Oral health is extremely important and it plays a big role in a patient’s overall health, but it isn’t the only factor at play. I loved being a dental assistant and it was comfortable for me, but I knew I needed to find a job that would teach me more about the entire body and prepare me for medical school. I was afraid of starting over and being at the bottom again. When I first started working in the dental field, I worked front desk and would shadow the clinical team during down time. It took me a year to find a job where I was 100% in the back and helping the dentist. I didn’t go to a traditional dental assisting program so I had to learn to make temporaries, pack cord and everything else that is involved in chair-side assisting from scratch. I was lucky to find people that were willing to guide and teach me along the way, but the fear of not being as lucky a second time around paralyzed me.

I didn’t have the money or the time to take off from school and undergo a traditional training program. I did some research on different options I had and what was considered PCE vs. HCE. After a few hours of reading, I knew that the best route for me was to become a CNA or a medical assistant. CNA was faster and I would probably have easily found a job, BUT, the pay was $10 less than what I was used to making and my husband and I couldn’t take the financial hit. Medical assisting was going to require a little more time and dedication, but I had a better chance of working normal hours alongside a PA, NP or MD/DO and making a little more money. So, the big question arises:

“How in the world am I going to find a job doing something I have never done before and have no training in, in the midst of a pandemic?”

It was intimidating and required a lot of vulnerability. To say it took persistence and faith is an understatement. I want to share with you guys what I learned these last few months and what I believe helped me get my first medical assisting job with no prior experience or schooling.

Why Medical Assisting:

  • Better chance of having normal 8-5 M-F hours. Since I am still in school, working regular hours allows me to better plan my week and organize myself. I like to know what nights I’ll be studying what subject and how many hours I have to do it. I like a set schedule and preferably, weekends off to unwind and reboot.
  • Better pay. Medical assistants make more than CNAs. Since I didn’t want to undergo a traditional training program, my only options to gaining relevant PCE were becoming a MA or CNA.
  • Working alongside MD/DO, PA, NP. Since my end goal is to become a provider, I wanted to work with them as much as possible. Being a MA would allow me to work side by side with Physicians and get a better idea of what their day to day is like. As a CNA, I would have spent most of my hours working with nurses. That is still great experience and nurses have a lot to teach, but personally, I wanted to spend more time with physicians.

1. Find Volunteer Related Experience

Before trying to find a job, try to find volunteering experience that is health care related. Some hospitals will train you to volunteer in different units. Many hospitals are looking for students who have taken science related courses and have aspirations to become doctors or mid-level providers. Call clinics and hospitals in your area to offer your skills. I was lucky to find a volunteer position at Southwest Florida Free Pain Clinic. I went there twice a week and worked helping with administrative work and translating in the back with the provider. Not only did I get to experience first hand what it was like to work in a clinic and with vulnerable populations, I loved it! It has opened my eyes to how effective functional medicine is and how many people don’t have access to care in my community.

If you want to volunteer in a different country, consider International Volunteer Headquarters. They will allow pre-professional students and current medical students to partake in international medical mission trips. I saved up money and traveled to Costa Rica in December of 2019. I spent 1 week working in a nursing home alongside nurses and other providers. I was able to help feed, bathe, and care for patients in the nursing home as well as practice my Spanish skills. It was a great experience and I was able to add it to my resume to help me land my first medical assisting job.

2. If You Can, Get Certified

Although most providers and hospitals prefer medical assistants who underwent a traditional medical assisting program, some may consider you without one. The NHA allows you to become certified online without going through a traditional program. You do have to have some sort of related experience, but no schooling. If you qualify to take the exam, do it! They provide a study guide book that you can purchase and 6 online practice tests before you go in for the official exam. The exam is proctored through PSI and it’s 180 questions. The best thing about the NHA certification is that it doesn’t cost much. It’s about $200-$300 depending on if you purchase the study materials.

If you don’t think reading through a study guide is for you or if you don’t have the related experience to qualify to take the exam, you can do a fully online, self-paced course that prepares and qualifies you to sit for it. The U.S Career Institute offers a course that is fairly priced. Some classmates of mine underwent the program in just 2 weeks and passed their exam. This option is the best in my opinion. It’s fast and inexpensive. There are online courses that allow you to take the CNA exam as well. If you think being a CNA is a better fit for you, go for it! Both medical assisting and nurse assisting are great patient care experiences to have and will expose you to medicine.

3. Include Health Related Classes in Your Resume

Many students forget to include their courses in their resume. It may sound silly, but in many of my interviews, I was asked about those courses and how well I did in them. Taking Anatomy, Physiology, Genetics, Pharmacology, Pathophysiology, Microbiology or any other class that relates to medicine and health care will put you a step ahead. Employers and providers like to see that you are passionate about medicine and have the potential to learn fast. If they are going to take a chance on you, they want to know their time will be well spent. This is your time to shine, so don’t be shy. Include your classes, your extracurricular activities (like volunteering) and any research you have been or are involved in. In my interviews, I was asked about my volunteer trip, my GPA and even quizzed on medical terminology. Don’t be afraid to sell yourself. Be confident and show that you can and will learn fast and are willing to work hard to do so.

4. Be Willing to Take a Pay Cut

As a dental assistant, I made pretty good money. I was working full-time while in school making a lot more than my classmates were making. The dental field pays better than the medical field and I knew that I would be taking a pay cut in the transition. I accepted that fact and moved on. You’re going to have to make sacrifices throughout your pre-med journey. I’m sure you have already made many—missing family holidays to study or not spending time with friends to catch up on sleep. This was just another sacrifice I made for my future.

The good thing is, after you are trained and know what the heck you are doing, you have a great chance of getting a raise. Many employers will give you a raise based on performance, so work hard and learn as much as you can. Show initiative, ask questions, jump in to help, be compassionate, and be a team player. You may see that raise faster than you expected. Like they say “hard work pays off!”

5. Be Eager to Learn and Show Initiative

In all of my interviews, I made sure to emphasize my desire to work in the field and to learn as much as I could. I didn’t leave that interview until I knew that the person interviewing me knew, with 100% confidence, that I was smart, dedicated and ready to learn. I described my experiences in the dental field and how I didn’t undergo a traditional training program. Many employers are okay with teaching a new grad or pre-med student the ropes. Their fear is that you aren’t willing to put in the work it takes to really learn the job and excel. Unfortunately, there are a lot of pre-professional students that just want their experience hours and nothing else. They aren’t invested in learning or in the process. They have their eye on the prize and are disconnected with the present.

DON’T BE THAT STUDENT!

Show initiative! Describe your skills outside of health care that will enable you to become an asset to their practice. Explain what you will do to learn as much as you can and to exceed their expectations. Offer to come in and train on your days off or stay after hours to shadow an experienced MA, CNA or nurse. Don’t be lazy! Just because this isn’t your end goal, doesn’t mean you get to be sloppy at it. Be GREAT at everything you do. Whether you are working retail or as a PA. Your journey matters and who you are during it will define who you become at the end.

6. Believe in Yourself!

I know, very cheesy, but also very true! Don’t let your fears prevent you from following your dreams or getting the experience you need to become a physician. Experience matters. The quality of your experience is more important than the amount of hours you have accumulated. I was afraid to change jobs. I was comfortable being a dental assistant. I was good at it and I was getting paid great money. I had to make a sacrifice for my own benefit. I am in a position now that will teach me skills I can carry into medical school. I am working alongside doctors and mid-level providers who are willing to answer questions and help me develop my skills. It’s terrifying at first and requires quite a bit of vulnerability, but it’s worth it in the end. You will be better prepared for medical school and will have a bucket of knowledge to carry with you. It will make you a more competitive applicant and hopefully help you stand out in the midst of thousand of applications.

Take a chance on yourself and don’t let fear dictate your future!

Do I Retake a Course or Take an Upper Level One?

Pre-Med

I hear this question all of the time scrolling through medical forums, facebook groups or even between my own friends. The “Retake failed classes or take an upper level one?” conundrum is common. The answer isn’t simple. The truth is, schools really do take a holistic approach when reviewing your application, so it truly depends! I know, not the answer you came here for, but hear me out.

C in a pre-requisite course

If you earned a C (not C-) in a pre-requisite course, and are considering retaking it to make yourself more competitive, it might not be the best idea to retake it. Considering you didn’t actually fail the course, taking classes that are at a Junior or Senior level and within the same subject will show the admissions committee that you have mastered the material and are ready to take on medical school! For example, if you took General Chemistry 1 freshman year and finished with a C. Don’t panic and sign up for the same class again. Take General Chemistry 2 and crush it! Most of the success in Chemistry 2 will come from a good foundation in Chemistry 1, so getting an A in the second half of the course, will prove that you mastered the material and are ready to move on.

Below a C- in a pre-requisite course

Now, if you completely failed pre-requisite course, you will absolutely have to retake the class. Unfortunately, most schools have a cut off for pre-requisite/cumulative GPA as well as individual pre-requisite grades. Many will require a minimum of a C (not a C-), so if we’re talking pre-requisites, you’re looking at sitting through another semester of that course.

Failed a course that is not a pre-requisite

If you failed a course that wasn’t a pre-requisite, you may be okay taking a course above that class level in the same subject and killing it! For example, let’s say you failed Human Biology freshman year. Human Biology is not a pre-requisite for medical school, but Biology 1 and 2 are. If you have the extra time and money, retake that Human Biology course, but if you are on a budget and ready to get on with your life (like most of us), make sure you excel in Biology 1, 2 and Microbiology. Take upper level biology courses as well such as Histology, Genetics, Cell Biology, Immunology, Embryology, and Pathophysiology. These classes require a well-rounded biology foundation in order for you to succeed in them. Doing well in them will help you learn material that will help you out in medical school and it will show admissions that your failed Human Biology days are far behind you.

Make sure you can get an A in your retake

The most important thing to consider is your ability to ace the retake. Do not sign up to retake a course if you feel that your schedule or other obligations will hinder your ability to get an A in the class. If you got a C- in a pre-requisite course and you earn a B- in the retake, you didn’t improve your stats very much. If you have to take a semester off or wait until your schedule calms down to retake the class, do so. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Balance is important and being realistic with your time, efforts and abilities is crucial. Making yourself more competitive goes beyond basic stats. You want to show that you not only were able to master the material in the course, but you also have developed better studying skills and have learned a valuable lesson.

Addressing your failed courses

If you don’t retake a course because you earned a C or because it wasn’t a pre-requisite, that’s okay as well. Depending on your stats and how well rounded you are, you can still get plenty of interviews and accepted into a program. You can explain circumstances that were outside of your control in your personal statement or interview. We are all human and well… s**t happens! It’s important you don’t focus all of your time on it though. Failed courses and any supporting information relating to why you failed should be addressed in a few sentences or less. You want your personal statement to make you shine. It’s your time to show off, so don’t spend a chunk of your characters on explaining why you failed. Instead, explain what you learned and how you have grown from your experiences, failures and challenges.

Embrace failure

The admissions committee understands that we are all human. Failure is nothing to be ashamed of. Most people only succeed after they first failed. There is a lot of opportunity for self development and growth in failure. The admissions committee wants to see that you failed at something and got right back up after. You learned from your mistakes and improved yourself. That is the most important thing to show. Your D in freshman English does not define if you will be a good health care provider or not. What you did after that D, does!

Will AMCAS only count my higher score?

No, unfortunately AMCAS will average out your failed course with your retake grade. Even though your home University may consider grade replacement, AMCAS will not. Keep this in mind when calculating your GPAs. There are so many students who don’t get interviews their first cycle because they didn’t calculate their GPA correctly.

What about outside factors?

We all go through difficult times in our lives. Sometimes, circumstances hinder our ability to succeed in a course. Whether it’s an illness or a loss in the family, we are human and the admissions committee will understand that. If you can ask for a leave from your University during a difficult time, do so. Especially if you feel like you will not pass your classes. Most Universities have policies that allow you to receive an incomplete grade for a course and retake it the following semester without affecting your GPA. If you have already failed and were not able to ask for a leave, you can explain some of these circumstances in your personal statement or interview.

“And when you can’t go back, you have to worry about the best way of moving forward”

– Paulo Coelho