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.