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Getting Into Medical School: Managing On- and Off-Campus Activities

In this lesson, I’m going to discuss managing the on and off-campus activities you can and should engage in.

OK, that big day has finally arrived—your first day at college or university. It’s something you’ll probably remember for the rest of your life. You will grow as a person, and as a scholar, and you will take those first important steps towards making your mark in the world.

Our first topic is one that is all too prominent in the minds of beginning students—what to major in. Here’s a surprise. As far as medical school goes, it doesn’t matter. Choose a major because you find it interesting, not because you think that it will give you a leg up for medical school. No major is “better” or “worse” than another because it isn’t the major that gets you into medical school. It is the work you do that gets you in. Music majors, history majors, and English majors get into medical school, too. Yes, all applicants have a basic set of science classes like chemistry, biology, physics, math, and biochemistry that they have to take, but those can be taken as electives, if necessary.

With respect to majors, picking one because you perceive it to be the “easiest” is a terrible mistake. This is commonly done by students who obsess with their grades because they think grades are only considered for medical school. That’s a bigger discussion I’ll save for the next lesson.

The best major for anyone is something that allows one to expand horizons. I’ll tell you a secret here. Do you know that most pre-med students never apply to medical school at all? Yes, you hear that right. It is much more likely for a student who starts out as a pre-med to never apply to medical school than to apply. Why? There are many reasons, but the most common one is because they found something better along the way. And how do they find something better? By exploring other possibilities. An interesting major is a great start. And that leads me to the main thrust of this talk—managing on- and off-campus activities.

I divide them into three components: academic time, social time, and free time.

Let’s briefly consider each one. Academic time is the easiest to understand, you’ve got to spend a LOT of time staying on top of your classes. Performance in your classes is certainly important. We'll talk later about the difference between learning and grades, but for now, you should be a sponge for knowledge, learning as much as you possibly can, starting with your foundation classes in your first two years.

A lot of students discover the hard way in the freshman year that academic expectations are significantly higher at the university than they were in high school. Those who don’t QUICKLY adjust to those differences are likely to end up with poor grades and, worse than that, will lack the academic foundation from beginning classes needed for success in upper-division classes. For this reason, I advise beginning students to err strongly on the side of giving ample time to academics for the first term or two of college, until they’ve had a chance to see how their performance translates into grades. This most commonly means reducing your free time.

The social aspect of universities is, for most students, life-changing. It takes on many forms, from wacky and wonderful to dangerous. Best of all, though, it’s almost all fun. It includes one-on-one interactions, such as you might have with a roommate or a date. It also includes interactions with groups of people in clubs, living group activities, movie nights, etc. Thanks to college, you’re going to meet hundreds of new people with perspectives VERY different from your own and some that may be like your own. Challenge yourself to make your social bubble as big as possible with as diverse of a group of friends as you can find. That’s what the benefit is—expanding horizons by seeing things different from what you’re used to.

Many students will be tempted to increase academic time and reduce social time. Let me be very clear about this—it is a big mistake to do this unless they’re out of balance. Yes, there will be times such as finals when academics will rate a higher priority, but in general, you should not make this trade. So what is the right balance? As you might imagine, that varies from one person to the next, but I recommend spending 3-4 hours of studying per week per credit hour. If you’re taking 12 credits, that means 36-48 hours per week for studying. Some may require more time. Students sometimes think they can get by with less, but often discover otherwise. Averaging 7-12 hours of social time is about right.

And last, we have free time. Free time is that time left over that doesn’t involve sleeping, studying, or socializing. It’s a time for on-campus activities, such as getting medical experience or volunteering in the community. Since I recommend students give themselves a term or two to adjust to campus life and I’m reluctant to reduce social time, except where necessary, reducing free time is something to plan on at first.

Now I recognize free time isn’t always “free” as such because it is often that students work to pay bills. Indeed, for some students, working over 20 hours per week may be necessary to stay in school. If you are one of those students, you’ve got to compromise. You can’t give up study time and you can’t give up sleep time, much as you may be tempted to, so that means you’re going to have less social time.

It’s not fair, of course, but the good news is that there are excellent ways of finessing the reduced social component when it comes to a medical school application. More on that later.

So, I hope I’ve convinced you that campus life for a pre-med student is a VERY busy one. It’s good to remember that because the first thing most students notice when they start at a college or university is the amount of time they have between classes with “nothing to do.” All too often nothing to do with time translates into doing nothing.

Successful students use schedule planners to map out the schedule times for studying, time for social activities, and free time. Planners help you to stay focused on what you SHOULD be doing at any given time of the day.

So, we’ve seen that medical schools don’t care about majors, that you need to manage your academic, social, and free time, and that using a planner is an important step towards success. In the next lesson, I’ll talk about grades and the obsession some pre-medical students have with them.

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Written by

Kevin Ahern

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