Wednesday, June 24, 2015

15 Things To Do Before Starting Medical School

Everyone says the best way to prepare for medical school is to take the summer off.  Well I did just the opposite.  I worked in research up until to the week before orientation.  Since most applicants know whether or not they will be starting this year by now, I thought I'd share a few fun things I recommend doing the summer before starting medical school.

1. Go to the beach. Look at the sand.  Forget every anatomy image you've seen in textbooks.  Nothing will be color coded; everything will look the same.  Once you start dissecting your cadaver, you'll learn that separating tiny nerves and vessels from fascia in small spaces is like trying to differentiate one grain of sand from another.  Nearly impossible.  Look at the water.  While you think it starts at the shore you're wrong.  You can't tell where it begins and where it ends.  Be overwhelmed.  Then appreciate it's beauty.  You'll deal a lot better if you accept that none of it is accidental, it's all part of a greater plan.

2. Make a photo album with pics of friends and family. These are just some of the people who've helped you get here.  You will not see as much of them as you're accustomed to, so you better have their likeness immortalized in photos.  Just like illness, medical school does not just affect you, but it also affects everyone around you.  It's an adjustment for everyone, but you will get through it.  Be sure to make time for your closest supporters.  It's not easy, but it can be done.  They need you too.

3. Write thank you notes. No one gets far alone.  Reach out to all the folks who've helped you get this far.  Whether it's been financial support, encouragement, a listening ear, etc. show your appreciation with a handwritten thank you card at the very least or however else you find appropriate. 

4. Develop your green thumb [or try to]. Plant something to keep throughout the journey.  This assumes you have a green thumb.  While I made it successfully through my first year, three store bought plants did not.  I like to think of it as a metaphor for life.  What you don't nurture, what you neglect will die...or something equally profound.  On a lighter note, I have two artificial plants from Ikea that are doing very well.

5. Creative outlet. You can't work 100% of the time.  A life of eating, sleeping, and studying will leave you a little bit crazy and miserable.  It's important to have something you can turn to as an escape.  I recommend finding something independent of other people and social media.  Reading, writing, exercise, going for walks, cooking, blogging.  Whatever it is you'll need something that makes you feel human when you get overwhelmed with your new life.

6. Learn to Cook. You probably won't have time for gourmet meals, but you'll definitely want to learn how to make a few quick meals that freeze well.  Buy a crock pot.  It will be your new best friend.  For the days leading up to exams, I was so thankful for the Tupperware full of frozen chili, soups, and pastas in the freezer so I didn't have to cook.  School will be stressful, and it'll be easier to make poor choices when you're low on time and hungry.  I was able to save myself a lot of pounds and dollars by prepping ahead and packing lunch/dinner.  During the school year I typically spent a couple of hours on a Saturday or Sunday cooking for the week, and this helped tremendously.  If you're lucky enough to have loved ones close by who will cook you meals, freeze them!  Again I was so thankful to have my mom's frozen lasagna to turn too when things got rough.  So if you're not already culinarily inclined, use some time now to establish a collection of quick and healthy meals.  Ask family for recipes, or turn to Pinterest.  If you're feeling especially ambitious, whip up a few meal plans with shopping lists.  This may not seem like a big deal, but it will save you a lot of time, money and help you stay in shape.  You will thank yourself when things get crazy.

7. Exercise. One of the things I wish I would have done more of my first year was exercise.  With the hours of sitting in lecture and studying, it's important to incorporate some intentional, higher intensity physical activity into you life.  It's also a great form of stress relief.  Whether it's going for runs, taking a spinning class, a long distance brisk walk, yoga...whatever it is, find something you like.  Most schools have a gym so use it, or use Youtube videos at home.  I only hit the gym sporadically, yet I was able to stay in pretty good shape from eating well and walking, but I can't emphasize enough the importance of exercising.  This is something I'm still working on, and important to do especially since we'll be telling our patients to do the same.  Lead by example.  I know many classmates who worked out regularly, and it can be done so no excuses...for me either!  While your schedule will change once you start school, take some time now to experiment and find a physical outlet.  Figure out what you like to do and when you like to do it.  Then all you have to do is figure out how to incorporate it into your new schedule.

8. Try something new. Take an art class, a cooking class, a new class at the gym.  Do something in a field or area in which you are completely unfamiliar.  Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and not knowing things because there will be a lot of it in your future.  Many "firsts" lie ahead, so you might as well embrace it.  Enjoy the ride.  It's all a part of the learning process.

9. Read a book. Once you get into the thick of studying, you'll wish you had.  During my most stressful moments I remember longing to be "normal."  To read a magazine or a book just for fun.  Something that was in English and not the abundance of number-letter abbreviations for things I couldn't pronounce or remember that aren't even remotely intuitively named.  Of course if you become a master of your time, you can schedule moments here and there for a little enjoyment, but it's just not the same.  So soak it in now. 

10. Start a journal. Again something I wish I had done sooner.  I didn't really start journaling until the spring.  In part this blog assumed a bit of that role, but I used it more as an escape from reality and to chronicle a few fun moments rather than to really reflect on the experience and document my thoughts, feelings and emotions.  What were your prior beliefs and assumptions?  How have your opinions changed?  One day you'll definitely want to look back on all your growth and see how far you've come and how much you've matured.  This will also help with personal statements.  I bet you thought you were done with all that personal statement reflection...never!!!  Include a little about your study habits as well.  This will be helpful for assessing your performance and preparation for formal evaluations.  You'll be able to get a sense of what's working and what's not if you have a written account of what you've been doing.  It's very likely that your study methods will change throughout the semester.  It's easier to keep track and less to remember if you write it down.

11. Organize your emails. If you're like me you have multiple accounts and pages of unread messages.  I just pick through the ones that are urgent or most important and leave the rest.  After having to search for important emails or documents through pages of old messages, I've learned the hard way to create new folders and tags for emails based on content and priority.  Download documents.  Delete, organize and unsubscribe as you go along.

12. Compile important documents. It will be imperative that you create a personal filing system moving forward with all your essential records.  Luckily this is one thing I actually did before starting medical school, and it will absolutely save you a lot of headache later on.  Get a copy of your medical records.  Get a copy of your medical records.  Get a copy of your medical records.  No, get copies!  Especially if your primary care physician is out of state, it will be a hassle to get access to them.  You'll need them for school and many applications moving forward.  You can't do anything if you don't have proof of your vaccines.  Even if the office sends a copy over directly, you don't want to take the chance of it getting lost along the way.  Also make sure they are transcribed correctly.  I was the victim of such an error in grad school prior to starting medical school, and it was a pain.  It's not fun to prove you had a vaccine or don't have tuberculosis.  It's not a life or death situation; however, it's a matter of inconvenience that will cost you time.  You'll have enough going on already.  You'll also want to have a copy of previous transcripts, tax returns, insurance policies, loan and other financial statements, your FASFA pin, etc.  It's no fun going to file FASFA right before the deadline, only to realize you don't know your pin...just saying.

13. Connect. Reach out to past colleagues, supervisors and professors through a professional forum like LinkedIn or even email.  Meet up.  Stay in touch.  At some point you'll need a reference or recommendation, so it's important to maintain these relationships as you move into new environments and meet new people.  At the same time these interactions should be genuine and for mutual benefit, not just for your own advancement.  Don't force it either.  Whether the person is at the same stage of professional development or well established, everyone has goals and special interests.  Demonstrate your interest in others and willingness to serve as a resource for them too.  As much as people don't want to admit it, a good opinion or recommendation goes a long, long way.  Trust me.  Twenty-five short years on Earth has also showed me how small this world is.  Face it, who you know helps.  Not only may people from your past reappear in your future, but they may also be instrumental in helping you get there (and vice versa).

14. Write your story thus far. Maybe your journey has been straightforward up until this point.  Maybe you've had more of an nontraditional journey like me (more on this later).  This hits on #10 a little, but I think it's a good idea to write out what you've done in your life up until this point.  Different opportunities you've seized, experiences from clubs and extracurricular activities.  Really think about what you've learned or gained from each experience.  Victories in your personal life.  Events in your family.  All the notable events, accomplishments and experiences in your life up until now.  I say (or type) this at the expense of sounding dramatic, but things will change afterwards.  Medical school and all of life there after brings about a whole new set of challenges, victories, and experiences.  Looking back both now and someday in the future will allow you to see life from a completely different perspective.  Maybe you'll laugh.  Maybe you'll cry.  Maybe it will serve as inspiration for yourself at a later time, or maybe it will help and inspire others.

15. Lastly don't take the summer off. Take the summer on.

Feel free to comment below or email me with any specific questions you have about applying to medical school, being a non-traditional student, or even surviving your first year.  I'll be sharing more of my thoughts and experiences in future posts, so stick around.  Thanks for reading, and be sure to follow along!  


  1. You totally nailed this post Ele! Love it

  2. Love this post! I am currently in between high school and undergrad. Because I took a two year break I know once I get into school mode it's going to be nonstop nose to the grindstone until med school. So I'm trying to embrace it, enjoy the freedom and establish healthy habits (both spiritual...daily prayer and bible study...and physical...taking care of my body, exercising and healthy eating habits) that will see me through.

    1. thank you Brianna! I agree, those are some excellent habits to develop. I still have a bit to learn and develop in those areas as well. I definitely couldn't have gotten through this year without God. There were many nights of tears and prayer believe me, but God's grace got me through. I know you'll do very well once you start with such a great grasp of your priorities. It's so important to embrace every season, something I have to remind myself daily, and I wish you all the best in this one and as you transition to your next. I didn't appreciate the value of the three years I had off between undergrad and medical school until now. The life experience and maturity will make you that much better of a physician.

  3. Loved this post! I couldn't agree with you more, looking back I did most of these!

    1. Thanks Whitney! I'd love to hear about what you did your summer after first year :-) I have just a little over a month of break left o_o

  4. This. Was. Perfect. Thanks so much!

    1. You're welcome! And good luck with everything, I know you'll do awesome!

  5. This was awesome!! I am definitely going to share this with Eric. Thanks, Ele!

    1. You're welcome, I hope this helps him!


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