I came across a headline titled “University of Michigan pre-med program No. 1 in the country, according to rankings.” What does it mean to be a pre-medical student at the University, though? Of course, there is a plethora of resources available to students from the University Career Center’s pre-health directory, from well-equipped pre-health/pre-med fraternities to huge student organizations that centralize these resources. Students at the University of Michigan are definitely better equipped with advisers, mentors and other resources to be better applicants than students from other universities, but the problem lies with the pre-med system being inherently competitive and forcing students to make a commitment to the career early on.
I often hear people say, “I could never do pre-med because of the workload,” or, “If you can’t take the pressure/workload, don’t be pre-med.” The harsh reality is that these sentiments are true. The list of pre-med courses goes on and on. Prerequisites include rigorous and notoriously hard classes like Physics for the Life Sciences, Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry on top of others that help you prepare for topics tested on the MCAT, like physiology and anatomy. These classes fill your schedule and take up almost all of your undergraduate credits to complete. The pressure to not just do well in these classes but excel in them constantly looms over your transcript. Applying to medical school is inherently competitive, with schools like New York University that started providing free medical school tuition, an applicant pool that nearly doubled with an average GPA of 3.87 and an acceptance rate of 1.6 percent.
When everyone in your classes is striving for an ‘A’ because they can’t afford to drop below that average, even if you’re getting the same grades as them, you feel like a mediocre student and applicant. This is my pre-med dilemma. Mediocre. Commonplace. Neither a success nor a failure. Typical.
What does it mean to be a typical applicant though? The American Medical College Application Service, the Common App for medical schools, has multiple sections to include your GPA, MCAT score and extracurricular activities. The Work and Activities section has up to 15 experiences from volunteer (medical and not medical) to employment to research that you can describe in up to 700 words. Pre-med students end up obsessing over filling their resumes with the usual medical and research experiences, such as shadowing or being a nurse’s assistant. They chase after opportunities to shadow clinicians, race to get published in their research mentor’s next paper and vie for leadership opportunities in their student organization.
Pre-med students feel a relentless need to keep themselves extremely busy with extracurricular activities. On top of a heavy course load, pre-med students are pressured to fill up their free time doing something. This is normal. Normal is constantly feeling overworked and like there’s no time to do everything. Even as I am sitting down writing this, I am thinking about how to find the time next week to study for two exams, write a paper, juggle work and extracurriculars.
The worst part of the process: the sky-high application fees for medical school and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt that medical students accumulate. Dedicating your entire undergraduate career to fulfilling pre-med prerequisites (you definitely won’t remember which functional group on a molecule contributes the most to resonance five years in the future) only to be left with thousands in debt is not very promising. This aspect has also pushed many people away from the profession altogether, because it forces people to commit to and decide if they want to pursue a career in medicine.
Asking undergraduate students to make a commitment to multiple sleepless nights, a stressful curriculum and countless extracurriculars is absurd. But there’s only so much students can single-handedly do about the rigorous nature of pre-med. In my own experience, it has helped me to know that other students are also struggling with classes and juggling (a bit clumsily) all of their work. I regularly try to step back from the overwhelming torrent of it all to remind myself that being pre-med isn’t an easy task — even though some people might make it look easy. At the end of the day, though, pre-med is a path I’ve currently chosen to go down, and I’ve found that the best way I deal with sleepless nights is a study break with coffee, snacks and good friends.
Jenny Gurung can be reached at email@example.com.