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Swimmingly Successful: How to Stay Afloat as a Pre-med

The other day I started typing the phrase "how do you prepare for medical school?" into my Google search bar. 

Before I could finish typing the question, Google, in all its autocomplete glory, filled in these three suggestions for my query:

"How do you prepare for a tornado?"

"How do you prepare for a hurricane?"

"How do you prepare for a tsunami?"

Ain't that the truth? Sometimes it feels like prepping for med school really is like bracing yourself against the onslaught of an impending natural disaster. You try not to bend and sway in the gust of pre-med coursework that threatens to req you (see what I did there?). All the while, you're doing your best to dodge the MCAT prep books and recommendation letter requests that are quickly spiraling into a twister in your not-so-distant future. 

Sure, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the requirements and tasks necessary to succeed in the medical world. However, with these three tips, you'll not only learn to stay afloat in the pre-med madness - you'll be swimming to success!

Take Care of Yourself. 

Empathy. It may be the most essential trait of an aspiring doctor, and, in the form of bedside manner, it has the potential to make or break a doctor-patient relationship. It's important that you start developing that sense of empathy early on as a pre-med student, since it will serve you well once you start interacting with patients. At the same time, it might become tempting to constantly put other people's needs ahead of your own and forget that your health also needs care and attention. If you neglect your own health, how will you be able to care for the health of others?

The first and perhaps most important step to prepare yourself for the medical profession is to learn to pay attention to your personal health. Personal health is a holistic term that includes attending to both your mental and physical health. Think about the tolls that medical school and working as a doctor are going to take on you. From long nights preparing for that anatomy lab presentation and cramming for your neurology exam, to brutal late-night shifts in the ER and frantic studying for Step 1, you need to make sure that you're setting some time aside to just decompress and stay sane.

Atlantis Fellows Hannah, Tamisha, and Luis

Atlantis Fellows Hannah, Tamisha, and Luis

One way to pay attention to your own personal health is to make sure you have a healthy support network of family or friends who can be there for you amidst the madness of pre-med and med school life. While I was a pre-med undergraduate student, I knew that my family and friends were always there to support me, even in the midst of difficult schoolwork and stress. Finding a family member who will commiserate with you on the phone about that miserable biology exam or making friends who understand that you won't be able to go out every night of the week because you have homework to do will help you stay motivated and positive. 

Another way to make sure you're taking care of yourself is by investing in some form of self-care. Did you know that medical students are at a higher risk for depression, isolation and loneliness than the rest of the US population? According to studies cited by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Institute for Health, medical students are at significant risk for suicide and substance abuse. To help stay mentally healthy, make time to do something fun or relaxing. Try out meditation or prayer, play in the occasional pickup soccer game, take a cooking class, or go see your favorite band play in concert. One of my favorite things to do in my spare time in college was to play piano. I found that sitting down and pouring my heart out on the piano keys was incredibly therapeutic, and it helped me unwind after many a long day of homework and classes. 

Whatever it is that helps you de-stress, take some time out of your busy schedule to do it!

Get Organized. 

If I could go back to my high school days and tell myself one thing before graduation, I would say this: get organized. When you transition out of high school and into college, one of the things that can be surprisingly overwhelming is how much free time you have on your hands. When I graduated from high school, I went from being trapped in a classroom all day, every day, to suddenly only sitting in class a few hours a day. At first, I didn't know what to do with all that free time, and I wasted many of my free hours. After a few weeks of spinning my wheels, the work caught up with me and I realized that I was wasting valuable time that I could have spent staying on top of my work and getting ahead in my classes. 

Learning how to be responsible with your time is part of becoming an adult, and, if mastered, is a skill that will serve you well even beyond your school years. Don't fall into the same trap I did and be tempted to waste all that newfound free time you have in college. In reality, a college schedule can only be freeing if you use it wisely and learn how to balance your work and social life. For inspiration, here are some practical tips for how to stay organized in college. 

One last tip on organization: think about your time as an undergraduate as training for when you are in medical school. How are you going to handle the heavy workload of medical school if you're not preparing for that kind of work right now? The study habits you develop today will lay the foundation for a strong work ethic later in your medical career. 

Get Involved in Extracurricular Activities. 

One of the most important ways to succeed as a pre-med student is to have one or two extracurricular activities that will allow you to take a break from your schoolwork. Not only will it help you destress, but an extracurricular activity to which you devote a significant amount of your time will play an important role in your medical school application. According to Kaplan, having a set of extracurriculars (especially those not related to medicine) may in fact be what distinguishes you from all the other applicants. Choose something about which you're passionate, something you couldn't imagine living without. Do you love oil painting, competing on the swim team, serving at a homeless shelter, or leading tours of your college campus? Whatever activity it is that you love doing, devote your spare time and energy to developing that passion. 

I participated in human rights activism as one of my major extracurricular activities in college. I first learned about modern-day slavery and human trafficking when the vice president of a major human rights agency came to speak at my cousin's graduation ceremony. After learning more about their work, I got involved in my town's local chapter and eventually joined the executive team for the chapter at my university. As the vice president of education, I dedicated several hours a week to educating our chapter members on the cause as well as planning and hosting events to raise awareness. 

Another extracurricular activity to which I devoted a significant amount of time in college was undergraduate research. Beginning in my sophomore year of college, I joined a neurobiology research lab. I spent the next two and a half years working in this lab and eventually wrote a thesis on an individual research project that I executed over the course of my senior year. Getting to conduct my own research and present about my project to the biology department at my university was one of the highlights of my college career. The experience afforded me opportunities in learning research methods, scientific writing, public speaking, and networking. 


"The key is that you choose something that is important to you"


Your extracurricular activity may not be research or human rights-related, but the key is that you choose something that is important to you, something to which you are willing to devote a significant amount of time and energy. Medical school admissions teams will have no way of knowing whether your "passion" for a particular activity or cause is legitimate unless you have some concrete way of demonstrating to them your energy, devotion, and enthusiasm for that cause. When I updated my resume after graduating college, I made sure to list the years that I participated in different clubs, events I helped plan and host, and the number of hours I spent volunteering for certain causes. This way, future employers and schools will be able to see the time and effort I've put into the causes and activities that are dear to my heart. 


Now that I've switched on the lighthouse lamp and beamed my pre-med prep wisdom your way, it's time to stop drowning and start swimming towards the shore of medical school. Don't succumb to the waves of worry and the tempests of trepidation. By taking care of yourself, getting organized, and throwing yourself into extracurricular activities, you'll be able to handle any stroke med school throws your way! 

Looking for more ways to prepare yourself for med school? Check out the guide below. 

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About Julia DeCelles-Zwerneman:

Julia graduated with high distinction from the University of Virginia with Bachelors degrees in biology and music. Through her time spent working at a Spanish health clinic in Washington, D.C., she developed a passion for service and reinforced her desire to pursue a career in medicine. As a promotion coordinator with the Atlantis Project, Julia is excited to help other pre-med students discover a love for medicine and grow in their understanding of the field.