Interview with a Pre-Med
It was a typical January evening in Minnesota. The air was biting cold, with temperatures well below freezing. The sun had set hours before I was done with work on my ICU rotation. I left the warmth of the hospital to meet a pre-med student at a nearby coffee shop to talk about my experiences in medical school. I’ve long since forgotten his name, but I remember he was a young undergrad at the University of Minnesota, studying biology. He was bright-eyed and a bit nervous about meeting a real live medical student, that being me.
On a whim, I had responded a few weeks prior to an email from a pre-med interest group asking for senior medical students to meet with randomly assigned undergrads to impart to them our vast array of experiences and wisdom gained in the four torturous years of becoming a doctor. As I knocked the snow off my boots, I thought I’d rather be home cracking open a beer than bracing myself for an hour of questions from an overly eager pre-med.
He immediately recognized me by the Minnesota sweatshirt I’d told him I would be wearing. It felt a bit like a blind date, though not one I would have been excited about. He was armed with a small notepad and pen. I paid for his coffee, but in retrospect I’m not sure why. Being a senior medical student, I had by that time accumulated massive amounts of student debt, so I’m sure he was better off financially than I was.
We picked a table in the corner, and he immediately recited a well-rehearsed introduction. He asked how far along I was in my studies, whether I had chosen my specialty, and if I knew yet where I would be going for residency.
I answered his questions and kind of got into the whole thing. I felt like a B-list celebrity, interviewed by this eager young student listening intently to my every word, recording it in his black notepad. I hammed it up a bit, waxing poetic about my circuitous decision to become a doctor, how I’d selected my medical school, what led me to my chosen specialty.
After a glowing self-introduction, I opened the floor to my interviewer. “So, what do you want to know about medical school? I’m just a few months from graduation, so I can tell you all about it, from the first week of gross anatomy to the final rotations and residency match.”
I was ready to share my treasure trove of knowledge and experience. I tried to imagine his most pressing questions. He might ask about the workload in medical school, the material covered in our preclinical years, the diverse and eye-opening experiences of rotating as a student in the wards or operating rooms.
He began: “So here’s what I really want to know about medical school: What MCAT score guarantees that I’ll get in?”
Are you freakin’ kidding me? I couldn’t believe it. I was in my final year of med school, just months from graduation. I had been through it all! I had dissected a full cadaver, taken countless exams on everything from pathology to physiology, memorized every muscle and bone in the body, admitted homicidal patients in the county psychiatric ward, scrubbed in for twelve-hour heart surgeries. I had countless interesting experiences and myriad advice to impart, and this was his question?
I gave him some BS answer, and he continued: “What topic did you choose for your admissions essay? Are there any topics that will help someone get in?”
And the next question: “Right now I’m volunteering at a hospital. Do you think helping at a research lab will help my chances of getting in, or do you think volunteering is enough?”
On and on he went. Every question was some variation of how do I get into medical school?
Finally, I interrupted the young student: “Look, I get it. You’re focused on getting into medical school right now. But don’t you have any questions about what med school is actually like? Aren’t you curious about what awaits you once you start medical school, choose your specialty, apply to residency, and become a real, practicing physician? How do you know being a doctor is actually a good fit for you? What other career options have you considered?”
He paused and looked at me like a deer in headlights. Finally, he responded: “Yeah, I do wonder about those things. But to be honest . . . I don’t even know where to begin. Getting into medical school is such a tall hurdle that it’s tough to see past that sometimes. It’s hard enough to figure out what I need to do to get in—much less what happens after that. I don’t know any doctors personally, and real information about what it’s really like to become a doctor is hard to come by.”
He paused again, cleared his throat, and asked me, “So . . . what is med school really like?”
And that’s when the idea to write this book first hit me.
There were enough books, internet forums, and seminars about how to get into medical school. Pre-meds have been devouring such information for decades, even more so as getting into medical school becomes increasingly competitive.
I decided to instead write a book that frankly describes what it’s like getting into medical school—and beyond. I would write an exposé about being a medical student, a resident, a fellow, and a brand-new attending physician—all from the perspective of someone fresh out of the process.
They say you should always know your audience when writing. This book is written first and foremost for those brave souls immersed in the continuum of medical education. This is for pre-meds who are still trying to decide if med school is for them, as well as those already in the process of applying to medical schools, anxious to learn more about what awaits them. This is also for the young medical student just starting his or her journey, a guide for what to expect and how to navigate the sometimes murky waters of med school and residency. Finally, this is for the seasoned medical student, resident, fellow, or fresh attending who wants to commiserate or borrow experiences and advice from someone else in their shoes. (Attending is one term for a physician who is done with training—a bona fide doctor, with all the status and remuneration expected with that position.)
Of course, all readers are welcome. I hope this book will be enlightening to friends and family of young doctors-to-be, nostalgic for practicing or retired physicians, or at least entertaining to the curious general public. To ensure a variety of opinions and viewpoints, I’ve included stories and advice from over a dozen other young physicians from medical schools and residency programs throughout the country. Most contributors were gracious enough to provide their real names; others (whose pseudonyms appear in quotation marks) preferred to remain anonymous.