6 Tips for Freshman Pre-Health Success

by: Derek Musashe, PhD – STEM Career Counselor @ UCSB

Stephen Chih (’18) has some words of wisdom for your own pre-health success!

Stephen Chih (‘18) is just an easy guy to like. Always quick to smile and willing to laugh at anyone’s silly jokes, he never takes himself too seriously. He carries around his pens and pencils in a fuzzy little zip pouch that looks like a tiny cob of corn that has clearly seen years of loving use. When prioritizing medical schools with which to apply, a key criterion for Stephen was the quality of the boba establishments in their general vicinity (he is completely obsessed with boba!). But these facts alone belie the simple truth that Stephen is one of the most capable students I have ever met. He did more research as a UCSB undergraduate than any other student I’ve encountered; he maintained a near-perfect GPA as a Cell and Developmental Biology major, participated in more volunteering opportunities than you can shake a stick at, and happens to also play the cello like a boss.

This is where Stephen’s treasured pens and pencils live. Who says you have to be so serious as a pre-med student?

In short: Stephen is complicated but in the best of ways. To say that he has successfully navigated the demands of being an undergraduate pre-health student would be a huge understatement. Stephen is a superstar (my words, not his—he is too humble), and he thinks you can be one too.

I recently got the chance to sit down and chat with Stephen as he embarks on a gap year before (hopefully) starting an MD/PhD program next fall. I asked Stephen, knowing what he knows now, what advice he would give his freshman year self. What follows are his six tips for success that can apply to any freshman student interested in pursuing a career in clinical healthcare:

  1. Whatever extracurriculars you eventually become involved with, never ever let your GPA suffer because of them.
  2. Pick experiences that mean something to you (maybe because you have a particular interest in working with a specific population).
  3. After you have started gaining experience in a position, don’t forget to invest enough time (and energy!) into that position to make it meaningful in the long run. Trying a little bit of everything in no real depth is probably not the best idea. One argument against this is that you might not have a lot to discuss/say about any of these experiences in your application or your interview if you have only become superficially involved.
  4. For most of us, we have interests outside of medicine too! Don’t forget to continue investing in these! They may include music, sports, teaching, art, travel, writing, videography, language, or another field of study. Continuing to pursue these personal interests is another great way to differentiate yourself. You can do so by, for instance, pursuing a minor or a double major, getting (and staying) involved with an on-campus organization, playing club sports, or tutoring on campus, just to name a few options. You might even consider eventually pursuing a leadership position later on (another big plus!).
  5. Do not forget that you have over three more years to go, with three more summers, three more years of classes, and three years of time during which your interests and career goals might change. Keep an open mind. Oftentimes, what you become involved with in college will help you develop a much better idea of not only what type of health professions school you will want to apply to, but also what you want from a given program in terms of curriculum, emphasis, and faculty.
  6. For me, the most important thing to keep in mind is that whatever you decide to do, give it your best. That means not making excuses for not studying early enough, not making excuses for not getting an A, and not making excuses for not consistently attending the clinic in which you have decided to volunteer. In reality, you shouldn’t be doing anything just to “look good” on paper for admissions—you are doing all of this because it will make you a better physician/scientist/PA/nurse/pharmacist/physical therapist/whatever you will become!

So what is Stephen saying? In a word, I think Stephen’s message is that quality is everything when you are preparing for a career in healthcare—both in terms of your academic performance and your extracurriculars. What you devote your time to should be the things that you actually care about. If you don’t, then redirect and find some other way to plug in. Pursuing an opportunity just because it looks good on paper won’t ultimately help you as much in the long run as doing something that you actually care about. When you are fully engaged, you will learn more, meet better people (who can potentially write you letters of recommendation), and be able to write about the experience more compellingly afterward.

Doing fewer things, but doing them really well, is typically a better strategy for success than stretching yourself too thin. Similarly, your undergraduate academic performance (as measured by your GPA) is one of the most important metrics in your graduate (i.e. med school, dental school, etc.) application and is certainly the hardest thing to amend after-the-fact, so make sure that this is never sacrificed for your extracurricular involvements. It is important to note that even Stephen, who is perhaps the single most qualified pre-med applicant I have ever personally met, is taking a gap year. If you can’t cram it all into 4 years, then don’t. Take care of your grades, add the extracurriculars you care about when you are able, and take more time after graduation if you need to continue to round out your qualifications. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so you might as well pace yourself and have fun along the way!