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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

Go to Grad School Guide: Medical School

Wondering if grad school is right for you? This week, we’re putting together a guide to the grad school experience, brought to you by those who know it best: current students and recent alums. Check in all week for an inside look at med school, law school, PhD programs, and more!

Ever thought about being a doctor? Four years of medical school and four (plus) years of residency is a long road, but if you’re passionate about making a difference in people’s heath and lives, it’s worth it. We sat down with three medical students and got an insider look at what med school is really like, plus some important insights for the application process.


Lauren Poindexter, 2nd Year

School: Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine

Age: 32

Undergrad: University of Southern California (BA in Fine Arts)

Background Before Med School: Worked as a student athletic trainer in college and grad school, went to University of Arkansas for grad school (MS in Kinesiology), worked at physician-owned orthopedic clinic, did pre-med work in late 20s at Harvard, was an MCAT instructor

Career Goal: Become a surgeon (still figuring out exactly what type)

Activities/Extra-curriculars: Playing softball league in Roanoke City, doing research in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech, teaching MCAT classes, doing outreach with undergrad pre-meds at Virginia Tech, Student Body Vice President, Christian Student Group leader

Why did you choose to get an MD?

I didn’t choose it as much as it chose me. For years, I was running away from medicine because it was big and scary. I didn’t think I was smart enough, I was concerned about the hours, and I was scared of insurance companies. But by working for an orthopedic office, I found that I enjoyed everything that the doctors did. All the concerns I had were laid to rest because of the different duties I had at work. I was dealing with insurance companies, and it was okay. I was at work until 11 PM, and it was okay. I was continually amazed and involved in whatever I possibly could be at work. I started to realize that this is my happy place—this is where I belong.

It was a scary decision to make, to give up this career I had started in athletic training. I could have done great things as an athletic trainer and stayed at this world-renowned orthopedic office, but I don’t think I would have been satisfied at the end of the day.

What tips do you have for someone applying to med school?

I would say do your homework, and that is twofold:

First, do you homework for your classes because you cannot do poorly in school and get into medical school. You can slip up here and there if you have a good excuse, but you really have to show that you are academically talented.

Second, read as much information about the process as you can from qualified sources. The AAMC puts out tons of valuable information for pre-med students—data, numbers, recommendations. Know as much as you can about the process before starting the process, because there are ways to get ahead, in a sense, if you know what to expect.

Know how much you’ll be spending on applications, know how much classes cost, know what the academic requirements are, know your own skills and where you stand in relationship to everybody else. I know people who spend thousands of dollars applying unsuccessfully to med school because they don’t take a rational look at what their skills are and what schools they would match up with. Don’t just throw your money away if there’s a way you can strategize.

What’s been the most challenging part of med school?

One is the sheer number of hours studying. I think I grossly underestimated how many hours I would spend outside of class studying. I’m used to working and being on my feet for 6-8 hours a day, not sitting on my butt. Having to sit for so many hours a day is literally painful—it drives me crazy.

The other thing is truly feeling like I don’t know anything. I came into school with a ton of clinical experience and teaching experience, but every day you realize how much you don’t know. It’s really humbling and it’s really hard. We were all the smartest kids at our school, but we all come here and feel totally mediocre.

What does your typical week look like?

Each week we have seven hour-long basic science lectures; four hours of basic science workshops or labs; about eight hours of small group, team-based learning a week; four and a half hours of dedicated research time; a number of interprofessionalism class hours; and about four hours a week of clinical skills instruction.

I want to say it comes out to a total of 50-70 hours a week of class and studying.

What have been your favorite classes?

I actually really love my research program, but the small-group learning is really unique. There’s no set paradigm that’s 100% successful, so a lot of medical schools are simultaneously trying to figure out the best way to do small group learning. The fact that we’re teaching each other topics, we’re choosing how we want to learn in our groups, we’re learning professional skills that will benefit us in the future—it’s actually really cool.

What are your ideal post-graduation plans?

My ideal would be to go into orthopedics, but I’m still not completely sure that’s what I should be doing for the rest of my life. I would love to stay in that type of field, but I haven’t done my rotations yet. So, my post-grad plans will depend heavily on how my rotations go my third and fourth year. They will also depend upon how I score on the US Medical Licensing Exam, which is between your second and third year.

Bonnie C., 4th Year

Background Before Grad School: College student

Career Goal: Ob/Gyn

Activities/Extra-curriculars: Global Health Club, American Medical Student Association, Spanish interpreter for a student-run clinic for the uninsured, participation in the student-run Social Medicine course

Why did you choose to go to med school? 

Throughout college, like most other pre-meds, I had a love of science and excelled at it. However, I also was fascinated by history, the social sciences, language, and culture, as one of my two majors was Spanish, so I always questioned taking the traditional route to med school.

The summer after my sophomore year, I spent some time working in a hospital in El Salvador. It was here that I came into contact with victims of their 13-year-long civil war. I saw patients with missing limbs, missing eyes, those still grieving loved ones, and those with PTSD still reliving traumatic memories. The hospital building was falling apart, there were syringes on the floor, and several stray cats that wandered around the grounds. One surgeon complained that the hospital lacked the resources for proper tools, so he made a lot of his surgical tools himself.

Most of the time, I just talked with patients and listened to their stories. It was the first time that I recognized how someone’s social situation, culture, and political and economic infrastructure could impact their state of health. Medicine was a field that combined all of my diverse interests, and I felt like I could make the largest impact in improving people’s lives, both here in the U.S. and internationally.

Why did you choose your school?

It serves a diverse population with a huge need. The school has always been committed to social medicine and global health, and it has well-established international opportunities in place for students. It has been funding students’ international projects long before global health became widely popular—in fact, the school has partially funded my trips to Peru, El Salvador, and Uganda, where I worked on various international health projects.

What’s been your favorite part of the experience so far?

My favorite part, which is rather atypical for med school, has been the opportunity to travel. I took a year off between my 3rd and 4th year and spent time working in El Salvador and Uganda. In El Salvador, I was working in a very rural general health clinic. In my free time, I gave talks to schoolchildren about menstruation, spoke to adults about family planning, and set up a Pap smear campaign in a remote village where travel to the clinic was difficult. In Uganda, I worked on an inpatient ward of a rural hospital and traveled to local villages giving women’s health talks and screening for chronic disease. Both opportunities allowed me to set up my own research projects and connect with people in the community. It’s the connections I’ve formed with patients both at home and abroad that have made the downsides of medicine worth it.

What’s been the most challenging part?

Feeling completely awkward and inadequate a lot of the time and learning to come to terms with that. As med students, we’re used to having the right answers and being in control. However, when you come to 3rd year of med school, you’re at the bottom, and you’re adjusting to a whole new system of learning, where you’re evaluated by the doctors. There are times when you can be up all night studying and come to the hospital in the morning ready to impress. However, if the doctor asks you a question that day on something you didn’t read about, you get it wrong, and everyone thinks you didn’t prepare. It’s like all that hard work the night before was for nothing. It’s completely nerve-wracking and can cause a lot of anxiety if you don’t accept criticism in stride.

What have been your favorite classes?

The Ob/Gyn rotation! Ob/Gyn is a diverse field in that it allows you to do surgery as well as have continuity of care in clinic. You get to see women at the happiest times in their lives and at those times when they are the most scared, such as an unwanted pregnancy or diagnosis of cancer.

What tips do you have for someone applying to med school?

If you want to be a doctor for the money, go into business or law. If you want to be a doctor for the pure love of science, go into research. To go into medicine, you need to have a certain passion. Something needs to drive you beyond money and power and knowledge—otherwise, it’s really not worth it. There are easier ways to satisfy those needs.

I know everyone hears stories of the difficulty of medicine and physician burnout and it’s hard to comprehend as an undergraduate. These stories are true. At least take time to think about it. Take a year off after college. Work on something completely different. See the world, if possible, and make your own judgments about it. Being a doctor requires that you like people, so meet new people and get to know them. If at the end of this time, you find that you do have the pure compassion and unadulterated drive to want to make a substantial positive impact in people’s lives, submit your applications. But always remember that compassion because there will inevitably be times during med school when you may falter and may need a reminder of why you entered the field to begin with.

Always remember your friends and family—they will keep you sane. Stay calm. If you make a mistake, shake it off and move on. Have a sense of humor and don’t be too proud to laugh at yourself because you’ll come across some situations in med school that are just ridiculous. Stay humble. Most of all, remember the patients’ struggles and keep them as your #1 motivation to continue learning.

Allegra Long, 4th Year

School: Keck School of Medicine of USC

Age: 26

Undergrad: Yale

Background Before Grad School: Modern dancer, choreographer

Career Goal: Emergency Medicine

Activities/Extra-curriculars: Yoga, volunteer coordinator for a documentary on the LA County Emergency Department, but mostly just applying to residency!

Why did you choose to go to med school?

I have always loved math and science, so pursuing a degree in hard science in college was a natural choice. Once I started working in a lab, however, I learned that a PhD was not the path for me—I needed more direct interaction with people. Medicine involves complicated problem solving, working with your hands, collaborating with nurses and various specialists, and hearing stories of people from all walks of life.

Why did you choose USC?

I chose USC largely because the training is at LA County Hospital, which primarily serves an underserved and uninsured population, is a Level 1 trauma center, and allows students to be exposed to an unbelievably wide range of pathology. Almost more importantly though, on my interview day in January, medical students were outside playing volleyball in the sun. I’m from LA originally, so the opportunity to go back to California and be close to home didn't hurt.

What tips do you have for someone applying to med school?

Apply as early as possible! And pay attention to the hospital affiliated with the school: What is the patient population? Is it a major trauma center? How much autonomy do the residents and students have?

What do you wish you had known about med school before coming?  

Medical school is hard and becomes your #1 priority. I learned this pretty quickly, but it is certainly not like college.

What’s been your favorite part of the experience so far?

I love being in the hospital. The first two years (or one and a half at some schools) are spent in the classroom, and the rest of the time is spent working in the hospital. I have especially loved finding the perfect specialty for me, Emergency Medicine.

What’s been the biggest surprise?

What I liked learning about in the classroom did not correspond to what I liked doing in the hospital.

What does your typical week look like?

It depends on the rotation! The average is 6 AM to 6 PM, six days per week. However, surgical rotations usually have longer hours, and 4th year electives usually have shorter hours.

Have your post-graduation plans changed since you first started medical school?

I never saw myself in Emergency Medicine. I thought I would have my own medical practice rooted in combining Eastern and Western medicine and have long-term relationships with patients. Then, once I started working in the hospital, I realized how much I love Emergency Medicine: fast-paced, diverse, and exciting.

My next step is a residency in Emergency Medicine, then, possibly a fellowship. Maybe just a full-time job as an attending, possibly working in an academic center, possibly in a smaller community hospital. I will figure that one out sometime in the next four years of residency!

Photo of medical student courtesy of Shutterstock.