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Student transitions in medicine: putting blinders on

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category

MCAT2MCAT, AMCAS, NBME, USMLE, NRMP, ERAS. These abbreviations are a bane for many students of medicine, pre-meds to fourth-years, during the summer months. Nervous excitement tingles in the fingertips of undergraduates and post-bacs as they complete their personal statements and prepare to submit MCAT scores and AMCAS applications to medical schools. Pre-clinical students straddle the fence between longing for more time and desiring to hit the fast-forward button as their Step 1 date nears. Clinical students revel in leaving behind the classroom, only to realize there's a mountain of medicine before that they've yet to learn. And final-year students like myself are beginning to suit up, prepping once again to tackle the adventure that is application season.

This past month I've been e-mailing with several undergrads whom I’ve had the privilege to meet: bright future physicians who are taking the plunge and applying to medical school this cycle. Reading their personal stories, seeing their ambition and hearing their excitement brings me back to when I was in their shoes. I remember the insecurities of the time, feeling as if my story wasn’t good enough and that I hadn’t done enough for my résumé to reflect my professional desires. Sadly, my excitement was overpowered with fear. I couldn’t turn to my family as I was the first to even attempt such a thing, and I was too embarrassed to seek out professors.  Ultimately it was the support and guidance from peers who had been through the unknown that helped me the most to persevere. It’s because of this that I contribute to efforts providing support along the path to medical school through mentorship, especially for students from socioeconomic groups traditionally underrepresented in medicine.

As I head into residency applications, I’m finding myself reliving the same  insecurities that I've been telling my former mentees to ignore. What I realize is that I’m making the same mistake I try to help them avoid: I'm drawing comparisons. I see the people who I'll be “competing” with for residency spots, and I begin to weigh the differences between my application and theirs (as if I know everything about them). Mentorship is easy when it’s between people who are on opposite sides of the transition in question, but not so much when you’re going through it simultaneously.

This is where Stanford’s shift away from the traditional grading paradigm has helped me. What refocuses me when I find myself getting caught up in comparing myself to other students is telling myself they’re not just “other students” and we’re not “competing.” With no grades, rankings or honor societies that commonly create competition and division, I was allowed from the beginning to focus on making friends, colleagues and support systems. Yes, we may be applying into the same fields at the same time, but we never contended before, and it won’t happen now.

It can be easy to get overwhelmed during the seemingly never-ending application steps of a medical career, but I think it’s important to remember what this first-world problem represents. The medical education-training pipeline may be marked with hurdles and stressors, but reaching the finish line is a blessed opportunity; we've been given the chance to be part of a profession that will allow us to interact with people in beautiful, challenging and often life-changing ways. We just have to “focus-up,” “put blinders on,” and “do work.” ERAS, here I come.

Moises Gallegos is a medical student in between his third and fourth year. He’ll be going into emergency medicine, and he’s interested in public-health topics such as health education, health promotion and global health. 

Drawing by Moises Gallegos

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