Learn how real students and recent grads have navigated their way through the medical school admissions process and med school itself with our What is Medical School Really Like? series.
Meet Andy, a second year medical student studying at The Medical College of Georgia, as well as a freelance photographer/videographer with a vision to showcase a more personal side of medical professionals that the world rarely sees.
Andy, thank you for sharing your story with us!
Let’s start at the beginning… Where did you go to undergrad and what did you major in?
Andy: I had a pretty unique undergraduate experience that was in many ways tied to medicine from the very beginning. I was selected into the 4th cohort of a new BS/MD accelerated medical track at Augusta University and its associated medical school, Medical College of Georgia. Everyone in the cohort graduates with a Bachelor’s of Science with a major in Cell and Molecular Biology. It is structured where out of high school, you have conditional acceptance to the Medical College of Georgia pending that you meet specific milestones within your 3 years at the undergraduate institution. These milestones included interviews, GPA, community service hours, and MCAT score. If all goes well, you graduate from undergrad in 3 years and move straight to medical school.
What was your inspiration or epiphany for deciding to pursue a career in medicine?
Andy: I was very fortunate to have gotten into a clinical research program during the summer in between my Junior and Senior year of high school at the Medical College of Georgia. What was incredibly special about that program as opposed to other summer research programs was the clinical exposure I got. I remember working from about 8am-3pm everyday in the lab helping to run clinical trials for lipid metabolism, sickle cell treatment, and exercise physiology. Getting to hear each of the patient’s stories at their various points of treatment really introduced me to the human aspect of medicine, and to a greater extent, the hope that physicians give to patients. On top of all of that, I remember distinctly the 3 medical students who mentored me during that summer. All of them were transitioning between their first and second years of medical school with two of them in the lab with me and the other being the director of our summer research program. I still have their numbers to this day for they were truly the key for me pursuing medicine. Whether it was as incredible as taking me to suture workshops and walking me through dense pathophysiology, or as trivial as giving me an exclusive tour into the shiny new medical school building after playing Pokemon Go over lunch (yes, it was that iconic summer), those medical students showed me what it was like to….well, be a medical student! I am incredibly thankful for the guidance they gave me and I give much credit to them for sparking the early stages of my medical career. The other students in the research program were doing bench lab work and complained to me all the time, whereas I wondered how I managed to have so much fun while I was in the lab. At the end of the program after our research presentations, the medical student who was the director of the program surprised us all with personalized embroidered white coats (which I still have today and will plan on framing in my office one day). A small gesture in the moment, but an incredible symbol for what was to come for me in just a few years.
During the application process, were you also working full-time? What did that look like and how were you able to balance it all?
Andy: The medical school application process for me was very unique in the fact that it was almost a formality. At the time for application submission, I knew I had already met the benchmarks set by my program that would guarantee me acceptance. This was a peace of mind that actually allowed me to pursue a part time job in a passion of mine: coffee. I trained as an artisanal barista at a local coffee shop which led me to regional coffee competitions, something I never expected to be a part of. For me, that was one of the biggest pros of being in an accelerated program: it allowed guilt-free balance. I was able to pursue a passion of mine without the overwhelming guilt of the medical school application on my shoulders haunting the moments I was meant to enjoy. In general though, the balance is necessary in the harder moments in the premed process. As I took the MCAT just after my second year of undergrad, I remember prioritizing workout time every day to just get an hour away from the books. Whether it be just a quick walk, an hour-long episode of Netflix, or a phone call with a friend, that time has to be prioritized without any guilt. Easier said than done I know, but it only grows more important as you continue medical training so go ahead and begin the process before you get to med school.
Which “tools” – such as an app, technique, lifehack, website, guide, mantra, or advice – got you through the application process and into your target school?
Andy: At every MCAT advisement session or panel I have done, I always repeat the same advice: practice tests, practice tests, and more practice tests. Typically when I have had friends come to me wondering how to improve their score, my first question would be “how many full length practice tests did you do?” It is a hack that I wish I incorporated much sooner, and at times I had to remind myself of throughout my first year of medical school. Nothing trains your brain more than working through an intricate question, and the beautiful thing is that the same strategy can apply to your core classes! Another tip would be to treat your brain like a muscle. I know the phrase “do a little everyday” and “don’t wait until the last minute to cram” is a little overused, but it is a common theme for a reason. Medical school is all about doing a little every day so that it doesn’t pile up. I would be lying if I said I employed that strategy perfectly in my premed days, but the times I did were well worth it. Other incredible resources I used were the PreMed95 Anki deck and learning how to use Anki properly as a tool for extended memory. My personal recommendations for resources for MCAT prep would be NextStep (or I think it is called BluePrint now?) full length practice tests, daily Jack Westin CARS practice, and of course all the practice tests and Q Banks from the AAMC as nothing will be closer to the real thing than material straight from the test makers. However, my best advice within the premed process is to avoid getting into the mentality that MCAT studying and studying for your classes is mutually exclusive. Studying to do well in your core classes IS studying for the MCAT! Invest in the material and the opportunities given to you within your course work and you’ll find that it shows up over and over again within standardized testing and beyond.
As far as target schools, I cannot speak much to that as I was contractually tied to go to my current medical school. But as a general advice for choosing what school you go to, I would highly consider your state medical school. I have heard so many faculty say that medical school is just the undergrad of medical training. Don’t let people fool you into thinking that in order to match well, you need to attend a top 20 ranked medical school. Some unique opportunities may be available at those institutions, but you will quickly learn that just because you go there does not mean that those opportunities will be handed to you. You will have to be just as proactive, creative, and hard working wherever you go. The big difference between an ivy and a state school in all honesty…is cost. I have talked to so many residents and fresh attendings that have encouraged me in my decision to attend a public state school with a successful 98-99% match rate, all because they are drowning in student loan repayment right now. Medical school education for the most part is standardized across the country, so there is not too much benefit in graduating medical school with half a million dollars in debt for basically the same course work as a school that would have cost you just a fraction of that amount. Financial literacy is something that is continually neglected in medical education, so just be aware of costs when choosing which school to go to. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, and what glitters isn’t always gold. If you want to become a doctor, all you need is hard work and passion to match at a top ranking residency program from any medical school, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
There are so many factors that go into accepting an offer at a med program! Which metrics did you use and what was most important to you?
Andy: I think at the end of the day, the most important things are cost and match success. Above all, make sure that your school has a very high match rate, preferably greater than 95% or even higher. This is a good sign as to how residency programs value the graduates from that medical school. A high match rate is a great sign that you are at the right place to give you adequate training to be attractive to programs when you graduate. Then of course cost and geography are important. Please do not go to a medical school if it will put you in life changing debt. I have seen graduates with greater than $500k in debt basically tied to doing a public service loan forgiveness program because there is mathematically no way to pay it all off unless they get lucky with a PowerBall ticket. Try to be close to support if you can because you will most definitely need it during your medical school years. I think the other essential things to consider is school culture, the city, and demographics. You will simply enjoy your time more if you are in a city you enjoy, around people that understand you, and surrounded by a community that you want to be around. Support is so key during these years so make sure that wherever you go is conducive to a positive atmosphere.
Studying is a huge part of any med school student’s life – and studying truly never ends for medical professionals! What is your approach to studying? What does an ideal study session look like for you?
Andy: A common theme for studying as a medical student is just learning to be flexible and be ready to change strategies at every step. At the moment, I am in my clinical rotations so studying looks like practice questions and Anki cards after a full 9 hour day working in the hospital. In my pre-clinical years, I was constantly trying to balance the pros and cons of our institution’s lectures, outside resources, and case based sessions. It is hard to say what an ideal study session looks like in particular just because it is so fluid, but in general I would just say that some days it is about quantity and others it is about quality. At baseline, I try my best to keep up with my daily Anki cards and get some UWorld questions in, and I supplement with other resources that I find helpful. I still maintain that thought process that your brain is a muscle. Take rest days when you need it, but a little bit every day goes a long way. Practice questions will always poke holes in your knowledge and for me, I remember the things I get wrong way more than what I get right. As I progressed into my clinical year, I realized just how cool it was to see the things I was reading about in-person and actually making decisions on what drugs to order based off of clinical presentation. It truly changed my motivation to study from “wow I really need to do well on this test” to “I should really know this because a patient may need it tomorrow.” That paradigm shift has truly changed my motivation to study recently, but I understand it is a somewhat difficult realization to come to unless you actually go through it.
Med school is intense, to say the least! How has it forced you to get outside your comfort zone?
Andy: Wow, the better question is how has it not forced me to get out of my comfort zone! Medical training challenges the way you interact with people and transforms the way you present yourself. It simultaneously grows and destroys your confidence. You could go from mispronouncing every single drug that a patient is on in front of your attending, to having a patient tell you how great of a doctor you will be. Medical school places you in very intimate moments of people’s lives regardless of whether you are ready or not. Those moments are definitely uncomfortable, and some I would even consider heartbreaking. But those are the moments you carry with you as you study, and the memories you hold as you learn to take better care of each patient you come across. Dignity goes out the window after you deliver your 5th baby, blood becomes just another body fluid, and the surgical theatre becomes less of a foreign place with each time you scrub in. There are so many moments where through all my self doubt, the patient is still looking at me believing that I am here to help just because I have a white coat on. It is an unbelievably terrifying but humbling experience that no other field offers. There is a responsibility as a future physician that is beyond comprehension that does not exactly settle on you until your clinical years, that propels you further out of your comfort zone than you would have ever imagined.
Does the Medical College of Georgia have any traditions or superstitions that med students participate in?
Andy: There are not many traditions as iconic as match day. I have had the privilege of celebrating match day with my peers in older classes where they would all dress up in costumes detailed by their class’s theme. This last year was Disney and it was an unbelievable sight to see Mr. Incredible match to Harvard Emergency Medicine and Buzz Lightyear match into dermatology. Hoping to join in that iconic tradition with my own class in just a few years!
Where can people follow your journey to get an unfiltered view of what it’s like to be a med student?
Andy: Of course my YouTube channel at ND MD will be the best place to find my creative work. It has been a joy to watch this little project grow into just under 100k subscribers at the time of me writing this, and I could not have done it without the support of so many friends and family around me. I have been able to not just share my personal stories of growth and encouragement there, but also the unique and empowering stories of residents, attendings, and other healthcare professionals all across the country through the interviews I have done. I am really proud to have been able to keep storytelling at the core of all my videos, and it means the world to me to see so many former, current, and future physicians take pride in how the field is represented on the channel. For the few that still prefer the lost art of photography or lean towards the quickly growing vertical video space, my Instagram @andy_nguyen9 and TikTok @therealndmd are both places to follow.
And finally… What advice would you give your younger self just beginning the med school application process?
Andy: I think just learn to be present. So much of the premed mentality, and to a greater extent medical training as a whole, is based on preparing for the next step. The next application, the next exam. How to strengthen my CV, what resources to use for my classes next semester. There were many times I turned down times of celebration, moments to build stronger relationships, and potential memories that I will never get back. All because I was so worried about how to get to the next rung on the ladder. My biggest advice, that I still struggle to take myself, is to just enjoy right now and say “yes” more. Without saying yes to the ambitious and outrageous, my YouTube channel would not exist, I would not have gotten to meet some of my idols, and I would not have built such a caring creative community all across the world. Those are experiences that no amount of studying or preparation can earn you. You just have to jump…for fortune favors the bold.
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