This interview is the latest in an Accepted.com blog series featuring interviews with med school applicants and students. And now for a follow up interview with Ashley Paige White-Stern, who just completed her first year of medical school at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. We first met Ashley two years ago – you can read our first interview with her here.
Accepted: Last time we spoke, you were in the middle of your postbac program. Can you bring us up to speed? Where did you end up applying to med school? Where do you currently attend med school and what year are you?
Ashley: Happy to! I ended up finishing my postbac program and applying to medical school through its linkage program. This effectively eliminated the “glide” or “gap” year – and the months-long application cycle that I would have otherwise had after finishing the program. In my second year of the postbac, I visited a number of medical schools and one really stood out to me: Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. I felt like I would be a great fit in the community there, and really fell in love with the student body. This is why I applied to Columbia through linkage. I was lucky that it ended up working out for me, and I’m now preparing to start my second year in medical school here! Time really flies.
Accepted: Do you think Columbia is the best med school for you? How do you think you’re a good fit for the program?
Ashley: So, I alluded to this question in the previous answer, but yes, I do. I remember coming up to the medical campus from the undergrad campus for a tour: I just instinctively felt like I “fit” here. There is a vibrancy to the student body.
In medical schools all over the U.S., students are incredibly smart and really motivated. What I loved about Columbia is that everyone is smart and motivated and also really involved in extracurricular activities. In my class, students are musicians, actors, athletes and teachers. One classmate of mine competes in heavy lifting outside of school. Other peers used to perform on Broadway or act on television. It’s really an incredibly diverse range of talent.
I have my own strengths that I can lend to the group – here at Columbia, for example, I have begun to find my voice in public health and in fighting structural racism through and in medicine. I’m also really passionate about medical education and interested in how we train medical educators.
The nice thing about Columbia is that as different as we all are, all of our passions and talents are welcome, and brought to bear on our training. It’s incredibly enriching.
Accepted: Now that you’ve completed your first year, you must have some good advice for our readers – is there anything you wish you would’ve known before starting med school? Were there any surprises during your first year?
Ashley: My biggest two pieces of advice may seem in tension with each other, but I think they’re both important.
First, I think it’s important for medical students to be brave. Not to be cocky or arrogant, but be brave and stretch yourself in medical school. Don’t be afraid to take a risk – sign up for a class that you wouldn’t otherwise take, volunteer in a clinic as a medical student. Remove the pressure of trying to be perfect (which can be hard to let go of after a competitive premed experience) and just try to learn.
The second piece of advice I have is to be kind to yourself – medicine is such a long road. As a premed it can be easy to believe that the finish line is entrance to medical school, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Starting medical school is the first step to residency, to fellowship, to a long and demanding career. Setting up good habits of self care – knowing when to take a break, when to give yourself a rest from studying, making time for friends and family, keeping up with interests outside of medicine, and getting enough sleep – is imperative to staying effective as a clinician and not burning out.
Accepted: What’s your favorite thing about med school? Least favorite thing?
Ashley: I love all the challenges and the wide range of skills we start to acquire – interpersonal skills, skills in physical diagnosis, scientific inquiry, learning how to be part of a care team, recognizing patterns of disease and health, thinking about improving health care delivery.
I will say that even the parts of medical school that can be more mundane – like long lectures and PowerPoint slide decks – have redeeming qualities. For example, even though our lectures are recorded so that students can watch them at home rather than going to class, I actually prefer to go to class for many reasons: I get to see my friends and learn in a more socially engaged way; I get to meet truly brilliant clinicians and scientists; and I get a chance to engage with questions after the lecture. So there’s usually always a way to reframe the less amazing parts of med school!
Accepted: Are you involved in any clubs or associations on campus? How central to student life is club involvement?
Ashley: Extracurricular life is HUGE here at P&S – I actually can’t think of anyone in my class who “just” goes to school. Even though the material is challenging, our exams are pass/fail, which really liberates us to pursue a range of activities outside of the library.
I am the President of the Black and Latino Student Organization (BALSO), a club that unites our Student National Medical Association (SNMA) chapter and our Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA), founded in the 1970s by former P&S student Dr. Mary Bassett, who is currently the Commissioner of the NYC Health Department. We’ve been very involved in the work of national group White Coats for Black Lives, one initiative that medicals students have undertaken to support Black Lives Matter.
I am a Curricular Representative for my class, working with two other medical students on increasing communication and transparency between faculty and students, and taking part in the ongoing conversations about curricular reform. I am also a co-leader of the Emergency Medicine Interest Group, which connects students with shadowing opportunities in the Emergency Department and also provides workshops on suturing, splinting, and venipuncture.
One highlight about P&S is that there is incredible student-to-student academic support, and second-year students lead review sessions and make study sheets for first-year students through a program called the Student Success Network (SSN). This fall, I will be working as an SSN teacher, helping give review lectures on first-year biochem classes – I’m really looking forward to that!
Accepted: Looking back at the medical schools admissions process, what would you say your greatest challenge was? What steps did you take to overcome that challenge?
Ashley: I think the biggest challenge for me was really forcing myself not to compare myself to others. I knew that I was smart – so are the other applicants. I knew that I wanted to go into medicine – so do the other applicants. I felt I would make a great doctor – so will the other applicants.
At a certain point, I really had to put others out of my mind and just focus on myself and what I could control. What I could control was my preparation, my studying, my attitude, and my outlook. It’s really human to want to size yourself up to others, but medicine is so full of brilliant, talented people that it can also be really depressing to do that. Once I decided to accept myself – to work on my flaws but not fear them – I felt a lot more comfortable in the application process. I think it helped me be more confident when interview day came, because I was genuinely excited to be in the interview suite and felt really curious to meet the other wonderful applicants in the room.
Accepted: Can you share your top 3 med school admissions tips with our readers?
1. Habits are behaviors that are practiced over time. Don’t expect that new habits will spontaneously form in medical school or residency: lay the groundwork for your future success. Practice self care (whatever that means to you), eat well, stay involved in a passion of yours that is outside of medicine (playing an instrument, athletics, painting, tutoring others, volunteering in a park or soup kitchen, etc.). Yes, you can list it as an extracurricular on your application, but more importantly it will continue to shape your development as a person contribute to your ability to care for others.
2. Don’t go it alone. No one becomes successful in medicine in a vacuum. Gather your support system early and check in with them often. Have a range of different supporters – you parents or caregivers or that one friend who you can tell everything to, a more objective person with a perspective like an academic adviser or premed counselor who can read your personal statement and give you editing tips, another premed friend who you can commiserate about studying for the MCAT with, and also try to keep some friends outside of the premed world – someone who wants to go into business, or who plans to get an MFA and teach art – these people can enrich your life by telling you their passions and will help you keep things in perspective.
3. Be curious about medicine itself – it’s a profession that has complex roots and continues to evolve in complex ways. Ask questions and learn its history. Read up on the Flexner Report and how that shaped medical education. Find out how health care delivery has changed since health insurance. Be curious about health inequities and how they are shaped by other structural inequities in this country. Understand the gravity of medical research and experimentation, and be sensitive to the fact that the culture of medicine was not always as deferential to informed consent as it is today. There isn’t always time to learn the history of medicine in medical school, but if you can dig in before you get there, you will be a resource to your peers and you will be able to frame our contemporary dialogues about medical care in a much more sophisticated light.
To read more about Ashley’s journey, you can follow her on Twitter @A_P_W_S. Thank you Ashley for continuing to share your story with us and we wish you lots of luck!
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