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Achieving balance: A resident’s advice for succeeding in medical school without sacrificing your personal life [Show summary]
Dr. Wendell Cole, a Morehouse graduate and orthopedic surgical resident at Tulane, shares the personal experiences and med school survival strategies that led him to write The Med School Survival Kit.
How planning and time management pave the way towards greater academic success and personal fulfillment [Show notes]
Have you been accepted to medical school this cycle? Congratulations! Are you still hoping to be accepted this cycle? Are you planning ahead for next cycle? Today’s guest is going to discuss his path in med school, as well as how you can excel in medical school while enjoying the experience.
Dr. Wendell Cole graduated with a degree in biology and medical virology from Georgia State University in 2014. He attended Morehouse School of Medicine and graduated in 2018, at the age of 24. He has been an orthopedic surgical resident at Tulane University School of Medicine and will complete his residency in 2023. He published The Med School Survival Kit: How To Breeze Through Med School While Crushing Your Exams in 2018 as he graduated med school.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? [2:03]
I am a first generation son of immigrants. My mom and my father are both from the Caribbean. They immigrated here in the ’90s or ’80s and had me. I was born in New York, and I moved around a lot, and I ended up spending most of my time in Georgia. Marietta, Georgia is where I spent most of my time. Then Atlanta, Georgia is where I spent the majority of undergrad and med school. Most of my life has been in Georgia.
Growing up, nobody really did medicine before me. There weren’t any other doctors or anything else like that in the family. I liked sports a lot growing up, and I started playing sports in high school. I played football, and I ran track. Another thing that I started enjoying in high school was actually a TV show called House. They have a lot of different seasons, but it’s an intriguing show on medicine. That combination of the two piqued my interest in medicine. I always liked science stuff, and I always liked sports. I thought, well, what’s something I can do to combine the two? So I went through undergrad thinking I was going to do something sciency, but again, I watched House all the time, so I can say that heavily influenced me going towards the field of medicine, like sports. That brought me towards orthopedics. I kind of knew it was something I wanted to do.
I also injured myself and had to have surgery when I was in college as well, so it wasn’t just House. I had personal injuries. When I was in college, I actually tore my ACL just horsing around, not even doing a professional sport. The thing that took me with that is that beforehand, I expressed my emotions by working out. I wasn’t able to work out, so I felt a part of me was missing, I guess, for a lack of better terms. Long story short, I ended up getting an ACL reconstructed, being able to run again, do sports. That kind of birthed my interest and gave me that form of self-expression back. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do orthopedics.
What was the hardest part of the medical school application process for you? [4:42]
It was trying to figure out where to apply to. I went to Georgia State University and for many years, I didn’t know that we had a pre-med program per se or pre-med committee that can help you choose places to go and apply to. For the most part, I was just doing it on my own, not having had anybody in my family that was in medicine or anything. A lot of it was Googling and searching for different places where to apply to, asking, where do I get my letters of recommendation? Who do I ask? What are they looking for? Those were the big things, trying to figure out where to apply to, and then how you put together a pre-med kit. Some schools have a pre-med society, and the person in charge of that makes your letters of recommendations. For me, I thought, well, maybe I could just ask a couple of my professors and go from there. That was probably one of the bigger hurdles that I had, figuring out how to get to med school.
How did you overcome it? Did you Google around? Did you ask your friends? [5:47]
I Googled, and then actually, right in the city was Morehouse School Of Medicine. I knew that was there, so (I was very old fashioned in this way) I just drove up to the school and walked in and said, “I’m interested in going to med school. What can we do, or what are some steps that I need to take?” I remember now, one of the admissions guys, his name was Brandon Hunter, very nice guy. He let me go and sit in on classes as an undergrad to show my interest in med school, sit in on classes. I could speak to him, learn a little bit more about what medical school was like. I was real old school, and I drove and walked through the doors and said, “Hey, I want to go to med school. I go to school not too far from here. What do I need to do?” That, and then applying where family was, that was the other part to it.
What did you like and dislike about Morehouse Medical School? [6:38]
I liked the fact that one of the missions is to help serve the underserved, which is something that I’m passionate about. Having come from a background of not having too much, I would like to give back to whatever our community needs. Learning to serve the underserved, number one, that’s a mission statement that I really agreed with, giving back towards the community. And in classes, you learn about things such as racial inequality or gender inequality. That was part of the curriculum. You learn how to talk to certain patients that may not have the access to healthcare or different systems that other patients may have access to. That was one of the things that I liked. I liked the fact that it was in a big city. You’re at a big trauma center. The hospital is called Grady Hospital. It’s right in downtown Atlanta. You get a great trauma experience, and you get to work with attendings from all over that are experts.
Things that I didn’t like: It’s expensive! That’s something that’s common for a lot of different medical schools. I didn’t really have any necessarily bad experiences per se with Morehouse School of Medicine. I would choose it again if I had to.
You mentioned that you chose orthopedic surgery because of your own experience, your interest in sports, your interest in medicine, and your experience with your ACL tear. Orthopedics is one of the most competitive residencies out there. How did you explore it after your ACL tear? [8:12]
Coming into medical school, as a first year med student, I was telling people I want to do orthopedics. One of my friends said, “Hey, have you heard of this program called Nth Dimensions?” I said, “No, I’ve never heard of that. What is this program?” It’s a program headed by Dr. Bonnie Simpson Mason. The main overall goal is to try to help get minorities into the field of orthopedics. Not only racial minorities; women as well. They pair you up with a preceptor. For me, they sent us out to Los Angeles. You’re paired with a preceptor, you get to shadow a doctor, you get to have research done. It’s two months between your first and your second year. It’s called an internship. You go and shadow, you’re in the operating room, and then you do research as well. At the end of the two months, you have to present your research at a conference. That’s something to help you build your CV.
That was one of the main, big things that helped with my exposure to orthopedics and helped me solidify that’s what I wanted to do, and also helped with the application. Like you said, it’s a very competitive specialty to get into, so you have to get good scores. You need as much in your corner as you can. It also helped because of the network of people too. They had a network of alumni and a network of other students that were residents. They served as a source that I could help go to if I had any questions or needed advice, or when I had to figure out where I wanted to rotate as a third year medical student.
It sounds like it gave you the network and support you kind of lacked when applying to medical school, right? [10:07]
Correct. Even where I was at Morehouse School of Medicine, there was no department of orthopedic surgery. If you wanted to do orthopedics, you had to go and find it yourself. So that helped tremendously, the Nth Dimensions program, and when it’s my turn to give back to them, I will hopefully have a couple med students with me and keep the same thing going.
You came from a program that didn’t even have orthopedics and went into orthopedic surgery. Was that the most challenging part of the residency process for you, or was it something else? [10:40]
A very challenging part was, starting your fourth year, you do away rotations on orthopedics. You go to different institutions and, I don’t want to say you’re competing, but you’re trying to make yourself look the best that you can. And the thing is most of the other people have orthopedic home programs that they have been sitting in for years or listening to grand rounds, or they have time to go spend with the residents. They have some type of a knowledge base of what orthopedics is, the nomenclature, how to deal with certain situations. But myself, I had very limited experience. I and some of my other classmates that were going for orthopedics, when it came time for us to go and do our rotations, we fell way behind the curve. They threw an x-ray on the screen, and I didn’t know what it was. I had no idea. I couldn’t tell you what’s up from down, from left, from right.
It was a really steep learning curve, trying to figure out what I needed to know in a short amount of time. You’re on a rotation where there’s maybe 500, 600 people all competing for the same spot. That was a big hurdle: to try to work, be on time, be early, stay late, and read when you get home, just to try to be as caught up as you can. A way to overcome that is to try being the nicest person you can, working the hardest you can, and just having a good outlook on being in residency, or being able to get the chance to go and travel somewhere and help other people out and learn from other people.
Why and when did you decide to write The Med School Survival Kit? [12:42]
During medical school, my friend and I, we did two things. One is that we started this real estate investing company. It was three of us, and all of our classmates knew we did that. We also were a part of what’s called a network marketing business, and we traveled as well. To my friends, all they saw was that I traveled, and they did not believe that I was in medical school because we always traveled and had fun and did real estate all the time. My classmates would say, “How do you have so much time? We’re all in med school here, but you keep traveling and having fun, and doing things. You need to write down what you did, or you need to tell people how you did it.”
Then, in fourth year, we had an “abundance” of time. I thought, “Well, maybe if this can help at least one other person, then I’ll sit back, take however much time I need to take in order to write this down, and tease out what made things work.” I don’t know if you’ve heard of the 80-20 rule, but you get most of your stuff done in a small amount of time. I had to try to figure out that 20% of productive things that I did during medical school and how you can focus on that. I tried to make all that into a book. Everything that I would’ve wanted to know going through the process, I wrote it down and said, “Here, learn this. These are ways that I found that you can effectively study. These are ways you can travel.” That’s how The Med School Survival Kit came out.
It’s almost all based on your personal experience, right? [14:52]
It’s all based on personal experience, and there are some others there. For example, there is a section in a chapter on how to do research. One of my friends in med school, every time I spoke to him, he was presenting at some podium, so I asked him, “What are some tips that you have for research?” He gave me the steps, and I put them in the book. The majority are things that I personally found over the years, but some of them are just tips from other people as well.
What are your top tips for surviving and thriving in medical school? [15:27]
The big thing is at the beginning of med school, it’s really easy to compare yourself to a lot of the other students. You get a grade back, and you wonder how they’re doing versus how you’re doing, or wondering, “Am I behind? Am I ahead?”, instead of worrying about sitting down and running your own race. That can kind of start to stress you out if you’re trying to see if you’re behind and you’re comparing yourself to others. Run your own race. Know that this is your med school. I know people in med school whose paths were five years instead of four years, but it was still their path. Everybody has their own path. You might not be the guy or the lady that gets a 99 on every exam, but you can excel in your own way as well.
Number two is a process called batch processing. When I came into med school, I had a job as a waiter, and then I also had this startup that we were trying to run. At the end of the day, I said, “Okay, I only have a certain amount of hours in the day. I know that I have to study for X amount of time because med school is pretty much number one.” I knew that three hours of undivided attention would go straight towards med school, nothing else at the end of the day. That means I’m not looking at Facebook, I’m not on the phone, or on social media scrolling. I’m not reading and then saying, “Oh, hold on one second. Let me go do this over here, or this over there.” It’s focusing all your attention on that one thing.
One piece of advice that one of our professors used to say is, “Study like the test is tomorrow.” Instead of passively studying, study like the test is tomorrow, and you’ll kind of get more out of it. That is something that I realized early on, and that helped out a lot as far as being able to get certain things done in a certain amount of time. What I’ve seen a lot of people do is study for about five or six hours in the library, but you’re not getting as much done in that same amount of time. Instead, you study for three hours, and then you go to see family, and then in another two hours you’re relaxed. You’re kind of in and out of studying for six hours. Then family wants you to sit down and eat, and you’re just trying to juggle a lot of different things. Those are some of the big overarching general tips, and they can be applied broadly.
Another one you alluded to just now, and that I know is a big thing in the book, is a regular program of review. There’s also an attitudinal element that I found both very appealing and not limited to just medical school: changing “I have to” to an “I get to” attitude. Could you unpack that a little bit more? [18:21]
You’ve got to realize, especially if you’ve made it to the point that you’re in med school, number one, it’s so competitive. It’s so hard to do. There are thousands and thousands of people that want your spot if you’re in med school. You’re there and you’re able to speak with patients, and they put their trust in you and they believe you. You’re the person that they turn to for advice, and you get to be of service to other people. People will let you put them to sleep and cut their skin and perform surgery on them. That’s very intimate and shows just how much trust somebody has, to trust you in order for them to do that. They’re all types of things that can happen. People can die in surgery; people can end up paralyzed. There are a lot of adverse things that can happen in surgery. You’re blessed enough to be in that position, to be able to impact and help their life out, whatever it may be; it may not be surgery. It may be you’re doing a physical exam on them, and you find out that one thing that somebody else missed that can change their condition or help them live a less painful life or help their daily living.
Switch the thinking of, “Oh, I have to wake up at 6:00 in the morning and then be around all these patients and work all day.” Say, “I get the opportunity to wake up tomorrow and go help all these people out.” That is the way to look at it. That’ll not only help you help yourself and help the day progress in a good manner, but also help the patients as well because the patients will see that, and they’ll appreciate you. It’s a big responsibility that you get, being in med school, and eventually being a resident or being a doctor, whatever field you go into. There are thousands of people that want your spot, and you are so fortunate enough to have it. That’s what helps you get through those long days.
Another thing that came through in the book was that you were very committed to maintaining non-med school interests. You mentioned you had the real estate business, you were working, and you obviously are interested in sports. You had a workout routine. Do you think that maintaining those non-med school interests actually contributed to your success in medical school? [21:33]
If you have something on your mind all day, every single day, and you don’t get any time to de-stress or think about something else or do something that you really enjoy doing, sometimes people can feel resentment for going to med school or being a doctor. They may feel they spent the best years of their life studying while they could’ve been out doing other things. Remember the things that made you who you were before you started medical school; that’s who you are. You’re also a doctor as well, but if you’re somebody who likes to play the piano, or if you’re somebody that likes to go for a walk, or you have your dog and you like to spend time with your dog, or exercise is important to you, or if you like to watch House or whatever TV show it is, you should make time for those things.
At the end of the day, you still have to remember that you are a person and you have things that you are interested in. If you like to travel, figure out a way to do that and de-stress, away from it all, because it can get very, very hard and very, very taxing, and eventually very mentally draining because there are times throughout your med school career where you’re sitting down and you’re studying for eight, nine, 10 hours a day, and you’re doing that for days in a row. That can be very draining if you continue to do that and do that and do that, without having any outlet. If you like to play dominoes, whatever it is, whatever you like to do, you should just try to at least carve out a little bit of time to do the things that you want to do. That way you are happier overall. If family is important to you, spend time with family. You need to create a list of things that make you happy in different areas of life, and figure out a way to incorporate that. Because if you never make time during med school, you won’t make time during residency, and you will not make time when you’re attending. So you’ve got to start off early.
Lots of premeds are planning to apply this summer and won’t start medical school till 2022, or maybe they just got accepted and are planning to start this year, in 2021. Any things that they can do to prepare themselves for, frankly, drinking from the fire hose? [23:59]
That’s what it is, it is drinking from a fire hydrant, right? I remember thinking, “Maybe I should start to try to read some notes beforehand so I can learn this information.” But then what you realize is that the little amount of notes that you read now is not going to equal up to the amount of notes that you actually really need to learn in med school. One of our professors put it in a great way. He says, “Med school is like drinking from a fire hydrant. With time, you learn to drink very quickly.” You learn to adapt and how to synthesize this amount of information, because the amount of information is too much. If you try to learn all that information, you’d be spending hours and hours a day studying.
Beforehand, I’d say enjoy life. If anything, try to tease out a study schedule or figure out what things are important for you, but you will learn, and you will adapt. There’ll be a lot of trial and error during medical school. During those first couple of months of med school, you’re trying to figure out how to learn. But it’s like you said: It’s like drinking from a fire hydrant. You will learn how to drink quickly, but you can’t just drink little sips at a time. You’ve got to drink it all, and you can’t really drink all of it before starting your classes. My advice would be to try to relax, come up with a study schedule, figure out what’s important for you, and then learn how to organize all the information that you will eventually get.
Any last bits of wisdom or advice for pre-meds, for first-time applicants, or re-applicants? [25:56]
You just said re-applicants, and that’s the thing: Not everybody gets in on the first try, right? Most people don’t, and I think in a situation when you don’t get in on the first time, it shows, well, how much do you really want it? How much do you really want to get into med school? It’s not about how many times you fall (you always hear this); it’s about how many times you get back up. Sit back and figure out where you need to switch something up. What didn’t go well during my first round? Did I get a bunch of interviews, but maybe there’s something in the interviews that I’m messing up or that I can improve on? Or if it’s my grades, what do I need to do in order to switch that out? It’s all part of the story and what makes your path. I’ve seen folks start med school at the age of 40. I’ve seen folks start med school at the age of 20. Time isn’t a thing. Ultimately, it’s how bad you want it. Figure out why you want it. Figure out the reason you want to be a doctor, to go to med school or PA school. Was it that you saw somebody that was close to you when you were younger have some type of illness, and that’s the thing that drives you? Any time where you feel like, “This is so much information, I don’t know how to study,” or, “I applied twice, so how do I get in?”, think back to why you started off in the first place. That’ll be the thing that drives you and lets you continue on to move past that hurdle. Because it’s all hurdles. It’s all just hurdles, and you just learn how to jump higher and higher with each hurdle.
I’m sure there are bad days in the hospital. Whether as a medical student or a resident, did you ever think that you made the wrong choice? [27:56]
No. I wouldn’t say that I thought that I made the wrong choice. I may have thought like, “Man, do I really want to do this?” Then I say, “Wait, I’m here.” That thought has come about before. “Man, I haven’t slept in 48 hours. I’m still here. I chose this? Damn. Okay, I really chose this. I guess I did really choose this.” At the end of the day, you’ve got to remember: You did choose it. This is something that you wanted to do. Nobody forced you to apply. In most cases, nobody forced you to apply to med school. Nobody forced you to be an orthopedic or family medicine doctor or emergency medicine doctor. You’re the one that wanted to do it. Again, just touch back to the “why” of why you’re here in the first place. Then be appreciative of the chance. “I get to be here. There’s a lot of people that are fighting over mountains and climbing hurdles to get to this point. So let me not waste it.”
That feeling is very common. There’ll be many nights, especially studying for your step exams, where you’ll say, “Man, I’ve missed all these questions. What am I doing here?” What you’ll think is, “Should I really be a doctor?” That’s what it’ll come down to. “Am I worthy? Am I really doing this to be a doctor? Am I good enough?” That’s how it’ll all face you as. “Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? I’m just not getting this down.” You’ve just got to keep going. That’s the only advice I have: just keep going, just keep trying.
Where can listeners learn more about you and your book? [30:29]
You can find me, if you want to find me, on social media. I’m not as active these days, but it’s @iamdrcole. The book is The Med School Survival Kit. You can just buy that on Amazon if you type in The Med School Survival Kit, How To Breeze Through Med School While Crushing Your Exams. Tell a friend. Tell anybody. Hopefully this helps!
- Dr. Wendell Cole’s instagram page
- The Med School Survival Kit
- How to Save 100’s of Hours Studying: Making a Medical School Schedule That Makes Sense
- What is Medical School Really Like? a blog series
- Accepted’s Medical School Admissions Consulting
- What Life at Icahn Is Like as a Med Student, Parent, and More
- How This Premed Student Got Accepted to Medical School Early
- Facing Adversity as a Med School Applicant
- An International Student’s Experience at Harvard Medical School
- An Accepted Student’s Advice for Reapplying to Medical School