Learn how real students navigate their way through the medical school admissions process and med school itself with our What is Medical School Really Like? series.
Meet Lauren, an MS1 in Irvine, California
Lauren, thank you for sharing your story with us!
Which medical school do you attend? Do you have a favorite class?
Lauren: I’m at the University of California – Irvine School of Medicine, close to wrapping up my first year! Anatomy has absolutely been my favorite course so far, and not just because I’m interested in more procedural/surgically-oriented fields. We are very lucky at UCI to have an incredible anatomy professor who teaches all our lectures and oversees our lab. We have a heavy focus on clinical anatomy, and I feel extremely well-prepared for the clinical years as far as anatomy goes. It’s such a privilege to work with the bodies our donors have gifted, and that honor is not lost on me or my classmates.
What made you decide to go to med school?
Lauren: Growing up, I was one of those kids who loved school, but had absolutely no idea how to translate that into a career. I was an avid writer, with many artistic leanings, but I also loved science and was endlessly curious. Once college came around, I chose to get my degree in journalism. Though I’m originally from California, I went to a small midwestern liberal arts college, with all the charm of a small town, but also the limitations of one.
I was exposed to medicine during my last semester of my senior year. It sounds crazy, but I really hadn’t had any female physician role models, and didn’t see it as a true possibility. The catalyst for my decision to become a premed was when I attended a talk by a breast cancer surgeon who was also a wife and a mom, and I was immediately captivated. Something just clicked into place for me that day, and I decided I had to give medicine my best shot.
Ultimately, I ended up graduating, working for a bit, and finishing a career-changer postbac back home at Cal State Fullerton.
How do you think your undergraduate degree in journalism either helped or hindered your med school application? Are there aspects of the field of medicine for which social sciences and humanities majors are uniquely prepared?
Lauren: I can’t know for certain how my undergraduate degree choice impacted my medical school application, but if it did, it was absolutely a benefit, and not a hindrance. Besides giving me a distinctive background among a sea of biology majors, the process of earning the degree itself taught me a great deal about interviewing, communicating effectively, and seeing things from unique perspectives – all of which are crucial in medicine. I think many humanities majors have similar benefits.
You will learn the science in your prerequisite classes and your pre-clerkship years in medical school, but the art of medicine is a much more difficult thing to master, in my opinion, and choosing a humanities major can definitely help with that!
My advice is always to major in something you love. It’s a great way to give yourself a better shot at a higher GPA (because we’re naturally more apt to remember information we care about), and it’s also a great way to avoid conforming to a checklist of what you think the perfect premed student would look like.
How did you decide which med schools to apply to? Were you willing to relocate to attend school? How did you find a school situation that would work well both for you and for your husband?
Lauren: I was extremely picky with the schools I applied to. I know not everyone can do that, but I’d been told by my premed advisor that I had a good shot at getting into a California school. I limited my application to those schools, which in retrospect, was incredibly risky. I didn’t realize at the time just how incredibly competitive the process is. I couldn’t bring myself to uproot my husband’s burgeoning career in sales, and we wanted to have kids at some point, so I knew being near to family in California was paramount for us.
Looking back, I can’t say I would change anything since it worked out so perfectly, but I also can’t say I’d advise anyone to limit themselves to such a narrow, competitive group of programs.
Did you experience any bumps along the road to medical school admission? How did you identify and deal with the issues?
Lauren: I didn’t get in the first year I applied to medical school, after attending interviews at my top three schools. After four years of undergrad, two years of postbac, and several gap years, this was especially devastating to me. As soon as the waitlist decisions began rolling in, I resolved to begin working on my reapplication, and doubled down on what I thought my weaknesses were. In my case, that involved getting more letters of recommendation, finding more meaningful leadership experiences, and improving my interview skills.
The key for me was that I continued to volunteer, work, and seek out opportunities even during my application year, so that when I did need to reapply, I had already been building up my application in the meantime.
When I finally was accepted the next year (off the waitlist!) to my dream school, it was all worth it. That was one of the happiest days of my life.
In preparing to reapply to medical school, how did you determine where your weaknesses lay?
Lauren: When deciding to reapply, I knew that I personally wanted to go straight into the next cycle and not add any more unnecessary gap years into the mix. I reached out to several of the schools where I’d interviewed but had been waitlisted and ultimately not accepted.
The feedback I received was very similar: There’s nothing wrong with your application, it’s just a competitive process. Try again. This was really frustrating to me, because I didn’t feel it gave me any concrete steps forward.
Instead, I looked over my application with a critical eye, pretending that I was an admissions committee member, and scrutinized each component. Doing so helped me identify a few key areas where I could improve: more leadership and relevant work experience, additional strong letters of recommendation, and a new personal statement.
I systematically formulated a plan of attack for each of my action items: I secured a job as a grant manager for a free clinic, I acquired three new letters of recommendation, I pursued a volunteer leadership position at a nonprofit I loved, and I rewrote my personal statement from the ground up.
In addition, I continued doing research, and made progress in a project I was working on. I poured everything I had into this second year, because I knew this could be my last chance at medical school. I’m eternally grateful that the hard work paid off.
Once medical school began, what surprised you most about the experience?
Lauren: Every time I begin a new chapter in life, I always worry about how I’ll make it work. I inflate all the possible negatives, and forget about all the promised joys. That’s something I’m working on.
Med school has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered so far, but at the same time, I’m still surprised by the fact that I find it extremely manageable most days. I’m passing all my classes easily, I’m doing a lot of research, and I’ve snagged a few leadership positions.
For me, my postbac program (which was before I was even a wife and mom), was a comparatively more stressful time in my life. Mentally, the difference between being a premed and a med student has been incredible for me. It’s the difference between hoping that you’ll be a physician, and knowing that you’ll be one. That’s been huge for my peace of mind.
What do you think your classmates would be surprised to know about you?
Lauren: I’ve gotten a lot of comments about how I always seem so organized and on top of things. It’s true that I do need to be rather systematic in how I approach life, but there’s also a lot of flexibility, too. Kids force you to go with the flow. Even med student moms have lazy weekends or binge-watch Netflix sometimes!
What does a typical day look like for you?
Lauren: As cliche as it sounds, there’s no such thing for me. However, there’s a general pattern I’ve noticed has emerged. I get up between 5:30-7:30, do either drop-off or pick-up from daycare (depending on the day), attend any mandatory lectures or clinical time, and study in any leftover time I have throughout the day. I’m usually home between 5-6pm to have dinner and family time together. My son goes to bed around 7pm, so I get a lot done between 7-9pm after he’s asleep. My husband is amazingly helpful and hands-on (for lack of a better word). He’s truly a co-parent, and not some distant 1950s dad. My mom is also an invaluable source of help for our family. I try to treat med school as a job, and refuse to give in to “mom guilt.”
One of the most important ways that I manage my schedule is honestly by getting 7+ hours of sleep most nights. I am a non-functioning monster when I’m sleep-deprived, so I try to resist that temptation to burn the candle at both ends whenever possible.
Medical training is a marathon, not a sprint. Do not burn yourself out.
What do you wish your med school did differently to be more accommodating to students who are parents?
Lauren: That’s a great question! I think med student parents are still uncommon, but those numbers will increase as more non-traditional applicants matriculate. When I first started med school, I was still breastfeeding/pumping, and had to ask for accommodations to pump at school. The administration was very responsive to my needs and set me up with a private room as long as I needed it. I think just making it known to students upfront that they have options like that would go a long way.
How do you employ technology to help you manage your daily juggling act as med student, wife, and mom?
Lauren: I’m a huge tech lover! I use the Things app on iPhone and Mac for my to-dos, Google Calendar for my schedule, and I try to outsource and automate as much as possible: grocery/food delivery, Amazon subscriptions, etc. My Apple Watch also really helps with ensuring I don’t remain sedentary too long, which is easy to do as a student.
One of my biggest tips is to maximize the efficacy of your studying so that you spend less time doing so. The main way I do this is by using Anki, the spaced-repetition flashcard software that is beloved by med students, but you can use whatever method you feel is most effective.
What are your plans going forward? Any ideas for which residency programs you will target, down the line?
Lauren: It’s so hard to answer this question before I’ve had any clerkship experience, but I’m definitely learning towards a more surgical or procedure-oriented specialty. I really love interacting with patients, of course, but I also crave the opportunity to master a set of technical skills and the ability to work with my hands to fix a problem to help someone in need.
I’m also a very visual and kinesthetic learner. Some specialties I’m considering are: general surgery (with a further fellowship likely), plastic surgery, dermatology (Mohs), ob/gyn, and radiology.
I’m keeping an open mind and working as smart as I can here in med school so that I can keep the doors open for whatever I decide to pursue.
Do you have any advice for applicants/new students beginning their med school journey who either have or are planning a family?
Lauren: YES! I am very passionate about showing women especially that it’s 100% possible to be a parent in med school. In fact, I think in many ways it’s easier now than it will be in residency.
Some of the best advice I heard about family planning was: “Don’t plan your family size around the difficulties of infancy and toddlerhood. Plan it around the number of faces you want to see around your table at Thanksgiving dinner.” That really resonated with me. I try to remember that I still deserve to live a life I love with the people I love, even if I’m in medical training. There’s never a good time to have kids, med school or not. You make it work, and that’s going to require a little bit of trust.
Ask for help, be organized, forgive yourself, forego perfection, and count your many blessings. That’s how I get through.
Do you have questions for Lauren? Questions for us? Do you want to be featured in our next What is Medical School Really Like? post? Know someone else who you’d love to see featured? Are there questions you’d like us to ask our students in this series? LET US KNOW!
You can learn more about Lauren by following her on Instagram (@laurenrmichelle).
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• The Reapplicant’s Guide to Medical School Acceptance, an on-demand webinar
• The A-Z of Applying to Postbac Programs, a free guide
• How to Get into Medical School for Non-Science Majors