Here’s a conversation with Tom, a trilingual med school student who writes about his med school journey on his blog, Medical State of Mind. Here and on his blog, Tom shares lots of med school admissions tips and advice for incoming first-year med students. Thank you Tom for sharing your story with us!
Accepted: First, can you give us some background info? Where are you from? What and where did you study as an undergrad? What is your favorite flavor ice cream?
Tom: I was born in Taiwan but grew up in Canada. I am the youngest of two. Growing up I had three fascinations: language, music, and science. Those interests stayed with me through my youth and have played a key part in my development. I speak three languages, play three instruments, and am a geek for anything science related.
I attended undergraduate studies in Western Canada in pharmaceutical sciences before transitioning directly into medicine without completing a previous degree.
I enjoy peppermint ice cream.
Accepted: Can you elaborate on that transition?
Tom: I had studied general science followed by pharmaceutical science in university before swiftly transitioning to medicine without finishing a degree. While studying pharmacy school, I learned that my father had fallen ill and was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. He passed away within months of his diagnosis. In the brief time I did spend with my father during this period, I promised I would pursue that that made me happy and to live a good life. With his sudden medical crisis and my faded interests in medicine rekindled, I decided I would change career paths in order to keep that promise.
Accepted: Where are you in med school? What year are you? (I know you’re anonymous, but can you tell us a region of the world/country. Feel free to state that you’d like to keep it private. Or just totally skip this question.)
Tom: I am studying medicine here in Canada, the specific whereabouts unfortunately I am unable to discuss here. I am currently in my fourth year of studies, equivalent to the second year of clinical training.
Accepted: Was med school like what you had expected? Were there any surprises?
Tom: In many ways it has met my expectations. Studying medicine has been as rewarding and as interesting as I had imagined it would be. There are certain tropes that are often repeated by students who have come before that ring true in every sense, leaving us knowing what to expect in the days ahead. I expected struggles and competition at every turn and it has not disappointed (or has disappointed depending on your perspective) to deliver. This year in particular, I have thoroughly enjoyed the patient care aspect of my training, something that I have been expecting and hoping to do since I got into medical school.
What has surprised me this year is how much my interests have changed and how quickly you start to learn about yourself. Through a process of successes and failures, I have started to get a better sense of myself, my strengths, and my weaknesses. These experiences have guided my journey towards a future career path, which has changed a dozen times since I first started!
I have also been somewhat surprised by the state of medicine. The further I travel on this medical journey, the more I have realized that there is still so much we do not know about. From the best practices and standards of care to the methodology of our training and education, much of medicine is still in a state of flux, ever changing and evolving. That is both daunting and exciting.
Accepted: What would you say are your top three med school admissions tips?
Tom: For the three tips, let us look at it chronologically:
Firstly, grow yourself. To know what direction to take yourself, you need to first understand yourself. Who are you and what type of person are you? What appeals to you and what ignites the sparks within you? From there, pursue experiences that both positively benefit others and gives you personal growth. From that volunteering opportunity to that job you worked at to that immersive trip in a foreign culture, a healthy dose of life experience can go a long way to develop you as an applicant.
Secondly, study. From all walks of life and from any educational background, there are basic requirements for any medical school such as the MCAT. Only in these standardized settings can medical school admission boards have some basis to compare you to other applicants. Study hard and practice a lot. Earning a competitive score can make you stand out as an applicant. Having said that, do not be discouraged if your marks are less competitive. Refer back to number one. A wealth of valuable and meaningful experiences can often help balance academic shortcomings.
Thirdly, be yourself. When it does come time to finally submit an application or speak with an interviewer, there is nothing more important than being yourself. An application should reflect the best of yourself. It should speak to your passions, your motivations and your character. In an interview setting, the interviewer typically knows nothing about you. His job is to judge your answers to a set of standardized questions but also more importantly to determine if given the opportunity, whether or not he would like to work with you. Be comfortable in your own skin. Be natural. Be yourself. Let your character and credentials speak for you.
Accepted: Can you share some advice for incoming first year students? What do you wish you had known before starting med school?
Tom: I actually have a list of advice I leave for new medical students that can be found here. The essentials for incoming first year medical students are: find a balanced work style, stay healthy, and keep reading.
When students first come into medical school, much of the first two years resembles what had come before: You still attend lectures and you write exams at the end of each term. Only into the third year does the pace suddenly change as clerkship begins. It is important to start building on balanced and healthy life styles early on so that you can carry them on more easily into the future when your life becomes more chaotic.
Similarly with studying. Take the opportunity to read early on as it helps to solidify important clinical knowledge that will become the foundation for all of your future clinical training.
Accepted: Do you know what you want to specialize in?
Tom: Currently I am considering family medicine and internal medicine, with more interest in pursuing the latter.
Accepted: Can you tell us a little about your blog? Who is your target audience? Have you benefited in any way from blogging?
Tom: I received my acceptance letter to medical school on the first Friday of May, 2010. Prior to this, I had thought about documenting my process of applying to medicine; before that, I was considering blogging about my experience in pharmaceutical science. In both cases, my plans had fallen through because I had thought of them late in the journey and had been too busy to fully commit to the projects; this time, I decided to seize the opportunity and start from the beginning.
The name Medical State of Mind was born from the song Empire State of Mind, released in October of 2009, which I thought was fitting for the subject matter I was hoping to capture. I had never been one to write or to diarize before and struggled initially. The blog was my first attempt to put my thoughts on paper about aspects of art, of science, of medicine that interested me and to reflect on my experiences and growth through medical school. In that sense it was deeply personal and more a record for myself. As the readership grew, my blog shifted to not only be an outlet for me but also to be a window for others into the life of being a medical student.
I feel that the process of writing has helped me reflect on my experiences in a way that I could not have done otherwise. It has forced me to make sense of, to justify, and to understand both objectively and subjectively the circumstances of my journey. The net results are stress relief from the struggles of medicine school, a better appreciation of the art of medicine, and knowing the importance of empathizing with patients.
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