For most of my life I wanted to be a journalist. Eager to have an impact on the world and inspired by the foreign correspondents I saw dodging mortar shells on distant battlefields, I dreamed of one day working for the BBC. When I began my first journalistic role as a writer for my university paper, however, it only took a few big scoops for me to realize I’d made the wrong choice. I wrote about illness, suffering and accidents. I interviewed the distraught, the condemned, the grieving, but I was always left feeling powerless. I grew frustrated that I could only ever observe my subjects, that it was not my role to reach out and actively offer them relief. After two years of deliberation, soul-searching and research, I decided to pursue medicine and began by enrolling in a pre-medical post-baccalaureate program at a small liberal arts college in California.
On my first day, I sat down in a classroom with a police officer, a Wall Street executive, and three engineers. There was also a baker, a soldier, several teachers, and a carpenter. One performed in a heavy metal cover band, another played taps at military funerals on the weekend. Some were divorced, some were agnostic, some were allergic to cats. Despite our differences, one common thread united us: everybody in the room wanted to become a doctor.
What amazed me the most was how much my fellow “post-baccs” had given up in order to pursue medicine. Many had sacrificed established, high-paying careers. Some had put their personal lives on hold, realizing that plans for marriage or parenthood would have to wait. Everyone knew that they would be living on loans for at least another half a decade and dusting off old studying techniques that hadn’t been touched since college. But none of this fazed them. Many people reading this will recognize in themselves the same stone cold determination I saw in my classmates, a commitment to an ideal unimpeded by setbacks or cynicism.
Post-bacc programs are becoming increasingly popular in the US and have a variety of purposes. My program was designed for ‘career-changers’, individuals with college degrees who lacked the necessary science prerequisites for medical school. Over one or two years, enrolled students gain these necessary credits, either in a formal program like mine designed specifically for college graduates, or informally by picking up individual classes at a local school. Formal programs tend to be much more expensive, but individual class enrollment is usually guaranteed and students can benefit from structured scheduling, pre-medical advising and an environment of like-minded classmates.
Alternatively, students may wish to enroll in an academic record-enhancing program, designed for individuals who wish to work on advanced-level science course to help boost their knowledge as well as their GPAs. The upper-division science courses typically offered by these programs help students to develop a more rigorous scientific background before starting medical school.
It might be easy for some non-traditional applicants to regret the time they spent in other careers or pursuing a non-science major that put them years behind their future classmates. However, rather than serving as a disadvantage, a non-traditional background is often viewed in a positive light by medical school admissions committees. As well as adding maturity, breadth and diversity to their incoming class, such individuals exhibit a clearer commitment to the discipline as they demonstrate their willingness to walk away from established careers for the opportunity to practice medicine.
So what about those of you still taking the traditional route? Some pre-med students can feel overwhelmed when required to balance shadowing and volunteer experiences with heavy course loads. My advice to such individuals is to slow down. It is easy to be swept up in the hysteria of being a pre-med, to worry that time is passing you by and that you must apply for this year’s cycle or never apply at all. But taking off a year or two to shadow physicians or gain an EMT qualification, to get your name published in a journal, participate in research or teach community medicine, will not only help you confirm that you are making the right decision, but will also make your application that much more competitive. The average age for matriculation to medical school is 24, though I’ve met plenty of individuals who decided to take the plunge well into their late 20s and early 30s, often with rich, interesting backgrounds that medical schools love. Remember, while medical school will offer you experiences unimaginable in any other field, the rigors of your classwork will mean putting aside or greatly diminishing participation in some hobbies and dreams for a long time. Now is the time to learn the guitar, pick up a language or travel the world.
One thing most applicants can agree on is that application to medical school is exhausting. The entire process can be an assault on your self-esteem as you constantly strive—and sometimes fail—to meet the high standards expected of you. The hardest part for me was learning not to compare myself with others. This is easier said than done. Rather than emulating those around you, be proud of your own unique spark and if you don’t know what that is yet, take time off to discover it. As you learn what makes you tick, it’ll be easier to describe it to the medical schools you eventually apply to.
A few days ago I sat down with a group of post-bacc students asking for advice about applying to medical school. As they went around the circle introducing themselves, I was amazed at how unique each of their backgrounds were. Many divergent paths had set off at different times, but here they were, merging into one. Like the ‘state functions’ we learn about in general chemistry, the path to the destination does not always matter. There are so many ways to become a doctor and none is better than any other. Choose your path, and stick with it, but don’t be afraid if it turns out windier than you expected.
About Luke Burns
Born in Hong Kong to a British mother and German father, Luke spent most of his childhood following his family around the world. Luke studied Politics & Sociology at University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, graduating in 2008.
He returned to the United States in 2011 and enrolled in the Mills College Pre-medical Post-baccalaureate Program in Oakland, California. Luke loves to work with kids, and has been an active volunteer at both the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the George Mark Children’s House, the first pediatric palliative care center in the US. He is also co-founder of Camp Kitchen & Harvest, a non-profit organization that teaches children in urban communities how to plant, grow and cook their own food.
Today, Luke is an M.D. candidate at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. He hopes to continue working with children and to one day serve them and their families as a pediatrician.