More Than a Five Year Plan: Pre-Health Students Prepare for Medical School

Pre-health seniors discuss preparing for the MCAT and their gap year plans.

by Pierce Wilson | 9/29/21 2:15am

by Naina Bhalla / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Seniors on the pre-health track, often referred to as ‘pre-meds,’ are currently gearing up for the next chapter of their academic and professional lives. For many, this entails preparing for and taking the Medical College Admission Test as well as applying to medical schools. However, due to the pandemic, today’s pre-meds have had to take crucial classes online and have missed out on other in-person opportunities like shadowing and research. 

I sat down with several pre-med students to talk about their plans for medical school and how the last eighteen months of the pandemic have affected their experience. 

A 2019 survey from the American medical association found that 65% of medical students took at least one gap year between graduating from their undergraduate programs and attending medical school. Gap years allow students more time to prepare for and take the MCAT. Additionally, they allow students to do internships or gain clinical experience before medical school.

For example, Esme Chen ’22 took the MCAT this past spring, but she also plans on taking a gap year to pursue more opportunities for clinical exposure to patients. Opportunities she is considering include working as an EMT, scribe, clinical assistant, or clinical research assistant. 

When asked how the pandemic has affected her pre-health experience, Chen described the limited opportunities for in-person engagement.

“The pandemic impacted shadowing opportunities because we couldn't get into the hospital during that time,” Chen said. “There were limited clinical volunteering and shadowing opportunities, and also research was virtual.” 

Manuel Patiño ’22, another pre-med student, said he plans to take two gap years, during which he hopes to take the MCAT and work full-time as a medical interpreter. 

Patiño said that he plans to take a two-course term in the spring so he can begin studying for the MCAT. That way, he is prepared to take the test next September once his workload has “died down.” 

Patiño, who currently works part-time as a medical interpreter at DHMC, said that he is excited to continue in this position during his gap year because it allows him to work with doctors and patients in medical settings while also  breaking down linguistic, cultural, economic and informational barriers. 

As a medical interpreter, Patiño said he is not only responsible for translating information from English to Spanish, but also for finding a way to communicate that information to the patients and doctors in a digestible, accessible manner that ensures that both parties are “on the same page.” 

“I've kind of interpreted my whole life for my parents and stuff so I've always sort of been in that habit of trying to close those barriers,” Patiño said. “I think that’s great. I think that’s really important work.” 

Jay Kang ’22 is currently studying for the MCAT while taking courses at Dartmouth, and hopes to take it this winter or spring: According to Kang, the prep work for the exam is “almost like a fourth course.”

Kang said that he studies for the MCAT two or three hours each day, which has forced him to be more intentional about time management between his coursework, extracurriculars and social life. He added that studying for the MCAT is much more manageable now that he is done with all of his pre-med courses. 

“I’m better at balancing my time now because I’m done with my pre-med courses, so I’m taking three non-STEM courses that are mostly readings,” Kang said. 

Chen is also done with the notoriously difficult pre-med requisites, and said she has enjoyed being able to shift her focus to major and minor courses, classes she has found “really interesting.”

Like Chen and Patiño, Kang also plans on taking at least one gap year, but he may take two depending on what type of opportunities he is able to find in the coming months. 

“What I’d ideally like to do is something regarding community health service and get funded to do more grassroots work in healthcare,” Kang said. “But whether I take one or two gap years will depend on what I end up doing, since some fellowships that I’m applying for are two years long.” 

“What I’d ideally like to do is something regarding community health service and get funded to do more grassroots work in healthcare. But whether I take one or two gap years will depend on what I end up doing, since some fellowships that I’m applying for are two years long.”

Kang said that although taking pre-med classes online meantless hands-on experiences in the lab, he appreciated how the classes felt less competitive during the terms in which they were remote. 

“With online school there were no physical markers of competition like packed classes or packed office hours,” Kang said. “I realized that my studies are very individualized [and] there’s no need to compare myself to others.” 

Kang added that this opportunity allowed him to reflect on his motivations for going to medical school. 

“The desire to be a doctor isn’t really about wanting to out-compete people,” he said. “It’s just about how I want to advocate for people and build relationships with people.”

Julia Shen ’23 — who has not taken an off-term since she matriculated — said that since she will be off this winter, spring and summer, she plans to study for the MCAT this winter and take it in the spring. 

Although Shen hopes to complete the MCAT by graduation, she also plans on taking a gap year so that she can pursue research or consulting opportunities. 

“Medical consulting has always been something I can see myself doing in the future,” Shen said. “I think it'd be nice to have that exposure consulting right now as a jumping off point for the future.”

Shen, who is still working through some of her pre-med classes, said that she has enjoyed being able to take in-person labs again.

“In person labs have been a much better experience than virtual labs,” she said. “We're actually learning how to do proper wet lab techniques, learning how to pipette. And working with other pre-meds in person just gives you a huge morale boost.” 

Correction appended (7:05 p.m., Sept. 30, 2021): A previous version of this article inaccurately suggested that Esme Chen ’22 took a gap year due to opportunities for clinical exposure being limited during the pandemic, and also misquoted Chen as saying that research opportunities were limited during the pandemic. The article has been updated to reflect that Chen’s gap year plans stem from a desire to gain clinical experience with patients and are independent of these opportunities being limited during the pandemic, and that Chen did not imply research opportunities were limited during the pandemic.

Additionally, the previous version of this article misquoted Chen as saying that she has taken classes that she is “actually interested in” since completing her pre-med courses. The article has been updated to correctly reflect her statement that, since finishing notoriously difficult pre-med requisites, she has enjoyed taking “really interesting” classes in her major and minor.

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