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How to Get Summer Experience as a Pre-med (Without Making Yourself Miserable)

It’s summer, a time of year that always leaves ambitious premeds confused about how to spend their time. There are so many possibilities: volunteering at a clinic, shadowing a physician, taking classes, traveling abroad. If you asked me which one is the best, my response is that you might as well flip a coin. For me there’s no particular formula, no right or wrong answer. You do what you love, you do what fits best with your schedule, or sometimes you do whatever you can get.

[Read more about getting into medical school as an international student]

After my freshman year I spent the summer doing research. It’s unusual for a freshman to get a research position or an REU (REU = Research Experiences for Undergraduates, competitive summer programs for undergraduates that are sponsored by the National Science Foundation), but it is possible if you start early enough and pursue it hard.

Make connections with professors to get a research position

That was what I did. As soon as I enrolled into college I began asking my professors about their research projects until I finally got a volunteer position at a lab during the second semester. The professor I was volunteering with eventually hired me for the summer, and for the next school year as well.

Don’t be surprised that I mentioned volunteering. Professors usually will only hire someone with experience, so you can get that experience, and show them you're serious, by volunteering first.

My freshman summer I also shadowed a few doctors and volunteered at an election campaign office in my city. Doing all this on top of my research was probably not the wisest thing, actually. I ended up working 12 hours a day and was left exhausted. Sure, getting as much experience as possible is important, but I also advise that you be realistic about how much you can do. Otherwise you’ll end up having a pretty miserable summer.

Taking it to the next level

I have certainly learned my lesson, and this summer I’m focusing on only one position – a research position at Johns Hopkins. I decided to pursue research again because I love it, and I believe that will be my selling point when I apply to medical school. I learned medical schools like consistency – they want people who do things not because they want to put it on their resume, but because they love what they are doing. I plan to do research again next summer as well.

Last semester I found a bigger lab to volunteer with, and I began networking and making connections that eventually led me to apply and get accepted to several different summer research programs. I think getting into these programs is a lot about your story - scientists like to see people who are passionate about science.

I chose the opportunity at Hopkins over my other options because it was focused on malaria research, which is something that's important to me.

Summer options beyond research

If I were going to add anything on top of my research position, it would be summer classes. And I mean science classes. The truth is, the earlier you finish your premed science requirements the better you can prepare for your MCATs.

Most students don’t finish their MCAT classes until their senior year, but it’s common to take the MCATs after your junior year. So if you’ve completed all the classes by then, studying for the MCATs is easier because it is just revision. I have friends who have gone this route during their summers, and I rarely have heard anyone say they regret that decision.

Another type of summer opportunity that I think is very fantastic is a global health opportunity; traveling to another country to volunteer and learn more about global health, as well as learn about a different culture. A friend of mine just traveled to Nigeria to work with the local health ministry and help start a local clinic. That certainly seems like an experience that would make medical school admissions officers stop and pay attention.

There are so many options for things you can do during the summer to get experience and improve your resume. I have focused my summers on doing research, but you don’t have to follow the same route. Studying medicine is such an anomaly – there are many roads that can lead to it.

Follow Promise's med school journey on his personal blog, The F-1 Medical Case.