Don’t Be Afraid to Stretch Yourself (Part 1)

Don’t Do What I Did

One of my biggest pitfalls as a medical student was my fear of stretching myself too thin. Grades have always been important to me. Like many medical students, I feel a strong sense of identity and accomplishment in my academic performance. As I began medical school, I was naturally apprehensive about the sheer volume of new information I would have to learn at a lightning pace. I studied like a fiend, as all medical students do. Unfortunately, I fell into a very common trap: I was afraid to involve myself with other activities in fear of sacrificing my academic performance.

During my first two years of med school, I excelled academically as the time studying paid off. I convinced myself that these good grades justified my avoidance of shadowing, organizational involvement, leadership roles, and research. I was cruising along (as much as one can cruise in medical school) and happily ignorant until midway through 3rd year. With residency applications looming on the horizon, I realized I had missed out on far too many opportunities. I wasn’t sure what field to apply into (medicine vs. peds vs. med-peds). I had a few decent mentors, but I had neglected to nurture those relationships and missed out on much of what they had to offer. I was minimally involved in research, and my one research project had stalled out during manuscript drafting. I was massively behind the eight ball. My CV screamed “Good at studying, and nothing else!”.

“My CV screamed, ‘Good at studying, and nothing else!'”

Dr. Alan Gambril, Contributor, Med Student Edge

After this late realization, I pivoted my strategy. I informed my research mentor I wanted to push the completion of the manuscript to the forefront. Four months later, just as ERAS opened up, I was a newly published first author. I was interested in academic medicine, but hadn’t sought out ways to increase my exposure to MedEd. I joined two committees that placed me in the middle of medical education and admissions processes. I jump-started a book drive for a local literacy charity that I had thought about doing for years, but never took the initiative. Finally, I reached out to two mentors I hadn’t spoken to in a while to gather advice and input about my career options. These changes helped me compile a much more competitive application than I had a few months earlier. Read more about how to do that here.

I was able to accomplish all of this without negatively impacting my academic performance or distorting my work-life balance. All I had to do was carve out a few hours each week and dedicate them to career development. Most students could afford to reassign a few hours of studying each week to research, leadership, service, or networking and not see a significant decline in their grades or test scores.  Paradoxically, having less dedicated study hours during the week will force you to be more efficient with those hours and allow you to accomplish both.  Of course, if you happen to be struggling academically, you should be focusing your time into examining your study habits and improving your test taking performance.

Photo from Upsplash

Perhaps your scores on shelf exams drop a point or two by sacrificing a few study hours to complete other CV building activities.  In the long run, a minor decrease in exam or shelf scores is worth it if you can exchange it for meaningful experiences that show off your professional skill set and involvement.  You are intelligent, hardworking, and much more capable than you realize.  There is a great chance you find yourself making the same grades on top of your new projects.

Check out Part 2: You Can Handle the Stretch for further discussion.

Are you worried about overextending yourself in medical school? What worries you the most? Comment below or contact us directly.

Back to more medical school basics.

Alan Gambril, MD
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