The Value of Reflection

My medical school occasionally required us to turn in written assignments where we would have to reflect on certain rotations or clinical exercises, as is commonplace across the country. Though it may seem like frivolous busywork, there is substantial value in regular reflection. Regular reflection helps you develop a skill set that will aid your growth as a student and physician for years to come.

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Reflection is a powerful tool. When practiced intentionally, reflection allows you to synthesize experiences and feelings into organized and useful blocks of information. It allows you to extract more specific positives and negatives from a given experience. It allows you to solidify previously vague and abstract feelings. All of this leads to a more defined identity and set of goals.

You may not realize it, but you already have a solid base-level skill of reflection. You wouldn’t have gotten into medical school without it. The “Personal Statement” and “Work and Activities” portions of AMCAS require you to reflect on your journey towards medicine. Medical school is the time to strengthen these reflection skills. The residency application requires another personal statement and interview preparation is another key time for reflection. These reflections should express more defined professional goals and identity.

There isn’t anything special required for beneficial reflection except a bit of dedicated time for serious thought. I received some excellent advice just prior to starting medical school about this. A mentor told me that if I took just 5-10 minutes to write a reflection after select experiences, I would thank myself later. He advised me to write what happened, what I learned, how I felt, what was good or bad, and if it changed any opinions I held before the experience. I took the advice and kept a log of reflections after significant events that felt impactful or might come up on my application (shadowing, community service, intriguing lectures, research milestones, moving patient encounters, particularly positive/negative interactions with others, etc.).

At the time of the reflection, I could explore my complex emotions from the day, expand on my feelings, and synthesize them into organized thought. I found the practice made each experience more meaningful and aided in personal growth. I found myself identifying positive and negative aspects that I wanted to either emulate or avoid. I could identify personal behaviors I wished to change or improve. I could process difficult emotions from trying encounters (ward rotations are full of these). The more I practiced short periods of intentional reflection, the more I found myself mentally reflecting in real time. This led to significant self-improvement and clarified the type of career I wanted to pursue.

“When practiced intentionally, reflection allows you to synthesize experiences and feelings into organized and useful blocks of information.”

Dr. Alan Gambril, Contributor, Med Student Edge

When it came time to compile my residency application, I already had my thoughts from the past three years on paper. I saved myself numerous hours of trying to write out vague memories of past experiences. More importantly, I was able to write a more articulate, expressive, and cohesive synthesis of each experience. Writing a reflection without fresh information leads to rambling, unclear thoughts, and perhaps untrue or misremembered feelings. If it’s not written well, it certainly won’t be spoken well in an interview.

To summarize, if you start dedicating 5-10 minutes after select events to honestly reflect on your experiences, you will grow as a person, develop a professional identity, save yourself time on your residency application, and put yourself in a much better position to market yourself to residency programs.

Are you using reflection as a tool to accompany your medical education? What ways do you use it? Comment below.

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Alan Gambril, MD
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