Naya is a 2nd year medical student at George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. We went to the same undergrad university together, performed in the same dance troupe (African Rhythms STAND UP!), and she like myself, was a non-traditional applicant who took a gap year. I am very excited to have Naya share her story about her journey to med school and the lessons learned along the way.
So what led you to pursue medicine?
Growing up, I aspired to become a medical writer – someone who was suitably well versed in medicine with a fiery enthusiasm for theatric screenwriting. I imagined myself being recruited to write for TV shows that required some medical context (yes – think Grey’s Anatomy). At the time, I was excited by the idea that I would be able to combine my love of writing & science.
I cannot say there was a clear-cut moment in time in which I decided I wanted to become a practicing physician. I can say that with time and with experiences – from the passing of my Grandmother due to inadequate medical care, my shadowing and volunteering in Ghanaian hospitals, a high school biomedical research internship, a growing understanding of and interest in health disparities – I became more aware of the ways in which practicing medicine could allow me to make the type of impact I ultimately wanted to make.
I am still interested in writing (more so medical journalism) and I hope that with more experiences, I will be able to figure out how I can use the intersection of these two interests to make an effective impact.
What was your major in college and how did that prepare you for medical school?
In college I majored in Health and Societies (HSOC) and minored in Biology. Taking HSOC courses was a way for me to engage with medicine beyond the scope of science – that meant examining health practices, knowledge and systems in a sociocultural context. HSOC gave me a preliminary introduction to the history and anthropology of medicine, the effects of health disparities, the ways in which alternative medicine can be beneficial both independently and in conjunction with biomedicine, the potential sources of conflict within the doctor-patient dynamic, infectious diseases and to many other hot topics surrounding medicine. In hindsight, I think my major served me well by shaping my ability to think critically about medicine cross-culturally and about the barriers to access to medicine that exist locally and abroad.
At the beginning of my junior year, I decided to pursue a minor in biology in order to supplement the basic pre-med science requirements.
How was the application process for you?
The application process would have been more daunting had I not sought advice and assistance from people who had applied the cycle before. I HIGHLY recommend this for anyone applying to medical or osteopathic school. For me, it was incredibly beneficial hearing the different perspectives as well as the DO’s and DON’Ts of applying (beyond that of the advising committee at my school). This included everything from where to apply (I got some inside scoop on which schools truly were ‘target’ vs ‘reach’ based on these students’ own experiences and stats), to feedback on my personal statement, tips for MCAT studying, samples of essays from Secondary applications, to tips on how to patiently wait for interview invitations without pulling my hair out. And of course, they certainly provided additional moral support.
Some more nitty-gritty details of my application process: I took my MCAT six weeks after graduation and submitted my AMCAS during the 1st week of July. I received Secondary applications toward the end of August but I worked on crafting responses to secondary essay questions well before my AMCAS was fully processed six weeks later. This way once my AMCAS application was fully processed I could immediately submit my secondary essay responses (usually within 2-3 days of receipt). I do suggest this for those who submit their AMCAS a bit later so that your application process is not delayed. You don’t have to waste the 6-week time period during which your AMCAS is being processed.
For the much anticipated interview portion, one of my mentors (who had applied the year before) was kind enough to send me a slew of questions to think about prior to my interviews. These were very helpful (and I am more than happy to share them if you e-mail me). Some good advice I received before I interviewed was to think about how to condense my story/ responses into 3 bullet points. Unfortunately interviewers meet with so many people during the application process and so it is a great idea to maximize the chance that interviewers are getting some concrete takeaways after meeting with you – as opposed to a longwinded hodgepodge of many different non-cohesive points. This was something I had to work on as I was definitely guilty of this.
Play on your strengths: For me my strengths were my extracurricular activities, my leadership & international experiences and the upward trend of my grades.
Defend your weaknesses & find a way to put a cherry on top of your struggle(s): My Biology grade from 1st semester of freshman year and my verbal MCAT score were probably my 2 weakest links. I had one interviewer literally ask how I managed to score an 8 on the verbal section of the MCAT and yet manage to be so articulate during our interview…(of course I was horrified) but in the moment I smiled and explained that my verbal score was not entirely indicative of my comprehension skills and that in fact I loved reading & writing which was part of the reason I was eager to take on the HSOC major at UPenn (see question # 2 above). For my biology grade I harped on the fact that I had initially had a difficult time transitioning into taking science courses at UPenn especially since I did not have a strong background in science from high school. I then stressed that I had mastered my study skills and learned to capitalize on the resources that my school offered hence why my science grades had consistently improved. If you happen to have a trend that’s the other way around (ex a lower science grade later in your pre-med career – there are still many ways to defend this).
What was your first year of medical school like?
The first year of medical school honestly felt like a whirlwind. Particularly because while I thought I knew what to expect in my first year – I quickly realized you cannot truly know what to expect during your first year. At my school, we started off with gross- and microanatomy. It took me a while to adjust to the sheer volume & level of detail we were expected to memorize everyday. But after about 1-2 weeks (which felt like an entire semester of undergrad) I finally learned strategies that (1) helped me stay afloat and (2) embrace the learning experience.
Once I did become more comfortable with learning information in such high volume – I realized I LOVED gross anatomy. From being fortunate enough to learn from donors in lab to coming up with comical mnemonics to help my classmates and myself remember things. I particularly enjoyed coming up with facetious ones and was always amused by the more sexual ones. I would always feel forever indebted when a classmate would come up with a silly innuendo that actually proved useful in for instance – remembering all the branches of the Facial Artery. All in all it was truly an amazing opportunity to learn the anatomical structures within the human body firsthand. Of your Gross Anatomy course I say – Treasure this experience – it doesn’t really happen again.
Our school’s curriculum was structured so that in the fall-term we would have 6 consecutive exams every 3 weeks. During the spring-term, we would have 1-2 exams every other week. There were definitely pros and cons to both. Either way, I definitely became a lot more comfortable taking tests so frequently. In fact, I would say my first year of medical school cured me of any test-taking anxiety I imagined I had.
For leisure – a few of my classmates and I would hold weekly game nights at the beginning of the school year as way of getting to know each other in a more playful and non-academic setting. This was definitely a great idea! I encourage getting to know your classmates in an environment that is comfortable for you. These will be your colleagues for a long time coming!
The spring-term felt more manageable because even though we were required to learn more information, we had all become better at soaking up information and so I generally found that I was a lot more relaxed January and onward.
All in all the great thing about medical school is this:
- You are completely surrounded by people who share similar interests in science & medicine
- You are all going through this equally daunting & yet exciting experience together
- There is an inevitable sense of camaraderie that is produced as a result
That all goes to say I absolutely loved my first year. Sweat, smiles, sleepless nights and all.
What do you enjoy most about medical school?
Understanding the physiology of things…(finally) learning science in the context of health and disease…being able to make clinical correlations, working with patients…those treasured “Aha” moments in clinic when a familiar biochem concept you vaguely remember from class arises in a clinical case…gross anatomy lab…mentoring and being mentored…lamenting about how much studying you need to do…learning about other people’s journey toward medical school & their interests in medicine… being able to have an independent learning style… better access to shadowing opportunities…scrubbing in on surgeries…post-exam celebrations…
Activities you’ve been involved in during med school:
- Co-President of Adolescent Medicine Interest Group
- Treasurer, Student National Medical Association (SNMA)
- Research Assistant/Project Manager for impending OB-GYN robotics curriculum studies
- Volunteer, GWU Healing Clinic
- GWU Big Sib
- Organic Chemistry Tutor
How do you balance your personal time with medical school?
This is definitely a dynamic process and I realize it is more difficult to achieve a balance at different points in time.
Nonetheless – I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep working on it. It’s very easy to exist within a vacuum while you’re in med school (as it is while you’re pre-med) so I try very hard to maintain relationships with people outside of school. I like to call a family member or a friend every other day just to check in on them. For me this serves a 2-fold purpose of checking in on their well being and reeling me outside of my own life and immediate concerns. I also like to go for long runs as an alternate mental and physical challenge.
During non-exam weeks, I seize the opportunity to see friends/ family that I haven’t seen in a while or to hang out with my classmates.
Do you have any advice for students considering a career in medicine?
Shadow as much as you can, explore your interests beyond medicine and within medicine to get a better sense of whether this really is the career for you! Keep an open mind and ask questions, lots and lots of them.
If you don’t already have one, try to create a support system. For me my family – especially my mother – has been an unyielding source of love, support, inspiration and encouragement. While my journey to medical school has been difficult and rewarding all at the same time, these people have kept me fueled and amped for the next round of challenges.
Also remember to thank you support system.
Lastly, the single most valuable advice I received from a friend during undergrad was this: Brace yourself. Remember this journey is a marathon – and you simply cannot treat it as a race. That means pacing yourself, exploring your interests within and beyond medicine, working hard (always) but also remembering not to neglect your own personal health and the relationships that you value. Realize that in some ways a career in medicine means a life-long pursuit of both learning and committing to serving others. For this reason you simply cannot postpone living your life until you are done with the official training portion of the journey. Rather – brace yourself and enjoy the journey. Play hard. Work harder.