5 Things I Would Tell My Pre-Med Self

Whenever I receive emails and comments from pre-medical students, I reminisce of my ambitious years in college.  The most common questions I receive pertain to advice on how to become a standout applicant in order to get accepted into medical school.  I’ve mentioned this before in a previous post — I did not perceive myself as a standout applicant (my combined GPA and MCAT scores were below average compared to other applicants).  When I started receiving emails from students, I initially felt unqualified to provide advice due to my grades and test scores.  Then, I later realized that I can be a motivating source for the nontraditional applicant and those who may not be the most gifted and top ranked in their class.  Therefore, I thought I’d do a spin on the email questions I receive by providing advice that I would tell my pre-med self.  I obviously wouldn’t change any decisions that I’ve made because each step has led me to the place of satisfaction that I experience in my career today.  Yet, being a practicing physician for the last three years, the following are a few things that could have provided a sense of reassurance during my pursuit of a career in medicine.

1.  Even if you perform horribly on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), don’t give up.

I don’t think there’s any one formula for getting into medical school, but in general, having a competitive GPA and top MCAT scores obviously increases your chances.  Unfortunately, I didn’t fall into the category of being among the more competitive applicants, but I applied anyway.  I will say that in my experience, I took the MCAT twice and my second exam scores were not that much better than my first, but I still applied in hopes that my personal statement, experiences, and extracurricular activities may compensate a bit.  I was honestly surprised to receive several interviews across the country (MD and DO schools).  During interviews, I was asked the reason why I took the test twice, and was honest in my response regarding the circumstances that contributed to my low test scores.  Ultimately, I was accepted into two osteopathic medical schools.

2.  Don’t listen to those who discourage going to an Osteopathic Medical School.

While applying for medical school, I thoroughly researched the differences between being an MD (Doctor of Medicine) and a DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine).  Initially, I was only going to apply to MD schools because I was discouraged by fellow pre-med students and forums were terribly biased towards MD schools.  I decided to apply to both because I liked the osteopathic philosophy and felt that ultimately my main goal was to become a physician and didn’t care whether that meant having “MD” or “DO” at the end of my name.  Essentially I went the full osteopathic route by attending an osteopathic medical school (Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific), osteopathic internship (Post-Graduate Year 1), and osteopathic psychiatry residency program (Samaritan Mental Health).  Due to the information found in forums, I worried a bit about coming off as inferior by becoming a DO instead of an MD, but I turned out just fine, am a proud DO, and feel well-respected by my peers and the medical community.  For more info regarding the differences between the MD and DO degree, check out my post here.

3. It’s more about the quality than quantity when it comes to extracurricular and medical-related experiences that you participate in as a pre-med.

If I could say I excelled at one thing as a pre-med student, it was participation in extracurricular activities.  I think I knew in the back of my mind that my grades and test scores alone wouldn’t get me into medical school (plus, I wasn’t 100% sure that I wanted to be a doctor until my junior year in college when applications were due.  See #4 below), so I focused my energy on ways to strengthen my application and decide whether or not becoming a physician was the career for me.  If I could go back in time, I would’ve participated in less activities in order to prioritize more time to relax and study.  Because I’m someone who enjoys staying active and involved — in addition to my full-time course-load, I also volunteered in several hospital departments, worked as a lab assistant, volunteered at a homeless shelter, mentored youth in the community, worked as a researcher for more than two years, was an active member in several clubs and a sorority, worked part-time at a bookstore, among other things. When it came time to apply, I listed all of my activities in my medical school application, but mainly focused on two of the most meaningful activities in my personal statement.  During interviews, I was also asked to discuss the one medical-related experience that demonstrated my commitment to a career in medicine.

4. You may be pre-med because your traditional family expects you to become a doctor, but if you change your mind and pursue a different career path, they’ll understand.

I’m sure several students can identify with the pressures to become the shining, admired physician that our high-achieving families expect us to be.  My family, especially my grandfather (who was my role model), pretty much implanted in my mind as a child that I was meant to become a physician.  In the Philippines, physicians are held with such high regard and status.  As the oldest of >30 grandchildren, my grandfather invested a lot of time and energy on educating me at an early age (I started reading when I was 5 years old, taught to write in cursive when I was 7 years old, and had daily home study sessions with him after school, etc), so I didn’t want to disappoint him once the time came to choose my career path in college.  I truly wanted to be a broadcast journalist, but decided to apply for medical school after my grandfather passed away from cancer during my junior year.  After I performed poorly on several exams during my first year of medical school, I blamed my family and parents for forcing me to go into medicine.  I feared telling them that I wanted to quit, but when I failed a practical exam, I couldn’t hold it in any longer.  Their response shocked me when they told me that all they want is for me to be happy and that they’re proud of me no matter which field I chose.  All these years, I was afraid to tell my parents and never gave them a chance to show how understanding they truly can be.

5. Don’t feel guilty about taking time off after college before attending medical school.

If you were to go straight into medical school after college, you would have a total of at least 24 years of straight education before you graduate residency and become a practicing physician (kindergarten through 12th grade + 4 years undergraduate education + 4 years medical school + at least 3 years of residency).  After I graduated from residency, I felt like a fish out of water because my comfort zone and all I’ve known my entire life was to be a student.  Personal development is delayed during medical school (since education consumes so much time and becomes top priority), so taking time off for a few years in the grand scheme of things will not hinder you in any way.  I initially felt guilty for taking one year off after college because I thought that taking time off rather than going straight into medical school demonstrated a lack of determination.  Looking back, I don’t regret it one bit.  Oftentimes, our education and future careers become our identity, which ultimately results in less time spent engaging in enjoyable activities and connecting with those who make us happy.  With the grueling years of medical training ahead, try to prioritize time for yourself to grow as a well-rounded individual rather than devoting 100% of the time solely towards your career.


Photo by Marlon Santos

19 thoughts on “5 Things I Would Tell My Pre-Med Self

  1. Great post! I’m currently in A DO program and relate to a lot of what you said. It’s sometimes nice to know we’re not alone in the thoughts that we have! I’ve recently started following your blog and snapchat, and love them!

    • Hi Rosa! Thanks for commenting and i’m so appreciative of your support! I figured others could relate to my experiences, and it makes me happy to know u can connect w/ it 🙂 Hope all is going well in med school!

  2. I had a DO for my primary for 10 years. Then I found another DO. I think DO’s cause the least damage, respect the human body more than MD’s who think their meds can conquer all.

    After 25 years on meds for bipolar I with psychotic features ( psych meds causing non genetic prediabetes & Tardive Dyskinesia) most stuff seemed over his head. MD’s AND DO’s don’t realize that when I psych patient like me has been stable for nearly 20 years and used to go to the hospital a lot previously, they need to care enough to work around the psych meds or do research to suggest alternatives to be run by my psychiatrist. I’m currently in a real problem at the intersection of endocrinology, Constipation, Severe Back Pain and Tegretol which as Cytochrome P450 3A4, interacts negatively and inhibits the action of the other medications. Allergic to Lithium and finding that Lamictal and Neurontin, even together are not strong enough to control my mania, and unable to come off of the diabetes causing Clozaril because it tames Tardive Dyskinesia, it’s a real stew. DO or MD, it’s about caring enough to do the extra work. My current Primary, also a DO, says simply; “Get off the Tegretol. Get off The Clozaril. Try Latuda.” I’ve found that the newer atypicals, touted to not being weight gainers, have more of a movement disorder aggravating effect. And if you go online, the ones recommended to people complaining of weight gain, Guess What? They have five times the amount of class actions against them. And what if your TD is so bad that you can’t take any antipsychotic at all? How do you stabilize then? Prevention would have been nice. I had no idea what the antipsychotics would eventually do to me. They advertise Saphris and Latuda on Television as if they were in the ‘harmless’ antidepressant class. Latuda is for Bipolar Depression, they say. In the Abilify Cartoon spot, the lady talks depression all the way thru and at the end says, “Abilify and my antidepressant make a REALLY GOOD TEAM!” Never do they mention that they are antipsychotics. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be willing to put up a fight. The AMA, the lobbyists, The Drug Companies and the Media that rakes in the Big Pharma Dollars Colluded in silence like the Reporters and the Catholic Church in “Spotlight.” When Dan Rather and his producer spoke up about shady antics in the Bush Dynasty and got raked over the coals, the producer lost her job and Dan Rather, disgusted with the current state of journalism, stepped down. He felt he was a fraud. I wish I wasn’t so suspicious of medicine but believe me, I have reason to be. Good luck with your career. And remember, lowest therapeutic dosages as determined by your practitioner would go a long way to prevent or delay collateral damage such as mine. Your blog isn’t the only place I rant. Someone needs to speak up. I look like Michael J Fox X 20. I understand only too well Why Robin Williams pulled the plug. Involuntary muscle control and deterioration are hard to deal with. Be Good. Succeed. Take good, careful care of your patients. Thanks for allowing me to say that there is no difference between DO’s and MD’s, DO’s maybe are more careful and holistic.

    • Hi, I welcome rants actually…and based on your experience that u describe, it makes sense that u would judge and question doctors, drug companies, the media, etc. And just like in any field, there’s a spectrum in quality of doctors, whether MD or DO.
      I definitely agree with u when u say to use the lowest therapeutic dosages in meds — that’s actually one of my main principles of practice. Most of my follow-up sessions with my patients are probably 10% discussion of meds and 80% psychotherapeutic and non-med approaches.
      And yes, u are welcome to rant on here — i think it’s important to openly express your experiences because there’s others who’ve experienced the negative side and difficulties that exist in the field of mental health, such as the lack of resources, shortage of psychiatrists (esp good ones), the complexities of polypharmacy, and the potentially harmful effects of medications.

  3. All I can say is that if either of my girls want to go into any area of medicine, I’m having them contact YOU first !!!!!!! 👍 There’s time – they won’t bug you for a few more years since they are 8 & 10 respectively speaking.

    I’m not sure if I even mentioned to you that I have a few doctors in my family and my mother worships doctors! She wanted to be one, I think. She became a speech pathologist but it wasn’t the same….

    (I finally figured out how to use these cute emojis so I’m going for it!!!)
    Wishing you a wonderful weekend!!!!💐
    💙💜 Dyane

    p.s. I’m still hoping that you and Dr. Itzkoff come here to open a private practice in
    Santa Cruz when my doc retires in a few years!!!!! We need you!

    • Hi Dyane! Would be happy to connect w/ your daughters if they decide to become doctors, though by that time i might be very old and un-cool to them lol. And yes, this is the 1st time u mentioned that u have several docs in your fam 🙂
      And u never know what the future holds and where i’ll practice in the future — since lots of psychiatrists practice til their 70s (yikes!), who knows if santa cruz might end up on my radar 😉

  4. Hi, I really love your post and your snapchat video (specially thankful Thursday). I started at a state college last year and I am graduating with my AA in 4 days. I’m transferring and finish my bachelor at a state University. I’ve been working so hard but last semester, I had some personal issues and my GPA got down to a 3.50, I’m really scared that I might not get into medical school (what was your GPA in college if you don’t mind me asking?). In addition, I work in a hospital as a monitor tech/unit cleck which means that I basically have no time to participate in a lot of school activities, but I do volunteer in my community my church food bank as a register, a the free clinic as a translator for Haitian people, and I’ve work with my cultural anthropology professor as a translator and at the museum. I don’t have any shadowing experiences which scares me to death because all these premeds out there are doing amazing things…do you think I need more medical and scholar related activities (such as shadowing and clubs)? Last but not least, I planned on majoring in Neuroscience and get a minor in Cultural Anthropology because I love brain and I am passionate about learning about other cultures, it gives better understanding of people (therefore I am not doing them for medical school)…Do you think it is a good field? because everyone is majoring in the heavy sciences and are getting in cool researches. What did you major in? And most of the time, people makes fun of me when I say I want to go to medical school…so I keep it to myself. I’m scared! please answer me or email me at please.

    • Hi Ninie! Thanks so much for your comment and support w/ my blog and snapchat! I’m happy to answer your questions — can u do me a favor and copy/paste this comment and email me at And just a quick note — i think u offer something very unique than most applicants and that’s cultural competency, which is generally lacking amongst doctors. After GPA and test scores and experience that shows u know what you’re getting into by going through the rigorous route of medical school, being unique in your experiences it what will set u apart 🙂

  5. I will admit, I’ve also had moments when medicine felt too tough and hard and I definitely blamed my parents for projecting their wishes onto me. But that is so untrue and not fair of me at all! My parents just want me to be healthy and happy (my mom always says that to me; her goals for me and my brother josh are number one good health, number two happiness, and number three academics). They thought medicine would be one way to be happy and healthy but by no means was it the only choice. I learned that even though I was looking for someone to blame, I really can’t take out my frustrations on anyone. I feel you!

    A doctor’s guide to health and beauty

  6. My non-competitive application discourages me daily, but medicine is all I’ve ever wanted. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I hope someday to be in your shoes encouraging students like me.

  7. Thank you for this great post. I came across your blog while browsing WesternU site. I am applying their Dental Program. I have to say that the process is mentally challenging, lots of unknowns, but like you said “do not give up”. I wish I fall under #4. I come from a traditional Arab family that want me to get married and have kids instead of pursuing a graduate degree. It’s been a lifelong dream to become a dentist and I’m breaking through hundreds of years of traditions to make it true.

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