Balancing priorities can seem as challenging as walking a tightrope. Managing school and other commitments requires lots of realistic planning and, ultimately, there may be some sacrifice involved. Begin each new semester with the goal of doing as much as possible without over-extending yourself.
How to prioritize? First, grades are an essential part of your premed equation. Organize your time around your classes and you will always come out ahead. Start your day with breakfast and a review of the day to come, then, if you can, try to arrange your academic schedule so that you have an hour or so after each class to rewrite notes and review the next assignment. Make a schedule, not only of when you are in class, but also when you will study and work on assignments for every course. Once that schedule is made, you can begin to add in the other obligations you feel are important to you.
Most importantly, do not take on more than you can handle. Being president of a club that fails because you did not have adequate time to organize activities and meetings would not highlight your leadership skills. Missing lab meetings and delaying research assignments can prove to be detrimental to your application, as no one will write a favorable letter for someone who is unreliable. So make sure to commit only when you have the time to make a positive impact.
Remember, there are only 24 hours in a day. Plan for rest and relaxation. Stress and obsessing comes when you fail to remember that sleep and play are also essentials. Balancing your life now will pay high dividends when you begin your professional school training and your career.
Carol Baffi-Dugan, Director of Health Professions Advising, Tufts University:
Everyone is so busy these days that there never seems to be enough time to get everything done. Here is where good planning and taking care of yourself come in. Looking at each week ahead, and then each day, can help you acknowledge what needs to get done, prioritize the most important things, and take things one at a time. Use small blocks of time productively rather than waste them away. Be sure to build in time for rest, exercise, and good nutrition (yes, you know this). Sometimes that means putting certain things aside for a while, like one of the clubs you joined, or the extra five hours per week you wanted to add to your research position. Even finding a way to limit and compartmentalize your social media activity can help save much more time than you would imagine. For example, how many times a day do you check Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram…?
Organize your days and weeks to take care of the difficult and important things first, and then reward yourself with something like a movie night with friends or even something as simple as a bike ride. You will deserve it then and you won’t feel guilty.
Francie Cuffney, President-elect of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions; Biological Sciences Department Head, Meredith College:
Academics, volunteering, research, service, leadership—the list seems endless when thinking about what medical schools are looking for in the ideal candidate. But are these really all separate experiences? The mantra “work smarter not harder” may apply here. Look for ways that your experiences are evidence of not just a single category, but may actually overlap multiple areas. For example, can you be involved in a research lab where you help train newer students in the techniques of your lab work and also supplement your academic experience? Check: academics, research, leadership. Service in the community can also be an experience in which leadership is important and you are putting into action your academic background. For example, can you volunteer to lead classes for elementary children at a local nature center or museum? You are improving your academics (teaching helps us learn), providing service in the community, and leading young people in their learning. The reflective learner understands connections and sees the interrelationships of their experiences. Reflecting on your experiences may lead you to see the intersection of these different categories in one deep experience. A reflective academic is one who understands these intersections and is able to express them in a fluent, composed way.
What is important in preparing to apply to medical school is not the number of experiences but the value of the experiences. An experience that is meaningful in multiple ways can be more important than numerous one-offs that only fit a single category. What is important is the reflection you can provide about why the experience was meaningful to you and how it helped you see medicine as the path for your future.