Come meet the Authors!
The choice of an undergraduate degree can be a daunting one. There are many schools and within those schools, many programs. It is important to use all the information at your disposal to make the best choice for you, hopefully one that will set you up for success. The purpose of this section is not to tell you exactly which programs to apply to but to give you a framework that you can use to make your decision.
Does your School Matter?
The quick answer is no. As long as your university is accredited, medical schools in Canada will treat them equally. Going to a school with a medical school does not necessarily increase your chances of getting in. However, there may be more opportunities to meet physicians, medical students and to engage in clinical research. Ultimately, it is more important for you to choose a school that you will be happy and successful at and that you can see yourself being a part of for many years. Some important considerations:
- Do you want to be closer to home?
- Do you want to commute from home?
- Do you want to live in a big city vs. a small town?
- If I am planning on or near campus, how much will that cost?
- Is this city/town culturally diverse and how might that impact me?
Social/ Financial Support
- What type of support is available to undergraduate students?
- Is there adequate financial support (bursaries, scholarships etc.)?
- What is the typical cost of living in the city (ex: Toronto vs Kingston)?
- What is the school culture like?
- Is the community welcoming?
- Are current students satisfied with their experience?
- What if I am interested in research? Are there many opportunities?
- What is the grading reputation like? Do current students feel like they are fairly graded?
Each university’s website will have a great deal of information regarding the categories listed here, so they are a great resource for getting an idea of what the school has to offer. If you have any friends, family members or upper years from school who attend a university you are interested in, try and reach out to them and ask them about their experience. These people can give you a practical look at how life would be at that school, which can help you decide whether you can picture yourself staying there. Lastly, there are also websites that rank Canadian universities based on various criteria, such as student satisfaction, school size, research opportunities etc. These can show you the strengths and weaknesses of the various schools and give you an idea of how they compare with each other. However, it is important to realize that a school’s ranking on a list may not predict how positive your experience will be there. You need to decide what factors are important to you and make your decision based on that.
Does Your Degree Matter?
Similar to choosing a school, it is important to know that there isn’t one premed program in Canada that increases your chances of getting into medical school. It is much more important for you to choose a program that you enjoy and that you can be successful in. Some popular degree programs include:
- Biomedical Science
- Life Science
- Medical Science
- Health Science
- Neuroscience/ psychology
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it might give you some insight into the common programs that pre-med students choose. As you can probably already tell, many of these programs are very biological science focused as these programs tend to provide you with all the prerequisites you need for medical school. Some students have other interests and choose to pursue other fields, such as engineering or humanities, but they must ensure that they are able to take the prerequisites for medical school. Here are some important questions to consider when making the choice:
- Does this program allow me to take courses that will be prerequisites for medical school? For example, many medical schools require 1 full year of chemistry, 1-2 full years of biology, 1 full of year humanities etc. It is also important to consider whether you will be able to take courses that prepare you for content that is tested in the MCAT (more on that later), such as physics, chemistry, biochemistry, psychology and sociology.
- How do I like to be tested? For example, many biological science programs use a predominantly multiple-choice format for testing, while humanities programs may prefer an essay format. Which one do you like better and which one allows you to perform better?
- Will I be able to take courses that I am genuinely interested in? Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a BSc. degree to apply to medical school, so you can choose any degree you like. If for example you enjoy learning about psychology and you feel like you would be successful in it, a B.A. in psychology might be just the way to go!
- What are the class sizes like? Am I someone who learns better in smaller classes where I feel comfortable asking questions and connecting with my professor? Or do I prefer large classes where I can blend in with the crowd?
Once you have decided on programs/schools to apply to, it can be difficult to make that final decision about where you would like to go. Here is a sample comparison that you can use to make that decision:
ex. University of Guelph
Small town feel, Great Human anatomy program, Lots of undergrad supports, Smaller student body, High student satisfaction
Town might be too small, Less cultural diversity, No private bathrooms, Less medical presence
Ultimately, it is important that you choose a school and a program that will set you up for success and that is ideal for your own unique educational wants and needs.
Planning Out Undergrad
In the previous section, many tips were provided on selecting a school and undergrad program for you to pursue. An important point to emphasize from there is to choose something that you are truly interested in. This goes not only for the undergrad program as a whole but also for the mandatory and elective courses you choose to take throughout your education. Choosing courses that you are interested in will allow you to direct your schooling in the way that you want while keeping you motivated and engaged in your education. This will change your educational experience and make school more of an enjoyable experience rather than a chore or hurdle that needs to be overcome before you can achieve your goal of becoming a doctor.
Another reason why it is important to choose an undergraduate degree and courses that you are interested in, is because it is a part of parallel planning for your future. The journey to medicine can be a long route and oftentimes priorities and goals change leading people to pursue other careers and opportunities. If this does happen it is important to be in a position where you can utilize your education to help achieve your new goal. You do not want to be caught in a position where you are left with a partially completed degree in a field that you are not fully interested in because you no longer want to pursue medicine. This is a costly mistake that commonly happens. This is where parallel planning makes a big difference. If you choose to pursue a degree you like and have an alternative plan for your education, it helps mitigate the risk of changing career paths during school and places you in a position where you have more control over your career trajectory.
Once you finalize your school and program, it is important to recognize and stay on top of your undergraduate program map and the needed prerequisites to apply to the medical schools of your choice. Every medical school has their own requirements that are needed to apply. By knowing what schools you want to apply to, and their specific requirements you can plan your undergraduate degree to adequately fulfill the requirements in the most convenient manner for you. It is also good to check often for changes because medical school requirements update frequently and you want to ensure you're up to date and ready when application time comes by.
It is also important to recognize that every undergraduate program has a program map with minimum requirements that need to be met to graduate. These requirements vary from program to program and will ultimately direct what you can take during your education. Familiarizing yourself with this will allow you to plan your courses in a way that’s optimal for you to do well. For instance, if you know that a particular year or semester is going to be difficult due to the mandatory courses that need to be taken during that block, you can try and schedule easier electives during that time to lessen your workload. Or do the opposite and schedule harder electives during an easier block. This is beneficial when trying to fulfill the prerequisites that are needed to apply to medical school, especially if your undergraduate program does not cover all of the prerequisites that you need in the normal program map.
Creating a program map for yourself or planning out your undergraduate schedule can be a daunting task to even the best of us. Our advice on this is to reach out to program counselors/guidance counselors as they can be a great resource. They can advise you on what courses to take and will also be able to answer any questions you might have in regard to meeting your degree requirements. An alternative to this is to speak to upper year students as they can also provide you with tips and guidance on planning out your undergraduate degree. They might also be willing to provide you feedback on courses and direct you to resources that might have helped them when they were in your position. At the end of the day, it is good to remember that having a plan for your undergraduate degree will help keep you in the right direction, but don't stress or place too much emphasis on a strict plan. It is better to keep an open mind and be able to adapt as you go through your education. And most importantly, try your hardest, make the best of your education, and don’t forget to have fun along the way.
Summers and Summer Courses:
A common question is how does one maximize their summer for their benefit? and the real answer is that it depends. Summers to some students can be an amazing time to relax and refocus their mind in-between school. While for others an opportunity to do research or get ahead of their curriculum through summer school. Speaking from experience there is no one correct way to spend your summers, but below are some common activities student seek out.
Working in the summer is a great opportunity for you to make some money on the side while also not feeling like you are completely “wasting” your summer. You are going to be in school for a long time so some money on the side is extremely helpful. In addition, the skills and experience one gains from working is invaluable and can really help define your personality. For example, a normal retail job can help you gain important interpersonal skills, hone your team working capabilities, and even learn how to deal with challenging situations or bosses. Morover holding a more conventional job does also add value to your application as it can be viewed as an additional extracurricular activity.
One might wonder how every premed seems to have research on their resume in addition to countless other extracurriculars, and the secret most of the time is by utilizing the summer. Although it is not necessary, it is generally recommended that a student has some research experience when applying to medical school, so seeking out these opportunities are important. For the most part, landing a research position can be challenging and depending on the position could require some previous lab experience, which students really only get after a few years in school. This is why many students seek out research opportunities in the second half of their undergrad. Research opportunities many times are unpaid, but there are instances where the supervisor can pay you or you can apply under a grant such as NSERC USRA or other school specific programs.
Extracurriculars / Volunteering
Summers are really yours for the making, so if there is a particular activity or because you are passionate this can be your opportunity to indulge yourself. It is common to see premed students in the hospitals over the summers volunteering, but don’t feel obligated to only seek out medically related activities. Remember that it will always be more worthwhile if you spend time doing something you are passionate about, so stay true to yourself.
Summer school is another option for students looking for activities to maximize their summers. This can be a great opportunity for students in non-traditional undergraduate degrees to fulfill prerequisite requirements for medical schools. This can also be an opportunity for students to complete their “harder” courses since you can focus your efforts towards this single course. In addition, some medical schools do not include these grades in their overall GPASo If you do want to use summer school for GPA purposes always reconfirm with institutions how they consider these courses. When contemplating summer courses always consider whether you are comfortable spending your summers which are traditionally your rest periods on more school.
There is a whole section dedicated to the MCAT, so please look there for additional information but generally summers are the time student study and write the MCAT. For planning purposes, it is generally advised to write the MCAT soon after one has completed biochemistry and organic chemistry which is typically after second year of a traditional pre-med science undergraduate degree. This provides the opportunity to rewrite during the summer of third year if needed, and also allows one to apply to medical school a year earlier for some schools, but keep in mind the “best” timing is individual and dependent on a multitude of factors, so there is no one hard rule.
As mentioned earlier, don’t be shy to use this time for yourself. If you feel the need to take this time off because you had an extremely stressful semester or if you just need a break, the summer is your opportunity to do so. So, feel free to travel if you have the means to, or spend time locally by picking up a new hobby, the world really is your oyster.
Also keep in mind that you can definitely do a few of these activities over the same summer. All in all, how you spend your summers will ultimately depend on you and how much you would like to do, but always put yourself first and only take on as much as you can handle. There is no reason for you to burn yourself out, remember that getting into medical school is a marathon not a sprint.
Stress is inevitable, and it comes in many forms– too many essays, a failed course, a bad relationship, family issues, financial hardship, etc. It may be a singular occurrence or a constant, pervasive factor that permeates your everyday life. While coping with stress does not guarantee a spot in medical school, it helps you deal with the various obstacles that arise on your journey, and ultimately develops your resilience and personality. Stress management is a tool you will carry with you into medical school and the rest of your career.
Stress management techniques come in a variety of different flavours, and though it is important to have a strategy, remember that poor strategies can be just as detrimental as no strategies. Impulsive purchases, weekend “benders”, neglecting responsibilities, self-punishment and excessive binge-eating are examples of strategies that are ineffective for some individuals, but may be suprisingly successful for some others. . Needless to say, there is no single way to properly handle stress, and it takes some self-discovery/reflection to figure out how you best deal with stressors. Constructive strategies take advantage of time management, social interaction, intellectual stimulation, physical activity and other beneficial traits. For some it may be as simple as going for a walk or going for coffee with a friend, while for others it requires more intensive approaches of a professional or academic leave of absence. The simple act of saying “no” is very powerful and, though it often feels like we are letting someone else down, the freedom of mind it brings is incredible. Remember, no sacrifice is too great when it comes to your mental health.
One more quick tip is to surround yourself with a good peer group. Find like-minded individuals that are focused, trustworthy, helpful, and fun. Whatever it is you choose to do, the peers around you shape your personality, your environment, and your future. So choose who you surround yourself with wisely.
Let’s face it, undergrad is busy, and when you’re trying to get into medical school there isn’t much time to slack off. You have a full course load, you’re an executive of 5 committees, you volunteer several hours a week, and you might even work on the side. It’s easy to forget about yourself and ignore your mental health amidst all your obligations. However, part of managing stress is to never forget the importance of your wellbeing. One thing is certain, taking time for yourself is distinct from slacking off. There is an entire chapter on wellness coming up that builds upon this foundation, but to sum things up, maintain your passions, keep your hobbies, and continue to do the things you love. Whether it’s making music, reading books, binging Netflix, or waking up at 5 am to go rowing. These are the things that inspire and motivate you when you’re burnt out, and they keep you unique, and grounded.
Now let’s talk about grades. They are important since nearly all medical schools in Canada weigh your GPA as part of the admissions criteria. Earlier we spoke about career planning and choosing an undergrad in something you are interested in. Among the other reasons listed, doing something you enjoy boosts your motivation to do well academically. GPA is often composed of assignments, mid-term exams, and final assessments. Occasionally, attendance is also contributory, so get those easy marks by showing up to class! Turn in your assignments on time, and be sure to attend all tutorial or lab sessions if your course has them. Exams are daunting, but set yourself up to do well in them. Go to class prepared to take notes or ask questions, listen to any pre-recorded lectures, and do any additional or recommended readings to augment your learning. Develop good study habits, and focus on concepts you are weak in so that you reduce gaps in your knowledge. Finally, find an exam routine that works for you and stick to it, whether it is cramming the night before because you work best under pressure, or taking the prior evening off to get a good night sleep. Always show up to your exam early, with whatever tools you need (pencil, paper, calculator, granola bar if allowed etc), and give it your best shot. Be confident that you have done your best to get all your grades up. Even if your overall GPA isn’t what you expected, there are opportunities through the admissions process to make up for your grades with extracurriculars, essays or more.
Growth & Development
In addition to academics, the undergraduate experience is also about self-discovery and growth. Growth outside of academic success is critical beyond medical school applications, as it is crucial to becoming a well-rounded physician and human being. With that being said, Medical schools also like to see a balance between academics on applications because it shows individuality. More than this, if interests change, future employers seek individuals with supplemented skill sets, increasing the marketability of students that acquire skills outside of academia within the job market. Specifically, participation in extracurricular activities and leadership roles in these activities are positively linked to obtaining one's first job and later career advancements. Extracurricular activities provide opportunities for students to explore their passions and to discover things which interest them beyond academics. Although this book contains a chapter dedicated to extracurricular activities, this chapter will briefly touch on this subject highlighting the significance of self-growth during the undergraduate or pre-medical journey.
On top of providing productive breaks, which play a beneficial role in academics, extracurricular activities allow students to gain and improve skills including but not limited to goal setting, teamwork, time management, problem solving, analytical thinking, leadership, and public speaking. Extracurricular activities provide a setting to become involved and to interact with other students, thus leading to increased learning and enhanced development. Specifically, a student's peer group is the most important source of influence on a student's academic and personal development. By working together with other individuals, students learn to negotiate, communicate, manage conflict, and lead others. Taking part in these out-of-the-classroom activities helps students to understand the importance of critical thinking skills, time management, and academic or intellectual competence. Involvement in activities helps students mature socially by providing a setting for student interaction, relationship formation, and discussion. Working outside of the classroom with diverse groups of individuals allows for students to gain more self-confidence, autonomy, and appreciation for others' differences and similarities.
There are a variety of activities to pursue such as student government, academic clubs, internships, cultural groups, community service, athletics or even part-time jobs. However, the best way to develop the aforementioned skills and experiences critical to turning students into well-rounded individuals is to consider the activities you enjoy.