Hey everyone! Welcome back to Beyond BMSC. Today, we'll be hearing from Lucy, an amazing first-year medical student studying at the University of Toronto! So let's skip the chitchat and hear from Lucy herself!
To hear the audio version of the following conversation, please visit us on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/55QxpEniXCjF5OHLa2pEt2
Interviewer: Lynda Wo
Interviewee: Lucy Zhang
Lynda: Hello and welcome to beyond BMSC, where we interview past medical science students who are pursuing graduate programs, to answer your questions for post-BMSC pathways. My name is Lynda, and today we’re joined by Lucy. So, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Lucy: Hi! My name is Lucy, I’m currently studying medicine at the University of Toronto. I’m in my first year of a four year program. I guess something else that I’m passionate about outside of academics is, I’m really into teaching. So, I started teaching piano when I was in high school, I also did some private tutoring around then, and I continued volunteering as a tutor in university. For the last two years, I’ve been teaching math outside of class as a part-time job. I actually considered going into teaching as a career before I started studying medicine. Outside of that, I also like to do art as a hobby, so that’s a little bit about me. Nice to meet you.
Lynda: Wow! Okay, that’s very interesting. So, can I ask what module you were in, in BMSC?
Lucy: Yeah, when I was at Western, I did three years in my undergraduate program in medical science. So, I didn’t complete the entire four year specialization, but I was specializing in epidemiology and biostatistics—I did one year in that.
Lynda: Okay, can you tell me a little about your program now, UofT med? I know you’ve only been there for about a year so far, so no need to get into too much detail.
Lucy: Yeah, for sure! I mean, I guess MD programs are all pretty similar. At the end of the four years, you’re supposed to be covering the same bases in terms of content and clinical skills. I would say that UofT’s program is kind of more traditional. I know other universities like McMaster—I have a friend at Mac right now—take a pretty innovative approach where a lot of their class time is case-based learning, clinical skill-based learning, and self-directed learning. They don’t have a lot of lecture time, they don’t have a lot of assessments, and that’s really not what we do at UofT. It’s very much lecture-based learning. I think we’re one of the only med schools where anatomy is mandatory and you have to go and do dissections every week. That’s a pretty old school thing. We also have pretty frequent assessments, so it’s kind of exactly what you would expect out of university learning, it’s very traditional.
Lynda: So, I’m hearing that the school takes a more traditional path. Is that an aspect of your education that you took into consideration before going there, or did you just find it the way of learning that suited you the best?
Lucy: I only got into one med school program, so it was a very easy decision for me, I didn't have to think very hard about that. But, I do enjoy it. It’s a lot of work, we basically start a new unit every one or two weeks and then we have a major assessment every one or two weeks, on top of clinical skills, on top of anatomy. So, sometimes it feels like a lot. It’s pretty heavy right now, but I like it. I think it works for me, just because I’m not a very disciplined person, I’m not a very self-regulated person. Throughout undergrad, I was very much cramming before every exam, so I honestly think that I probably wouldn’t thrive in a program where we’re left to our own devices all the time. With a lot of self-directed learning, I feel like I would just end up procrastinating or putting it off. So, you know, it is a lot of work. I kind of hate it sometimes, but I know that it works for me because otherwise, I just wouldn’t be able to get through the content without that kind of pressure. I think for other people, it’s the same thing. I’ve heard a lot of the same things from my classmates where they also feel like it’s a lot of work, but it’s good that they’re forcing us to get the work done.
Lynda: Okay, if I were to ask you about the overall experience in med school compared to the workload in med sci, because a lot of students tend to transition pretty roughly from high school to Western, how would you describe the transition to med school?
Lucy: Yeah, it’s a lot more work than I expected. I will say this though, I was not expecting med school to be a lot of work. That sounds really weird, but I think for me, I was just so focused in undergrad on getting into med school. Once you’re in, you’re in, and it’s pass/fail, it’s whatever, you’ll be fine. So, I didn’t really think a lot about, you know, how much we’d have to learn in med school. I came into this with the mindset of, “I got in! Things are going to be light from now on, I just have to pass and I’ll be fine.” It’s true, you just have to pass, whether you get a 90 or a 75, it’ll just say pass/fail on your report card. But, it’s pretty hard to hit that 75 every week. It’s not the same as how it felt in undergrad. I don’t think I’ve ever studied this consistently in my life. Just the fact that we have a test every week—if you want to pass, you have to study for that exam every week. So, I would say it’s a lot more work than undergrad, but it’s not impossible. You will get used to it after the first few weeks. It’s the same way how we all eventually adjusted to undergrad, eventually you will adjust to med school. I wouldn’t have that as a main concern. Once you get in, you’re in. They’re really not trying to kick you out or fail you out of med school, so even if you run into difficulties, there are always people you can talk to and reach out to, to try to make things easier.
Lynda: That’s very nice to hear, especially for all our listeners who may be having concerns about that. I know you chose medicine probably fairly early on, so what was it about medicine that made you choose it compared to other pathways that typical med sci students go into, like research, or optometry and dentistry?
Lucy: I actually wasn’t considering any other career paths related to science, weirdly enough. I think in high school, I originally wanted to do engineering, I was taking computer science and physics, and I was very much like, “I’m going to be a civil engineer” kind of mindset. Then, in grade 11, I had a brief turn where I was considering finance. My mom worked in finance, so I was like, “That stuff looks interesting.” I also did DECA in high school, so I was thinking maybe business or finance is something I want to do. It was kind of late grade 11, or sometime that year, where I took a hard turn and decided I would pursue medicine. I think for me—this gets a little bit personal—I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mom had a major surgery that year, and at the time, I just thought of it like, suddenly I’m interested in this career and I don’t really know why. Thinking back on it, it definitely had to do with my mom having that major surgery. She’s doing great now, she’s doing fine. She had one of her kidneys removed, but she recovered from that perfectly well. I think during that period, we got a lot of support from our family doctor and the surgeons who did her surgery, and I just thought that, you know, to be able to offer someone the kind of reassurance and support they need during a really vulnerable time, that’s really meaningful. I was just thinking that, if we had a doctor who wasn’t as empathetic or not as understanding, that could’ve drastically changed how that recovery went for her, right? That would change the trajectory of my life, so I think it’s really meaningful to be able to offer that kind of support to somebody.
Lynda: That makes complete sense. I’m sure a lot of future doctors or current medical students have similar experiences. That definitely makes sense. So, before getting into the program and before even going down the medical science route, as you said, in late grade 11 that you decided, what is something you wish you knew before choosing medicine? It can be applied towards the process of preparing for the MCAT, or the motivation, or the driving force behind people choosing this program.
Lucy: Honestly, I think something I wish I did—I just didn’t know much at all, I wish I did more research. I think I have a pretty laissez-faire attitude towards life, I’m not very high-strung, I’m pretty relaxed all the time. I guess on the plus side, if something bad happens, I can get over it pretty easily and it doesn’t bother me too much. On the flip side, I probably didn’t put as much effort or as much research into this as I could’ve. So, with things like the application process, it really came back to bite me in the butt, you know?
I remember I was applying in third year with the rest of my friends, and I had no idea that the application opened in June. I just thought that it opened in September, and everybody was writing their application and they were like, “You have one month to finish this, it’s due in October.” I was like, “Oh. That’s bad.” Same thing happened with CASPer, I did not know that we were supposed to write a CASPer exam. I had no idea, and then people were talking about, “What day did you sign up for the CASPer” for McMaster and for Queen’s—or maybe it was for Ottawa, there are two schools that require it—and I had no idea what it was. I had done zero preparation for the CASPer, I had like one week and I just watched a bunch of YouTube videos about CASPer prep and just did my best. I did okay, but it was a really stressful process for me because the whole time—and interviews came around, the same thing—it was just me discovering things as they happened, and then scrambling to get myself organized and get it together before it happened. If you’ve done the research and have more knowledge going into the application, it’s gonna make things a lot easier. You’re gonna have time to adjust if things go wrong.
One of the things that almost got me to not apply that year was I needed a reference, and one of my references, my supervisor in research, she was really, really busy all the time. She just never has time, if you try to book a meeting with her, she’s like, “I have 30 minutes only next week, this is the only slot, take it or leave it.” She’s always busy. So, she was writing my reference letter the night before the morning it was due. At, like, 1 am, I got an email from her saying “I just submitted this, I know it’s due at 8 am. Your application’s done, thanks for waiting.” I had just been staying up the whole night, waiting for her to submit that letter, and it was really stressful. So, make sure you do your research ahead of time because that way, if something does go wrong, or if you miss something, you have time to adjust.
Lynda; So, even though you say you had all these troubles, you still had no trouble getting into the school.
Lucy: I guess I’m just used to this. Like I told you, in undergrad, I was a crammer, so maybe this is just my mentality and I’m used to it. But, it definitely didn’t feel good during the application process, you just keep finding out about these important things. Interviews came around, and I was not expecting an interview offer at all, because not many third years get interviews. Me and a few of my friends all got interview offers, and some of them had started practicing, some of them didn’t. I didn’t even know that you were supposed to practice for these interviews, I didn’t know you had to practice for MMIs, so I was just going into this blind, I was scrambling to get the practice in, and it was just a really stressful two months. It’s doable, I’ve shown that it can be done, but I don’t recommend it.
Lynda: No, that seems probably good for anyone listening, in case they’re worrying about this as well. So, this question is more geared towards Toronto/UofT. There’s a lot of knowledge floating around that UofT heavily values research, how important is it for a student applying for med school to have abundant research experience on their application?
Lucy: This is a question that I personally was very concerned about, when I was in undergrad applying to medical school—medical school in general, but UofT in particular. I think UofT is very open about them placing a lot of value in research, and I just really did not enjoy research that much as an undergrad. I did do a little bit of research, I had one volunteer project in the summer of first year, and then I had another longer term project that I was working on with a prof throughout second year and third year. I didn’t do none, I did have some research on my CV but, I think compared to a lot of people who had lists of publications and authored a bunch of papers, that wasn’t me. That’s not the type of experience I had.
In contrast, though, what I did have was I worked a lot part-time. I had worked in retail, I worked in fast food, I’d done a lot of teaching and tutoring, and volunteering as well in kind of related things. That’s what mattered to me. That’s what I liked doing, I didn’t like spending my time on research. I liked working, I liked teaching. All this time I was worrying about whether I have to do more research to make myself a more attractive candidate for medical school, but I decided against it because I didn’t feel like I wanted to change myself or force myself to do anything that I didn’t want just solely for the sake of med school applications. I felt like my attitude at the time was, I’m doing my best, I’m working, and I’m doing all these other things. If I don’t get in, then I guess medicine just isn’t for me. If research is that important for medicine, maybe it’s just not right for me.
Now, after I got into med school and I’ve met some of my classmates—everybody comes from such a diverse background, there’s people who majored in law, dance, it’s crazy—it kind of just shows you that there’s a lot of rumours that go around. At the end of the day, it’s not one sole type of experience that defines who you are and, ultimately, they are looking for well-rounded people who have a lot of different skill types that they can bring into the field. So, I wouldn’t stress too much about having a lot of research experience. I definitely think it helps to have at least one or two projects that you’ve worked on, but it’s the end-all-be-all for your application.
Lynda: Okay, that totally makes sense. Would that be the main message you want to say to the BMSA students and students listening, who might be going through the turmoil of applying for the program in the future?
Lucy: Yeah, for sure. Again, maybe this is just coming from my laid-back personality, but I really want to tell people not to stress too much. You’ve probably heard this a lot, but trust the process and be yourself. Applying to medical school is just one aspect of you, and you don’t want it to take over your life. The application is gonna be exhausting, you’re gonna be putting a lot of work into it, and it’s gonna be really hard sometimes. You don’t want to let it consume you. You don’t want to make all your extracurriculars about medicine, you don’t want to make all your hobbies and free time surrounding medicine. I think that’s going to burn you out really fast. Be true to yourself, that sounds so corny, but I honestly think that’s the best way of demonstrating your strengths and how you can put your best foot forward.
Lynda: That’s coming from someone who already got in, so that worked out for you. So, thank you for joining us today to talk about your experiences. I’m sure this was very helpful for any students who are worried, especially for UofT med. This was BMSA’s podcast for the medical program at UofT. Check back on our website and social media platforms for episodes for other programs from new students each week. Thank you for listening, and we hope this has been helpful.