Mara Hartoyo, Current SHRS Pre-medical student, Class of 2023, Rehabilitation Science
As students on the pre-health track, we all know how important it is to keep our grades up and achieve high scores on the graduate school admissions tests. This alone places a lot of pressure on students looking to go into health care fields and at times it can seem like we’re just keeping our head above water. In my first year of college, I remember being shocked to learn that I had to seek out clinical, volunteer, and research experiences in addition to all the work required to achieve a high GPA. It seemed impossible to balance everything at the time and I remember being completely lost on where to start. I had no idea where to find these experiences or how to start looking.
After years of collaboration with other students, pre-health advisors and mentors, I was able to find and pursue many incredible clinical, volunteer, and research experiences that I truly enjoyed. Most importantly, I learned that the best pre-health experience is not one that checks all the boxes of what graduate schools are looking for, but one that truly fits my own personal interests and goals. The way you build your pre-health years shows who you are, so seek out experiences that truly emulate your vision of your future career.
I want to give some helpful guidance on how to build a meaningful pre-health experience in three specific areas: clinical work, research, and volunteering.
Clinical work can vary drastically across different fields for pre-health students. It’s vital to tailor your clinical experiences so that you learn the most about the field you want to pursue. However, this is not a hard rule, and it can be very beneficial to work in a few different fields. I’ll use my own experience as an example. I’m a pre-medical student who used to work clinically in trauma. I loved this position, and my main role was to enroll trauma patients in research studies run by the physicians and surgeons at the hospital. I loved overnight shifts of running between the hospital lab and trauma bay. I also loved getting to work closely with physicians in assessing eligibility for each study. Now, I work as a rehab aide in an outpatient physical therapy center, where I’ve been able to help patients one-on-one to improve their form and effort in their exercises. Working in a different field allowed me to gain a great understanding of physical therapy (a field very much tied to medicine). Overall, I know my clinical experiences have made me both a more well-rounded applicant and a more well-rounded person.
Clinical positions will be much easier to find than research, and it’s often a good idea to pursue these experiences first to gain a true understanding of the field you want to go into. Working alongside medical professionals is the best way to gain this understanding. Some common clinical experiences for pre-health students include an EMT, medical assistant, scribe, rehab aide, pharmacy technician, home-health aide, and nursing assistant. Some of these positions require certifications and training, while others do not. Find a position you are interested in and determine if the certification process is feasible for you. Summers are a great time to obtain the certifications needed and begin training in these positions.
One of the main things I’ve learned along the way is that your first research position will be the hardest to find. I remember emailing countless researchers and professors about helping on their research projects or just meeting to learn more about their work. Given the busy nature of their work, 99% of my emails went unanswered. It’s important not to take this personally. Researchers are pulled in a million different directions each day and it's likely there’s no time left over to bring in a new student who will need to learn everything from the beginning. Keep reaching out and showing interest, and eventually a reply will come along.
My next piece of advice is that once you get an opportunity, definitely take it. If a research PI (principal investigator) knows you will need to be taught almost everything and is willing to take the time to do this, it’s clear they care about helping students grow and learn, which is the whole point of these experiences. After you work on your first project, the research process will be much more familiar, and it will be easier to seek out projects wherever your research interests take you next.
Volunteering will be incredibly meaningful no matter what you choose to do. A lot of pre-health students become hospital or hospice volunteers. There are also countless student groups at Pitt that organize volunteering events throughout the semester. Pre-Health sororities and fraternities offer more lighthearted volunteering events that will give you a chance to connect with students on similar paths to you. The only piece of advice I have for choosing volunteering experiences is that it’s not about finding the most interesting or upbeat event. It’s about truly connecting with those you are helping and making their day better. Graduate schools don’t want to hear how many hours you have or what exciting venue you volunteered at. They want to hear about the connections you built with the people you helped. They want to hear the stories that made you happy or even sad. It’s all about serving others and in the process, learning more about the field you’re passionate about.
Tying everything together…
The mistake many students make is signing up for every opportunity they possibly can and stretching themselves too thin. This results in giving only a half effort to each extracurricular activity, and this will show when you speak about your experiences in an interview. You want to choose opportunities that tell your story and show who you are. It’s easy to tell someone about yourself and what you value in a personal statement but showing who you are is so much more important. And the best way to do this is through meaningful clinical, research, and volunteer experiences. So, no, it is not absolutely necessary to have all three components discussed in this blog post. For me personally, a large part of my undergraduate focus was on research because I felt this was the way I could help the most with my current education and qualifications. You might spend most of your time working clinically or volunteering with a group you love spending time with. Either way, make choices that show who you really are, and even more importantly, choose experiences you truly enjoy.
I hope this blog post was helpful to any pre-health students reading.
I also hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I loved writing it.
Mara Hartoyo, Pre-medical student
Current SHRS student, Class of 2023, Rehabilitation Science
Published November 4, 2022