What I learned from starting medical school in January

I graduated from an international medical school this past spring. I’m currently in the midst of a preliminary year as an internal medicine resident at St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers, N.Y. Next year, I’ll start my dream residency in anesthesiology at Brown University.

Like many physicians, my journey to medicine has had its share of twists and turns. But my story is slightly different than the others. That’s because I started pursuing my medical degree in January, rather than in the fall — an alternative track that typically isn’t available at U.S. institutions. That decision helped set me up for success in the residency match. I’d encourage others to consider starting med school off-cycle, for several reasons.

1. Spending time on a medical school waitlist can cause stress and uncertainty.

I applied to several U.S. medical schools — and was waitlisted at two schools. Summer came and went. When I hadn’t heard back by August, I realized that the chances of starting my degree in the fall were slim.

My situation is a common one. In 2019, more than 53,000 students applied to U.S. medical schools. Only about 22,000 of those applicants ended up enrolling in a U.S. medical school that fall. For the thousands denied admission, waiting an additional year to reapply could be painful.

By starting medical school in January, I began working toward my degree only a few months after I would have started medical school in the United States. To me, that made a huge difference.

2. Students who start in January are still eligible for merit and need-based scholarships.

Everyone knows that medical school is expensive. Fortunately, many schools offer financial aid and scholarships to help offset those costs. According to data published by U.S. News, the majority of students receive financial aid at nearly four dozen private U.S. medical schools.

Though I didn’t personally benefit from them, many of my classmates who started in January qualified for need-based and merit-based scholarships. A number of them had access to scholarships that were only available to students who began their studies in January. Indeed, some of my classmates were better off financially for enrolling in January.

3. Starting early gives you more time to study for the USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 — plus prepare for the Match.

The USMLE Step 1 exam is one of the most important tests for aspiring doctors. Preparing for it is incredibly time-consuming. One online tutoring website recommends that students spend upwards of 600 hours studying. A recent survey from Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that students completed an average of about 3,800 practice questions when preparing for the test.

Many of my classmates who started in August studied for Step 1 and their semester exams simultaneously. Starting in January meant that I had about a month of additional time to study, free of distractions from other exams and assignments. That extra time was invaluable.

Med students who start in January also have more time to study for the USMLE Step 2 Clinical Knowledge. They can finish their rotations in May of their third year, allowing them upwards of two months to get ready. Students who start in August, on the other hand, finish rotations in the summer, and only have a few weeks before the exam.

Furthermore, starting in January enables folks to better prepare for the Match — for example, by giving them more bandwidth to complete an elective critical for their specialty before applying for residencies. There are thousands of different residency programs across the country. The average fourth-year medical student applies to more than 36 programs, according to a 2015 survey published in Academic Medicine. The more time to research programs, the better!

4. Starting early gives you time to take a breath — something everyone can benefit from.

Perhaps most obviously, starting in January allows aspiring doctors to start practicing medicine earlier. But before jumping into our careers, it’s nice to have some free time — something that can be difficult to find in medical school! I had longer summer breaks than my classmates who started in August. That gave me the opportunity to travel and spend time with family. When I returned to school, I was fully refreshed.

Every medical student should make the decision that’s best for them, their study habits, and their lifestyles. Starting in January helped me reach my goals. I’m confident that it could help others do the same.

Gaelle Antoine is an internal medicine resident. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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