The author, Anthony Quesada. Photo by Robin Johnson for St. Mary’s University.

Many students entering college with dreams of becoming a doctor find themselves changing their mind somewhere along the way. Of course, some have simply found a different calling, but the fact remains that many students change their career path because of intimidation.

There’s no denying that the path to medicine is difficult and full of challenges. It needs to be in order to ensure quality healthcare providers. But that doesn’t mean there should be a fear of the challenges that lie ahead. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my years as a pre-medical student, it’s that the right mentality and approach are the true keys to success.

One of the first things to understand is the significance of time. Time management is always stressed to incoming students, but in the mountain of suggestions it is often overlooked. It took me a while, but I finally came to recognize that time truly was my most valuable resource.

All people are limited to the same amount of time every day to allocate to tasks they deem important. As a pre-med student, it’s critical that an appropriate amount of time is dedicated to studies. This can be one of a student’s biggest fears – that studying will take so many hours of the day that there won’t be time for anything else.

It’s commonly heard upon entering college that among studies, social life and sleep, you have to pick two of the three and sacrifice the third. I disagree.

In order to be successful you need all three. This is achievable if a schedule is properly planned out. With an unplanned day, it is very easy to lose hours. If you need an example, just think back to the last weekend you slept in and realized that you hardly did anything before it was time to go back to sleep.

A proper schedule will help keep track of these hours and allow for adjustments when – not if – life throws some curveballs. In a given semester, I had my days planned out on essentially an hourly basis.

Using my phone calendar, the first things I scheduled were all my class and work times. Meals were next on the list. After that came all of the various meetings, activities and breaks I set up for myself. It was a full schedule, but I was able to stay productive and still enjoy the benefits of time off and sleep.

Another big obstacle for anyone in the pre-medical world is the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). It is likely the most challenging test a pre-med student will take in their undergraduate years, but it’s a significant factor in applications to medical school.

The MCAT does a wonderful job of not only testing the content of introductory science courses, but also the critical thinking skills necessary to make a good physician.

To be successful, as with any exam, the time for review and preparation for the exam has to be there. I had several months during the summer before my exam to dedicate to my MCAT studies. But more than that, I attribute my success on the exam to the way I studied and learned in the years leading up to the exam. It was during my first few years in college that I developed the way of thinking that ultimately led to my success.

One of the biggest misconceptions about science classes is the perceived necessity to memorize information to regurgitate for the exams. Whereas some amount of memory recall is essential to learning, a focus on rote memorization can actually detract from the process. What I see time and time again with students I tutor is that, after studying, they can often answer questions on the given topic, but they’re unable to answer my follow-up question: Why?

This is the key to learning and being able to switch the way of thinking from short-term “learn for the test” memorization to long-term understanding. In learning the reasoning behind the science, facts no longer need to be memorized.

Instead, when asked a question, you can reason your way to the answer. This is the key to developing the critical thinking skills necessary for the MCAT. This test will give you information on topics you’ve never seen before, and if you haven’t learned these reasoning skills, no memorized list is going to help you.

My undergraduate years were spent at St. Mary’s University, here in San Antonio. This Marianist liberal arts school was perfect for me. I made great friends, developed many skills, and was ultimately led through a journey of self-discovery that made me into a successful student.

I was exposed to many different classes that I never would have taken had I gone to a more technical school. These really served as opportunities that encouraged me to look at things differently, try different approaches, and challenge what may be considered the “standard way” of thinking. I was able to learn so much at St. Mary’s and seized as many opportunities as I could.

I was often asked why I kept myself so “unnecessarily” busy. My answer has always been that I was never losing time, but instead was using it to its fullest potential. Since I loved what I was doing and knew that I was growing because of it, the time was well spent.

Top image: The author, Anthony Quesada.  Photo by Robin Johnson for St. Mary’s University.

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Anthony Quesada scored in the 100th percentile on the MCAT. He graduated summa cum laude from St. Mary’s University in May with a bachelor’s degree in Biology and a minor in Chemistry. At St. Mary’s,...