How To: Stay Sane and Balance the Pre-Med Life

By: Nina Paletta

Sixteen hours of class. Research lab. Extracurricular after extracurricular. Volunteer work. Friends. Sleep. Tests. Homework. Applications. Welcome back to school!

It seems as though as soon as you arrive back on the University of Georgia campus, you have to hit the ground running. As a pre-med student, you know that you have a daunting task at hand – to make yourself stand out to medical school admissions boards when the time comes. You know you have to have stellar grades, a course load that rivals something that Einstein would have taken in his prime and an impressive resume filled with leadership roles, volunteer work and research galore. This feat may sound easy for, say, a robot – robots do not need to eat or sleep or decompress at the end of the day. But what about us poor, normal non-mechanical pre-med souls? Not only do we have to balance all things scholastic, but we also have our social and mental needs. I can tell you right now, if you sit and work 24/7 like the medical school admissions boards standards seem to dictate, you will go a little nutty. So what’s the key? How can you be the star student and keep your sanity?

Throughout high school, I was always able to manage my time well; but when the nitty-gritty of my pre-med years hit, I found myself floundering. Some people will get overwhelmed and go overboard with their social lives. Other people (like myself) will throw themselves into their academics and somehow forget to come up for air. Yet another group of people will be consumed by extracurriculars in the attempts to build the ultimate resume. In the throes of premedical training, it seems as though rationalism and logical thinking are thrown out of the window so that the impossible can be achieved. Health takes a back seat. Sleep becomes a foreign concept. The balance of all of these aspects that make up a pre-med student is not something that comes easily. I still find myself struggling with it sometimes and I am in my last year as an undergraduate student. As elusive as this balance may be, however, it is possible. The key is more than just time-management. The key to keeping your sanity when your pre-med career is in full swing is acceptance, delegation and self-preservation. I may not be an expert, but through my time as a premedical student at the University of Georgia, I have discovered some of tricks to keeping your sanity. As counter intuitive as some may sound, you will thank me later:

Photo credit: jonwatson / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: jonwatson / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

1.     Sleep is your best friend. I know everyone says that. You are probably so sick of people telling you to get sleep; but sleep is probably the biggest key to success you will ever find. As premedical students, we sometimes comply with such frivolous statements until we know the scientific “why” mechanism showing the benefit, so here is why:

Studies have shown that sleep is an important aspect of the learning process both in information acquisition and consolidation. Dr. Robert Stickgold, a sleep division specialist at Harvard Medical School, has shown that sleep both before and after trying to learn new information is essential. If the brain is too fatigued from lack of sleep before information is presented, the memory circuits that cause new information to be processed will not be working at full capacity. This causes a decrease in the amount of information that can be taken in at one time. Also, after the new information has been presented, the brain needs time to process the new memories. Declarative memories are stored by changing the way that neurons interact with one another in the hippocampus and other areas of the temporal lobe. Sleep allows the body to transform the initial neuronal signals into stable, strong neuronal connections to create the declarative memories.

Since this is the case, be sure to get your sleep. Do not be afraid of naptime. Make up for all of those times you fought naptime in kindergarten and sleep if you are tired during the day (just, please, make sure you are not in class). Do not pull the double all-nighter you think you can handle. If things are not getting done, do what you can and give up for the night. Accept that you cannot possibly do everything there is to do in one given day and get some sleep. You will be able to better recall information and have the ability to get more out of class when you do.

2.     Choose your schedule wisely. Yes, there are certain classes that you need to take. Yes, you need to take some classes before others. You do not, however, need to take them all at once. Overloading yourself with too many difficult classes in one semester is one of the biggest mistakes you can avoid. Although you may start off with wonderful intentions (“I’ll have more than enough time to get everything done! It won’t be as hard as I think it’s going to be!” Sound familiar?), you need to expect classes to be more involved than you anticipate. The reading will take longer. The writing assignments will take more research. Studying for two or three tests you have on the same day will take more than an afternoon. Give yourself more time than you think you need. Only take two intensive science classes per semester if need be. If you try to take genetics, cellular biology, and biochemistry in the same semester, you will cry. Every day. And that is neither fun nor healthy. Make sure you have some fun classes sprinkled in with the hard stuff. That is what electives are for, right? Once you make your schedule, set a study plan. Create a schedule for the week that sets aside time for that big homework assignment or that test that is on the horizon. If you have a set study plan, you will be more likely to stick to it and less likely to be overwhelmed.

3.     Reevaluate and delegate when it comes to extracurriculars. One of the perks of going to a college like the University of Georgia is the plethora of extracurriculars oozing from the campus’ pores. Everywhere you look there is a poster, flyer or email advertising a different club or organization for you to consider joining. That being said, this can also be one of the most detrimental things for a pre-med student. Even though it might seem like medical school admissions boards want you to be involved in everything under the sun, it is not possible. Let me repeat that – IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO DO EVERYTHING. Pick a few extracurriculars that you are passionate about and become involved with those. Medical schools want to see your deep commitment to a few organizations, not flippant, occasional participation in every organization you come across. If you feel like you are already in too deep and have overcommitted yourself, take a step back and reevaluate. Don’t really care about a particular club anymore? Stop attending the meetings. Took on too many leadership positions and are drowning? Delegate the work if you can, or talk to someone in the organization so that everything can get accomplished. You cannot take on everything thrown at you, so pick and choose the things you see as most important.

4.     Make sure to have a support system. There is nothing easy about being a pre-med student. It involves long hours in the library, difficult classes of which some people cannot even pronounce the names and sacrificing some of the “typical college” experiences to get you where you want to end up – medical school. For most, the long hours and difficult classes will eventually take their toll. You will get frustrated and overwhelmed sometimes and that is okay – it happens to all of us! What helps us through is having a strong support system behind you. Friends, family, classmates – you need to have people who understand and who are on your side for the bad days. At the end of the day, sometimes you just need a hug or a kind word to help encourage you through what is the hardest thing you have tried to accomplish thus far in your life. Do not try to take it on alone.

5.     Schedule in some “you time.” This is what I struggled with the most. Even though you need to work extremely hard to keep your grades up and work with extracurriculars and volunteer organizations, you need to make sure that your mental health is taken care of, too. Like I said before, if you drive yourself into the ground by working 24/7, you will go crazy. It is not healthy for you to throw yourself into your academics and volunteer work and never come up for air. Remember, you are still in college, pre-med or not. Be sure to take some time off. Go home if you need to. Spending months away from your family is hard on anyone; and if that is combined with the stress of a pre-medical regiment, it needs to be addressed every now and again. Take spontaneous trips with your friends. Go see that concert that you have been fantasizing about since you were a teenager. Everyone’s going to that party? Go with them. Let loose. Having some health issues? Take a “mental health” day. Go get a massage. Lay in bed all day and watch TV every now and again. Let yourself decompress. We are not robots. We need to have human interaction and let ourselves de-stress in order to stay sane. Do not forget to live your life.

No one said pre-med was easy. There are days when you are going to wonder why you wanted to do it in the first place. However, if you can remember the keys to staying sane, you will be able to get through it in one piece. You will be a doctor someday, and you will look back on this time in your life and smile, even though it seems hard now. Just remember – even robots need to recharge their batteries at the end of the day. Do not forget to recharge yours.