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Q&A on the Journey to Medical School


Amanda Nelson ’12
Amanda Nelson ’12

What was your post-grad journey?

My high school friends will tell you that I always planned to be a doctor. But when I found my Hamilton science classes significantly more challenging than my AP ones, I became stuck in a fixed mindset thinking, “I’m not good at this class, and nothing will change that.” So I went through Hamilton decidedly not “pre-med.” I double-majored in biology and creative writing thinking that maybe my career path would lead me to non-profit work or science reporting.  

And then in my senior year, I couldn’t get the idea of medical school out of my head. Having interned at a non-profit over the summer, I realized that I needed more human interaction in my career—I didn’t want to write about helping people, I wanted to be the one helping! I spoke with the pre-med advisor at the time, and learned that many people from Hamilton had done post-bac programs to finish up their requirements and had successfully gone on to medical school. 

When I graduated college in 2012, though I didn’t have a place in medical school yet, I had a plan to get there. I applied for more jobs than I could count at the University of California San Francisco and was eventually hired as a research technician at an immunology lab about a month later. My partner grew up in the Bay Area and had moved out there two years before my college graduation. 

For four years, I worked in the lab and took post-baccalaureate classes at University of California, Berkeley Extension. I would work a full day at the lab and then commute an hour to Berkeley, take my class, and then commute back to San Francisco, finally getting home around 11 p.m. . During one particularly grueling stretch, I also took MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) preparation classes while managing Organic Chemistry II and my lab job. 

What is your advice for getting a non-formal post-bac degree?

Having a job and taking post-bac classes at the same time was a huge commitment, and very stressful. I was always split in two directions in terms of my energy and time. But it allowed me to live in a vibrant city and make friends outside of the pre-med community (both in the lab and through roommates). I also felt that stepping out of the role as purely “student” was really helpful for my personal growth. Part of my success in medical school, especially in the clinical years, has been the experience of having a job and treating medical school as seriously as I did my employment. 

My post-bac classes were also much, much more affordable than a formal post-bac program. Formal programs can be very expensive. They are also full-time, which means that you need loan money and/or family money to seriously consider this option, especially if you don’t have family living within commuting distance from a university. It’s also important to remember that a large portion of people also take out loans to cover the cost of medical school, and that loans for a post-bac program will add to your overall debt burden. 

Enrolling in a non-formal post-bac program is an option that I think is more open to alumni of colleges like Hamilton. Even though I had graduated years ago and lived across the country, I was able to stay in touch with the Hamilton Career Center. They filled the advising role that most formal post-bac programs have and provided great advice that helped me navigate the application process. So don’t be afraid to reach out to people at Hamilton’s Career Center, even if it’s been a couple years and all your meetings happen via video chat! 

What did you personally do to prepare yourself for applying to medical school?

When I started applying to medical school, it was easy to compare myself to the “ideal” applicant who had been president of the pre-med society of their college, got an A+ in organic chemistry, volunteered in the hospital for 500 hours, had gotten their EMT certification, and worked as a scribe before applying. And I’m not dismissing the work it takes to put together that kind of resume—all of those things are wonderful and that person is definitely going to medical school! 

But that resume is not mine, and that was also OK. To get my application “ready” for medical school, I had to focus instead on what was special about me, rather than what I felt I was lacking. A medical school class can’t be 100% neuroscience researchers or emergency room doctors—it also needs plastic surgeons, future educators, pathologists, and family medicine clinicians. I was interested in women’s health, so I volunteered as a doula—a labor and delivery coach—at San Francisco General Hospital. I focused my essays and my application on my love for people and their stories. A medical school application does have some general requirements (volunteering, shadowing, clinical experience), but how you choose to fill that space can be a very powerful message about who you are and the kind of doctor you’d like to become.

How did you get through the hardest parts of applying to medical school?

Throughout applying, I was very worried about the idea of not getting in, and whether all the work I’d done and sacrifices I’d made during my post-bac would be “worth it.” Looking back on that time in my life, I’m incredibly proud of what I accomplished for its own sake, and that all that work was worth it because it made me who I am. 

To get through all of these feelings, I really needed to lean on the people around me. After I took the MCAT the first time, I was not happy with my score and knew I would need to retake it if I wanted to have a shot at getting in. I remember sitting on the couch, looking at my partner and asking, “Can I do this?” It was a very serious question, and he looked right back at me and said, “Yes, you can. Let’s figure it out.” You need people in your life who never doubt you, even when you doubt yourself. That person can be a parent, a partner, or a friend, but it has to be someone.

Similarly, during the application process, I remember going over to friends’ houses and talking about their jobs, our pets, our families—anything BUT medicine. In those moments, I was reminded that I was a person outside of medicine, and that I had people around me who loved me for things that had nothing to do with my career. My non-medical friends, including Hamilton friends, continue to be the people who provide the most clarity and perspective when I’ve made other important career decisions or faced challenges.

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