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Med School Apps and European Travels


Standing outside London
A Pre-Med Journey

Sitting on a ruined wall in England

If you are pre-med like I was, and a little nervous about how study abroad can fit into an already busy schedule of maintaining high grades and completing pre-med requirements, I hope that my story calms those nerves by illustrating how in my case, studying abroad made the process of preparing for med school even easier than staying at Cornell. Studying abroad was one of the best decisions that I made at Cornell, and I encourage you to consider all of your options before choosing to stay at Cornell.

I came up with a plan that allowed me to get all of my medical school and college course requirements in, study a semester abroad and still graduate a semester early!

I was a Human Biology, Health and Society major at Cornell who had always wanted to study abroad. I thought that it would be an adventure of a lifetime, full of new friends, new places, and crazy stories I would tell my children when they were old enough. Still, I almost didn’t do it because during my sophomore year I decided that I wanted to apply to MD/PhD programs (instead of only grad school programs) and, at the time, I thought that this decision meant that it would be impossible to study abroad without taking a gap year—something I was weirdly adamant about not doing.

However (while the details get a little complicated), I came up with a plan that allowed me to get all of my medical school and college course requirements in, study a semester abroad and still graduate a semester early! Figuring out classes just took careful planning completing my research project, on the other hand, took a little luck. First, my PI was supportive of me studying abroad for a semester. Second, the project that I worked on for two semesters happened to be wrapping up just prior to my pre-planned junior spring abroad. I ended up doing some limited data analysis, helping edit our manuscript and writing and submitting my honors thesis proposal while I was abroad.

Given my academic interests, I knew it would be best to go to an English-speaking country where I would have access to a full class roster luckily, both of our study abroad programs approved University College London (UCL).

Laurel with her boyfriend exploring London

I chose to study abroad abroad for many reasons. I was, of course, excited to learn in a different environment. However, for me, it was also importantly an emotional choice. My long-distance boyfriend was attending Rice University and we had romanticized about spending a semester abroad together since freshman year. (So now you know my secret reason for studying abroad, but don’t ever tell your non-academic reason during the med school application process!) Given my academic interests, I knew it would be best to go to an English-speaking country where I would have access to a full class roster luckily, both of our study abroad programs approved University College London (UCL). So, that’s where we went!

In early January, my boyfriend and I moved into a tiny apartment in the Hoxton neighborhood of London and started our six months of adventures. I must admit there were advantages and disadvantages to this situation. I probably didn’t meet as many new people as I might have otherwise, but, for me, it was terrific having my best friend always available to explore the city and travel with.

Outside London

I was in the immunology department at UCL. I took physical chemistry, pathogenic bacteriology, immunology, and psychology classes that I had always wanted to take but had not been able to fit into my busy Cornell schedule - and which I knew would benefit in my future career. Taking the psychology class also served as MCAT preparation. It was interesting to experience the British teaching style and to learn in a smaller class-size setting. 

Yes, as you’ve guessed by now, because I didn’t want to take a gap year, I had to apply to medical school while studying abroad. I hadn’t had time to start studying for the MCAT before going to London and, to participate in the appropriate application cycle, I needed to take the exam in London in May - which ended up right smack dab in the middle of my UCL finals. This  (obviously) was not an optimal situation. But, I was only taking four classes, and I was not working in a lab so I actually had more time to study for the MCAT while I was abroad than I would have had at Cornell. I was simply made styding for the MCAT my fifth class.

This did sometimes mean foregoing some of the amazing opportunities that our new city and travels had to offer but all in all I was able to do a lot. Even this "five-class" schedule allowed me enough time to explore London's museums on Wednesdays when we didn't have classes. I found the time to go to Ireland during reading week and to spend over a month traveling Europe with just a backpack and my boyfriend. I had to be efficient, studying in the evenings during our travels as well as throughout the rest of the semester. But, in the end, I go the MCAT score I was hoping for and didn't need to sacrifice many adventures in order to get it.

I found the time to go to Ireland during reading week and to spend over a month traveling Europe with just a backpack and my boyfriend. I had to be efficient, studying in the evenings during our travels as well as throughout the rest of the semester.  

A wild sheep playing king of the hill in the English Lake District

When finals (including the MCAT) were over, I still had a week left before flying back home. I used it to take a "writing" vacation in the Lake District of England. I spent my time taking daily walks and writing my primary med school application so that I would be ready to submit it on the first day that the application cycle opened. Getting away from the city and clearing my head by walking through the English countryside helped me recover mentally from the MCAT/finals and help me reflect on what I really wanted out of my future education and career. I highly recommend this application strategy if you find yourself in England with time on your hands!

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that many medical school interviewers found my combined application/study abroad strategy interesting. Interviewers often asked me what it was like to take the MCAT in London and how I fit in studying for it while abroad. 

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that many medical school interviewers found my combined application/study abroad strategy interesting. Interviewers often asked me what it was like to take the MCAT in London and how I fit in studying for it while abroad. The interviewers were impressed by the organization needed to balance the responsibilities of my study abroad experience with my goal of applying to MD/PhD programs without taking a gap year.  

On the beach in EnglandMy experience abroad also helped me build a personal connection with the interviewers. When the serious intervier conversations wound down, interviewers often asked me more about my travels and shared their own stories.

More than anything else, I think my study abroad experience allowed me to grow personally. I was someone who had prioritized something other than "just school" for a while, and I had done something that I was passionate about, something that didn't check a box on the standard pre-med application. 

Studying abroad can serve as an excellent conversation starter. It makes you stand out and helps you connect with interviewers on a deeper level. More than that, it is an opportunity you may never get a chance to do again.

During the interview process, I noticed that many pre-med interviewers were looking for something unique about me to talk about. In almost every interview, I was invariably asked about my study abroad experience or about my work in prisons through the Cornell Prison Education Program (a friend of mine was primarily asked about her bee-keeper hobby). Studying abroad can serve as an excellent conversation starter. It makes you stand out and helps you connect with interviewers on a deeper level. More than that, it is an opportunity you may never get a chance to do again. I know that the memories of our travels and our love for adventure will stay with us for years to come.

This unconventional study abroad/medical school application journey of mine was pretty successful. I applied to 13 MD/PhD programs, interviewed at seven, and was accepted to four: Dartmouth, UC Davis, UC Denver, and Johns Hopkins.

I am here to tell you that you will not sacrifice anything by studying abroad. I believe that my study abroad experience only improved my medical school applications, my undergraduate experience, my romantic relationship, and my general well-being. If you find yourself hesitating to take the study abroad plunge, talk to a Cornell counselor and consider all your options carefully. You'll be amazed to discover just how many options there are for you!

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