What I Wish I Knew Before Biomed
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I’m just going to say it; good lord, first-year biomed was hell.

The worst part was the uncertainty- the infamous phrase “will I get in?” It was hanging over my head on a near-constant basis, but also the sacrifice of my mental and physical health, and dealing with normal life issues that every student faces meant it was… unpleasant.

If I could do it again (never), I would change so many things, but I must say that ultimately I am proud of the person I tried to be this year. In the end, I tried my best, and I can say this with full satisfaction; that feeling of accomplishment was truly enough.

But you’re not here for my mental soliloquy so here are…

10 things I wish I knew before my Biomed journey.

1. Life doesn’t stop

This is a big one.

It’s easy to fall into thinking that your year is going to be a silo filled only with you studying and sleeping. Wash rinse and repeat, like a washing machine. Newsflash, you are not a machine.

You are not a washing machine
No, stop trying. It doesn’t work that way.

Life will go on, so be prepared to deal with falling outs, family conflict, financial problems and just anything life can throw at you.

It’s stuff every uni student faces, and though your study cave is very real, it is not a silo, and the wind is going to blow in all sorts at you along the way. These experiences reminded me that survival means adapting- being flexible. Learning how to deal with whatever curveballs come your way.

That’s an invaluable trait to have and once you get better at it, it’ll mean reducing stress in that first year which is vital to more productive studying.

2. Nothing is the end of the world (read: stop catastrophising)

However, you are still going to spend an extraordinary time on your studies- as you should, you typical little premedder, you; so getting into medicine may feel like the be-all-and-end-all.

People said to me that there is more to life than medicine, and every error like a bad test grade, not understanding a concept or missing some lectures does not mean you won’t “get in”.

*Nothing* is the end of the world, especially for medical entry.

I truly understood that myself only halfway in, and it will be something a lot of you will learn by yourselves as you go through the year. But when you do- it gives you enormous comfort and strength to continue.

Nothing means the end of the wor- okay maybe some things.

3. Learn harder

You won’t understand every single thing the first time.

If you don’t understand something, seek other sources actively. Unlike NCEA, there are so many youtube videos, so many textbooks explaining your course content in different ways. You just need to find the explanation that clicks.

Ask friends as well! Try to get a group together where you run through convoluted concepts and tricky past exam questions. This is particularly helpful for MEDSCI 142 and a bit of CHEM 110 (especially since they don’t release exams for past papers for MEDSCI 142)… I could have a whole other article on study tips, quite frankly. My overarching advice would be to find techniques that work for you and do not delay revising lectures and maximise the time you have (especially between lectures!).

4. No one can predict the end result

So stop thinking about it. Trying to think about it does not control the end result.

I spent my first semester just feeling dumb, inadequate, and thinking about whether I would get in. Future student, you too might face this issue like so many of us did.

You will think this. And you are.
You will think this. And you are.

Don’t be afraid to talk to people. Have a support network and be open and vulnerable with people you trust. You are going to need it.

There is no well-worn path to follow to get to the end result. Everyone is on their own individual journey since so many factors make up medical entry at UOA. This means you don’t have to be so insecure about what you’re doing nor be worried about what others are doing! There can be a lot of that “oh they’re doing that so I should too”, but this year is more about self-discovery than you think, so take every opportunity to know what works for you, and don’t go back to primary school by taking up classes or buy a certain textbook just because someone else does it.

5. The only person you should compete with is yourself.

So yes, let’s address the elephant in the room- the competition.

Medicine is notoriously competitive, and many will have heard the horror stories of burned notes, botched experiments and more. Personally, I didn’t face any of this, but I had friends who have experienced it to a lesser degree.

All of this competitive reputation enforces the idea of this rat race, so it is easy to compare yourself constantly to the many, many students around us vying for the same spot. Even students who get straight A+ will have rocky times and it is important to remember everyone faces hardships even though we may not see them.

Remember to humanise the people around you instead of villainising them as your opponents. It’s only harming you to have that competitive mindset – especially in the long run. The only person you should want to best is yourself. Just try a little bit harder or go the extra centimetre than you did the day before.

You're only competing with yourself
You’re only competing with yourself.

When you screw up, reflect, be honest, and try harder. Remember, nothing is the end of the world and failure is only a failure if nothing is learnt from it.

6. But also know when to stop (something I did this year).

I remember one time I was at my desk attempting to study lecture 20 of BIOSCI 107. I had the course guide out, everything ready to go and as I looked at the page to start, a mental cork popped off and I just started crying my eyes out.

Over the course of semester one, that happened a couple more times.

I kept burning myself out – burnout is absolutely no joke. I should have known when to stop and found ways to reduce my emotional baggage. 

💬 Note from Justin: A famous story about a psychologist says that she walked around a room holding a glass with water in it. Everyone expected her to ask if it was half full or half empty. She said that it doesn’t matter how empty or full it is, because if you don’t put it down, your arm will eventually get tired.

If you don’t learn to stop and put the glass down, you will be stopped. The glass will fall.

7. You’re going to hit a wall. A lot.

One of the most memorable experiences this year was when I would be sitting at my desk feeling like I had nothing at ALL left to give.

Simply, I just couldn’t do it anymore.

That feeling sucked, and you will probably feel this too. However, instead of being frustrated with yourself as I was when these moments hit, take a moment to reflect on maybe why your body feels like this. I realised I hit the wall most when I had a week of very little sleep. Basically – TAKE A BREAK! Your study is about efficiency, and if you are running on empty, you may as well not be studying at all.

The thing about a wall is that they look endless. Zoom out enough and you'll realise there's usually a door.
The thing about a wall is that they look impenetrable. Zoom out enough and you’ll realise there’s usually a door.

8. Be prepared to not succeed.

Medicine is an aspiration for so many people. It is also not everyone’s job – and it shouldn’t be!

This career is not for everyone. Neither is that first year of premed. That first POPLHLTH 111 test is the first test of the year, and notorious for its difficulty. This first year isn’t a walk in the park, and some sail (some always do), but most won’t.

Find your alternative option if this doesn’t work and do your research over the entire year. This can include postgraduate entry into medicine (in NZ or even overseas), a research career, paramedicine, nursing, other clinical degrees or any other degree. The best way to do this is to talk to people. I spoke to Justin over the year, reached out to my tutors, peers, course co-ordinators, the science resource centre, and family/family friends. You don’t know what you don’t know, and every bit of information helps. 

💬 Note from Justin: Alternative pathways to help people outside of medicine is a topic I’m very involved and passionate about. I’m always happy to talk about this. I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

9. You don’t have to do this.

I remember my dad telling me all the time that I will deal with the consequences of my life. Even though they may tell me to do something, me doing or not doing it will only affect me, so make the right decisions.

Really think about whether you want to go through premed to get into medicine. Medicine is no walk in the park even once you get your MBChB. If you really don’t know if this is for you, find out what is! Once again- research. Your long term satisfaction and happiness is worth more than just doing a degree like medicine for the sake of it/for the glory. The novelty of anything wears off.

10. And finally; just try your best, and really do let go of the rest.

I had to learn how far my control over the situation extends because quite frankly I can’t control how others do, or if they accept me, only my own work (duh). But to stop worrying about things I clearly couldn’t control was hard.

This is not the inside of your brain. Which means you can't control everything.
This is not the inside of your brain. Which means you can’t control everything.

It had to be done, and when it was, I felt much less pressure.

In the end, if you try hard enough, you have plenty to be proud of – and that’s what we are really seeking.

Final Words (For Now)

I am excited for what lies ahead this year, and though I was successful this year, I had a lot to improve on and need to improve on to keep myself healthy in the coming years. However, though I say that though Biomed was awful, I made amazing friends, lost some too; learnt a few things about epithelium, but about myself as well.

I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.

Above all, as they say in Switzerland, “courage” to you. This year is not about luck, it is about you- make the most of yourself, and look after yourself. 

I heard something last year in a VlogBrothers’ video that really stuck with me and helped me make peace with the ninth circle of hell around me – I hope it will make sense to you too; 

“These are the days that must happen to you.”

Professional Reviewer

This article has been checked for quality and reliability by…

Justin Sung
Dr Justin Sung
MBChB, BMedSci (Hons – First Class), Cert Adult Learning and Teaching

Justin is a medical doctor, University of Auckland graduate, published research author, certified teacher, and founder of JTT. He has assisted thousands of students into healthcare careers since 2011, making him New Zealand’s individually most experienced medical entry expert. He regularly works with schools and organisations to help students and professionals learn more effectively.

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