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Why Preparing for Premed in the Summer Holidays is Too Late

Summer preparation for premed is too late
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Every year, we talk to hundreds of year 13 students from all around the country. Consistently, there is an overwhelming trend of doing the bulk of preparation after year 13 has finished, during the December to February holidays.

This decision could, without exaggeration, single-handedly crush your chances of entering medical school.

We see this every single year: students leaving their preparation until December, usually feeling quite confident by February, then 3 or 4 weeks into the semester, realising that they have severely underestimated premed and usually prepared for the wrong things!

When time is limited, we need to prioritise the aspects that make the biggest difference, while de-prioritising the things that aren’t likely to help as much.

Disclaimer

To be clear, you don’t have to prepare early for premed, however it is much safer to.

Many students will get into medical school with no or minimal preparation, but if we take 100 students that have done minimal preparation, only 3 or 4 may be successful. If we take 100 students that have done good quality preparation, in the right way, 70 or 80 of them may be successful. While we are strongly opposed to the idea that you must pay for a course to enter medical school (which we know to be false), we strongly support the idea of creating safe plans that have a higher chance of success, instead of relying on luck (if the outcome is very important to you).

What do most students do?

To understand why most students shouldn’t start in December, we need to first understand how to correctly prioritise. One famous framework used in industries around the world is the Eisenhower Matrix, shown below.

The problem is that most students think along these lines:

  1. During premed year, I’m going to try really hard
  2. I will study as much as possible and this will work because I am dedicated and committed
  3. During year 13 I need to focus on getting my Excellences or scholarships
  4. In the summer holidays, I can focus on prestudying the material and doing lots of UCAT practice questions to get a competitive advantage

Even parents think of their child’s plan in very similar ways.

However when we actually think about this, it doesn’t logically make sense. Let’s look at each of these statements to see exactly why thinking this way can dramatically reduce your chances of success.

1. Trying hard in premed year

There is no question that hard work is needed to enter medical school. I don’t think there is a single premedical student out there who thought premed was “easy”. However what’s important is to clearly understand this:

Working hard does not make you special. Hard work is the norm.

Justin teaching a group of students about interview
Every single student here is a hard worker.

Of the 2000 students at the University of Auckland or Otago that are entering premedical first year, 70 to 80% of them are prepared to work harder than they ever have before. How many people do you know that are entering premed that aren’t preparing to work their hardest?

Working hard is a good way to separate you from the crowd in high school since most students are not working very hard. In premed university, working hard means you aren’t in the bottom 20% of the crowd, but it certainly is nowhere near enough to bring you to the top 6 to 8% necessary to be accepted.

Hard work is a pre-requisite, not a differentiator.

2. I will be successful because I am committed and determined

Much like the last point, this is unfortunately idealistic. How determined you are has no direct impact on your actual outcomes. Again, the reason is simply because everyone around you is just as determined (or even more)!

How great it would be if just wanting something actually meant you got it. Unfortunately, this is not how things work and the majority of the 93% of students who fail to enter medical school weren’t stumbling due to lack of determination.

3. During year 13, I need to focus on Excellences and scholarships

If you go and have a look at the Eisenhower matrix, you might notice something interesting.

Year 13 grades are only important to get you the minimum university entrance to sit the premedical program. High school grades are not ranked whatsoever for medical entry, which means that someone who barely makes it into premed is technically no different to someone that aced every single exam.

This means that year 13 grades are relatively urgent, but not that important, because there is no difference in consequence between doing “pretty well” vs “really well”.

So what’s the harm in doing better in year 13?

The harm is that it can take time away from other things, which brings us to point number 4…

4. Cramming prestudy and UCAT in the summer holidays

The only possible, logical, rational way that this strategy can work is if all of the following conditions are met:

  1. You are able to study premed material, which is at a volume roughly equivalent to your entire high school academic life combined, in just 3 months
  2. You are able to retain most of this crammed material, despite probably never having this level of retention any other time in your life where you have crammed
  3. This retention lasts until your premed exams to a level where it is actually helpful, which is, again, like studying 4 or 5 years of high school material, then retaining 90% of it for 5 months
  4. This strategy is uncommon and therefore provides a unique advantage
  5. Having a headstart is enough of an advantage to overcompensate for any deficiencies in daily studying skill and abilities and allow a top 6 to 8% result
  6. It’s possible to get good enough at UCAT through doing lots of practice questions to score competitively after just 2 or 3 months of preparation

If even one of these conditions is not true, this strategy has no logical way of working. In reality, NONE of these conditions are true!

Have you ever crammed for an exam? If you have, you know that a week after your exam, that knowledge has leaked out of your brain and half of it is nowhere to be found. Now imagine all of highschool is assessed in a single exam, where you need to get over 90%, and you’re assessed on it every 6 weeks for 10 months. How effective do you think cramming will be? Are you willing to bet your medical school entry on it?

Every single year, we tell students not to rely on cramming things into the summer holidays and to our great frustration, students ignore this advice, instead listening to their family friend who has a daughter that’s some random 3rd year medical student who said “no you’ll be fine to just do xyz”.

Then, 2 or 3 months later, those exact same students come back to us in deep regret, realising that their one chance at first year premed entry is completely out the window halfway through their first semester. This is extremely common. In fact, most students (that aren’t working with us) will fall into this kind of pattern.

Would you rather get advice from the student who did well, or the person who taught the student (and 4000 more) to do well?

Here is a challenge for you. Don’t take my word for it. Go and find a student who was NOT successful and ask them about their experience. You might notice that their advice is strangely very different from a successful student. That’s because successful students don’t always know why they were successful! We’re in a position where we have seen thousands of students going through this journey. We know what works consistently and what requires a lot of luck!

What should I really prioritise?

We know that there are two things that take much longer than anything else.

  1. Study skills to a nationally top achieving level
  2. UCAT to a relatively high standard

The average time it takes for a Merit to Excellence level student to achieve study skills to a safe premed level is 4 months going through a guided course. The average time without guidance is about 4 years.

Sound unbelievable? Why else do you think 93% of students that achieve the rank score of near Excellence to enter premed still fail to get enough A+’s to enter medical school?

201820192020
Approximate percentage of premed students applying to medical school after semester 1 results come out24%22%16%
Approximate percentage of Excellence-level students failing to enter medical school after enrolling into premed93.5%92.5%93.3%
Lowest core paper grades (Auckland) to enter medical schoolAll A’sAll A’s3 A’s, 1 A+
Around 75% of first year premed students don’t even apply for medical school once their semester 1 grades are released.

Study skills

Is it possible to enter medical school successfully without working on study skills at all?

Theoretically yes, but you have a statistical chance of less than 5%. And remember, if your secret weapon is hard work, that isn’t very secret and not much of a weapon.

But there’s more:

  • We also know that it’s much harder to improve study skills without real academic pressure
  • Real academic pressure fades after year 13 exams finish
  • Starting preparation during exam season of year 13 makes timing awkward because you have to split your attention between new skills and revising for exams

Therefore, we recommend students to start preparing by improving their study skills intensively in July or August at latest.

Because most students fail to enter medical school due to inadequate grades, rather than poor UCAT or interview scores, having study skills that are not highly refined is easily the biggest barrier to medical entry. Most students underestimate this. Most students don’t make it in.

UCAT

When it comes to UCAT, because this is a skills-based test and not a knowledge-based test, it is neurochemically impossible to “cram” it and gain competence. It’s literally not possible.

Cramming UCAT practice is like trying to become a professional athlete in 3 months. At a certain point, “more practice” actually is not making you any better because you may not be practising it the right way, or it just physically needs more time to train your brain.

We recommend students to start UCAT preparation early and spread approximately 150 to 200 hours of preparation across at least 6 months to 1 year.

It’s important to do this in year 13 because the academic pressure of premed is so great that you do not want to be worrying about UCAT preparation during the semester while you’re also trying to get 90-95%+ on your papers for, by far, the hardest academic year you’ve ever had.

What about prestudying?

Prestudying the premed papers is only effective if you are able to retain it and learn it deeply at the premed university A+ level. Otherwise, this takes time away from study skills and UCAT, which will fundamentally put you out of the game completely.

Once you have achieved a certain level of study skills mastery, work on your premed material.

We recommend achieving a level where Outstanding Scholarships should be relatively straightforward. This level is recommended because an A+ in one paper is still more challenging than an outstanding scholarship. Depending on the paper, the difference between outstanding scholarship and an A+ may be quite considerable.

In summary

Most students:

  1. Think that working hard or being dedicated makes them special – it doesn’t
  2. Believe cramming in the summer holidays actually helps them when it matters – it doesn’t help enough
  3. Cram UCAT – if you weren’t already excellent, cramming isn’t going to make you much better
  4. Don’t work on study skills during year 13 because they either think they are good enough (statistically very unlikely) or they believe that the summer holidays is enough time (usually you would need around 4 months with academic pressure)

Most students:

  1. Regret all of the above decisions
  2. Don’t make it into medical school

Don’t be scared

The reason I tell you this is not to make you feel like you can’t make it in. The reason I tell you is because this is the truth. Whether you like it or not, this is what you will experience in premed.

Knowing about it now at least gives you the opportunity to do something about it. What you do with this information is now up to you, but I believe that the illusion of confidence will not help you. In my opinon, it certainly isn’t worth avoiding the thought and effort (and maybe discomfort or inconvenience) of creating a real plan based on facts that improves your chances of successful medical entry.

Especially if the cost of messing up your first year is $7000 of university fees, one year of your life and potentially another $15,000 and 2 years to finish your degree to try again as a graduate.

In the thousands of students I’ve worked with, I know that most students have what it takes to make it in successfully. But what is rare is to see students that do what needs to be done. I believe this is the real differentiator.

Talk to an expert

If you want to speak with us about your plan, situation and concerns, book in a consultation below.

We can discuss with you and give you our recommendations and a month-by-month timeline of what you need to do to get premed ready the right way. If you are interested and if we think it is appropriate, we can also discuss membership options that can assist you in achieving your goals, but as a registered not-for-profit, our primary focus is on helping you to succeed.

A personalised strategy for medical entry

Book your free, no-obligation 30-minute consultation with our expert advisor now!

You don’t know what you don’t know. Most students we have worked with massively underestimate some aspects of medical entry while overestimating others. Leave your consultation with a clear understanding of where your current position is and exactly what you need to do to optimise your chances of medical entry.

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About the author
Justin Sung
Justin Sung
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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