Studying Abroad as a Premed
As an undergraduate premed, study abroad can be a transformational experience and will most likely be a central element in your medical school application. It can fundamentally change the way you see the world. Your experiences living, studying and traveling abroad provide plenty of stories to draw from and experiences to reflect upon in your medical school application. Keep a journal of your experiences and adventures abroad. This will allow you to gather the details in the moment and you can reread and reflect upon them later on.
Work on your language skills either by learning a new language or hone an already existing language. Knowing a language and connecting with another culture through language is very important in life and medicine and can certainly make you stand out to an admissions committee. For example, living with a host family and taking classes in Spanish at an Argentinian university will not only show the medical schools that you have great communication skills in Spanish, but that you are adaptable and can modify your learning style to a new and challenging system.
So at least consider a study abroad experience either during the year or in the summer. With careful planning, anything is possible. Visit your study abroad office, do your research and meet with your advisor to get informed.
Study abroad can not only be an enriching cultural and linguistic experience, but it can offer a diverse assortment of skills that can be very helpful in building a great medical school application. When we refer to the AAMC 15 Core Competencies for Entering Medical School students, I can think of at least 6 competencies you could learn from living overseas: cultural competence, service orientation, oral communication, resilience and adaptability, capacity for improvement, and critical thinking.
Studying abroad will pose many challenges as far as timing and course selection but well worth the effort. Even with the logistical challenges, studying abroad as a premed could play a significant role in your application.
What to study while abroad?
What will you take abroad? Studying abroad can offer many courses not offered at your home institution and can truly enhance your undergraduate curriculum. Consider taking anthropology, political science, biology, public health, language or business studies. The list is endless! Many students do not take science classes abroad but instead focus on language, cultural topics of interest or requirements. Please refer to the Overseas Opportunities page for suggested list of programs.
If you are considering taking the basic PREMED courses abroad or more ADVANCED science coursework, here are some things to consider:
Science is taught differently overseas (and usually at a more advanced level) and therefore if you are looking to take one of the BASIC PREMED CLASSES abroad, please reconsider this choice. Matching a US course with an overseas university course can be challenging. Don't try and take Physics I in Dublin and think it will match up with Physics 2 back at your home campus. Some US universities offer their own Physics class overseas and in this case, this would be appropriate since it has already been evaluated by the US home science department and adopted as their own.
Medical schools evaluate overseas coursework differently. If you take a required basic science abroad you might have to take a more advanced level once you return to the US. Check US medical school websites as they will articulate their policy on premed courses taken overseas. There is a difference between a US sponsored study abroad program and classes taken at a foreign university outside a US study abroad program. AMCAS has a separate tutorial on how to enter study abroad coursework on your AMCAS application so look for this when you apply.
If you have already fulfilled the basic premed classes on campus, then it is fine to take MORE ADVANCED COURSEWORK overseas. Ex.: Cell Biology, Marine Biology, and Physiology. Actually this would be a great talking point somewhere in your application!
Consider using summer school to get back on track with science classes. For example, if you want to study abroad in the fall of your junior year, it is common for students to take Physics I and/or II, for example, in the summer before studying abroad to stay on track. Take the class either at your home institution or at an accredited 4-year college or university.
Please seek on campus guidance to make sure you understand how study abroad will work with your academic plan. You will need to decide 1) when you will study abroad (fall, spring, summer or academic year, SO, JR or SR year), 2) when you will take the MCATs, 3) when you will apply to medical school, 4) ask advisors when typically the transcript will arrive.
When to Study Abroad
There are many options to consider as far as timing of when to study abroad: Summer, Fall, Spring or for the Academic year. Studying abroad takes careful planning and with this anything is possible. Having said that, there are some clear preferences as far as timing.
CONSIDER FALL: If you want to study abroad as a junior and "apply on time", please consider going abroad in the fall instead of the spring of your junior year or consider spring semester SOPH year or in the summer. These options will give you ample time to receive the study abroad transcript and for your school to enter the grades accurately on your home school transcript. It will also give you time to fix any problems associated with late grades, delays or errors on your overseas transcript. Since you will be around in the spring of your junior year, you can study for the MCATs, secure recommendations, and attend application meetings at your school. Most likely you will not have an opportunity to do clinical work abroad so this will give you the spring semester to make sure you have one more clinical experience to reflect upon in the application.
SPRING OR FULL YEAR: If you would like to study abroad for the spring or full year, then strongly consider waiting a year to apply, which is completely fine! If you want to study abroad for the spring or full year AND want to apply "on time" then with very careful planning it CAN be done (i.e. MCAT timing, course planning, transcript timing). Seek assistance from Newport or your advisors to create a plan. I have worked with many successful applicants who went abroad for the spring or year and applied on time with amazing success.
SUMMER: If you are not considering studying abroad during the academic year, consider studying abroad in the summer Work on your language, fulfill a requirement, volunteer, collaborate with a faculty member on a research opportunity abroad, teach English or work at a medical clinic. Create your own opportunity abroad through your church connections, networking and faculty connections. Refer to the International Opportunities page for hints on how to conduct clinical work overseas. Remember, be creative. If the opportunity does not exist, make one!
Studying abroad and studying for the MCATs at the same time is not the best combination. Yes, Kaplan, for example offers test prep classes abroad, but honestly don't waste your valuable study abroad time studying for the MCATs.
Some students aim to take the MCATs before studying abroad. This plan only works if you have taken Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Psychology/Sociology. It also gives you the opportunity to see the MCAT score and determine IF you would like to retake one more time before applying.
Read the article I co-authored entitled International Study in Premedical Education, published in Academic Medicine. We asked what medical school think of study abroad and what they think of science coursework taken abroad. In general, schools find great value in an international education experience but many were skeptical about basic sciences taken abroad due to lack of information. Since this article was written, many schools have adopted competency requirements thus introducing a broader interpretation of how to complete requirements.
Your overseas experiences will play an important role in your application.
It could be part of your transcript if you get credit for the experience.
It will certainly be part of your 15 experiences and maybe selected as one of your Most Meaningful.
It could be the central theme of your personal statement.
It could be part of your secondary application essays.
It might be part of your interview.
Written by Jennifer Nemecek from Newport Premedical Consulting, LLC, your trusted source for premedical advising and consulting services. Call Newport for your free initial consultation.