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Premed in a pandemic: The student perspective of applying to medical school in the age of COVID-19

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University of Arizona student Nadia Clarke discusses the challenges of being a pre-medical student during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare system has been strained to its limits as it attempts to accommodate a rapid influx of patients. Many hospitals are at or near capacity and facing issues related to understaffing. Meanwhile, a record number of pre-medical students submitted applications this year, hoping to one day join the medical field.

Medical school applications require both a rigorous course load as well as a slew of extracurriculars that often include research, clinical shadowing and volunteering. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, students are required to take the Medical College Admissions Test, a seven-and-a-half-hour standardized test on science fundamentals. 

The COVID-19 pandemic greatly disrupted every part of the application process with classes and volunteer opportunities shifting online. MCAT exams were canceled and the format of the exam was shortened to accommodate these circumstances. 

In order to learn more about how the pandemic impacted pre-medical students, the Daily Wildcat spoke with junior physiology major and Alpha Epsilon Delta social chair Nadia Clarke about her experience navigating both a competitive application process and a global pandemic. 

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Daily Wildcat: Can you tell me a bit about where you are in your pre-med journey so far?

Nadia Clarke: I’m a physiology major and a biochemistry and public health minor, so I do have a majority of my credits done. I plan to take the MCAT in March, so I’m currently studying for that. After that, I’ll be applying, and the deadline for applications is towards the end of June, so I have to have everything completed — like my applications, my rec letters, my MCAT scores before then. I’m currently volunteering. I’m currently doing research, all that good stuff.

DW: How would you describe how COVID-19 has impacted your ability to build an application for med school?

NC: A lot of the things I participated in were canceled. For example, all the undergrads were kicked out of the lab I was working with. So that was a little hard to hear. Then, I know Banner [Hospital] shut down. I’ve been volunteering at the hospital since I was a junior in high school. 

I’m currently volunteering at a clinic in South Tucson. It’s called Clinica Amistad, and there’s a lot more precautions, obviously. We have to separate appointment times a lot more, and we’re doing temperature checks, and now everyone does a COVID-19 questionnaire prior to coming in to check for symptoms.

I’m also a volunteer at another Tucson organization called Tu Nidito. I work with kids who are either grieving the loss of a loved one or are trying to make sense of a diagnosis. We would go in and sit with these kids and give them an environment where they feel comfortable to be able to talk about death and the permanence of death. But now, with everything happening and since they are so high risk, we have to do it over Zoom. 

That can be extremely difficult because they are kids. As college students it’s been difficult enough for us to sit in front of a classroom for an hour-and-a-half, but to make a three-to-six-year-old try to sit in front of a Zoom and talk about subjects such as death; that’s been especially difficult and heartbreaking overall. 

DW: Schools across the nation have transitioned to mostly online learning. Do you feel like this has affected your academic experience? 

NC: It’s been weird because there have been pros and cons to being on Zoom. For example, I can be in multiple places at once. I can be writing an email, and I can be in a Zoom meeting. That has actually helped greatly because I’m taking 26 credits. So it’s been a lot easier to focus on multiple things at once. Especially being a premed, that was one of the biggest difficulties being in person — like you can’t be at multiple places at once. 

But while it has been nice being flexible, it has also been difficult because I’m not getting in-person instruction. To even go as far to how the medical school process has changed for applications, a lot of times if you’re getting interviewed, we would have MMIs — which are Multiple Mini Interviews. 

We would go and you would act out scenarios with the person interviewing you. Besides your MCAT score and extracurriculars, the interview is such a huge factor in you actually getting into med school. So not being able to have that emotional connection does make it a little bit more difficult. It’s not the same as being in person. 

DW: Being in a pandemic, we are seeing a bit more of the perspective and struggles of health care workers. Do you think this has impacted your attitude towards health care professions and what you want to do? 

NC: It’s really opened my eyes to how little people care about the actual health of health care workers even though frontline workers are praised at the moment.

You go on social media, you go on all these platforms and you see people partying one moment, and then you see a healthcare worker crying that they have to hold the hands of someone dying. It’s such a weird dichotomy. 

I think it’s been really tough to see people who are premeds just also not care. That’s the weirdest part for me. You will see some people just blatantly not care about the fact that there’s a pandemic despite them wanting to go into a healthcare field which is so contradictory.

DW: What has your quarantine experience been like?

NC: I currently live alone. It’s been really hard to be in a constant environment where I have to keep focusing. I’ve been here for the last year just stuck in one place. 

What I’ve found helpful is going to the medical library on campus. Obviously, they’re really following the strict CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines. I think just changing up my environment every so often has really helped. 

DW: Do you have any advice for pre-medical students that are feeling lost?

NC: It’s been great how dynamic the healthcare field has actually been. I know over the summer, I participated in a few Zoom shadowing opportunities where you can go in and watch a health professional do their surgery. Coursera was offering courses for free, so you could go in and get a certificate regarding healthcare or public health. 

Just finding those online resources and definitely being in contact with your advisors is helpful. Academically, if you want to do [a] small thing like declaring a minor, there’s so many options, and that kind of gives you a bit of an edge.

Doing those small things really adds to your resume. One of the biggest things going into this cycle is [that] you can’t just go in there and say, “Well, it was the pandemic, so I couldn’t do this.” 

Medical schools are flexible to a certain extent, but they’re not going to take that excuse. They’re looking for the people who were able to adjust because that’s what medicine is: learning to adjust and be flexible to whatever situation you’re faced with.

For example, one thing that I did to counter the fact that I was not able to do research is I ran for social chair at AED. It has given me a level of leadership. All these things can accumulate into your application as examples of characteristics that schools want: hard work, drive and dedication. That’s what you’re trying to portray, and there’s so many ways you can do that. Yes, there’s been a hindrance to the ability to do so, but there’s always a way to work around that.


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UA COVID-19 Test Tracker

Daily (9/21)
993 29 2.9%
Total (8/2)
23,557 463 2.0%
Includes tests since August 2, 2021
Data from https://covid19.arizona.edu/updates
Updated September 21, 2021