Jamal Saleh, current student and soon-to-be dermatology resident at Medical College of Wisconsin, is sharing his tips for medical school, USMLE and more:
Tell us about yourself:
Jamal Saleh: I was born and raised in the Southern California, in a coastal suburb of Los Angeles. I will be the first physician in my family. I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Southern California (USC) where I majored in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Studies. Since I have a strong interest in public health, I furthered my studies with a Masters of Science in Global Medicine at USC. I headed to the Midwest for medical school at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), and I will continue at MCW for my dermatology residency!
Looking back on your medical school experience, what would you say to the young and naïve “first-year you”?
JS: Be ready to work hard, but never lose sight of what brought you to study medicine. On that note, always make time for yourself, and keep your hobbies! Medical school is a lot of fun, but you have to make time for it. It’s also important to keep an open mind, whether it be geographic location of medical school, your doctoring style, or what specialty you plan to pursue. If not, you might lose out on something you may have loved.
What tips do you have for USMLE?
JS: I know I am more of a marathon runner than a sprinter when it comes to board exam studying. I like to start early when there’s little pressure and to gain familiarity with the material as I make my first pass. This helps me compartmentalize topics that I am strong and weak in, allowing me to better allocate my resources (my time) to topics I need to nail down. The key is to know your weaknesses early, so you can make time to correct them. Then, do lots and lots of practice questions, as many as you can get your hands on (with NBME practice tests and UWorld being the mainstay). There are only so many ways you can be asked a question on a certain topic, so the more questions you do, the more you’ll be able to pick up on strategies to answer certain question types. Also, I liked using 3-4 resources and then consolidating them into one main study source that I referred to for the rest of my studying. This made it easy to keep track of important facts and figures. Set your goals as high as you want, but be realistic with your progress. If you’re falling short on where you want to be, it is important to be flexible with rearranging your schedule to accommodate your weaknesses. With that said, balance your discipline with hobbies and your usual stress-relief activities to help you stay grounded during this process. Never let the test define you and hurt your confidence, regardless of the outcome. There’s so much more to what makes a good doctor!
What advice do you have for the students going through clinical rotations?
JS: First, be okay with not knowing everything at all times. Clerkships are a time to learn and grow. On my clerkship experiences, I feel a good work ethic, a positive attitude and being a team-player went a long way in getting the most out of the clerkship, and these qualities certainly don’t go unnoticed. This means you don’t have to be the loudest person just to stand out. Don’t let your nerves get the best of you. There are also a lot of ways to do well on rotations without just doing well on the shelf exam. As an M3, be able to think of a focused differential diagnosis and present your assessment and plan succinctly to the team. Make sure your notes are well-thought out and demonstrate your clinical reasoning, with supporting evidence for your thoughts. Incorporating evidence-based medicine shows you’re taking charge of your learning (and your patients) and shows commitment to providing up to date care. Reading about your patients’ ailments, and bringing journal articles to share with the team (at the appropriate times) show initiative and enhances your learning experience. When you know more about what is going on with your patient’s specific hospitalization and are able to relay this information confidently to your residents/attending, you’ll start to feel more involved and engaged with the team. As I did for USMLE exams, I prepared for shelf exams with a consolidated study source and a trusted bank of practice questions.
Small things that make a big difference on inpatient months are anticipating a patient’s discharge needs (by asking in your history if they normally take care of themselves at home, who they live with, do they have stairs, etc as relevant) and making sure to get the appropriate ancillary staff involved from the beginning to plan outpatient PT/OT or placement issues. These things slow down discharge, so being able to anticipate them, mentioning them to the team and taking care of them as an M3 will certainly make you stand out. One last thing: people will always try to inject their opinions and dogmas to shape how you view things — be open to good advice and constructive criticism, but always stay true to yourself and what kind of doctor you want to become.
What recommendations do you have for medical students to maintain their sanity?
JS: Always make time, even it’s for a short amount of time per week, to touch base with friends, family and your support system. Medical school can become a bubble, and it’s always nice to talk to people outside of that bubble. Also, have hobbies and try to continue them during medical school. Build your resilience and never hesitate to ask for help — if you fall, pick up the pieces, consult with your support system, regain your confidence and move on. Trust that there’s always a way forward.
How did medical school differ from your expectations?
JS: It is not nearly as monotonous as I expected. While board exams may guide our studying, what you choose to learn and take with you is very much self-directed. There’s also a good amount of time to enjoy yourself if you plan ahead and make time.
What things did you do during your four years of medical school that you believe particularly impressed your residency program?
JS: I think demonstrating a genuine interest in dermatology went a long way. This means going beyond just shadowing other physicians. Pursuing research projects demonstrates you have an intellectual curiosity about your chosen specialty. But really knowing the field — the controversial topics, the thought-leaders in the field, the latest studies, the challenges and accomplishments of the specialty, and the history of the field — sets you apart and shows that you’re immersed and engaged, and that you want to make this specialty a part of your career and life. Also, dermatology isn’t extensively reviewed in the traditional medical school curriculum, so I think a lot of the outside reading I did in dermatology allowed me to discuss skin disease in an intelligent way.
What attracted you to your chosen specialty?
JS: Immunology was one of my research interests coming into medical school, and with your skin being one of the largest immune organs, it was natural that I wanted to learn more about it. Because the skin is an immune organ, it encompasses a wide breadth of pathology that results in immune dysfunction — autoimmune, infectious and neoplastic. Therefore, the breadth of dermatology is what really appeals to me. You can treat all kinds of diseases ranging from life-threatening ones to benign ones, you can tailor your practice to treat both adults and kids, you can correlate your clinical diagnosis with a pathological one by reading your biopsy slides. The field allows you to be a trifecta of clinical diagnostician, pathologist and cutaneous surgeon. Most importantly, improving a patient’s skin disease can greatly improve their quality of life, as the skin is a visible organ and skin disease has been historically (and currently remains) stigmatized. Making these differences for my future patients on a daily basis is what I look forward to most.
What is your biggest fear about beginning residency?
JS: I think the independence that comes with being a resident, relative to that of a medical student, is both exciting and daunting. Signing orders, making the primary treatment plan for a patient and being the point-person when it comes to urgent decision-making are all things I am approaching with cautious optimism.
What advice would you give third year students about to start the Match process?
JS: Start early. Draft a resume M3 year with a small blurb about each activity so filling out your ERAS application is easy. Write your personal statement whenever you feel inspired to write one. Plan your away rotations (if you want to do any) as far out in advance as your school allows. Do well on your dermatology rotations so you can get strong and personalized letters of recommendation. Also, ask letter writers early on, as soon as you determine you want them to write a letter, so that they have ample time to write one. Dermatology is competitive, so be realistic about your match prospects and be open to applying to a variety of institutions.
And a fun bonus question! Please share an easy and quick recipe that got you through tough weeks in medical school:
My kitchen and I don’t get along too well (I’m a fan of takeout), but as a self-taught barista, I know all about espresso beverages. My favorite drink is an affogato, which is quite simple to make: Add a scoop of your favorite ice-cream into a glass cup and pour 1-2 shots of espresso over it. For added design, you can add whip cream and sprinkle it with mocha powder for an appetizing treat during a stressful week!