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Don’t Sideline Yourself: The Pre-Medical Student Athlete

Bzz bzz bzz. 

My phone vibrates next to me. Sleepy-eyed and half-awake, I roll over to shut off my alarm. It’s 5:38 a.m.; the sun has not yet risen. I quietly tiptoe to my dresser in the dark, trying to avoid waking my roommate. I go through my morning routine and get ready to head to my team lift in the gym. I put on my workout clothes with the logo “Union Crew” tattooed all over them. Anticipating the frigid winter morning in upstate New York, I grab a warm coat on the way out the door and brace myself. After getting in a solid workout and eating breakfast with the team, I return to my dorm to take a quick shower and prepare for the day. With no sign of my roommate, I assume she is already up and about by now. I breathe out a sigh of relief, thankful that I no longer have to be cautious. 

After attending my morning classes, it is time for “Common Hour,” an hour-long break during which students have lunch, attend club meetings and extracurriculars, meet with professors or just hang out.  For this particular Common Hour, I devote 20 minutes to lead my club meeting, 20 minutes to eat lunch with friends and 20 minutes to meet with my pre-medical advisor before heading to my chemistry lab in the afternoon. After finishing up with my afternoon classes, I hurry to practice. After two hours of sweat, rowing and teamwork at the boathouse, I grab dinner with a few of my teammates and retire to my dorm for homework and a hot shower. The time is now 8:52 p.m. My night will not come to a close for at least another two or three hours. 

This play-by-play of my daily life represents the life of a pre-medical student-athlete. According to the ​2017 GOALS and SCORE study conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)​, student-athletes dedicate about 30 to 35 hours per week to their sports, which is double the amount of time student-athletes report spending on socializing, relaxing, working at a job and participating in other extracurricular activities. On the other side, a typical pre-medical student can spend up to 12 hours in class, 8 hours in labs and 20 to 35 hours studying each week. Given the staggering time commitment required for a pre-medical student or an NCAA athlete, one may question whether it is smart or even viable to take on ​both​ of these roles in college. By giving you a glimpse into my routine, I want to show you that it is possible to ​successfully pursue both your athletic and academic goals.

First of all, pre-medical coursework and other requirements are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of your undergraduate career. Before becoming doctors, pre-medical students in years past were artists, film fanatics, athletes, food connoisseurs, bookworms, sports enthusiasts, social justice warriors and music lovers. The health care system needs doctors who are not simply doctors; we need doctors with a vast array of life experiences who are unapologetically human. This begins with encouraging diversity at the starting gate of your medical journey: your undergraduate years. With more diverse interests and backgrounds, a pre-medical student broadens her own perspective as well as the perspectives of her peers. Exposure to distinct and varied life experiences cultivates more equitable health care providers by improving a pre-medical student’s social skills, empathy, cultural understanding, intellectual engagement and active thinking. It is for this reason that we should not give up on our college athletic dreams to pursue your post-college ambitions. Besides, you are only in college once.

Let me share more of my story. In the beginning, there was a learning curve from both an academic and social standpoint. Given the differences between college and high school in terms of course structure and freedoms, it was challenging to manage my time and avoid getting sucked into all of the newfound social distractions. Nevertheless, I eventually found balance in my schedule and gave myself time to have fun and create wonderful memories with my closest friends. With practice, I started to capitalize on all of the opportunities of college life: success in my academics and athletics, a strong presence in student organizations and a fulfilling social life. All the while, I was realizing my professional aspirations of one day becoming a physician.

As an athlete, I understand the idea of sacrifice. Likewise, pre-medical students understand this value. Therefore, it stands to reason that wearing both of these hats is necessarily an exercise in giving things up. You may have to spend less time hanging out with friends and more time studying. You will most likely be spending the hours you would have spent binging a show on Netflix training in the gym. Although this sounds overwhelming, the truth is not necessarily negative: being a collegiate athlete and a pre-medical student means accepting these sacrifices as they are. If you are passionate about doing both, you will ​want​ to make these sacrifices and might even enjoy doing so. If you are less of a “Type A” personality, never fear! Life is not all work and no play. If you manage your responsibilities well, there will even be time for play.

No matter what type of person you are, my advice is to devise a game plan. Construct a road map of your day and week, forming a checklist of the things that you want to accomplish. Allocate specific amounts of time for each task, working around events like classes, club meetings, team practices and athletic training. In my experience, I maximize my time by organizing my day by the hour. That being said, you should do what suits you best. By devising a daily or weekly agenda, you are able to visualize your workload, which allows you to accomplish your goals efficiently. 

In order to give yourself wiggle room in your calendar, you should also start your work ​earlier rather than later. Establishing good study habits can be a rather difficult task, even more so when you have been rushing from class to practice to class again. In this situation, the last thing you would probably want to do is more work! If you find yourself with some extra time and have an assignment due in a few days, why not get started on it or, at least, just glance over it? Trust me: your future self will thank your past self for getting a head start on your work when your coach throws you a curveball, and you realize that you will not be able to start that lab report until 11:37 p.m. the night before it is due.

On that note, here is my final piece of advice: communicate. It is quite common for athletics to clash with academics, whether that means having a game, race or practice at the same time as a class. With such role conflicts, communication ​prior​ to a busy week is key. Explain your situation to your professors or show them your schedule. Professors are usually understanding if you let them know what is going on ahead of time, and they will sometimes grant you extensions on assignments or explain the material that you might have missed. This not only applies to professors but also to supervisors at the local hospital at which you volunteer or shadow. While you should probably refrain from overlaps in your volunteering and shadowing hours with your sports practices and events, scheduling accidents are bound to happen every once in a while. As a result, it is vital that you communicate with your supervisor, letting them know what is on your plate and how important it is to you that you are able to accomplish ​both​ your pre-medical and athletic goals. 

There were days where I thought I could not handle the pressure. Juggling all of the major aspects of an undergraduate career and managing your time well are by no means a walk in the park. This is especially true when your friends are out doing something fun while you are preoccupied with ​both​ training for the state championship ​and​ studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). However, if you really want to make it work, you can lead a balanced life in college. You just have to understand and accept the demands that accompany these different roles. 

Although I am painting my picture of what being an NCAA athlete and a pre-medical student entails, everybody’s experience is different. Some people may have all the time in the world to tackle both commitments while others may barely have enough time for practice on top of classes. Either way, pursuing college athletics in addition to completing pre-medical requirements has taught me better time management and discipline, added consistency to my schedule and made me a better student overall. Hopefully, the lessons I learned from sports will soon translate into success in medical school. Pick up on my tips and run with them: take full advantage of your pre-medical experience and find your path in college. 

The ball is in your court now.

Katarina Zahedi (1 Posts)

Pre-Medical Student Writer

Union College

Katarina Zahedi is a pre-medical student at Union College in Schenectady, NY. In 2022, she will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and chinese. At Union, she rows for the women's crew team, works as a leadership mentor, and teaches various science courses under the Supplemental Instruction (SI) program. She also enjoys doing research in the biochemistry lab on campus, working out, volunteering with kids, eating food, and hanging out with friends in her free time. After graduating, Katarina plans to attend medical school to pursue a career in orthopedic surgery and clinical research.