Health Around the World: Q&A with Lauren O'Neil, Director of Cornell Health Careers Advising

Many pre-med students wonder whether they can study abroad given their workload, the importance placed on research and the many opportunities they choose to pursue on campus. To learn more about pre-med opportunitites abroad, Cornell Abroad met with the Director of Health Careers Advising to talk about the opportunities that exist for students abroad and how pre-med students can fit study abroad into their schedule.

What do you want students to know about study abroad and applying to med school?

It is totally possible to be a pre-med student and to study abroad! Students should absolutely do it.

How can students study abroad and complete all pre-med requirements?

Most pre-med students have completed their requirements by Junior Fall or even Sophomore Spring. This means during Junior Fall, Junior Spring or Senior Fall students can explore opportunities beyond the core curriculum.

A group stands in scrubs while shadowing a doctor in Tel Aviv
Jeremy Roberts, a Human Ecology: Human Biology major, shadows doctors while studying at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Is there anything pre-med students should consider before deciding to study abroad?

Students wanting to study abroad, should consider a gap year. There are a few cases when students have studied abroad and gone directly to medical school, but for most students, taking a gap year will allow them to have a richer and more immersive experience.

Remember, your abroad courses will not count towards your GPA. So maintaining a strong GPA before going abroad is also important.

I’ve heard that med schools are encouraging gap years. Why is that?

Yes! Currently over 70 percent of med school students choose to take a gap year or two. This is in part because med schools have noticed that students who begin medical school after a break enter medical school with a clearer understanding of their passions and interests.

Students also arrive invigorated and ready after having had time to focus on projects beyond the rigorous pre-med undergraduate course work.

Two students stand looking at a Degas painting
Dr. O'Neil stongly encourages students to pursue their interests beyond health and pre-med courses while abroad. Going beyond health related study abroad opportunities shows the breadth and depth of students interests. And it allows them to let their passions shine through in their medical applications as well.

We have seen significant increase in numbers of pre-professional students going abroad. Why do you think that is?

There are few elements at play here. First, students are seeing how their schedule becomes a lot more flexible when they choose to take a gap year.

Secondly, students are realizing the importance of pursuing passions beyond medicine like, for example, French literature. This shows the breadth and depth of their interests. In fact, just last semester I had a Skype appointment with a student in our Cornell-in-Paris program. Remember that these days, even abroad, there are Cornell resources available to you. Like myself!

It is also the case that many programs have developed programs with a health focus. The opportunities to shadow doctors, do medical internships and conduct public health research exist abroad as well.

Do you know of students pursuing research opportunities abroad?

Oh yes! For example, one of my students studied abroad at University College London where she was able to go beyond her studies at Cornell. She even took her MCAT abroad. She was able to return to Cornell in the fall for interviews and was accepted into multiple MD programs. I’m sure that was in part due to her experience abroad.

"Once medical school starts, you’re on this unstoppable train. It’s true, you might have clinical rotations abroad, but you will never again have dedicated time to build a deeper understanding of yourself in the context of another culture.

Are there any particular skills that you often see students gain while abroad?

I am always struck by how much more mature and self-confident students are when they return from their time abroad. It seems to me that when students remove themselves from their cultural context, they get to know themselves much better. In a foreign country, you will face daily challenges that bring about greater self-awareness, cultural understanding and tolerance of ambiguity. This happens whether you are studying art history at the Louvre or conducting research on maternal nutrition and health in India. These experiences shine through in medical interviews, and your answers to interview questions are often more thoughtful and nuanced.

I want to emphasize that this is an opportunity that will perhaps never come about again.

Once medical school starts, you’re on this unstoppable train. It’s true, you might have clinical rotations abroad, but you will never again have dedicated time to build a deeper understanding of yourself in the context of another culture.

A student stands on a rock in front of a red desert
Sami Mesgun '17, a Human Ecology: Human Development major, participated in the School for Interational Training program in Jordan focusing on refugees, health, and humanitarian action. His choice to participate in this program was in part because of his own parents' story who arrived to the US as refugees themselves.

What you’re saying reflects data from a recent study of over 4,500 study abroad alumni by IIE, the Institute for International Education. 72 percent reported a significant increase in self-awareness, 75 percent reported a significant increase in flexibility/adaptability, 76 percent reported a significant increase in intercultural skills and 57 percent reported a significant increase in interpersonal skills.

Those are exactly the kind of skills medical schools are looking for when they are interviewing students! Remember that interpersonal and intrapersonal skills are two of the four core competencies of the AAMC.
 

In particular, the cultural competence that you gain by navigating unknown environments will set the groundwork to help you navigate complex social issues as a doctor. To be a good doctor, you have to understand where people are coming from.

During your med school interviews, interviewers will ask what you have done to expose yourself to people unlike you and what ways you have tried to understand the other. With these questions, med schools are trying to determine how well you interact with others who may have very different backgrounds than your own. You will grapple with these issues while abroad. Take time to reflect on them, and your answers will be much stronger.

A student and her host country partner stand in front of an audience presenting their research on a poster
Vanessa Rodriguez, a CALS Biology and Society major, presents her research on Mother and Child Nutrition and Health in two villages to the Kotagiri community during her final days on the Cornell in India: Nilgiris Field Learning Center program.

“The cultural competence that you gain by navigating unknown environments will set the groundwork to help you navigate complex social issues as a doctor. To be a good doctor, you have to understand where people are coming from.

How can students incorporate study abroad into their personal statements? Do you have any tips for prepping for the interviews?

Your personal statement should show who you are beyond your GPA and MCAT score. If you had a meaningful experience abroad, this is a great opportunity to put your personal experience and perspective on paper and make it truly three-dimensional.

To ensure you can competently speak about your experience abroad, I’d recommend the following:

  • First, while you are abroad, write about your experience. It will give you a much better understanding of how to talk about your time abroad afterward.
  • Secondly, refer back to the AAMC’s core competencies as a guideline. Think about how your time abroad affected your strengths in each of these competencies.

Remember that successful people have many interests. Don't just write about your medical experience. Let your other passions shine through. All in all, study abroad will make you a well-rounded curious person.

One quick final note: you are not yet a licensed health-care professional. As a pre-med student you cannot provide any type of care beyond shadowing. Even when others might encourage you, you must refuse to provide medical assistance.

Any last advice for pre-med students thinking about study abroad?

Take the time to step away from science. As a pre-med student, you have to spend so much of your life in libraries, in labs and working hard to get into med school. At times students forget about life outside of books, labs and course work. Study abroad is an opportunity to step out of your everyday life and to learn from other people and from different perspectives.

You’ll be amazed at what you learn.