How International Experience Prepares You for Medical School

September 11, 2015
Emily Hause

Gain international experience as a medical student.

Medical school can feel visiting a foreign country.

There are tons of great reasons to study abroad! From learning a new language to immersing yourself in an unfamiliar culture—international experience can enhance a lot more than just your AMCAS application and personal statement.

One of the biggest reasons I’m glad to have studied abroad is that it prepared me incredibly well for my third year of medical school. So, how does gaining international experience prepare you for medical school?

International experience teaches adaptability

When visiting a foreign country, you have to be very comfortable adapting to a culture that has markedly different customs than your own—especially if you don’t speak the language.

For example, stores in Spain, where I studied abroad in college, are closed in the afternoons and for holidays that I didn’t even know existed. During my time there, I had to plan my shopping ahead of time and learn about important Spanish dates. Similarly, in Costa Rica, where I spent last summer learning medical Spanish, I got used to walking everywhere, taking shorter showers, and throwing toilet paper into the garbage. These may seem like minor things to get used to, but small changes that come with studying abroad are innumerable, forcing you to constantly adapt and be flexible.

During third year, you will change hospitals, clinics, and teams every few days or weeks, and the customs on each team can vary greatly. That means everything from your team’s expectations of you to what time you go on rounds changes. The constant change can be a frustrating experience, especially for “Type A” medical students who like predictability and routine.

I have found myself treating each new situation as a chance to learn the customs of each particular specialty at each specific hospital by relying on my adaptability and openness to changing environments. Treating a new situation as if I’m adapting to life in a foreign country really helps me view the challenges as a learning opportunity instead of the frustrating experience that often seems.

Feeling vulnerable in a foreign country

International experience lends itself to a certain feeling of vulnerability. You’re out of your element. That vulnerability can manifest in negative ways, such as becoming resentful or becoming oddly overconfident. These attitudes won’t help you when you study abroad, nor while working as a medical student whose every move is scrutinized for evaluations. So, being comfortable with a certain amount of vulnerability is an essential skill.

Third year is potentially your most vulnerable year of medical school. You’re moving from the comfort of your books and studying to navigating the unfamiliar territory of practical medical knowledge and hospital hierarchies. It can seem overwhelming. Embracing the feeling of being vulnerable while still striving to show your best self is difficult, yet essential. Falling back on the wisdom you’ve gleaned from your international experience is a great way to keep from having negative reactions during your rotations.

Medical students need to be resourceful

Two of the phrases I have found myself repeating during third year are: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” and “I’ve never done that before, but I’d love to try.” Both reflect an inherent resourcefulness and willingness to try new activities.

This resourcefulness comes from such experiences as needing to improvise recipes in foreign countries and trying to navigate unfamiliar mass transit systems. Both of which I was successfully able to do! Knowing that you don’t know something, but feeling confident that you can figure it out, is a key component to succeeding as a third-year medical student.  

The eagerness to try new foods, to go new places, and to embrace new experiences is a large part of what it means to study abroad. Overcoming the fear of the unknown when you branch out from safety and familiarity is essential to a successful international experience. The same is true of medical school. “I have never pulled a chest tube, but I’d love to try.” You’re constantly exposed to new experiences that you have to jump into willingly and eagerly. Nothing prepares you for that quite like agreeing to eat a meal with meat from an animal part that you don’t recognize (and enjoying it!).

Know how to ask for help

As a medical student, one of the most valuable things you can learn is that it’s okay to ask for help. Whether you need a mnemonic device for memorizing the clotting cascade or finding where the radiology department is, it’s okay to ask for help. In fact, asking for help is usually more efficient and effective than running around the hospital, making yourself late for a radiology conference because you wanted to find it on your own. Being lost on a street corner in a foreign country will quickly teach you the virtues of asking for help.

On your journey to medical school and throughout your medical training, don’t ever be afraid to ask for help from your teammates when you need it.

How will international experience help you during medical school? Try it and see!

Start your journey with a free countdown to medical school checklist.

Emily Hause Emily has been a teacher for Kaplan for over eight years; she's taught MCAT, ACT, SAT, SAT2 and tutored pretty much every subject under the sun in both the classroom and live online (aka Classroom Anywhere) settings. She's also worked for Kaplan in content development and teacher mentorship roles. Emily is currently a fourth-year medical student at the University of Colorado and is hoping to go into Pediatrics. She's involved in many campus opportunities such as being a Prospective Student Representative, admissions committee member, CU-UNITE member, and co-president of the Education and Teaching Interest Group. Prior to medical school, Emily got a BA in Biochemistry and Spanish from Lawrence University and a Masters in Public Health- Epidemiology from the University of Minnesota. In her free time, Emily enjoys dancing, baking, playing tennis and exploring her new Colorado home.

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