I attended secondary school in a small town on the East coast of Malaysia, Kuantan. Typical to the experiences of most Malaysian students there was a great deal of emphasis placed on scoring a perfect string of As’ accompanied by a host of extra-curricular activities. Both of which I quite happily strived to achieve. I had the company and support of a group of amazing friends, years later I still look back at those long days of school, tuition and music lessons fondly.
A lot has happened since then. I completed SPM and headed off to KL to begin Cambridge A-levels (CAL) in Taylors College in January. At the time, the focus was always to complete things as quickly as possible, which brings me to lesson number one.
It’s very easy to get quickly swept up in the rat race of getting into university as soon as possible, finishing as many modules as possible and graduating in record time. Relax. You will graduate. You will get a job. You will spend the rest of your life running this race.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a big believer in the importance of ambition and drive but the importance of saving a year here and there has ceased to mean much. When I began medical school in the UK, despite hazing through CAL in 18-months, I was 19-years old. Already a year older than my undergraduate Scottish counterparts. However, accompanying us were postgraduate students who had come from all walks of life. Some of my peers included qualified pharmacists, dentists and anatomy graduates who had a wealth of life experience and knowledge. Over the years I have noted how their experience and maturity has given them a natural edge in tackling the course. If you are considering applying for medicine and (like me at the time) have already ruled out schools, and countries such as Australia and the US, that offer postgraduate medicine I would urge you to consider. Naturally I understand that funding may be a concern, but if it isn’t bear in mind that nothing can ever fully prepare you for the rigours of a career in medicine and the extra years might give you a little room to figure yourself out before fully committing to a lifetime of studying and work. Similarly, if you are uncertain about an appropriate career path, picking a more transferrable subject makes much better sense than jumping right into the deep end straight out of school.
When it came to the end of my third-year of medicine I was offered the opportunity to do an intercalated degree. This is done by completing the honours year of a Bachelor of Medical Sciences (BMSc) degree. It’s a quick way of tacking on another degree to your name while completing medicine, potentially useful with specialty applications down the line. More importantly, it was an excuse to buy a pretty dress and pretend to graduate at the end of four long years of university. I weighed my options and I recognised there were only two reasons I was hesitating; time and money. I was fortunate enough to be offered be funded by two independent bodies for my research project and BMSc degree in Cardiovascular Medicine and Diabetes. As far as the matter of time, I realised investing myself is pretty much most valuable thing I could do at this point in life. My BMSc was a year that allowed me to dip my toe into working full-time in a medical research laboratory, learn how to appreciate scientific literature along with invaluable soft-skills while working alongside postgraduate researchers.
Introducing life lesson number two.
Personal growth is essential.
Some personal growth is undoubtedly inherent of the experiences that come with years, but it really is your responsibility to seek out opportunities that allow for it.
I’ve always been more inclined to curl up with a book, so you can imagine the shock when a much beloved teacher in primary school insisted that I would represent the school to compete in public speaking competitions. It was the beginning an 8-year affair of yearly competitions that eventually taught me to enjoy speaking on stage and more importantly, speaking up and connecting with people. What allows growth is rarely comfortable, as you enter your college and university years it will be your responsibility to push yourself into these things. If in doubt, say yes. Join clubs, committees and competitions not only to pad out your CV (important regardless of your field) but to meet people reading different subjects from different backgrounds. You might find it was a salsa-class you happened to take one semester that they find the most interesting thing about you in your next professional interview. Personally, I greatly enjoyed taking part in societies based in my medical school that furthered professional interests and made connections as well as student societies based on campus that allowed me to get more involved in student life in the university as well as organise events on a much larger scale.
If you do choose to study abroad, make an effort to integrate and adapt with your peers and the local community. We leave home and travel far not only to return with degrees but to learn different perspectives and absorb other cultures. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, that regardless of our differences, people are essentially the same no matter where they’re from. We have the same basic emotions, live through somewhat similar experiences and are mostly open to making friends. This may be challenging at first, but just like in school it can take a while to find your tribe. Trust that it will happen, and you’ll soon have your group of multi-cultural friends to pose on a lawn on that one day of summer, akin to most university prospectus covers. There will always be the comfort and familiarity that comes with hearing a distinct Malaysian accent in passing when you’re a long way from home. There are shared memories and inside jokes that come naturally when you meet a friend from your home state (or even former school) but go out and socialise with an open mind and you’ll learn so much when you least expect it.
Learn to Lean.
From the moment I decided to apply for medicine in the UK to my final examinations just last year I have constantly had the guidance of those who have come before me. If you are required to write a personal statement or an application essay unabashedly ask as many people as possible to read through and give you honest feedback. Get in touch with current students at universities that you intend to apply to and ask them any questions you may have regarding course structure, interview tips or about the city itself. They’ll be able to give you a realistic gauge of what to expect compared to a university prospectus. When choosing a university, bear in mind you’ll be living here for the next few years, where you’ll hopefully have some your best experiences. Take this into consideration and try to pick a city that suits your personality and your interests.
Welcome to your young adult lives where you’ll continuously struggle to achieve that elusive work-life balanceWork hard, play hard. A long, rewarding career is much more like a marathon than a sprint. Pace yourself, selfcare is important and necessary. The workload you’ll face in university is likely to be substantially more challenging than anything you’ve faced prior so try not to be too hard on yourself as you adjust to a new system. Down time is essential for your mental health and will only result in better productivity when you get back to work. Good luck, I’m sure you’ll do yourself proud.