The most complicated issue with studying abroad as a pre-med is fitting it into your schedule. First, consider when you want to graduate and thoroughly research the requirements. This may include your major(s) classes, minor(s) classes, college requirements, and university requirements. Some important classes are only offered during specific semesters (i.e. Spring or Fall), so try to make a 4-year plan with at least the requirements. Ask your adviser and older students to help you balance the workload in terms of time commitment and difficulty. The more specific, the better, but be prepared to be flexible, especially if your school’s system is anything like the old, infamous UC Berkeley Telebears registration. As much as you plan ahead, classes may be full or cancelled, requirements may be changed or added, or you simply might have time conflicts.
Consider whether studying abroad can fulfill any of your requirements. For me, studying abroad fulfilled my International Breadth Requirement for UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science. If you choose to take science classes or do an internship abroad, this may count for your major’s upper division units. Ask your major (or intended major) adviser if you are not sure. Also, be sure to take advantage of being in college to explore your interests and do not neglect looking into these classes as well.
While being a student is our main priority, scheduling around extracurricular activities can often be the trickiest part, as many positions and programs are long term commitments and become more rewarding with personal investment. However, studying abroad does not require the sacrifice of our other pursuits. Incorporating extracurriculars into a rough 4-year plan is also good idea when checking whether they overlap with your study abroad program of interest. When applying to programs, keep in mind the length of the commitment.
Another important tip is to be honest and transparent with the people you work with and warn them ahead of time while considering your current responsibilities and future plans. It depends on the commitment, but some programs may be understanding that you are a student and studying abroad is a rare, unique opportunity. For example, if you are helping out in a research lab, talk to your Principal Investigator early about the possibility of working on a shorter project or one that allows a gap. Additionally, certain jobs and projects may be more flexible in that you can help with by working remotely, such as data analysis or patient coordinating.
Finally, the last area of concern is preparation of your medical school applications. Be sure you know the course requirements for medical school, even though many of them are covered by most biology-related undergraduate majors, and try to fit that into your 4-year plan. Everybody studies for the MCAT differently, whether it is by self-study or a prep course and for however many months, but I would highly discourage overlapping studying for the MCAT and any type of study abroad program. To be brief, applying to medical school starts in end of spring the year before you wish to matriculate. For example, if you want to go straight into medical school after four years of your undergraduate career, you will start applying the summer after your 3rd year and through your 4th year. Many students take time off between their undergraduate education and medical school, but be aware of the application timeline and your general plan just in case, as there are many time-sensitive issues, such as how your MCAT score expires after 2-3 years and how much time you should give your recommendation letter writers.
About a month before my study abroad application was due, I realized I unintentionally had planned my undergraduate career so that the summer after my 3rd year was the perfect time to study abroad. Unlike the summer before, none of my positions in clubs and health organization required me to physically be in Berkeley for the summer. I was able to continue my work by regularly monitoring my email and communicating closely with my director. I took a break from my on-campus tutoring job (hired by semester) and my research lab was very understanding. I also was very intent on taking at least one gap year between undergraduate and applying to medical school (so I had no intention to start my application that summer), and had no plans to take or study for the MCAT that summer. For me, the stars seemed to align, but a time period to study abroad is definitely possible with a little foresight and planning.
With any time- and location-sensitive commitment, constraints and limitations will arise. Everyone’s personal priorities and interests dictate different time conflicts, and life can be very unpredictable. At the end of the day, studying abroad is an amazing opportunity, but do not forget your end goals and be wise when choosing your priorities. There is always the option of taking the semester right after graduation to study abroad, as well as taking an extra semester or an extra year in school to complete academic requirements.