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 California State University, Fullerton

Joel Johnson- M.D./Masters

joelI started out in community college before transferring and completing a BA in Psychology with minors in Spanish and Religion. After graduating in 2008, I obtained a job as a night manager at a homeless shelter in Fullerton. The amount of ailments I witnessed in the underserved drove me to return to school. I attended CSUF earning an MA in Psychology focusing on neuroscience. During this time several events, such as witnessing the birth of my daughter as well as the death and diseases of several other family members, put me in a specific mindset. When a student of mine, who was planning for medical school, asked me why I wasn’t applying to medical school this mindset led me to respond with “That is a very good question.” I decided to prolong my stay in the Masters program to complete all the pre-med classes.

While completing my pre-med courses here at CSUF, I participated in AMSA and SHPA, which were helpful in getting introduced to the application process. I also completed the CCE program at St. Mary’s in Long Beach. This is something I would highly recommend as it is a good introduction to any area you may be interested in working in. Flying Sams and LIGA International are both excellent clinical opportunities, particularly if you speak Spanish. If you don’t speak Spanish and want to go into the health professions start learning it even if only the basics. Having any Spanish speaking ability and multicultural experiences can be important selling points on your application (for medical school/residency/whatever), especially if you want to stay in California.

On top of these experiences I got good grades, very good grades. Although numbers are not everything and numbers alone won’t get you anywhere, your GPA and the MCAT are very important. A low GPA in freshman year will not mortally wound you if they can see improvement, but a low GPA overall can get you knocked off the list. A medical school does not want to accept anyone they are not absolutely sure can succeed in medical school. GPA is one indicator they use for that. MCAT is important because it validates your education and GPA. Take all the practice MCAT tests you can get under real conditions, take a prep course, do all the practice problems, and don’t take it until you’re ready. My advice on the MCAT and the application process is this: Do it once and do it right. Even if you have to postpone applying another round, do it.

General advice, first for the traditional applicant: Don’t rush, it’s not a sprint. Taking a year to do something you love after undergrad (as long as you actually do it) can strengthen your application, refresh yourself, and is not something you will regret. Join a program to enhance your research experience and skills (and selling power). For example, Bridges to Stem Cell Research (BSCR) is excellent if you have interest in that area, but there are many other programs available at CSUF. Find the one for you. You’ll be 40 years old eventually regardless of what you do. Make sure when you turn 40 you’re doing something you love.  For the non-traditional applicant such as myself, think outside the traditional box. Married with a child, I didn’t have the luxury of going into something without being sure I would succeed, it was where I should be, and knowing what it entailed. Be careful with this method, but contact people. Find a teaching physician and see if you can go on rounds with his/her residents. Ask a medical student at a school of interest if you can join them to see what a day-in-the-life of a medical student is. Most medical students are very friendly and excited to help if you are genuinely interested in their school. Lastly, don’t check the boxes. True for everyone, but especially for non-trads. Unique real-life experiences are much better than a short-duration stereotypical experience of the type they will read in twenty other applications that same day.  

For interviews and applications, do your research. Find exactly what you like about that school and say so. I just started the PRIME-LC program at the UCI School of Medicine. It is a five-year dual degree program with specialized training for those who want to be leaders in healthcare for the Latino community. I loved the program and it showed. If you can find an area you love, work that seems like play, something that makes you think “I can’t believe people are paying me to do this”, do it even if it takes longer. For me it is research in Parkinson’s disease, healthcare for the underserved, and the Latino community (my family). Don’t worry about time, it will always pass by. However, I guarantee it passes by in a much more pleasant manner when you’re doing something right.