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Beyond Your Application: The Best Books Every Pre-Med Student Should Read

I wish I was lying when I said I didn’t pick up a single book to read for fun throughout the entirety of high school. As I scrolled through my phone for hours on end, it never crossed my mind to look for a book to read, and that’s something I am embarrassed to admit. It wasn’t until I shadowed doctors over the summer and noticed my screen time drastically decreased when I decided I did not want to return to mindlessly scrolling through TikToks and Instagram posts that failed to enrich my mind. Soon, I discovered the world of medical books and was hooked.

As pre-med students, we are always focused on the tangible parts of our resumes: Volunteering, shadowing and research hours consume our every thought. I think it’s especially crucial for us to focus on what can’t go on an application and become more aware of the field we dream to enter. I strongly believe that books are a great way to do this so I wanted to share five books you can start with, and what readers rated them on a 10-point scale (with 10 being the best):

This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Medical Resident by Adam Kay

This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Medical Resident is a collection of diary entries written by Adam Kay during his medical training. Through Kay’s 97-hour weeks, sleepless nights and intriguing experiences, we learn so much about not only what it takes to go through medical training but also the politics in medicine. The short diary entries made this book an easy and captivating read that I was able to get through in a matter of days — a perfect transition book for someone who had not read for fun in a while. I am a huge fan of Kay’s conversational writing and rated the book a 9/10. It missed a perfect 10 by one point solely because I found it hard to relate to at times when he spoke about the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and how it affects patients and doctors. It’s hard to fully grasp this as an individual living in the United States. Still, Kay does a great job at highlighting the process of medical training and it’s something that every pre-med student should be more aware of.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air, written by Paul Kalanithi, an American neurosurgeon who battled with stage IV metastatic cancer, is a memoir about his life and journey with his illness. When Breath Becomes Air follows Kalanithi from his years as a medical student, to being a neurosurgeon who is a crucial aspect of many patients’ lives, to being a patient himself facing terminal cancer, as a new father. He writes about life and death in ways that are incredibly unexpected to the reader and focuses on living in the moment. Lauren Nunag, 18, is a first-year biology major who rates this book a 9/10. She said “Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s medical memoir was a powerful and beautifully written narrative about his unexpected battle with lung cancer and unlike anything I’ve ever read. It reminded me why life, no matter how short, is worth living” — an essential message to those who wish to pursue such time-intensive careers.

Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, written by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-born American physician and oncologist, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and was described by the judges as “an elegant inquiry, at once clinical and personal.” The story is focused on human ingenuity, resilience and perseverance while also highlighting important aspects of failures, deaths, misconceptions and the human limit. Grace Marten, 19, a second-year microbiology major said the book is “easily a 10/10.” She stated “This book is one of the best I’ve ever read. The way he mixes an incredibly emotional and personal account of his own experience treating cancer patients with a really interesting and thorough history of the treatment of cancer is really well done and leaves the book very informational without ever feeling boring or heavy-handed.” As pre-med students, this is an incredibly important read to understand experiences with cancer and the history behind its evolution.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, written by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, is a memoir that reveals the fierce joy of operating, the profoundly moving triumphs, the harrowing disasters, the haunting regrets and the moments of black humor that characterize a brain surgeon’s life. Throughout the book, he tells his experiences in a busy, modern hospital and all the significant events and surgeries that have characterized his medical experience. Marsh is vulnerable and tells the reader about the need for hope when faced with difficult decisions — making this book a 10/10, in my opinion. Do No Harm is a book that I simply could not put down. Marsh writes a captivating story that leaves you wanting more. From learning about his specific patient interaction stories that give the readers raw insight into his life as a neurosurgeon, to revealing the humanities behind brain surgery, and uncovering the truths of his career, it is an incredibly eye-opening book that gives insight to pre-meds about a career in medicine.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Being Moral- Medicine and What Matters in the End, written by American surgeon Atul Gawande, discusses end-of-life care, hospice care and Gawande’s reflections and personal stories. He uses this book as a call for change when it comes to the way medical professionals treat their patients toward the ends of their lives and highlights the ways that patients can live better as they progress in age. Christine Tran, 19, a third-year health science major rates the book a 10/10. She said “Being Mortal provided an insight into medicine I had not considered before, which is that it is incredibly important for all aspiring physicians to understand the concept of giving their patients the best quality of life. This may not necessarily always mean the longest life, though. The practical role of a physician is to diagnose and treat diseases and health conditions, and this is a role many doctors excel in, yet when confronted with the unyielding and inevitable truth of human mortality, they balk. This book covers the topic of human frailty, aging and death so incredibly well that I would highly suggest any pre-medical student to read this in their free time.”

Whether it’s a book from this list, or any other book, reading and informing yourself as a pre-med student is one of the best things you can do with your spare time. Understanding the career that you want to go into, before fully immersing yourself in the process, is crucial to making the most out of your college experience and ensuring that you’re on the right path.

Anita is a first-year biology major with minors in health disparities and French on the pre-med track! She has a passion for promoting equity in the medical field and hopes to share this through her writing. When she's not busy writing or studying you can often find her taking film pictures, travelling, bullet journaling, taking cycle classes, and baking!
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