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Applying to health professional school can be daunting. There are pre-requisite courses, standardized tests, essay questions, and of course – interviews. It can be easy to forget what health professional school is really all about: gaining expertise in a subject area, and becoming a professional. Throughout all of this, one of the most important skills you’ll develop along the way is the ability to learn.

Traditional programs can be thought of in two parts: didactic years and practical years. In medicine, didactic years are the first two years of classwork, spent learning about anatomy and complex pathophysiology. These are followed by practical years, two years in the clinic learning the practical application of your knowledge from the first two years. The skills you need to succeed in both environments – academic, and practical – are very different. Didactic years test your ability to absorb vast amounts of information, and demonstrate your knowledge on a multiple-choice exam. Practical years test your ability to build rapport with your team, and your ability to contextualize the information you’ve absorbed.

Both sets of skills are important, but once you graduate, what do you really need to succeed in your future career? It comes down to your ability to learn independently. Times change, our understanding of complex pathophysiology deepens, legal precedents are set and broken. Your team, and your role on that team, will change – even the fundamental organizational structure of a hospital can change. Staying ahead of the curve won’t be easy, but it will be a part of your job. To become a leader in your field, you need to first become a lifelong learner.

A number of the top medical schools, dental schools, and PA schools, have been redesigning their curriculum with that in mind. Understanding that students can learn material on their own, and that the most valuable way to spend to spend time with a professor isn’t to hear them lecture, it’s to engage with them. Team-based and case-based learning initiatives address that exact point: students come prepared to class, ready to apply their knowledge, and ready to learn how to ‘navigate’ their classroom – skills that they will use throughout their careers.

As a candidate applying to health professional school, you have an opportunity to prepare yourself for team- or case-based learning. You might wonder what a typical classroom ‘day’ might look like – but the truth is, that day begins the night, or even several days, before class. Team-based learning modules expect you to come to class prepared, and provide you the material that you should know prior to the day of class. In that way, class time is spent refining your understanding of the material you learned independently. This may come in the form of a team activity or a case, but the emphasis is on application. It can be difficult to apply something you just learned about – but in the attempt, you’ll deepen your understanding of the subject.

Equally as important as applying the knowledge you’ve learned, you will have an opportunity to listen to your classmates as they bring their own unique perspectives to the class. You’ll discover that often, you have an opportunity to explain concepts some of your classmates may not understand as well, and just as frequently, you’ll hear ways of thinking that you hadn’t even considered. At the end of the day, you’ll walk away from class feeling that you’ve learned something new – and not just about the content discussed. However – none of that would be possible without first spending time independently learning the material before class.

It’s time to ask yourself: are you ready to be a lifelong learner?