I never thought I would post in this thread. As my username suggests, getting into medical school seemed like a pipe dream when I first started out. Even after being accepted last year in 2018, I wasn’t sure if I should post, as several of these ideas have already been expressed in this thread with far more compelling life stories! Nonetheless, I do hope that by posting my own story here, it will provide some assistance to those who are in a similar position that I was in, and give further proof that it is possible.
When I began my first undergraduate, I was lazy and arrogant. I wasted most of my time and skipped classes and even exams. I never needed a job to pay for rent or food, because of the love and support my parents gave me. I didn’t have any illnesses or personal problems that detracted from my studies. In short, there were no external reasons for me to be unsuccessful. I was given every resource and support that a student could hope for, and I squandered it all. In fact, I knew what I was doing was wrong every single day and I still did nothing to change it. Three years went by in this way, until I failed a course and became quite depressed. I remember stopping on a sidewalk on the way back home because I just couldn’t see the point of taking one more step. When I began having suicidal ideation, I knew I needed help.
I was lucky enough to find an incredible counselor who helped put me back together. Without them, I am certain this story would not be possible, and I will be forever grateful. I came to see that a major factor for my depression was a lack of purpose. I wasn’t doing something that made my existence worthwhile. For the next few months, I reflected upon what kind of person I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do with my life. From my political science courses on humanitarian crises, I knew that I wanted to address the acute suffering in the world. From my volunteering experiences, I knew I was happiest when I could help people directly and cause a positive and meaningful impact. Add in a few inspirational role models, and I eventually decided I wanted to become a doctor. I believe it is how I can gain the skills and knowledge necessary to help those in great need, by providing them with a better chance at life and happiness. This was the goal and purpose I held onto, and which made all of the ensuing hardships worthwhile. I cannot over stress how important this was for me.
Now, I had a direction. But I was filled with doubt. Part of this doubt was because of the very high standards required to enter medical school. My grades were abysmal, and my CV was practically non-existent. It would take a lot of work and effort to achieve those standards, and I had not shown I was capable of it.
But my greatest uncertainty came from the fear that I could not change who I was. At this time, I was reading Crime and Punishment, where there is a character called Marmeladov. He is repeatedly given jobs and opportunities, but can never hold onto them as he would quickly use any money he earned to become drunk again. He is intelligent and has the best of intentions. He loves his family very dearly and wants to provide for them, but no matter how much he wishes to change, he cannot. Then, he dies.
I was terrified that I was Marmeladov. I wanted to change, to become something better than the lazy person who did not deserve the love of his parents. I wanted to become a force for good, and to possess the ability to heal and comfort others. But maybe I couldn’t change. Maybe this was all I would ever amount to. Maybe this was who I am.
And so began my path to medical school. The hardest part was the beginning. I threw myself into my studies and worked harder and harder. Every now and then, I would slip back into old habits but again I would force myself to return to my work. I was driven by the hope of what I could become and do, and the fear of what I would remain as if I failed.
My term grades came back, and the work had paid off! But I still didn’t believe myself. Maybe it was a fluke. My 4th year began, and again I worked harder than before. I also began delving into extracurricular activities that I was passionate about, to see if I had the capacity to do both. This was also when I asked around this forum, and was given advice to pursue a second undergraduate. After completing my 4th year with my highest marks yet (but still, not competitive), I went directly into a second undergraduate.
Starting my second undergraduate was awkward at times, as I was back in introductory classes where my fellow students were 4 years younger than I. Explaining my age and why I was there often drew a few raised eyebrows, and understandably so. But again, I focused on my work and extracurriculars that I loved. I had found my groove, and had developed the discipline and work ethic to succeed academically. I dedicated a summer to rewriting the MCAT and scored very well. I applied every year, and finally, at the end of my second undergraduate, I was accepted to my first choice. It was a medical school I had been inspired to attend by one of my past teachers and mentors, who had taught me to see medicine as a vocation of social responsibility. The school’s emphasis on the human side of medical care was aligned with what I hoped to become, and I was elated to be accepted. It is hard to describe that feeling of joy and satisfaction, when all the work and difficulties of the past few years were suddenly validated. To laugh at how this had actually worked out! And afterwards, to feel a calm happiness in knowing that I was on the next step towards my life’s purpose.
And now, quite suddenly, I am nearly at the end of my first year of medical school. I love what we learn, and I haven’t failed an exam (yet). What I have experienced in clinical encounters and shadowing makes me eager for clerkship and beyond. I have pursued my passions by providing health workshops to asylum seekers in the community, and helped to develop a larger program that will roll out in September. In the summer, I will be heading north to an Indigenous community, where I hope to learn more about their culture, how to work in these environments, and to hopefully do some good. While challenges are ever present, the resiliency (or perhaps sheer stubbornness) I gained from my years of change and development have allowed me to push on. At this point of my life, I finally have some degree of confidence; not the confidence that everything will work out, but rather confidence that I can put my heart and soul into something, and if I do, sometimes, things will work out.
I’ll end with a few key lessons I picked up along the way. Again, by no means original, but I hope they are useful for people coming from the same situation I was in:
1. Choose something meaningful to you that will make everything worth it. Seriously reflect upon what you want to do in your life. It is shorter than we’d like, and anything meaningful will likely require a great deal of effort whatever path you choose. So, what’s important is to choose something that will make all that hardship worthwhile. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is an incredible book that describes this in great evocative detail.
2. Success is not a straight line. As the months went by, I came to see that my success was a series of ups and downs but which always, inexorably, went up over time. It’s okay to falter, to make mistakes, and to fall back on old habits, as that is normal and human. So long as you remember and drive yourself back up, it’s fine! Do NOT believe you have failed if you have relapsed temporarily! Get back up!
3. Keep a journal. Something to write down what you are feeling, and more importantly, to be aware of the present and plan for the future. It was important for me to see on a weekly basis what I was able to do, what I had failed to do, and what I needed to do next to accomplish my goals. This was very, very important for me, particularly when I was starting to change and grow.
4. Change happens over time. You can’t (or at least, I couldn’t) simply flip a switch and become a 4.0 student. Hard work and discipline took me months and years to ingrain in myself. Similarly, add things over time. I think that layering on work and responsibility over time was an important strategy in my development. I had a brief moment of insanity where, after failing that course in 3rd year, I wanted to take SIX courses instead of five, just to prove that I could change. Don’t do that. Instead, make sure you first succeed academically. Then, add one new thing that you want to do. When you can both succeed academically and in this new thing, add another thing if you want, and so on. And of course, learn what your limits are! The only thing worse than not doing enough, is being so burnt out that you can’t do anything at all.
5. Become someone worthy enough to be a doctor. I hope this part doesn’t sound too preachy because that is not my intention. To some people, being a doctor is just a job, and that’s fair. To me, it is a vocation of social responsibility. It should never be something to lord over others, but rather a duty I want to take on. Throughout my path to medical school, I came to see that I shouldn’t strive for marks purely to get into medical school. Nor did I do extracurriculars for that reason. I think there are inherent dangers to your integrity, to organizations, and to the people you serve if that is your frame of mind. Instead, whatever difficulties you face such as achieving high marks, think of it as another opportunity to improve yourself. To become more disciplined, more committed, and more compassionate. To become someone that you would trust to care for your own parents and loved ones, and someone worthy enough to be there during some of life’s greatest sorrows. Again, it was important for me to have a purpose for what I did, and I think this mindset shielded me from the potential bitterness of having to do a second undergraduate, and for taking courses that were not directly medical. In this light, a second degree is not a punishment, but rather a training ground to improve, and to prove to myself that I can become a good doctor for the people I would care for.
6. Forgive yourself. There were many, many nights that I could barely sleep because of how guilty I felt, and how terrified I was that I could not change or that I was not doing enough to make amends for the past. This part doesn’t come easily, and to be honest, I’m not sure if I’ve entirely accomplished it. I will always regret not applying myself from the start, and for the stress and hardships this put on my loved ones. But, without sounding too fatalistic, I know this was the only way it could have happened, and looking at the good that I am doing, and the good I will do in the future, that pain has largely subsided. I guess I don’t really know the best way to address this, other than hard work and plenty of time. I guess in my own mind, I had to deserve forgiveness before I could give it to myself.
I am continuing on my path, and I am hopeful for the future. I also hope that these words have provided some insight, comfort, or direction for some of you, and especially those of you who have embarked on a similar venture. And of course, if you have any questions or if you’d just like someone to talk with about how things are going for you, I’d be happy to respond or Skype if you’d like
I wish you the best of luck in your efforts! Take care!