My pre-med story summed up in a single phrase: the underdog that refused to lose herself in the process. As alluded to in previous blog posts, I was nowhere near the top of my class nor a top scorer on the MCAT. My mediocre "stats" changed the route I would take to get there, but they didn't stop me from getting my white coat. If you're a stellar student ready to apply straight from college, maybe this blog post isn't for you (but then again.. maybe it is, because being a good medical student & doctor has everything to do with grit and empathy.) This post is for the pre-med that feels ready to give it up for an alternative career due to fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of not deserving a seat if they got one. This post is for my future doctors (because with enough patience and willingness for plan B,C,D.. you'll get there. Promise!)
For as long as I can remember, I have been pre-med. No one told me to be, and there are no doctors in my family. I had always been extraordinarily curious about how bodies work (I remember being really little and thinking, well why do bodies work anyway? Why don't we all just die?) In high school we had this incredible shadowing program that allowed me, as a 16-year-old, interact with real patients by following around doctors and other healthcare professionals. This was an experience for which I'm forever grateful- it solidified my plans to be pre-med, helping me easily choose a path once in college. I was a very good high school student and graduated with honors. I wasn't a star, I was just.. good. My study skills were not well developed yet and for the most part I did pretty well without stressing out. This was all while running track/cross-country and being very involved in student government.
Desperately wanting to stay in Southern California, you can imagine my elation upon getting accepted to UCLA. This was only ~45 minutes away from my family in the heart of beautiful west LA. Not only for lifestyle reasons, this public university is highly respected in California and I expected to be well prepared in the pre-med route.
I arrived to fall classes motivated, nervous, and SO happy. The campus, the people, the atmosphere, it was everything I expected and dreamed of in a college experience. I made friends quickly (was obsessed with my roommates!) and found true sisterhood by joining the women's rugby team. Outside of the classroom, everything was well. But in those pre-med courses.. wow. I struggled. It bothered me because I didn't anticipate the challenge. I expected my grades would be similar to high school.. not effortless, but definitely not stressed. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by better-prepared students with efficient work ethic, something I hadn't yet really developed. Couple that with less "natural talent" and I found myself on the mediocre end of the bell curve. I got Bs. And Cs. Even after seeking help, changing my study habits, committing to hardcore library hours.. I still couldn't break the pre-med algorithm. I improved a little, but it was far from where I wanted if I expected to get into medical school.
By third year, my cumulative GPA was ~3.0 (by graduation, it hovered around a 3.2). My university is known to avoid grade inflation, so a C+/B- really is the average.. and that's exactly what I was in terms of academics. Little by little, the doubt crept in. Why go through the horrific process of taking the MCAT and applying if I'd never get in? Should I choose a different path with low risk for failure? I did enjoy research.. maybe I should just start working as a lab tech and move on. Did I like nursing? Teaching? Slowly but surely I was FREAKING. OUT. This beautiful timeline and career plan I'd made was crashing down on me, and I was embarrassed by it. I had a choice-- either figure it out, or spend the rest of my life regretting a decision to ignore my dream.
So. I figured it out.
It made sense to take the MCAT as soon as possible, as I had just completed all the pre-med courses. I spent the summer between 3rd and 4th year of undergrad glued to some form of MCAT prep. Sitting through endless Kaplan lectures, way too many practice problems, and serious frustrations regarding all the plateaus, it was clear to me that getting a 40 [I was taking it back in the day with old scoring system] wasn't going to happen to make up for my GPA. But I took it anyway because of all the efforts of that summer. It was tough. And I scored a 28.
So here I was with an average GPA and an average MCAT score and average extracurriculars but extraordinary grit and determination. Luckily I had my very best friend (also pre-med, who's now a surgical resident) to guide me, cry with me and laugh at the inhumane ridiculousness of the whole process. We both also happened to be in the same research lab performing studies on a topic that we genuinely enjoyed-- exercise interventions in obese young men. Within our department major (physiology) there were a few students accepted each year to continue on and complete a research-heavy masters program in physiology. As much as I initially wanted to "just apply" to medical school and go straight from undergrad, I knew I had to improve my application. It would be worth the two extra years committing to an area of research I genuinely love (and ultimately, completely shape the way I approach medicine) to give me the extra edge in applications. And an added bonus, my best friend would be doing it with me! To be honest, I am so forever grateful for the opportunity of doing that masters program. I was able to get published, be a teaching assistant for upper-level physiology classes (and it's true, you NEVER learn something well until you must teach it,) and spent a few extra years with my boyfriend at the time (now husband) and my best friends in Los Angeles. There was so much growth and maturity in those years that I didn't appreciate it until arriving to medical school. Oh, and somewhere in those masters program years I retook the MCAT. And I got a 29.
Being from the west coast, DOs are a more scarce minority compared to the midwest and northeast. If you'd talk to our pre-med counselor, I'm not sure she really knew what it was (hence, the confusion amongst my peers when I explained that I was applying to both MD and DO schools.) Luckily I had family on the east coast, and my dad played a large part in educating me on the equal opportunities between the degrees. I spent a few great weeks shadowing a family practice DO, and certainly knew that either degree would get me to my dream career. I applied at the end of my first year in the masters program, and about DIED when I received my first interview invite several months later. Even with all the added help from publications and great letters of recommendation, I still worried that my low GPA would screen me out of all the schools. To be fair, I applied incredibly broadly and was willing to go anywhere in the United States so long as the school was accredited. [I highly recommend this approach regardless of your application's strength; beauty is in the eye of the application holder!] The interview was at a beautiful rural osteopathic school and everyone was incredibly kind. In hindsight, I would have loved to go there, if not for the frightening price tag per year. My interview went smoothly, and I couldn't help to feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude as I walked through the anatomy lab, the clinical skills rooms, and the gorgeous lecture halls. Someone had picked up my application and thought, "I think she might make a good doctor."
2 weeks later, while I was sitting in a hotel room with my mom the night before my next interview, I got an email saying I could check the portal for an update in my application status at that school. My heart was basically in my rectum at this point, and I'm not quite sure how I didn't throw up with anxiety. I opened up the portal.
To be honest, there's really no way to explain that feeling, the one you get when you realize you get to do EXACTLY what you've always dreamt of. That feeling where the tensions of stress/fear/anticipation just melt away. When your mom is there watching you burst into tears with the truest joy. The sheer happiness you can hear in your father's voice when you call him. The sense of calm within yourself when you know everything is as it should be. That was that moment.
I continued on to several more interviews (with each invite I was still just as shocked and humbled.. I mean really guys, that GPA though.) After getting accepted to the first one, I was a little more at ease and had fun traveling across the U.S. As much as I wanted to stay near the west coast, the school I ultimately went to was the most cost-effective and still in proximity to all my extended family. It's weird to think that some "high-achievers" wouldn't want to even interview at the places I was accepted, but it doesn't matter. That's their story. This is mine. I finished out my masters thesis, said goodbye to guaranteed year-round sunshine, and set out for the next phase in my life. I wouldn't have traded my pre-med experience for any other. The amount of personal growth that was afforded to me would have never happened had I been a straight-A undergrad. And after all that struggle, I found myself actually being in the top of my med school class and even scoring well on boards.. proving that with enough grit, even the underdog can make it. There is a positive side to EVERY shortcoming. I promise.
My advice? Work hard, stay humble, and live the life you imagined (even if you have to take a detour.) Throughout all my pre-med years, I never gave up the things that made me who I am. I stayed active, played a college sport, was incredibly social, fell in love, traveled, and found interests outside of science. I lived by the philosophy that if I find myself in a state of perpetual unhappiness, I need to change things and slow down. Becoming a doctor (or whatever career goal you may have) is not a race. Life is not a race! Don't lose yourself for the sake of initials after your last name. I promise you, you'll get them. All in due time.