If we knew the whole journey, we’d never take the first step.
The desire to pursue medicine in any capacity is truly a calling, but it is not for the faint of heart. The journey can be long and daunting while also having many bumps in the road. The ideal vision as a pre-med student is to enter medical school straight after undergrad; however, this is not the case for everyone (certainly not for me). This post navigates my journey as a Non-traditional MD candidate while becoming Uniquely ME.
Non-traditional (premed) student – Anyone who takes time in between completing undergrad education and beginning medical school.
Answering the Call
This hero’s journey is not at all easy, but it’s definitely worth it.
Prior to college, if anyone asked me the legendary “What do you want to be when you grow up” question, I would answer “Doctor!” without hesitation. My experiences as a child growing up with an autoimmune disease (another story for another time) immersed me in the medical field at a young age. I was captivated by the ability doctors had to save, heal, and ease the pain of others. That’s when I knew medicine was for me. Graduating high school at the top 25% of my class I was pretty confident in my potential and figured college would be the same (hold your laughter).
Starting undergrad, I was the typical doe-eyed Biology student with a pocket full of sunshine. Though the rigor of my courses was challenging, I really enjoyed my science classes and began to look for opportunities to work in a research lab. My sophomore year was life changing, because I began my experience as a student researcher and awoke my inner Mad Scientist. It was at this point where I fell in love with the lab and the possibility of solving medical problems with scientific innovation. My newfound love for research and lab work inspired me to add Biochemistry as a second major, which unknowingly marked the beginning of a cascade of opposition and struggle in my journey.
Crossing the Threshold
The caterpillar doesn’t just wake up and become the butterfly.
Signing my name on the double major declaration form I practically ran to my advisor’s office in excitement. As I began to explain my course plan with her, I noticed how her face was frozen in disapproval. Confused by her demeanor, I stopped talking to hear her opinion. Slowly, she leaned across the desk and grabbed my hands to say: “Truthfully, I do not believe that you are smart enough to graduate as a Biochemistry major.” She continued to explain how many students barely pass the class let alone the entire major coursework. She finished by stating that she would no longer be my advisor if I stayed on the Biochemistry tract.
Dejected but resolved, I strolled out of her office determined to prove her wrong. I understood her argument, but how could she say I wasn’t smart enough? As the months passed, I began to throw myself into my school work while simultaneously trying to volunteer and shadow doctors. I loved my new courses, but I quickly started to receive grades that were further into the alphabet. Thankfully, I wasn’t failing any classes but I definitely “C-ed” my way out of quite a few. During this time, I began to feel discouraged thinking maybe my advisor was right… I wasn’t smart enough to do this.
August 2017 ushered in the beginning of senior year along with my long awaited MCAT test date. A summer full of preparation and stress eating was about to culminate and I was nervous. Though I attended prep courses and studied, I had no idea what I was about to step into. On test day, after eight hours of intense questioning, fearful glances from other students, and my own self-doubts, I submitted my exam and walked out thankful that I at least survived the day. I remember waving to the test proctor thinking “no matter what I make on that exam, I will NEVER take this test again” (never say never folks). The month I had to wait to get my results was grueling, but I was excited to put away all my test prep books and move on. Early September, I logged in to see my results and anxiously stared at the screen until I regretted even opening my laptop – I had scored in the lower 25th percentile [translation: I did horrible].
My first semester of senior year progressed with a dark cloud over my head. I quickly realized that my noncompetitive GPA along with my low MCAT score made the chances of medical school pretty dim. During this time, I began researching post-baccalaureate programs deciding that I wasn’t even going to apply to medical school and needed to take some time to build my application. As the New Year approached (2018), I was armed with an acceptance to my top choice program in Arkansas studying cells and diagnosing diseases; but I knew I was going to have to face the MCAT again.
Buckling up for the wild ride, I began to study for my March test date. However, this time I was determined to change up my methods to ensure success. I secured a study buddy, completed many more practice tests, and declined attending any events that would distract me. Test day arrived and I felt like I achieved a stellar performance. When the time came for my scores to be released, I hadn’t even thought about it much because I was so confident that I had passed. As I opened my laptop to check my score, I said a little prayer and preceded to have my day ruined. Thankfully, my score increased six points compared to my last test, but I was still ten points away from my goal score.
Normally, when faced with devastating news I would cry endlessly and grab a cookie; but this time, I just felt numb. I wanted to quit so bad. Even worse, I was mad at God for giving me hopes and dreams that felt so far out of my reach. As I completed senior year and walked across the graduation stage earning two degrees, I couldn’t even feel proud of myself. A time that was supposed to be filled with happiness and celebration just reminded me that I was much further away from my dreams than I thought. I closed the chapter to my undergrad experience hoping that sometime soon, I would see light at the end of the tunnel.
Despite where you would like to be, you must bloom where you are planted.
August 2018, I stepped into the new environment at my post baccalaureate program. However, I made a vow to myself that I would stop living in perpetual disappointment and allow myself to feel joy. I felt so honored to be in my program and I began to look at my gap year(s) as preparation for medical school. As I delved deeper into the world of cellular biology under the microscope, my love for research and the lab grew daily. I began to establish my identity as a scientist and soon after developed this very platform (The Mad Scientist) as a way to discuss my experiences and connect with others who could relate.
As my one-year program drew to a close, I began to prepare to submit my first medical school application. Though I still felt like my chances were slim, I decided to try anyway to avoid regret. Simultaneously, I began to work in a genetics lab as a cytogeneticist which introduced me to my love of genetics and the human genome. I loved my job so much but deep down I knew I wasn’t supposed to stay. Slowly, the medical school rejection letters began to stream into my email box and I wordlessly moved them to the trash pile. Though I was disappointed that I wasn’t even selected to interview, I surprisingly felt peaceful knowing that my time would soon come.
January 2020 came, and I felt like it was my year (lol). All of the messages about 20/20 vision and growth were inspiring to me and I was committed to securing my MD acceptance. I began preparing to take my MCAT again…yes, AGAIN for a March test date. Then, BOOM! The pandemic hit and my test was rescheduled and pushed back three times until I settled on a very late September date.
When I saw my score, all I could do was stare in defeat. Tragically, I received the same exact score as my previous test. There was no improvement. I had put in so much effort studying during a pandemic. For what? I lost it. Looking at my mom I just cried and cried.
Preparing to start my second application to medical school felt like trying to shoot arrows in the dark. Technically, nothing about my application changed or improved since my first cycle rejection. I worked the same job, had the same experiences, and even made the same MCAT score. I constantly questioned if it was even worth it to try again. Additionally, my little sister and cousin both earned 2020 medical school acceptances during this time. I was faced with having to celebrate others having everything I was praying and fighting for. However, I refused to feel jealously towards their accomplishments, so I danced and celebrated with them. Deep down, I knew that I want all my people to make it, even if it’s before me.
As the train wreck of 2020 began to end, I checked my inbox and YES, I had a MD interview invite. I took time to enjoy the moment and prepared to put my best foot forward. One month later, January 2021, I finally received what I’ve been dreaming about since 9 years old. A medical school acceptance!
Bringing it Home: Overall, I experienced 3 gap years, 4 MCAT retakes, and 1 failed application cycle before getting accepted into medical school. Throughout that time, feelings of self-doubt, shame, and inadequacy filled my daily reality. I don’t want this to be you, Friend. There is not only one way to enter medical school. There is no one way to achieve any goal. You are a unique person with unique abilities, and your story will reflect this. If you are a non-traditional student pursing medicine, I want to encourage you that your “nontraditional” background is an asset, not a liability. Your unique path has given you more time to cultivate your interests, demonstrate competence, and grow to know yourself.
Don’t get discouraged when your life doesn’t go according to plan. Don’t lose hope when people express their unsolicited opinions about your abilities. & NEVER get so low that you can't clap for others’ success. God has good things planned for you, but you can't give up! Delay does not mean Denial! I am rooting for you.
Proverbs 16:9 – ‘In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.’
Jeremiah 29:11 – ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’
Know & Grow:
What do you do when life doesn’t go according to your plans?
How has your unique journey prepared you for your future goals?
How do you recover after disappointments and delay?
Lord, I pray that you reveal to us your vision and purpose for our lives. I ask that you strengthen and encourage us when life goes completely unplanned. I declare that we will walk in the fullness of who You have created us to be. Thank You, that in the end, you are our very great reward that we receive. In Jesus’ name, Amen.