Shortly after my first year of undergrad I realized that I wanted to be a doctor. I had started with relatively little direction in biology, but after speaking to a few friends and mentors I felt committed – I wanted to help people every day, I wanted to apply the science I was learning to solve problems, I wanted to work in a hospital setting. It was a perfect fit. Unfortunately it is incredibly competitive to get into medicine in Canada, with an acceptance rate of around 5%.
The environment, attitude and personality of the people who are seeking to get into medicine can be extremely unwelcoming and hard to deal with. For one, there is some sense that people are unwilling to collaborate or help others succeed. While my friends in other majors might receive notes from friends, collaborate to solve quizzes or assignments, I didn’t really feel that I had this support from my peer group. I also think this was exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t really mesh with the hypercompetitive crowd. I was always a pretty laidback albeit hard working student. This led to me having difficulty making friends in my major, struggling to find a peer group I could work with well.
I think the culture surrounding medicine also exacerbates other issues. It feels like you are never doing enough to get in. Not working hard enough, not doing enough research, not volunteering enough. It starts a cycle of constant stress, constant work, with very little time for leisure, hobbies, or personal relationships. I think early on in my undergrad I was sort of unwilling to do things I wasn’t interested in, which led to constant stress and pressure that I had no chance of getting into medical school. Eventually when I realized I had to do a little more to make myself a competitive applicant, I was very frustrated because I wasn’t passionate about the work that I felt I had to do. I will add – now that I am on the other side, this stuff is total bogus. It is totally possible to focus only on things you care about and get into medical school, and to have a healthy work-life balance.
Finally, this pressure also makes failure feel like the end of the world. While I was relatively successful in first year, when I entered 2nd year I did really poorly on my biochemistry midterm (I got a 68, which for a medicine candidate can be prohibitively low). I remember in that moment I felt totally deflated, as if all my hard work was a total waste. While this obviously isn’t true in that you can 1) recover from one bad mark in a class and 2) even if you finish one class with a bad mark, it won’t sink you, I found this entirely discouraging and remember going into a slump for weeks afterwards. This attitude was something that was relatively persistent in my life for a long time, and still might be to some degree.
The stress of trying to get into medical school affected many domains of my life: social, academic and mental, and as such it required a multi-faceted solution.
I think the first thing I did, and the most important, was get a good academic schedule, and routine that helped me succeed in undergrad. While I had sort of coasted by in highschool with relatively little work, I realized that wouldn’t be as effective in undergrad. I bought one of those huge calendars from Staples, and scheduled and colour-coded all of my assignments and dead lines. I would make weekly schedules on Sunday night for the week. Without this level of hyper-organization I was not able to keep on top of all my work. I found that if I studied at the library I worked the most effectively, so I started to study there instead of at home or with friends. I also increased the amount of time that I was studying, and also was sure to separate study time from play. It’s too easy to let study bleed into recreation if you don’t set hard time cut-offs, so I would force myself to work until a certain time, and then not let myself work after. Learning these study skills requires a fair amount of introspection and discipline, but I felt it was necessary to succeed at the standard I had set for myself.
I also learned to lean on my support group and mentors more, and to use them to help contextualize things. After I did poorly on that midterm I talked to a few faculty mentors about it, and they helped me rationalize how little it actually meant. I started being conscious of this mindset, and whenever I had a little pitfall, I reminded myself that I could overcome it if I continued to work hard. I made sure to keep time open for friends and family to give myself opportunities to build relationships despite being busy. I made time to keep time open for hobbies (like video games or reading) and for exercise and sports. Making sure to find balance in a busy schedule is key to avoiding burnout and maintaining a high standard of work.
The final thing that I think was really important was finding a good mentor. A boss of a summer research project I did was that person for me. This individual really helped me learn what I needed to do to be a successful medical applicant, and also was instrumental in helping me find opportunities to achieve this goal. I realize it might not always be easy to find a great mentor, but even upper year students, friends who are also going through the same thing, parents… These people all have a lot of insight and can help direct and provide guidance. I think learning to be open to feedback and guidance can be a really hard thing for people, especially people who might be used to succeeding independently, but that is a fundamentally important skill to learn.
The road to medicine isn’t easy, and it doesn’t get easier. It requires resilience, discipline, focus, mentorship, and hard work. But it doesn’t require you to give up the things you love and care about. With each success there is also defeat, but this is normal, and okay!
image credit: “Pressure Cooker” flickr photo by Michael J. Linden https://flickr.com/photos/mjlinden/48659052103 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license