Disclaimer: This article contains generic information – not academic or legal advice. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and Dr. Leila Zucker and do not reflect the official policies or positions of any institution.

The premed journey to medical school is lengthy and challenging. It is not a path for the irresolute. It can be a linear upward path or one of twists and turns along the way. Cookie-cutter perfectionism is more or less the objective conveyed to us from the beginning of our studies. We’re given the impression from professors, medical schools, and even other premeds that anything less than straight “As” will possibly jeopardize a future acceptance. Yet, as much as we strive for academic excellence, perfection isn’t always obtainable due to one overwhelming fact… we’re human.

So, what should a premed student do when experiencing academic hardship or failure in a course? Recently, I sat down at a coffee shop in Washington, D.C., with Dr. Leila Zucker, M.D., to discuss this issue. Although Dr. Zucker is not on a medical school admission committee, she is a clinical instructor and has been an invaluable advisor to many premeds over the years. Most importantly, as a former premed student herself, Dr. Zucker has an inspirational story about making it to medical school.

Dr. Zucker is no stranger to the arduous task of getting into medical school and we could all learn something from her experience. In her online blog, she writes about attending Johns Hopkins University on scholarship as an undergraduate student. Despite a stellar high school record and GPA of 3.91, Dr. Zucker did not excel in college, in part due to culture shock coming from Panama. Ultimately, she withdrew from Hopkins in 1989 with a GPA of 2.08, “knowing that this type of academic performance would not get me into medical school.”

Instead of giving up on her dream of becoming a physician, she eventually completed her BA in Biology in June of 1997 with a GPA of 4.0 at San Francisco State University. In 1993, to further strengthen her academic record for medical school admission, Dr. Zucker successfully attended the Georgetown University Special Masters in Physiology (SMP) – a program designed specifically for students like her who had borderline MCAT scores and/or GPAs. In Dr. Zucker’s words, the program allowed her and others similarly situated to take medical school courses to demonstrate that they could “hack medical school.”

After exceling in the SMP program and at the age of 35, Dr. Zucker began medical school at Georgetown University. She subsequently completed her residency at George Washington University. Today, Dr. Zucker is a board-certified, attending physician and clinical instructor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Howard University College of Medicine and Howard University Hospital. She is also one of 100 candidates selected for Mars One – a nonprofit organization planning to land the first humans on Mars by 2027.

Dr. Zucker’s forthrightness about her non-traditional premed path is a gift because there are very few physicians willing to admit or discuss how they dealt with academic blemishes. By sharing her academic autobiography, she motivates others to tenaciously pursue their goal. Her suggestion? Find a program that will make you a competitive applicant and keep applying until you get in.

If you’re struggling academically, here are 7 quick tips from Dr. Zucker:

  • Talk candidly with your premed advisor about your situation and ask for their input.
  • Make sure you have the proper pre-requisites. For example, before taking general chemistry, make sure you have the necessary math skills to handle the coursework.
  • If you’re not doing well in a course, don’t be afraid to drop it. However, if you miss the drop deadline because you thought you could tough the course out, then there is always a withdrawal option before the semester ends.
  • If you miss the drop and W deadlines, request an incomplete (I). Should those safety measures fail and you receive less than a “C,” consider retaking the course. Move forward and demonstrate you’ve overcome the failure.
  • If you have an anomaly or two in core science or math courses, it’s possible that retaking those courses and trending upward with better grades in more advanced coursework will sufficiently overcome the transcript transgressions. In contrast, if you have multiple blemishes, it’s probably a good idea to look at post-baccalaureate or SMP programs.
  • Consider taking a year off from school to gain perspective and possibly formulate a fresh strategy for your pathway to medical school. Dr. Zucker commented, “We all feel this rush to apply as quickly as possible…to get there as quickly as possible. For many of us, that’s a mistake.” A better route for some may be “delaying a year, putting off the MCAT, and applying at the beginning of application cycles.” Dr. Zucker also suggested that, “If you have a big emotional thing or a break up or death in the family, maybe take time off.”
  • Finally, “While you’re single-mindedly pursuing medical school, develop a back up plan.” Whether that back up plan is temporary or permanent, it’s essential to have one.

In addition to the above standard recommendations, Dr. Zucker made relevant points about individualism during the premed process. She pointed out that, “Everybody thinks they have to be the whole package. But you don’t.” Dr. Zucker continued, “You have to be yourself and show them [medical school admission committees] why you want to go and why they should take you.” She noted that going to medical school is almost like winning the lottery and that, even though there are tens of thousands of applicants, “persistence will win the day if you’re a qualified applicant.”

Love of medicine and the desire to become a physician never lessened throughout Dr. Zucker’s premed years. Of course, the road to becoming a physician is not easy. When it comes to pursuing a career in medicine, she poses a question to those contemplating the road ahead…what am I willing to give up to become a doctor? Do I have the physical and emotional stamina to endure the journey to medical school?

After speaking with Dr. Zucker, even I was starting to feel a bit overwhelmed with thoughts of the entire marathon event that lay before me.  I then asked her the final interview question:

Me: “Was it worth it?”

Dr. Zucker: “Absolutely.”

Dr. Leila Zucker always wanted to be a doctor and she ultimately achieved her goal through hard work, tenacity, and sacrifice. She is an inspiration for all premeds and shares her story with this final note of encouragement and support: “If I can get into medical school at the tender age of 35, anyone can do it. You just have to want it badly enough, to be unable to imagine yourself in any other career.”

Visit Dr. Zucker’s personal blog: http://www.motherzucker.com/leila.html.

Headshot of Erin FortnerErin Fortner is a licensed attorney in Georgia where she practiced pharmaceutical product liability law and was a special victims unit prosecutor. She lives in the D.C. metro area and is attending a full-time post-baccalaureate program. Ms. Fortner also recently earned her EMT certification.