Just yesterday I submitted my residency applications through ERAS (the Electronic Residency Application Service), hoping that interview offers will soon follow. I spent months on that application—rewording things, rewriting my statement, waiting for my letters of recommendation slowly be uploaded. Overall, I feel confident in the materials that I submitted; I know that to some programs I might not be the perfect candidate, but I believe that I have enough solid material to at least make me an interesting one. Perhaps the only part of my application that I really wish looked better is my application photo. It’s a professional one, taken by my medical school, and I feel like I just don’t look my best in it. While it is very obviously me, it just doesn’t look like the best version of me. I look tired. I know that I was tired on the afternoon that it was taken—I was switching from night shift to day work and hadn’t slept well in a week—but I still wish that somehow I looked a little more lively, a little less aged by nights spent answering pages with the intern. Still, there’s a part of me that submitted that photo with pride. I was (and am) much more tired now than I was as a freshman in college, but I am also more confident, more capable, and closer to achieving my dreams than ever before. It wasn’t an easy path to get here though. While I would do it again if tossed into a time machine and given the choice, I still wish I had known a little more of how my journey would look before committing to it. Specifically, I wish I had known the following truths:
You’re going to make it.
Perhaps this is the most important item to start out with, particularly when considering how you’ll often feel like success will never come. You will succeed, but it just won’t be easy.
You’ll struggle in sophomore year of college, wondering why organic chemistry is taking so long to “click” for you.
Some people get to go straight from undergrad to medical school, but you won’t be one of them: Maybe you already caught the drift of this by my mentioning of your first try at the MCAT not going ideally, but I still need to make sure this point is known. Some of your friends will graduate from college with medical school acceptance letters in hand, already excited for their White Coat Ceremonies in just a few months. You won’t be like this. You’ll graduate wondering if you chose the right major, if you chose the right career path. You’ll head back home to study to retake the MCAT…twice. (That’s right—you’ll dominate the exam on your third try.) Those years that you’re studying and reapplying won’t be wasted though; you’ll reconnect with close friends and find that you have the life skills to financially support yourself. You’ll travel, broadening your knowledge of the world. You’ll get into medical school, but you just won’t take a direct route.
Failures, even repeated failures, don’t mean that you won’t eventually succeed.
This is a truth that extends beyond taking and retaking the MCAT. It’s a truth that will apply in medical school as well. As is already apparent, you’ll struggle not just to enter medical school but also to succeed in school. High school was fairly easy for you; you worked hard and were always rewarded for your dedication. Freshman year of college will be the same, if not easier than high school (no more AP classes!). College as a whole will be a challenge, but no more so than the challenge you expected when you signed up for a premed-focused chemistry major. Medical school, however, will be a whole different beast for you. For the first time in your life you will fail tests; for the first time ever, you’ll need to repeat courses. Getting a less than ideal MCAT score at first will be nothing compared to the fear and disappointment you’ll feel after your first set of medical school exams. In the end though, you’ll succeed. You’ll come out stronger, smarter, and more empathetic towards others struggling in life than ever before.
You know yourself better than anyone else does.
While it’s important to always carefully consider the advice of others, it’s also important to acknowledge that you really do know yourself best. You’ll save yourself a lot of anxiety if you don’t go chasing after the suggestions of others who don’t know you very well. Be confident in who you are. Be willing to change, but make your decisions with caution, knowing that some parts of you don’t have to change for you to be successful.
Anxiety is real.
Before medical school you knew what it was like to worry. Medical school will teach you what it’s like to deal with anxiety. Some people face their failures with confidence that they’ve learned the lessons they need to be successful. Unfortunately, you’re not naturally one of those people. Your first failures will also be the sources of your first bouts with anxiety—that deep feeling in your gut and heart that you suddenly just don’t know and don’t know how to know. Anxiety is a foreign feeling to you right now, in your freshman year in college. You’ll see it peek out at you occasionally during your journey through undergrad, but it won’t be until you’re in medical school when it fully rears its ugly head at you. You’ll learn to conquer it, but it won’t be easy.
You aren’t alone in your journey.
The good news is that even though you’ll struggle through your journey, you won’t be alone in your challenges. On a broader scale, there are thousands of other students dealing with your same hopes, worries, and fears. On a more personalized note, many of those “other students” will actually be your classmates. The pre-med and medical culture has traditionally been one that discourages openly confessing if you’re struggling, but be the one to act counterculturally. Let others know what you’re dealing with, and you’ll more than likely find out that you aren’t alone.
Getting into medical school isn’t the hardest part.
You may have gotten this idea by now, but I need you to know it anyways. Yes, getting in will be hard for you. You’re dedicated, diligent, and persistent in your pursuit of an MD, but the struggles are far from over once you are accepted into medical school. You’ll continue to deal with failures (followed by eventual successes) throughout your basic science classroom years of medical school.Your clinical rotations will be better, but there will still be days when you come home wondering if you’ll ever be “good” at what you’re doing. Getting into medical school won’t be the hardest part for you. Getting up each day of your journey with passion to continue to pursue your ambitions despite setbacks will be your biggest challenge. It’s ok to doubt your dreams: Some days you’ll go to clinic or class feeling like a fraud, because you went to bed and woke up wondering if you really want to be a physician. That’s ok. Even the most successful practitioners have days when they’ll wonder if they would be better suited for a different career. Don’t let a few days of doubting make you feel like a fraud. You’ll need to constantly remind yourself throughout your medical journey of why you wanted to be a physician in the first place, and that’s ok.
You will cry.
You’ve never really been a crier for either the happy or the sad events of your life, but medical school will change that. You’ll cry when you fail your first set of tests. Sometimes you’ll cry alone in your room; other times you’ll cry in front of your friends, sitting on their couch while holding their new puppy for ultimate comfort. You’ll cry at your patient interactions too—the first time you treat a domestic violence victim after an assault. There will be happy cries too, like when you help deliver your first baby while on your OBGYN rotation. It’s ok to allow yourself to feel and viscerally express these emotions; too many doctors get accused of being calloused and heartless, and you don’t have to let yourself be one of them.
You will succeed.
Finally, I know this point is in the same general theme as my first one, but it is worth repeating. You will succeed. You will fail multiple times during the journey, but you will succeed in the end. You’ll be writing this letter to your freshman self after finally reaching the “promised land” of your fourth year of medical school. You’ll be loving your rotations and excited for the future. You’ll come through this process wiser and more resilient than you ever dreamed. You’ll have the tools not only for treating your patients with kindness and quality care, but also for facing the future in residency training, wherever it may take you.