I know people who applied to medical school seven or eight times. I know them because they were my preceptors when I myself went through medical school. They were some of my best teachers. They endured years of rejection, moving forward each year with hope and confidence in the ultimate end game. They really get why they chose medicine and they identify very clearly with the profession, warts and all. They are so passionate about sharing their love of medicine and create remarkable pedagogical experiences without exception.
I was personally rejected from medical school twice between 2006 and 2012, before I was finally accepted. I understand why I was rejected twice and I want to share my insights with you so you can avoid my errors and learn about the value of failure.
“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” - Denis Waitley
Application One: For Entry in 2007
This was the year I graduated from university. I studied in the Arts & Science Program at my University. This degree is a known entity to some universities, but not all. It is one of the best liberal arts and critical thinking training grounds and I was fortunate to be accepted in 2003.
I came from a small-town. My high school had almost no academic electives. I had never heard of the IB program (International Baccalaureate, for my rural countrymen). I had basically only met other white people. My parents are not university graduates and there are no doctors or lawyers or engineers in my family. In the Arts & Science Program, I felt totally out of place.
I approached my undergraduate degree like a child let loose in a candy store without supervision. I was on the rowing team. And I was a volunteer with the Emergency First Response Team. I ran the student government elections for one year, which was all-consuming and insane. I spent several months of my last two years in Northeast India trying to develop a model of political participation for rural women. I held jobs at a shawarma place, as a research assistant and as a teaching assistant. And I held my own academically. I finished with a 3.8 GPA over four years and a Minor Concentration in Economics.
But I made three fatal errors during my degree...
I took a disorganized approach to planning my academics. I was used to just picking courses that sounded interesting, regardless of my course load or my GPA. I saw everyone else playing this strategy game with their courses and I never understood why. So my course selection is that of someone who was directionless, even though I performed well. I never met with an academic counsellor. I never sat down and thought, “hey girl, where are you going with all of this?” I just assumed that I would work hard and figure it out because, until then, that was absolutely my life motto. When fourth year rolled around, I applied to law school, medicine, graduate school in economics and in public health. Because I saved up no money or time to write the LSAT, MCAT or GRE, I just applied where I met the eligibility criteria. I did not get into any of the med schools. And I got into both graduate programs. I felt basically fine about the whole thing because I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
I picked extra-curriculars over academics in second year. The competitive rowing season ran from April to November and then we trained a lot over the winter. My first year on the team was also my first time taking physics in university. My program mandated a full year of physics. Our classes were from 8:30am to10:30am three times per week. So, I would bike down to practice at 5am, train from 5:30am to 7:45am, bike home, shower, eat and go to class with two large mugs of coffee. And I fell asleep every single time. On weekends, I worked hard AND played hard. but never caught up on sleep. By the end of the year, I was pulling a C+ in a full year of physics which devastated my GPA. This C+ was the reason I lost my nomination to the Rhodes Scholarship in my fourth year. I was told exactly this by the selection committee. That C+ also, in my view, put it in my head that maybe I wasn’t very good at science, even though I had done well in calculus and biology in first year. This C+ represented a poor, year-long decision to value everything else over my grades. It also reflected sheer exhaustion because - as I now know - I am not bad at science.
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished undergraduate studies. I didn’t know why I wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer or anything else. I had no cogent theory of practice. My interviews impressed in that I looked like I was a hard worker and performer, but why medicine? I wasn’t sure.
Application Two: Entry for 2011
Over four years, I finished graduate school and was recruited to an elite government policy leader program. I had become really passionate about public health systems, especially around global health and addiction, and I was so excited to land this permanent, well-paying, exciting job at the age of 24. Except it was literally the worst.
I was so under-worked, under-stimulated and caged-in by a political environment that precluded real action on the social determinants of health. I was bored out of my mind. For the first time in my life, I asked myself, “what is it that you want to DO every day?” I had thought a lot about what I wanted to BE but nothing really specific ever came up so I always just followed topics that I thought were of real importance, like social justice and public health. I realized I wanted to be in relationships with people. I wanted to help solve problems on a daily basis. I wanted to help people with their bodies and examine how they could be well. I wanted to work at a community level to help people through their stories of love, grief, sickness and triumph. I wanted to be a local leader.
That is when I figured out that I wanted to be a doctor. Finally, I had answered the most important question.
So I signed up to write my MCAT that very moment. I couldn’t take time off from work.
While I was waiting for the letters to come back, I changed up my career and moved to Afghanistan to do some grassroots work with an NGO. I went for less than half of the salary and I don’t regret a thing. I found out in Afghanistan that I got rejected from one school pre-interview and I got an interview from another. I flew home to interview and was in the bazaar at a carpet seller stall when I got the email saying I had been rejected again from that school as well.
The next fatal error:
I selected the wrong referees. Because I was trying to set myself apart, I decided to take a risk with my referees. Instead of asking my Master’s thesis supervisor to write me a reference letter, I asked a woman who had been a subject in my research. She is a remarkable woman who is now a good friend. She spent many years as a sex worker in downtown Vancouver and struggled with severe addiction. She is now an activist in Vancouver and is an extraordinary speaker and advocate. As a key informant to research that took me two years to complete, I figured the schools would pay attention to the fact that a member of a vulnerable population had enough respect for me to write a letter saying that would be a good doctor to the underserved. They were unimpressed, apparently. I know this because I applied with literally the same application the next year - minus this particular reference letter - and was accepted.
Application 3: Entry for 2012
I submitted my third application in the fall of 2011 from Afghanistan. It was an identical application to the last - with a letter from my thesis supervisor instead of the activist - and so I thought I would be rejected again. My approach to CASPer was exactly the same as the year before.
But I was all in this time. My good friend said to me, “you need to show up to the game,” meaning that I need to show that I am willing to tick the boxes of a medical school candidate. I need to show consistency and commitment.
So, fine, I thought. I left my budding career in international development - and a country I was coming to really love - to take organic chemistry at the University of Ottawa, get more prerequisites to apply to more schools in Canada and rewrite the MCAT. My backup plan - I needed one, at age 28 - was to get accepted to medical school in the Caribbean but defer for one year to take a job with the Ministry of Counter Narcotics in Afghanistan which would have paid for the entire thing. I know this sounds crazy but here’s the thing: I knew why I wanted to be a doctor and nothing was going to hold me back.
In orgo lecture, I sat with 17 year olds in their first or second year of university. I could see how I must have looked in lecture 10 years prior. Scattered, uninterested, unfocused. I found out in January that I got an interview from one of the med schools.
I finished with an A+ in orgo at the end of April and found out I was finally accepted.
If I hadn’t been accepted, I would have applied the year after, to more schools. And the year after. And the year after.
I believe that there are four keys to success for getting into medical school. They apply equally to traditional and non-traditional applicants:
Tips #1 - Prepare and plan. Chart out your courses to fourth year during first year. Be open to change as your interests evolve. If you’re late to preparing and planning, start now. I started after graduate school, which was almost too late but not quite.
Tip #2 - Take risks with life, not with your application. Be strategically daring. Don’t do work that makes you physically ill. On your application, tick all the boxes. Don’t give them a reason to toss your application. Grades first.
Tip #3 - Believe that you’re going to be a doctor but also believe that it is going to take a lot of work. Be teachable with each application cycle. And be even more teachable in medical school.Tip #4 - Don’t fall apart when you’re rejected. Just keep going. Rejection isn’t a statement on your quality of character so don’t take it personally.
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About the author:
Dr. Ashley Faye White is currently a rural medicine resident and a senior admissions expert at BeMo. She has an M.D. and has navigated her way into med school as a non-traditional applicant.
To your success,