In this episode, Ryan talks with non-traditional student Matt who has a great, great story about his struggles as an undergrad and who really didn't have his path set initially for medical school.
Matt had this huge non-traditional path of starting undergrad, dropping out, going to the navy, coming back and starting off very poorly with GPA and coming back and doing well. With 7 ½ years of military experience, Matt described his time at the military as a life-altering and perspective-changing experience for him that has definitely helped him pursue his passion of becoming a doctor.
Today, he shares with us a ton of great information, stories, his transition period, and how he overcame his struggles along the journey, swimming against the current, and finally making it.
Here are the highlights of the conversation with Matt:
Matt before the navy:
- Not knowing what he wanted to do in college
- Music as the only thing he was passionate about
- Leaving college with an ugly transcript: 9 W's and 3 F's
Matt in the navy:
- Matt leaving college to join the navy band
- Spent his first two years in Naples, Italy and traveling in 23 different countries
- One of the Africa trips he did became the opening paragraph of his personal statement
- Loved interaction with students
- “Atlantis,” a science, technology, & engineering-based educational program that sparked his interest for the sciences
His first steps in overcoming his “ugly” past grades when he realized he wanted to study medicine:
- Being terrified and facing his fears
- Doing more reading
- Going to the local naval clinic and asked to volunteer
- His Aha! moment: shadowing a family friend/physician
- Talking to an advisor at his university and a dermatologist friend
- His dad's response which became a “reality check” for him to really make it happen
His advice to those who are surrounded by people who doubt their ability:
- An element to prove them wrong but not from a place of revenge
- Taking the good part of negativity on-board and try to see if there is any truth in that
- His mantra: “There is no growth without conflict.”
Going through the transition:
- Initially struggling thinking he's so far behind
- Collaboration, not competition: Started making more friends and communicating with the community and realizing he's not really behind and he just needed to keep working hard
- What he thought was the easiest: time management (his military experience helped him a lot!)
During the interview process:
- Showing and not telling
- Started talking about his military experience as life-changing and how it changed his perspective in life
Keeping on the same track of being successful in medical school:
- Setting concrete, real goals
- Recognizing his own pitfalls and finding a system that works for him to overcome those
Some pieces of advice for premed students:
Seek out situations that challenge you in some way. Find ways of challenging yourself and if you do, you will grow as a person… and you will grow into the person that medical schools want to accept.
Links and Other Resources
- Check out our partner magazine, www.premedlife.com to learn more about awesome premed information.
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Dr. Ryan Gray: The Premed Years, session number 123.
Hello and welcome back to the Medical School Headquarters Podcast; where we believe that collaboration, not competition, is key to your premed success. I am your host, Dr. Ryan Gray, and in this podcast we share with you stories, encouragement and information that you need to know to help guide you on your path to becoming a physician.
Now if you haven't heard in a while that our partner magazine, Premed Life, is out there for you to consume a ton of great articles, go check them out at www.PremedLife.com. And if you're struggling with the MCAT go to www.FreeMCATGift.com and download our thirty plus page report to help you survive that dreaded MCAT.
Today we have a nontraditional student, Matt, joining us, who emailed me after I posted on Reddit saying, “Hey, we have this podcast and I'm looking for some great guests, or potential guests.” And so Matt no joke sent me this huge email, gave me all the stats, even sent me his AMCAS application to review to see if he would be a good guest, if I would like to have him on the show for you to listen to and to learn from. And he does have a great story, I was looking through his AMCAS application, and he like many of you struggled the first couple years of undergrad or the first couple semesters, and really didn't have his path set. Didn't really know why he was there, what he was doing, and you can tell that in his transcript. He's got lots of withdrawals, a few poor grades. And what he ended up doing which you'll hear in a little bit is he went and joined the military. Now obviously me being a Flight Surgeon in the Air Force and Matt being a Navy bum, we were able to talk about the military a little bit. But he shares a ton of great information, some stories, his transition period, and how he overcame some of the struggles, what was easier than he thought, what was harder than he thought. So I am excited to have you hear what Matt has to say.
Premed Matt: Alright, well I joined the Navy after I'd left college without a degree to join the Navy band, and you get that guarantee before you enter the military that like, ‘Hey, you're qualified to be a musician.' So I joined the military to be a professional musician full time. And the mission of the military bands- yeah there's the ceremonies and the parades that a lot of people think about, but it's also you know an education and recruitment tool. So a lot of my job did revolve around sort of that public relations setting. And I spent my first two years overseas in Naples, Italy and man we went everywhere.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Sounds rough.
Premed Matt: Yeah, well I think we travelled in 23 different countries over the two years I was there. Did the west coast of Africa, the east coast of Africa, travelled up through the Black Sea; so I got- I mean yeah, I'm ridiculously lucky with how much I got to experience of the world. But you know our job there was to sort of like build the relationships with foreign countries and it was a really great, amazing, life-changing experience. And actually one of the Africa trips that I did is the opening paragraph of my personal statement because it really was a completely like world-changing, perspective shift that happened. So after that I spent my last four years of the Navy in Newport, Rhode Island and got to travel to a lot of high schools. We worked with a lot of local recruiters and we would do performances at the schools and we would work with the high school programs, and you know we told them about the opportunities available in the military with scholarship tuition assistance, all of the great things that the military can offer people. But honestly one of my favorite parts of the job was that interaction with all the students, and that experience kind of led me down the road that got me to the point of like, ‘Hey, medicine.' Because I realized, hey I really like working with students and sharing my experiences and sharing my knowledge. And so I started looking for volunteer opportunities and other things I could do, and the base up in Newport has a program called Atlantis where they bring on kids to work with science and technology and engineering. They shuttle them in on base and they spend a full day on the military base, and they take a lot of the technical experts and they'll explain what they do in the military and the sort of education they did. And they had like 3D printers and they would do, you know, build a motor car and stuff like that. You know just an education initiative to get kids interested in science and engineering; it was really, really cool. And so that experience kind of, you know, it retriggered that science switch in my brain I guess.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Interesting. I want to rewind and go back to before the Navy. So you had mentioned that you were in college but you left without graduating. Now it sounds like from your story that you weren't premed originally. What did you go to college with aspirations, what were you hoping the dream to be?
Premed Matt: I'm sure this is a relatively common thing with many premed people. But you know you grow up through high school and you're kind of like- not to sound arrogant but like you're kind of good at everything you do. So like I was on the basketball team, I was in the band, I was valedictorian, et cetera. All of those things.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Not every premed student is as awesome as that.
Premed Matt: Well I went to a small, private school so it was a little easier to do those things.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So you were number one out of one?
Premed Matt: Okay, 25. But then I got to college and I was like, ‘Okay I'm going to do engineering because I love science and I'm good at it, and I love math.' And it really was aimless. At points I had engineering, math, music- I consider music education. I just- I didn't know what I wanted to do, but the only thing that I felt passionate about during those years was music. I was playing in like five different bands, and I'm just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing.' And it was the first thing that I felt true passion for, so I was like, ‘Alright, I'm going to do it.' And so I switched to a full blown music major, but what I really wanted to do come to find out was just to play in bands.
Dr. Ryan Gray: You wanted to be just a rock and roll star.
Premed Matt: Exactly and I mean- come on a rockstar is appealing.
Dr. Ryan Gray: You sent me your application and I've seen your transcript.
Premed Matt: Yes sir.
Dr. Ryan Gray: It's not pretty.
Undergraduate to Medical School
Premed Matt: No, I think I got like nine W's on there and three F's, which honestly were- that was a case of not withdrawing in time. So yeah, I mean my transcript is ugly. I left college with 92 hours and a 2.8.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah. So not pretty, and not- obviously prime numbers to be accepted to medical school. So once you went on your Navy journey, you did your band thing for a while, and then you realized that you wanted to go and be a physician. How did you start to gather this information to overcome all of these withdrawals and the F's; or did you think that you had no chance?
Premed Matt: Honestly up until December 20th of 2014, three months ago, that fear was there the entire time. I've struggled with that fear ever since- I knew going into it that I had a past to work against and it terrified me. But you know my experience in the military really sort of like growing up and kind of coming to myself and figuring out what I really want to do with my life and my place in the world. I was like, you know what? I'm still relatively young. I don't want to look back in twenty years and say like, ‘I sure am glad I did that because it was an easy thing to do.' And so I was terrified, but I left that music career- and don't get me wrong, like I'm still a musician and I'll always be a musician, but I was like, ‘I've got to give this a try.'
Dr. Ryan Gray: And so what did you do to take those first steps?
Premed Matt: So you know I did a lot of reading on the Internet first, which I guess is- you know I end up on Student Doctor Network, which tends to scare you more if you're in that situation most of the time. But no, like one of the things I did after that Atlantis program I talked about, I went to the local Naval clinic and I was like, ‘Hey is there any opportunity I have to like volunteer? Can I hang around you guys and see what's up?' And I did it, and you know military medicine- as you know, is a different beast than civilian medicine in a lot of ways. And I guess you know, it was still two or three years before I got out. But just family friend physician, I was on leave home for Christmas, and I was just like, ‘Hey do you care if I shadow you,' and honestly that was kind of an ‘ah-ha' moment, was shadowing him and spending time with him, and he was so generous with his time and his experiences with me. It really was sort of a light switch moment, seeing him interact with patients and describing his day, and all of the day-to-day. And even the headache of the bureaucracy which you get used to being in the military, I was just like, ‘Man, this is really what I want. This fits everything that I've been searching for, for the past three years.'
Dr. Ryan Gray: So I'm going to ask you again, I'm going to push you a little bit more. So you have these moments where you know you want to be a doctor, but you still have all of these withdrawals and three F's on your transcripts. What in your mind led you to take those steps to actually go, ‘You know what? I'm going to be premed and I'm going to figure out how to do this.' Who did you talk to? You obviously had to go to a school, an advisor, somebody.
Premed Matt: Yeah, I did- another one of my trips home I did talk to the advisor at my university. I told him my situation and-
Dr. Ryan Gray: He laughed?
Premed Matt: No he was actually very reassuring.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Alright.
Premed Matt: And you know, he- I told him, I was like, ‘You know, I know this is awful and I'm swimming against the current and all of that.' But no, he was very, very reassuring. He was like, ‘You know what? That was like ten years ago. What have you done recently?' And so I finished my degree while I was still in the military and when I got out was when I completed all that science coursework. So I guess it was a combination of all those little explorations of sort of talking to like the premed advisor, physicians, I had a long phone call with an old family friend who- he's a dermatologist, and we talked for a really long time. So I guess I did talk to a lot of people, and they were all very reassuring of like, ‘That was in the past, what have you done recently?' And so it was all very positive and reassuring, but also realistic of you know, yeah you need to be on point from here on out.
Pushback from Outsiders
Dr. Ryan Gray: Did you have anybody that doubted your ability?
Premed Matt: I will never forget when I- I called home to my dad, and I was like, ‘Hey I think I'm going to chase medicine. I think I want to be a doctor.' And he was kind of like, ‘What? Uhh…okay.' You know very, very much- I could hear in his voice- because you know he was with me through all of those failures, and he's a very positive guy, very very- I mean he's one of my role models. Great leader, very compassionate. And- but I could just hear it in his voice that like it was, ‘Oh yeah, sure you're going to do this. Just like you've done everything else in life.' And it wasn't mean, it was within the context of our relationship, and I knew that was just him seeing me grow up and everything that I'd done in life. And he didn't say it, but what I heard in his voice was that was the reality check that I needed. So it wasn't like, ‘Oh I'm going to prove you wrong,' it was like, ‘You know what? My dad's right. I can't keep doing what I have been doing in the past and make this. I'm going to have to make changes.'
Dr. Ryan Gray: Interesting, it's a good way to look at it. Because I know there's somebody listening right now that is in a very similar situation to where you have been. Where they started undergrad, didn't really know what they were doing and drifting from one thing to another, and left with a 2.8 GPA, and now wants to go be a physician. But maybe they're not as lucky as you and had so much support as you had. What do you say to that person who is getting the pushback of, ‘Oh you're crazy, you can't do that. You couldn't even get a B average doing pottery in college.'
Premed Matt: I think there is an element to prove them wrong, but I mean that in a sense of not doing it from a place of revenge. I think it's important when you hear any negativity to be able to take the good part of that negativity on board, and that's part of that self-awareness and self-critical aspect that in a sense- you know, the personal statement asks of you. Of you know, what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses? And it's hard- it's hard on the ego, but if somebody gives you some sort of negative feedback, I feel it's really important to take what they say and try to see if there's any truth in that. Because I really take on board the mantra there's not growth without conflict. And the idea is that- I mean and it's common in a lot of philosophies. As iron sharpens iron in the bible, there's [Inaudible 00:16:28]; it's a really common thing. So when somebody you know, says like, ‘Oh you're never going to be able to do that,' my question for them would be like, ‘Well why do you think that?' And try to get to the truth of what it is they're saying. Like and sometimes people are just mean. You're going to run into that.
Dr. Ryan Gray: And they all hang out on Student Doctor Network.
Premed Matt: I didn't say that.
Dr. Ryan Gray: I did.
Premed Matt: Okay. No, it's hard. And I'm by no means perfect, and you know what I described with my father was in a sense that, and I know that I'm lucky to have the supportive environment that I do.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So you got into medical school, right?
Premed Matt: Yes sir.
Dr. Ryan Gray: You have an acceptance.
Premed Matt: Uh huh.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Fast forward to that phone call to your dad that said, ‘I'm going to be a doctor.' What was his response?
Premed Matt: Nothing but- he wasn't amazed, he knew that I had the potential to do it. But it was very much a pride in stating to him I guess four and a half, five years ago, ‘Hey I'm going to do this,' and then I made it. And he was- and I told him. I let him know as soon as I told him, ‘I wouldn't have made this if you had not responded the way that you did when I first told you I was doing this.'
Dr. Ryan Gray: Wow, that's cool. I bet he's very proud. So he's not a physician, is he in healthcare at all?
Premed Matt: No, he is actually a school administrator.
Transitioning Back to Being a Student
Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay, interesting. Alright so you obviously fixed something in your ability to perform well in classes. As you transitioned back to being a student, which a lot of people listening are doing, how did you find that transition and what did you do to ease any of the pain and suffering?
Premed Matt: So I jumped back in and I think my first semester back I had an analytical chemistry course, and cell biology, just not easy classes. It's not like a gen chem where you're doing stoichiometry the whole time. Like it was terrifying to me because I was like, ‘I'm so far behind everybody. You know they've been doing this stuff for a year or two already, I'm so far behind.' And I feel that the first eight weeks or so- eight to ten weeks, half the semester, I struggled just from that outsider component of like, ‘I'm so far behind these people.' When I started making more friends and communicating more with everybody in that community, premed, chemistry, biology; I was like, ‘You know what? I'm not behind, I just need to keep working hard and you know help other people where I can, and they help me where they can, and we're going to be good.' And fortunately I learned that early and I made some really, really great friends despite our age difference, and we helped each other through a lot of those coursework- you know, organic chemistry and all of the stuff that premeds always have to deal with.
Collaboration with Other Students
Dr. Ryan Gray: I like that there's another- another example of collaborating with your classmates, and not viewing them as competition and how that helped everybody.
Premed Matt: Oh absolutely. I mean I'm still trying to help- there's one of my friends, who we were in O-chem one and two together. Sat next to each other the whole time, lab partners and everything. And he's going through the application process right now, and so I'm trying to give him any tips that I can of like, ‘Hey I wish I'd done differently.' Or, ‘Hey like make sure you do this.' And it's- yeah it's been so great having friends along the way to help in the process, because I'm the outsider. I'm the old military guy who's towering over everybody. So yeah, it was good. I wouldn't have made it without those relationships.
Dr. Ryan Gray: That's great. What was the easiest thing coming back and making that transition? What went smoother than you thought it would?
Premed Matt: I guess I would probably say just the day-to-day aspect of it. Like my perspective as eighteen, nineteen, twenty year old in college- and by the way I'm only 32 now. But it always felt- I don't know, laborious in some way. Like but going back after being in the military with like strict schedules and everything, and honestly as far as like the scheduling went and time management, in a sense felt like the easiest thing in the world. After coming off a real job in the military, and I know that- for instance a nineteen year old college student right now is going to be like, ‘Oh yeah, it's easy for you to say.' And you're right, our perspectives are completely different on that. I'm only relaying how that felt to me. That time management and scheduling felt like it was super easy coming back to the academic environment.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah, and it is all relative as an eighteen year old on campus versus a twenty-something year old; the perspective of life is just totally different. So it does make it a little bit easier, and that's something that as a nontraditional student you have that advantage. You have those life lessons under you, and you have a huge advantage. So you thought in your classroom setting you were at the disadvantage, that everybody else was ahead of you. But in every aspect I guarantee you, you were ahead of that other person.
Premed Matt: Yeah, it's- it was interesting trying to sort of find my place on campus. Because of course, I mean I'm not immune from preconceptions and it's like, all these people are going to view me as like the creepy old guy or anything like that. You know we're all human, and so I think once I stopped having all of those preconceived notions and just treated people like people, everything else kind of flowed from that.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Awesome. So talk about your experiences during the interview process as somebody who had this huge nontraditional path of starting undergrad, dropping out, going to the Navy, coming back, starting off very poorly with your GPA, and then coming back and doing well. How did those discussions go, if at all, during your interviews?
Premed Matt: I think one thing that really helped- you know a common notion for personal statements and interviews is kind of show, not tell. Like you don't say like, ‘Oh yes, I'm an excellent leader.' You say like, ‘Hey, I did this.' And having sort of seven and a half years of military experience, pretty much any of those questions that weren't directly medical / patient focused, I had something in the bank to say, ‘Oh yeah, we did this and I ended up doing this, and this was the outcome.' So I feel like in a sense I went into that interview just basically holding 100 five dollar bills instead of two, if that makes sense.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah, no it does. That's great. And so did it come up at all? Did an interviewer ask you, ‘What the heck happened?'
Premed Matt: I got one question that basically it was like, ‘What makes you think you can handle medical school?' You know, kind of looking at those past grades. And you know I started off with the idea that the military in general is meant to be a life-altering experience. You go through boot camp, you go through training; all of those things, and there absolutely is an element that shifts your perspective, because they make it challenging on purpose to make you grow into somebody that can function in that military lifestyle in the units and the military structure. So I started with that, and then I went on to say that you know, once I became focused I learned how to best work. I needed to set very concrete, discrete goals to myself. Like for instance, if I set a goal for myself of like, ‘Hey I've got to get fit,' I'm not going to do anything. Because that's a completely amorphous goal. It's- you know, being fit is not an actual goal. But if I say, ‘Hey I want to do this program every day for six weeks,' then that's something I'll follow through on. And a lot of it is just sort of- it's psychology, you know, figuring out how your mind works with that goal setting. And I learned how to do that with all of the different tasks that we ended up having to do in that military organization. And so I passed on that it really was a learning experience of how can I produce? And I didn't have that when I was first in college because you know, high school was like, ‘Okay, here do this assignment. Okay, turn it in.' And I excelled in that environment, and college didn't have that same type of environment. And then as well as the music thing I told you about. But it was sort of learning what I needed to do to be able to produce and meet and achieve goals.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay. And looking forward as you're getting ready to start medical school coming up in the fall, or late summer, what are you planning to do to help keep you on that same track of being successful as a student?
Premed Matt: Part of it is that same idea of I need to set very like concrete, real goals for myself, and obviously having not had a medical school experience yet, I can't say specifically what that is. But you know a lot of it is going to come down for me, to say, ‘Okay, this day I need to do X, Y and Z for you know, whatever amount of time.' And I have a wife and two dogs as well, so there's that aspect to it too. And I absolutely was not perfect with the past two years of undergraduate work, and so my failings in sort of applying the lessons I learned with how to be productive; the failings that I had with my undergraduate coursework- which I mean they weren't failings, but I could have done better. I learned from those lessons basically. Like, hey I screwed up that. I can do this, this and this to not do that again. So in a sense it was sort of recognizing my own pitfalls, and so I found a system that works for me that comes to goal setting, and I've so far recognized quite a few pitfalls and so I've now put little traps in my head of like, ‘Hey you're doing this.' And so- does that make sense?
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah.
Premed Matt: Like I have sort of discovered my own failings- or at least some of them. And I'll continue to discover more.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah, and that's exactly what we talk about a lot with course correction, is taking the time to do a reality check or check in with yourself and find out where you are during a semester or during a specific period of time and go, ‘Okay, here's where I'm at. Is this where I want to be? Where do I want to be, and how do I get there if I'm not there?' And so it sounds like that's what you're doing and that's great.
Premed Matt: Oh absolutely, and I think it's very, very easy to- when those moments where course correction can happen, it's very easy when it comes from an outside source to say, ‘Oh they don't know what they're talking about,' or to make excuses for yourself. And it's just so easy to do. And like I always try to caution my friends- because I mean, you know my friend will call me up and it's like, ‘Oh man I'm having this problem at work, and blah, blah, blah. And this person said this.' And you know I always do my best to be supportive, but I also try to add that extra perspective of like, ‘Well is there any truth to what they're saying?' Because I mean like what I said at the beginning, it's easy when it comes from an external source to let the ego get involved, and not take on like, ‘Hey maybe I do need to fix this.'
Dr. Ryan Gray: Yeah. Awesome. So Matthew what's your best piece of advice for a premed student who is struggling on their journey?
Advice from Matt – Challenge Yourself
Premed Matt: Other than the standard sort of thing of like, ‘Hey excel in your classes, and volunteer,' you know all of those really common things. My best piece of advice I think is to seek out situations that challenge you in some way. And you know, don't go do a volunteer experience just because it's volunteering. Try to find something that really, you know, challenges you in some way. Like challenges your perspective of other people. Find a course that is not necessarily even academically challenge, but will challenge your perception. You know, like if you have a spot in your schedule, take a logic and philosophy course or something like that. Something that you wouldn't normally take. Find ways to challenge yourself, and if you are really challenging yourself you will grow as a person. And you know, I feel like the premedical path, a lot of it feels like box-checking, but I feel like if you're doing it right what you're doing is challenging yourself so that you grow into the person that medical schools want to accept.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Alright, again that was Matt. I thoroughly hope you got a ton of great information. Having stories like this, I think- I've gotten more emails, more feedback from you that says, ‘It was this story that resonated with me.' Or, ‘That guest- the struggles that that guest went through is the same struggles that I'm going through. And that showed me that I can do it.' So hopefully something that Matt said today clicked with you, and you'll be able to overcome whatever you're struggling with right now. So that is that.
If you liked today's show, do me a favor and go take thirty seconds and go to www.MedicalSchoolHQ.net/iTunes and leave us a rating and review. This is how we get more people to listen to this show, because iTunes ranks us higher because iTunes goes, ‘Oh, look at this show. It's getting more ratings and reviews, it must be good. Let's boost them up on the list.' If you go to www.MedicalSchoolHQ.net/iTunes, leave us a rating and review, and I'll read yours- or part of it on the show, just like I'll do now.
We have Tswicer- I think that's how you say it, says, ‘I got into medical school because of this podcast.' That's a great review. It says, ‘I am proud to say that I've received my first acceptance into medical school yesterday and I could not have done it without all of the invaluable information I learned on this podcast. I truly believe that it gave me the edge I needed to be the best I could be and be accepted into medical school.' That's awesome, congratulations to you Tswicer.
We have YH461 who says, ‘Best premed podcast ever,' I think we're the only one so that's kind of the default. There are a couple older premed podcasts that aren't around anymore, you can still find them but they're not really active. So I'll take best premed podcast even if it's the default. Thank you for that.
And BigOliver101 says, ‘Very informative, thank you so much for this podcast. This helps me pass the time while I'm working twelve hours shifts as a nursing assistant.' So I'm glad I can kill some time for you there BigOliver101.
Again if you want to leave us a rating and review, www.MedicalSchoolHQ.net/iTunes. Go check out www.PremedLife.com for tons of great written articles to supplement your listening here every week. And as always, I hope you join us next time here at the Medical School Headquarters.
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