Is My Addiction Recovery History A Deal-Breaker?

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OPM 324: Is My Addiction Recovery History A Deal-Breaker?

Session 324

This premed is in substance use recovery and has been sober for a few years. They are willing to do the work, but will med schools even consider them?

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Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[03:14] The MCAT Minute

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[03:50] OldPreMeds Question of the Week

“Will admissions even consider me with my addiction recovery history? 

I’m 22 years old, and working full-time in the ED. I consult on the floor of a few local hospitals in a position at the state’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse created as an ER and acute care recovery navigator. It’s a “peer recovery specialist” job. 

I’m in recovery from a substance use disorder and have been clean for a few years now. My criminal record was expunged and I was invited back to the undergrad university, thanks to someone anonymous where I had originally been expelled due to drug charges. I re-enrolled this spring and have another two and a half years to go with a currently low GPA as a result of several failed classes from my first attempt. I have eight failed courses out of a total of 16 while the other courses are no higher than a C. I know that I can bring my GPA up, and to me, at this point, it doesn’t matter how long it takes. 

My university premed advisor told me that I should get used to social work since she didn’t think I’d be accepted with the former criminal record, even though background checks are clear, and a Google search would not be. I just wanted to know if you think it’s possible for me to go from a peer recovery specialist who has been very upfront with my addiction and mental health history, to getting accepted at any medical school. 

My recent work doing these social work consults for patients in hospitals and crisis units has really shaped where I feel I need to be in order to help more people and be able to sleep at night feeling good with what I’ve done that day. When I was a kid, I dreamed of going into medicine. But I thought that my dream was going to be impossible in the aftermath of addiction. 

Now that my record is clear, and with a little encouragement from the physicians I work with, I’m starting to have some hope again. But they have not had the same academic or criminal record as me. I have no experience with the stigma that exists in the admissions process. But I know that you’ve got more experience than me. So before I begin retaking field courses, and continue with the chemistry undergrad, I wanted to reach out and see if anyone has any points that I should keep in mind.”

[06:44] Your Grades Can Be Fixed

Let’s throw the classes to the side first, because that’s the easiest, you can overcome your grades. Your grades were early on in your academic career. And so, you will have time to take more classes to graduate to take a postback to do a master’s. Unfortunately, it’s time and money in this country to improve those grades. But that is possible. So I’m not really worried about your grades.

I had a student who actually used to work with me, who is in medical school now who had 16 F’s on her transcript, and still got into medical school. There was a school out there that took her because they saw her potential.

'Figure out your best way of studying the best way for you to improve your grades, and maintain your grades in the face of stress.'Click To Tweet

[07:58] Considering the Nuances of Your Situation

It’s great that your record is clean now. Now, you should talk to a lawyer. I had a lawyer on the episode twice talking about criminal histories and how to answer the questions that come up in the application process. Remember that there’s a lot of nuance to how the questions are asked depending on how you answer them.

Just make sure you’re reading all the questions. Read the instruction manuals and the applicant guides for each of the application services that you’re applying to. Make sure that the language in each of those and each of the application services you’re going through will specifically say, if something has been expunged, you don’t have to report it. They might not say that. And you might have to say yes. Again, I don’t know the specifics about your situation but I just know that there’s so much nuance there.

The best thing is to be straightforward. Be honest about what happened. Talk about the ramifications or consequences you learned from those experiences.

[09:39] How Upfront Should You Be About Your Substance Use Disorder?

When it comes to discussing your substance use disorder, there are different approaches you can take. One option is to be completely open and honest about it. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this level of transparency may not resonate with all individuals or institutions. Some schools, for example, might perceive it as a liability and reject your application.

On the other hand, there are schools that value resilience and second chances. They may view your openness as a testament to your determination and invite you for an interview, treating you like any other candidate.

“One of the biggest mistakes that I've seen students make when talking about mental health stuff, substance use stuff, whatever it is any sort of red flags, is they go a little bit too far.”Click To Tweet

It’s crucial to strike a balance and avoid making your entire application solely about your past struggles. While it’s important to address these issues, they should not overshadow the other aspects of who you are as a person. You want to showcase your potential as a future healthcare professional or in whatever field you’re pursuing. By providing a well-rounded view of yourself, you allow the reader to see beyond your substance use disorder and understand the multifaceted individual you are.

Alternatively, rather than explicitly stating your substance use disorder, you can choose to hint at it or allude to your personal journey without going into extensive detail. This approach allows you to maintain some privacy while still acknowledging your experiences.

Ultimately, the decision of how upfront to be about your substance use disorder is a personal one. Consider your own comfort level, the specific requirements of the application, and the institutional culture you’re applying to.

[12:16] Crafting Your Application

Authenticity and Comfort in Your Application

When creating your application, it’s essential to showcase your true self and highlight your best qualities. Rather than following others’ advice blindly, focus on crafting an application that aligns with your comfort level. Whether this means being open about your past challenges or maintaining some privacy, prioritize your own well-being and authenticity throughout the process.

'You have to create an application that you believe shows who you are, that you believe, will highlight the best aspects of you, and that you are comfortable with sharing.'Click To Tweet

Addressing Substance Use Disorder in Your Personal Statement

The question of whether to discuss your substance use disorder in your personal statement is a personal one. While the personal statement typically revolves around your motivation to become a doctor, if your experience with substance use disorder and recovery significantly influenced your desire to pursue medicine, it could be a valuable topic to explore. With recent changes in application requirements, such as the removal of disadvantaged essays and the addition of impactful experiences, there may be opportunities to discuss these experiences.

The Impact of Bias and Judgement

It’s important to acknowledge that biases and judgments exist when reviewing applications. The reader may bring their own lived experiences and emotions to the table, potentially influencing their perception of your journey. While this can be frustrating, remember that one specific school’s decision does not define your chances of getting into medical school. There are many institutions and individuals involved in the application process, and with hard work and dedication, you will find the right opportunity.

Finding the right balance between transparency and understanding human biases is crucial. While you don’t have to hide who you are, approaching the topic with care can be beneficial. Recognize that the lens through which readers view your application may differ, and their personal experiences can shape their perception. By presenting your experiences thoughtfully, you increase your chances of resonating with those who understand and value your journey.

There are numerous success stories of individuals who have been transparent about their substance use disorder and still gained acceptance into medical school. By working hard, focusing on academic achievements, maintaining a clean record, and prioritizing self-care throughout the process, you can overcome challenges and achieve your goal of entering medical school.

Remember, your journey is unique, and there are ample opportunities and institutions that will recognize and appreciate your resilience. Stay true to yourself, showcase your potential, and remain determined to pursue your dream of becoming a healthcare professional.


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