Renee had a successful career as a nurse educator. But she knew in her gut that she wanted to pursue medicine, so she applied to medical school at 53 years old.
It was definitely not a smooth ride for Renee. She had to take the MCAT multiple times, and medical schools rejected her the first time. She also faced physical barriers with chronic illness. But Renee knew she was going to find her place in medical school, and she eventually did (she is now 54). Her’s is a beautiful story of hardship, triumphs, and overcoming the odds.
Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
[02:10] The Stereotype of All Physicians Being Male
During her middle school and high school years, Renee was always signing up for science fairs and would come up with different experiments. Aside from her interest in science, she knew she wanted to become a doctor because of some experiences with her grandpa. Renee’s grandfather was having some health issues, diabetes specifically. Renee witnessed how the doctors helped him manage his chronic illness.
Although she really wanted to be a physician, Renee was raised in a rural community where there were no female physicians in the whole county. After a conversation with her dad, they agreed on her taking up nursing. It was pretty much suggested to her that nursing was the only option she had in health care.
At that time, Renee was also engaged to her high-school sweetheart, who is her husband now. At that point, she was committed to becoming a nurse, knowing that once she got married, she was literally on her own. So she decided to make the best out of the situation including getting great grades in nursing school.Once Renee started working as a nurse, she finally began seeing female physicians trickling in from the big cities.Click To Tweet
[09:22] Putting Family First Before Her Dreams
Renee wanted to advance after about ten years of being a nurse, so she went to a nurse practitioner school as the next closest thing to being a physician. After being a nurse practitioner for 15 months, Renee realized that family nurse practitionership was not what she wanted. She wanted to do something related to obstetrics. However, she didn’t want to move, considering her family was already rooted in their community, so her choices were limited.
Ten years later, she got into academia and pursued her PhD. Each step she took was to provide insurance for her family, pay the bills, and have a job that allowed her to do that. In short, she was repeatedly making career decisions based on providing for her family, not based on what she really wanted to do.She was repeatedly making career decisions based on providing for her family, not based on what she really wanted to do.Click To Tweet
Renee’s kids knew their mom always wanted to become a physician. Her son eventually encouraged her to sign up for prereq courses to see if she still wanted to pursue medicine. Renee initially thought it was a crazy idea, having moved their family from Kentucky to Texas. But she did take the classes, and then she began applying to medical schools, never thinking she would actually get in.
[13:30] Financial Limitations to Applying to Medical School
Leaving her community was one reason that kept Renee from applying to med school, but money was always another factor. She was worried about living off of one income, which they’d never done before.
The solution came when her two kids left the house. Being an empty-nester, it was just her and her husband now. Renee realized it wasn’t going to be a big deal to live cheaply, and being in debt was nothing new either. In fact, she’s still paying for her PhD now. So she really didn’t think of finances as a big barrier anymore.
Renee talked with some physicians about how she wanted to be a doctor, and they told her she’d be able to pay everything back as an attending physician. You can often pay off medical school loans in just a few years if you keep living like a resident on an attending physician’s salary. This is something Dr. Dahle talks a lot about, who I interviewed in Session 223. Hearing this, Renee decided to go for it.
[15:35] Taking Her Medical School Prereqs with Her Kids
Renee actually took classes with her kids in the same class. They all took classes at the same school where she was a nurse educator. Their family basically moved from Kentucky to Texas because of the free tuition her kids can get with her being an educator in Texas. (This is actually a law in Texas.)
Her kids loved that she was taking classes with them, although the other kids in the class didn’t actually know they were related. And her kids got better grades than she did.
Renee says the prereq classes were thrilling. She had the opportunity to see if she could advance to the level she wanted to. So she took it as a challenge and a really exciting time.
One of her challenges was her age, being 50+ years old while taking her prereqs. She had to have a little talk with herself, reassuring herself that it’s okay if the classes or the other students are leaving her out. Renee says the feeling that you’re not going to fit in eventually goes away once you have relationships with others. You show them respect, they show you respect, and you learn from each other.Renee was 50+ years old, working on her medical school prereqs.Click To Tweet
[19:10] Taking the MCAT Five Times
Thinking she’d taken standardized tests before, Renee initially approached the MCAT just like other tests. Obviously, that did not work out well for her. Renee actually took the MCAT five times, and it really tested her confidence. Wanting to read every word and look at every answer choice, Renee took too long and rarely finished the passages.
She had to get over the fact that her MCAT score was not great. She focused on the fact that there are a lot of other things on her application that were really good.
You don’t have to be the perfect package when you apply to med school. Renee tells people to cultivate the things you’re really good at. If you have things you’re below-average on, you can explain why you are below-average on those. Renee had to explain why she took the MCAT five times in her interviews, but she still got in.Renee had to explain why she took the MCAT five times in her medical school interviews, but she still got in.Click To Tweet
Her First Four MCAT Attempts
So what happened the first four times she took the MCAT? Renee recalls not having been able to put in as much study time as she should have. That very last time she took the MCAT, she was in a different city. Having new surroundings and taking a Kaplan course, she simply had a new mindset by the fifth time she took it. She scored much better as a result.
Although she took a Princeton Review course the first or second time, the Kaplan course she took for her fifth time gave her a much more personal experience, which made the difference for her score.
[Related post: Best MCAT Prep Course (with a Promo Code).]
[24:00] The Personal Statement
As a published author, Renee thought writing her personal statement would be no big deal. But during her interview, a doctor who interviewed her actually offered to help her with her personal statement next year if she didn’t get in that time. After being waitlisted, Renee updated her personal statement and sent it back in that same year.
So she met up with the interviewer, who taught her a way to write her personal statement that was quick and to the point. She pulled out the most important aspects of her story, and they both agreed on the things she wanted to highlight. Renee emphasized the importance of getting advice from the school that you want to go to, from either the admissions committee or someone that affiliated with it. They can tell you what they’re looking for.
Renee ended up applying twice. She got no interviews the first time. The second time she applied was when she had a better MCAT score, and that’s how she got the interview.
[Check out my Personal Statement Writing Course to help you tell your story!]
[26:18] Choosing Medical Schools and Being Waitlisted
Renee basically had two major considerations in choosing which schools to apply to. First, Renee and her husband wanted to stay in Texas. This had a bonus advantage because you can apply to all the medical schools in Texas for one price. She didn’t apply to any schools outside Texas. If she had to move a little bit, then she would, but she didn’t want to move too far since they still have a daughter who still lives with them. Renee applied through the Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS), as well as to Baylor College through the AMCAS application.
Having applied to a medical school where she was one of the professors in their College of Nursing, her colleagues were asking her about her waitlist status. But she didn’t know what would happen. April came, and she was still waiting. At that point, she had lost confidence. She only had the interview at one school, it felt like a one-in-a-million shot to get in.
[Related episode: How to Choose Which Medical Schools to Apply To.]
Getting Accepted to Medical School and Finding Her Place
Then she got a phone call from a very familiar voice, who turned out to be the Dean of Admissions. She had spoken with him a few times to get his input on her application. He was calling to offer her a position in the College of Medicine. Renee was crying, and she told him she would make them proud.He was calling to offer her a position in the College of Medicine. Click To Tweet
Renee thinks the interview was what made the difference, as it put her high on the waitlist. She also thinks that being a nontraditional student was an advantage, as she brings something different to the class that they needed.
Renee felt that, with this acceptance, she finally found her place. She provided something needed for this class, and finally, she was more than just the odd one out in the group.Being a nontraditional student, you bring something to the class that they need. Click To Tweet
[31:40] The Medical School Interview Experience
The medical school obviously saw something in Renee that fit into the class they were trying to build. They needed that particular thing in the class. She filled that role, and she’s taking it seriously.
During her interview, Renee was challenged with a question about what if she didn’t get in. And although she knew this was going to be asked to every student, and although she knows the stock answer is to say she would reapply, she answered it differently. She said she had a Plan B, which was to walk back across the hall and continue to work in the College of Nursing. So either way, she would win.
She was also asked what she hoped to bring to the class. This was a time when the doctor involved with the Ebola virus scare came back to the U.S. and became a beacon of light for others. To be that kind of person was Renee’s goal, and she shared this with her interviewer. Renee also connected with one of her interviewers, a parent, about the issue of having kids while in medical school.
[35:50] The Medical School Experience
Renee has found that medical school is everything she hoped and dreamed for. Some days she thinks she can’t do it, but then she just takes a step back and tells herself today is going to be just like yesterday, which she got through.
Some days are better than others, and some days are just awful. But most days are doable. Even with the hard days in medical school, Renee would still do it with a smile on her face because she feels very fortunate to be where she is right now, having only had that one interview opportunity. Was she really supposed to there? She thought yes. And she thought about not wanting to disrespect all the other people who didn’t get in by not appreciating it and taking advantage of it.Even with the hard days in medical school, Renee would still do it with a smile on her face because she feels very fortunate to be where she is right now.Click To Tweet
Dealing with Chronic Illness in Medical School
The hardest part of medical school for Renee is being challenged physically, as she is 54 and has chronic illnesses. Renee has a common variable immune deficiency, also known as CVID, and was taking IV immunoglobulins every four weeks.The hardest part of medical school for Renee is being challenged physically, being 54 and having chronic illnesses.Click To Tweet
For a while, the nurse had to come to her house and spend the whole day with her, administering this treatment. Renee compared this to chemotherapy for how it made her feel bad every four weeks. But she just changed her medications to the subcutaneous route, which is administered every two weeks and which she can now do on her own.
Renee didn’t talk about her chronic illness on her personal statement because it was a recent diagnosis and not something she felt comfortable talking about. Whether or not you should disclose health issues in your application is something I address in Session 73 of the OldPreMeds Podcast.
[39:27] The Future of Being a Physician and Handling Biases
Renee sees herself in the OB/GYN field, which was what she did first as a nurse, being a labor room delivery nurse. Then she worked in nursery, postpartum, and post-surgery for women, so she has always seen herself in that role of an OB/GYN. Renee wants to work in pregnancy and maternal-fetal medicine, especially with high-risk pregnancies.
In terms of handling biases against her based on her age, Renee thinks she will be a strong applicant because residency pools are small and they need a diversity of students. They’re going to need people with a wide variety of experiences in order to have the best team. So she thinks this would be to her advantage given her past experience. She simply sees herself working until the end, and she already has so much health care experience, she is confident that burnout will not be an issue for her.
[42:55] Final Words of Wisdom
Don’t compare yourself to younger applicants to medical school. You’re not in the same category. You have different weaknesses and different strengths, too. Talk to a lot of other people who have been in your shoes and who are trying to pursue things with barriers in the way.
You can’t just turn in the application and expect to get interviews. You have to figure out how to work around some biases people will have. Lastly, make sure you have support, not only financial support but especially emotional support, because this is a daily grind.Don't compare yourself to younger applicants to medical school. You're not in the same category.Click To Tweet
Links and Other Resources
- Check out my Premed Playbook series of books (available on Amazon), with installments on the personal statement, the medical school interview, and the MCAT.
- Related episode: Interview with a 56-year-old Medical Student.
- Related episode: How Old Is Too Old to Start Medical School?
- Need MCAT Prep? Save on tutoring, classes, and full-length practice tests by using promo code “MSHQ” at Blueprint MCAT (formerly Next Step Test Prep)!