Overcoming Setbacks as a Nontrad on the Path to Med School

Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts

PMY 397: Overcoming Setbacks as a Nontrad on the Path to Med School

Session 397

Shahaan Razak overcame numerous setbacks on his path to medical school. This year, he received 34 interview invites and 16 acceptances. What was his secret?

What Shahaan didn’t do was give up. He always had his plan A in mind and never deterred from his plan. And through having multiple kids and through all of life’s journeys and struggles, he has now had an amazing application cycle. Today, they talk about stats and everything else with more than a dozen acceptances, and ultimately picking a medical school in the northeast in a small town called Boston.

Shahaan has an amazing story of perseverance and success. He never really struggled and had to overcome a poor GPA, but he had to figure out what he wanted his life to look like.

For more podcast resources to help you along your journey to medical school and beyond, check out Meded Media. Also, check out our YouTube channel on premed.tv. Finally, check out Mappd.com to see how we’re changing the premed landscape!

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

[02:32] Interest in Becoming a Physician

Probably two or three years after undergrad is when Shahaan actually decided to pursue medicine. Prior to that, he was focused on the education path and, in fact, taught at Teach for America (TFA) after undergrad.

Initially, Shahaan joined Teach for America because he wanted to help alleviate educational disparities in underserved communities. And every day, he felt he was battling insurmountable health disparities for his students.

Shahaan’s wife was also a nurse. So she was talking about the experiences like needle exchanges and stuff in the same hospitals in the area. All this being said, he and his wife thought that the medicine path was something they could pursue. It was a family decision.

He did also consider things like being a small business owner or getting a PhD or becoming a professor one day. Right after undergrad, even though he didn’t even major in education, TFA was just something that he pursued during the early part of his senior year.

Shahaan is the first in his family to be in the medical field, much less the first to go to college. Although he also has a lot of people in his family that was somewhat in the healthcare field like CNA stuff and assisted living,no one at that time was really in health care in any formal capacity.

[05:55] Exploring Resources

Shahaan searched everything on Google at first. He went to University of Miami for undergrad. And so a lot of his connections to his alma mater were very regional. So when he moved to Baltimore, there wasn’t that much network, plus he had to work five hours a week.

Shahaan started cold calling a bunch of doctors. He probably cold called 100 doctors or emailed so combination 100. And there were two to three that responded to him. One of them turned out to be the head of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins where he was able to shadow him and do some research with him in the O.R.

His first foray into what it was really like was with his wife who shared with him her experiences as a nurse, working with residents, fellows, and attendings. This was the first step that led him to reach out to other doctors. But things got clearer for him once he shadowed that doctor and began to be more hands-on and be close enough to smell the patient. so to speak.

Shahaan admits having a bit of a culture shock being in a field that he was finding success in and he felt very comfortable at the same time as he was investing a lot of his time and energy. But the shock for him came from mentally preparing considering that he had to literally start back from the bottom in terms of his professional aspirations. 

“It wasn't about where I was starting, it was more about the work that I was doing.”Click To Tweet

With every different experience, he felt it was something he could definitely feel himself doing because it wasn’t a decision he took lightly. It was something that he needed to be certain of before they decided to take the plunge.

[11:07] Different Setbacks Shahaan Had to Face

Shahaan finished his postbac about three years prior to starting med school. And so he also has to think about planning for his family, where they’re gonna be living, the cost, all this kind of ancillary duties that you have as a parent and as a husband. These things are the toughest setbacks for him.

“I feel there was always not a plan B to plan A. But what happens if this plan A doesn't work out? How do I still get back to plan A?”Click To Tweet

For Shahaan, there was no Plan B. But he does find it very beneficial to have a really strong support system. His family is there willing to support him, regardless of whatever setbacks.

Another setback for Shahaan was delaying his application three times. Initially, he applied in a postbac program that had linkage agreements. How it actually works is you apply to one school. You don’t even have to take the MCAT sometimes and you just go directly to one school. But when he applied for the linkage to that one school, he was really disappointed. They looked at his LSAT score from when he was just 15 to determine whether or not they’d give him an interview. Unfortunately, he was one of the 2% who fell below their cutoff for that score.

Additionally, Shahaan and his wife had another baby which has put their timeline back a little. Shahaan also had an ulnar nerve transposition surgery during that time so two of his fingers on his left hand have gotten so numb from studying.

Amidst all this, Shahaan was always working toward it. The train was still going. He still understood what the AMCAS timeline was. He still knew who he needed to get letters from and he was still in contact with them. He was ready to execute. Shahaan remembers studying for the MCAT in the hospital when his daughter was born. He was reading through his flashcards and going over questions.

“I was always on the train. I didn’t plan to get off of it.”Click To Tweet

[16:15] Looking into Postbacs

Shahaan looked at it as an investment. The combination of experiencing everything that a postbac had to offer and all the work of getting letters and having a committee letter written for him, getting the experiences that he needed, and getting all of his labs and science courses in one year. For Shahaan, everything was worth it!

They’re looking at the cost and the potential of getting scholarships for medical school. But for him, it was an investment. Fortunately, he was able to go to college on a scholarship so he didn’t have a ton of student loan debt. This was a privilege that he had going into this whole career change.

Shahaan’s grades were good. Thankfully, he graduated with high honors from Miami, but he didn’t really take any of the science courses. So he wanted to be as prepared as possible. He had to make another calculated decision.

So the main decision point for Shahaan to be getting a postbac was so he could best prepare the best possible for the basic sciences going into medical school.

“The Premed Years Podcast was the soundtrack of my life.”Click To Tweet

Shahaan also credited this podcast which helped him greatly as he was going through this process. He was learning all this stuff, taking notes, and making sure he had a plan. Good thing, it really paid off a lot. On a side note, one of his interviewers was Dr. Greg Polites who appeared a number of times on this podcast. So it was funny that 30 minutes of their interview was spent talking about this podcast.

[19:48] Applying to Medical School Blind and Taking the MCAT

So Shahaan started the application but then he didn’t really submit all the way. In his mind, he just wanted to make sure that whenever he hit the send button for the next time, that was a final send. He knew how important it is not to be considered. So he wanted it to be one shot.

Shahaan started and stopped the application three times. He submitted it once before, and then it was two years. It was only the linkage application that he finally clicked Submit. And he still applied blind – without an MCAT score.

Shahaan basically applied to 40 schools which is way too many and he got 34 interview invites. He interviewed at 21 and now has 16 acceptances.

For Shahaan, the entire process was extremely humbling. Again, he applied completely blind. So he really had no idea how everything was going to work although his overall GPA was really good as well as his postbac.

Shahaan explained how he was so invested in this. He treated it like a job. He didn’t mess around with something that was really important to him and his family. And he studied very hard for the MCAT and had very consistent scores at that point.

Shahaan ended up getting a 519 on the MCAT, which was good. He was a bit disappointed though because he was scoring nothing less than a 522 on his practice tests. 

'Buffering those points and your expectations is extremely important.'Click To Tweet

[24:55] What Made His Application Stand Out

“My application was very well thought out and put together in a way that made a compelling case for wanting to go into medicine with the evidence that supported it.”Click To Tweet

Shahaan had 10 recommendation letters. He doesn’t really know how many people read all of them. But in every single interview, they talked about the recommendation letters, and some of the things that they found really compelling about them.

Everything led back to how this story and how this experience affected Shahaan as a human being. Every one of those experiences coupled with the length and duration of the experiences, with a personal statement that made sense, was compelling.

And those recommendations coalesced into a really well thought out application. Not to mention all the secondaries, obviously, in terms of how you want to communicate your interest to the school and the secondary.

At the end of the day, Shahaan knew his story. He knew the power of story, even talking about Michelle Obama’s Becoming, which is a great book. But the story is so compelling to understand. He wasn’t just a robot who’s showing off great grades, and all these things he had checked off.

Shahaan was a non traditional student who, through experience and through time, he realized that he needed to go to medical school. And he told that story. His story obviously resonated with the medical schools, too, to get that many interview invites.

[27:55] Choosing Which Schools to Interview At

Shahaan had no idea how competitive he was in this whole application process, especially applying without an MCAT score.

And for him and his family, one of the biggest things for them going to med school was where they are going to be able to go with the least economic burden. Where is it going to be the most financially feasible?

His mindset was to go to all the places that they know give good aid. And as soon as he got to his first scholarship package in December and acceptance in December, he cut a ton of interviews out.

But he had also gone to the16th because he already had gone to a ton early on. And so after that first acceptance, he knew they were in a good place now. So they held off on all these other ones. He didn’t have any more flights after that and didn’t go anywhere further than driving. He went to about three or four interviews after December.

“It was just an investment game. We set aside money for the process, for the flights, and everything.”Click To Tweet

Shahaan didn’t spend nearly as much as they would have if he didn’t plan for everything. He just had to manage the expenses as best as possible because it was something that they saw as an investment.

[29:48] The Biggest Surprise During the Interview Trail

The biggest surprise to Shahaan was just hearing how many different amazing paths that people took to medicine.

Whether it be in the short conversations they have while they’re waiting for interviews or outside the MMI doors. He actually connected to 4-5 he med on the interview who have become his close friends now. Finding those and feeling those connections actually really surprised him.

“It’s pretty cool to go through the whole process and come out the other side with stronger relationships.”Click To Tweet

[30:56] Thought Process on Which School to Attend

First, Shahaan had to consider the different financial packages at different schools and how he could leverage that at other schools.

Second, he had to figure out how much of a curriculum change there would be with all these changes with the pass/fail and the COVID situation.

Then with COVID now, they’re all talking about virtual spaces and virtual learning. So he’s looking for a place that’s open to innovation and change in medical education. This is important to him as a former teacher.

“Being at a place that's open to innovation and change in medical education, specifically, as a former teacher, was important to me.”Click To Tweet

Then a lot of the other stuff was associated with family considerations – a place big enough for three kids and his partner, the kids’ schools, neighborhood. Ultimately, they were open to moving anywhere but a lot of other considerations hinged on that. They had to find the best fit as a family.

Finally, Shahaan has decided to go to Harvard in the Fall which for him feels like a dream come true. 

He has been connecting with a lot of students in a lot of different formats. He’s really just excited about getting to learn and alongside his classmates virtually. He has also bought his iPad for the first time. Shahaan is looking forward to learning how to learn in this new age of using all these apps.

[34:17] What He Would Have Changed Along the Application Process

Shahaan believes that so much of that social construct of meeting these milestones professionally or even personally, can hamper your ability to enjoy the now.

And so, if he could change anything, maybe it would just be to fast-forward his mental flexibility and eliminate cognitive dissonance.

“Just try to focus on the journey because it's long. The process is so long. You're in medicine, And you're going to be doing what you want to be doing.”Click To Tweet

So Shahaan thinks that figuring that out earlier would have been more helpful for him psychologically. Thankfully, he feels comfortable now.

[36:16] Having Those Conversations with His Wife

Shahaan and his wife have been married for 12 years and the amount of support she’s been giving him all throughout has just been so astounding. And being a career-changer herself from the nonprofit sector to being a nurse, his wife definitely understood how it was like.

Shahaan emphasizes the importance of having an open and honest conversation especially that finances would be a big part of it. 

[38:51] Final Words of Wisdom

“Everyone's path is just so unique. Make sure this is what you want. And then commit to it with everything you have. Because you don’t have plan B's.”Click To Tweet

If you don’t have that initial confidence and you have any wavering, it’s going to be easy to get off the train. This path is so hard that if you’re thinking to do this other thing, then you’re going to do that other thing.

[40:48] Shahaan’s Future Plans

Shahaan has been starting to do the elimination piece as to what he doesn’t want to do specialty-wise. He still wants to go into every single rotation and experience it with an open mind. Otherwise, it would defeat the purpose of him going into medicine and trying to enjoy the journey as much as possible.

That being said, there are some things that he just doesn’t think he really would enjoy like psychiatry. He’s actually leaning into something surgery. But then again, he has to consider how that’s going to look long term considering that he has a family.

[43:19] Check out Mappd.com

Mappd.com is a technology platform that I’ve wanted to do forever. I’ve partnered with Rachel Grubbs who has about 20 years of experience in the test prep world and student world.

We are bringing on Dr. Scott Wright, whom I’ve had on this podcast before. He’s the former director of admissions at UT Southwestern and the former executive director of TMDSAS. He’s our VP of Academic Advising helping us shape what Mappd is.

How Mappd can help students with the application process:

  • Tracking timelines
  • Tacking secondary timelines
  • Tracking interviews and feedback
  • Picking a medical school
  • Tracking extracurricular activities where students can keep a diary of all the activities that they do from day one to day 100. It will automatically track your start time and end time and total hours and all that stuff.
  • Your GPA trends and broken down according to the application service as well as feedback based on those calculations
  • Enter in your MCAT practice test scores and your real test scores

… and so much more!

So mapped is coming, they’re going to change the premed landscape. It’ll be a communication tool with your advisors. Eventually, your advisors will be able to log into Mappd and see students who they work with.


Meded Media


Interview with Dr. Greg Polites from WashU on Preparing for the Medical School Interview

Check out our YouTube channel on premed.tv.

Teach for America (TFA)


DOWNLOAD FREE - Crush the MCAT with our MCAT Secrets eBook