Today, I speak with Ryan, a student whose incredible storytelling skills allowed him to push past poor grades and gain medical school acceptance.
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Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
[00:45] The MCAT Minute
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[02:39] Interest in Becoming a Physician
Ryan’s journey toward becoming a doctor was long and winding. Initially, Ryan pursued biomedical engineering during his undergraduate studies, but due to frequent hockey injuries, he started considering caring for others as a career path.
He explored various medical fields and eventually realized that becoming a physician was the right choice for him based on his personality and aspirations to interact with patients. It wasn’t until around his junior year of undergrad that his GPA began to improve.
An Illness in the Family
When Ryan was 15, his interest in the medical field was sparked when his grandmother had a stroke. He started doing research and realized how much he enjoyed creating things for the medical field, which led him to pursue biomedical engineering.
Although his father is an orthopedic surgeon, Ryan wasn’t initially sure if medicine was the right path for him. He wanted to find his own way and discover if this was truly his passion. Ryan eventually realized that he wanted to have more direct patient interaction, which he didn’t have with his biomedical engineering background, and decided to pursue medicine.
Exploring the Field Further
Ryan noticed that engineers tend to be introverted, and he considered himself quite the opposite – an extroverted person who loves being around others. Despite having friends within the engineering major, he found that they weren’t interested in socializing or having fun outside of class. Ryan had many friends outside the major, including several who were premed, but he didn’t think much about it at the time. As he learned more about the medical field through his friends and his own injury recovery process from hockey, Ryan became more interested in exploring the field further.
Exploring Other Fields
Ryan explored various healthcare professions, including nursing, physical therapy, and becoming a physician assistant. While shadowing these professions, he realized that as a physician, he would be considered an expert in his chosen specialty and would have a leadership role in guiding the patient care team.
Ryan felt that being a physician would fit his personality and career aspirations better than other healthcare professions he had considered. This realization helped him build a compelling story around why he was uniquely equipped to be a physician.
[07:16] Turning His Low GPA Around
A Motivation to Turn His Poor GPA Around
Ryan’s GPA was a concern with a score of 3.18, but he had an impressive upward trend. His motivation to pursue medicine came after working at the NIH one summer. He had a conversation with Dr. Glimcher of the Dana Farber Institute about the future of cancer treatment.
Ryan expressed his lack of confidence in his ability to get into medical school due to his grades. However, Dr. Glimcher encouraged him, saying that their conversation was enough to show that he had what it takes to become a great future physician.
This conversation was one of the catalysts that motivated Ryan to turn his GPA around. Along with the support of a psychiatrist and academic advisor, Ryan was able to pull his life back together and pursue his dream of becoming a physician.'The biggest thing that kind of helped me along this journey is being so honest with myself about what I was going through, and even trying to showcase that on my application.'Click To Tweet
[09:30] Dealing with Other Internal Struggles
Ryan acknowledges that several factors, such as being in the closet during his first year of college, and family issues, made it difficult for him to focus on his studies. He was also trying to understand himself better, and these internal struggles were not always apparent to others.
Despite this, Ryan was able to turn his academic performance around. He believes that being honest with himself about what he was going through was a crucial factor in this journey. He also incorporated these experiences into his medical school application to showcase his personal growth and resilience.
Ryan’s experience at the NIH was significant as it gave him the confidence to believe in himself despite his low GPA. The opportunity to work there and be selected for the position, along with his prior research experience, showed him that he was capable and smart enough to succeed. Surrounded by highly intellectual individuals, Ryan felt validated that he deserved to be at the NIH.
[11:43] Representation Matters
Ryan acknowledges the value of representation and wants to use his experiences to connect with others who may be going through similar struggles. He started a TikTok account to be transparent about his journey, including the challenges of studying for the MCAT and waiting for his score.
Ryan believes that seeing someone who has been in the same position and has overcome obstacles is incredibly encouraging when it feels like there is no hope. As for his dad, he wasn’t very supportive of Ryan’s decision to pursue medicine, but Ryan remained steadfast in his conviction to pursue his passion.“Seeing someone else that's in your shoes that has been made and that's gotten to the other side is so encouraging when you feel like there's no hope.”Click To Tweet
Ryan’s dad was not very supportive initially, but Ryan’s conviction to pursue his passion won him over. His dad eventually became very supportive and acknowledged that Ryan had found his own way into medicine and was truly passionate about it.
[14:04] Ryan’s Confidence and Approach to Medical School Applications
Ryan acknowledged having blind confidence when he applied to medical school twice. However, he had an impressive MCAT score of 521, which did help boost his confidence. Ryan also mentioned the problematic nature of the GPA and MCAT chart, which doesn’t factor in students’ unique stories. But knowing that other students with similar stats were admitted gave him more confidence.
From there, Ryan focused on his story and passions, highlighting them in his application and explaining how his extracurricular activities had allowed him to pursue them. This approach gave him a vehicle to showcase his enthusiasm and commitment to medicine during medical school.
[15:32] His Two Application Cycles
His First App Cycle
Ryan had his first interview, given his stats, and landed on the waitlist. Unfortunately, he didn’t get off the waitlist, which can happen. However, Ryan still considers it a success, considering his position at the time. In retrospect, Ryan’s biggest mistake during the first application cycle was not waiting until he finished his master’s degree. Although he performed exceptionally well in the special master’s program, he did not include it in his application, impacting his chances. His AMCAS performance was solid, with a 2.6 GPA that went up to 3.71 and eventually a 3.91 in his junior year after SMP (Special Master’s Program).
In hindsight, Ryan wishes he had pursued a postbac. However, at the time, it didn’t seem necessary as there weren’t many science classes left for him to take. Later on, Ryan realized that a strong undergraduate GPA is a crucial factor in medical school admissions, regardless of how well someone performs in a specialized program.
Pursuing an SMP
Ryan pursued the SMP as a way to demonstrate his preparedness for medical school, with three years of consistently high academic performance. Ryan felt that an additional year of performing at that level would further demonstrate his consistency and reassure medical schools of his ability to handle the rigor of medical school.
Getting an Acceptance
So far, he has five interviews for his second application cycle, and then four acceptances. Then he has another interview coming up.
Ryan found it challenging to make a decision because multiple excellent schools offered him interviews. However, he is considering the financial component while making a decision. Ryan invested a lot of money in the special masters program, so whichever school offers him the best financial aid package will be very attractive to him.
Did GPA Come Up in His Interviews?
Ryan believes that being transparent is essential. He thinks it’s okay to talk about negative experiences as long as he can spin them into positive ones. Ryan mentions his struggles during the first two years and how he overcame them. He emphasizes that those issues are no longer a problem and that he will ensure they remain that way as he continues his medical education.
[22:24] The Biggest Mistake
Ryan believes that his biggest mistake was not pursuing an undergraduate level postbac instead of a special master’s program. If he had taken a year and completed roughly the same amount of credits that med school classes require, he could have raised his GPA to a highly competitive 3.6-3.7 range. Though this realization doesn’t change his experience during the first two years, he believes it could have had a positive impact on his competitiveness as an applicant.
Ryan shared that many of his mentors believe that he could have been much more competitive in selective schools if his undergraduate GPA were higher. Ryan is grateful for the acceptances he has received and that he got into some remarkable schools. That said, his mentors think he would have been a lot more competitive at highly-ranked schools if he had pursued a postbac program. His only regret is not pursuing an undergraduate postbac program because the specialties he is interested in are competitive.
[25:11] What He Did Differently The Second Time Applying
Ryan realized that he missed a significant opportunity when he did not include his nonprofit experience on his first application. In 2020, he founded a nonprofit to address the lack of access to vaccines and healthcare in underserved communities.
Ryan raised $20,000-$30,000 to support local free clinics and even recruited physicians to launch a virtual free clinic. However, he didn’t include this experience on his first application due to his impostor syndrome.
When he later added it to his application, he felt that it was a critical piece of his story that showcased his passion to work with these communities to achieve accessible healthcare. Ryan believes that if he had included this experience in his first application, it would have made his application more competitive.
[27:41] Bringing Up LGBTQ+ Identity in Your Application
Ryan shared that he didn’t hide or downplay his identity as a gay male in his application. Instead, he approached it in a way that he discussed the adversity he faced due to discrimination and how he overcame it.
Ryan believed that any school that would exclude him because of his identity is not the right school for him. He focused on talking about his experiences and how he managed to handle it by having a conversation with his PIs and educating them about the LGBTQ+ community, which resulted in highly receptive actions.
At the end of the day, Ryan thought that this approach helped him showcase his problem-solving and communication skills to the admissions committee.
Writing His Personal Statement and Secondaries
Ryan shared that he primarily used his personal statement to describe his journey to medicine, with his sexuality briefly coming up as part of the story. He then talked more about his experiences as a gay male in his secondary applications, particularly when asked about diversity.
Ryan believes that it is essential to be transparent and bring up one’s personal experiences, regardless of potential biases or prejudices from medical schools. He urges applicants to be true to themselves and not worry about being rejected by schools that do not support them, as it would not be an ideal environment for them anyway.“The more we include everything that we possibly can to make a class diverse, the better it's going to get.”Click To Tweet
[33:29] The Power of Asking for Help
Ryan’s advice to his first-year self would be to seek help and admit that he needed help much sooner. During his first year, he got seriously injured in hockey and struggled with it for the majority of the year, but he didn’t realize he needed help at the time.
Ryan believes that seeking professional help from a psychiatrist or psychologist could have helped him avoid the pain and stress of struggling on his own. He now acknowledges that even if someone doesn’t have a formal mental health diagnosis, going through a tough situation can still have a significant impact on one’s mental health.
Ryan emphasized the importance of seeking help and talking through emotions with a therapist. He shared that doing so helped him realize that it was okay to feel his emotions. Ryan still sees his therapist regularly as it remains helpful to get everything out.
Additionally, Ryan wishes he had sought out his academic advisor sooner due to how valuable her advice was in improving his study strategies and time management skills. Ryan’s advisor played a significant role in turning his situation around, and he is grateful for her support.
[35:59] Final Words of Wisdom
Ryan encourages aspiring premeds to hold on to the moment they are working towards and keep striving towards it, doing things they love along the way. He advises them not to worry too much about the application process. Instead, focus on exploring their passions and interests because admissions committees care more about their passions and perspectives.
Ryan stressed that premeds should not be afraid to pursue what they love and that things will fall into place eventually.
Upon receiving his acceptance, Ryan hugged his coworker despite wearing full PPE from being in the animal facility. He felt ecstatic and called his mother right away to share the good news. Ryan acknowledged that his journey to medical school was a long one as it took him six years since starting after his second year of undergrad. He also talked about his friend Jen, who had a similar journey and had a similar reaction upon receiving her acceptance.
Follow Ryan on TikTok: @officialryxnmed