From Substance Abuse Counselor Intern to Medical Student

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PMY 527: From Substance Abuse Counselor Intern to Medical Student

Session 527

In this episode, Aren talks about rediscovering his interest in medicine. He shares his journey from a history of W’s C’s and F’s, going into community college, and now at 31 years old, receiving 16 interview invites. This is an amazing story that will hopefully give you some motivation to help you keep going on your journey.

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

[00:50] The MCAT Minute

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[01:58] Aren’s Journey from Childhood to College

Aren’s dream of becoming a physician came in two waves. His dad was a rural ER physician who worked in a small rural hospital with six beds. He grew up visiting his dad at the hospital walking through the hospital’s front door and watching his dad suture up people.

For him, it was fascinating. He fell in love with the idea of these people who were hurt and coming to visit his dad. He became obsessed with the medical world.

Growing up, Aren kept telling people that he wanted to be a physician. When you are a kid, you are extremely naive to the world and what it takes to be a physician. Seeing his dad doing his work as a doctor was fascinating for him.

He also became addicted to people’s responses to him whenever he said he wanted to become a doctor. People were saying that it is cool how proud his parents must be.

As Aren hit his teenage years, he became very rebellious and went against his parents’ ideology and wanted to create success for himself. That was the time he wanted to do anything else besides becoming a physician. Being a physician was the last thing he wanted to be.

He went to college with that kind of mindset. His focus was not on academics but more on having fun and living that college lifestyle. His academics suffered and he ended up dropping out of college. 

With that kind of defeat, failure, and hardship, he ended up working at a substance abuse center in North Carolina.

[04:06] Work After Dropping Out

Aren grew up in a very small rural town and he loves backpacking. He had an opportunity to work as a clinical wilderness guide. In that process of working there for over a couple of years, he was able to distribute medications to patients, work with them as a substance abuse counselor intern, and learn wilderness first aid.

He did a lot of medical side work with psychologists and psychiatrists. He became fascinated when they get packs of medications and the handout for the week. He always asked his clinical coordinator who was an EMT questions regarding their clients’ health conditions and medications. Aren was always told the same thing which was to ask those questions to the physician.

This made Aren realize, through subsequent conversations with medical professionals and through self-reflection, that he could work on the things he wanted to do. He went there originally to become a therapist which was what he wanted to do. But he realized that he could get the psychosocial model through medicine and work on the vulnerability with patients.

He could speak with patients and connect with them, while also diving into the world of biochemical pathways that he was so interested in, and finding out more about what makes us human. He felt limited in his role and I decided that he wanted to go back to school and become a physician.

[05:34] Overcoming His Rebellious Side

Aren says his parents were phenomenal parents but at that time, he felt very limited. He was getting school, was getting sports and he was good with people.

Having a generational trauma and with a hard upbringing, his mother badly wanted him and his brother to be okay. Aren felt a little bit suffocated by that kind of love. Wanting to break free of that, he became very rebellious in those teenage years.

What led him to get out of that was when he failed so hard and went to a really deep bottom. He dropped out with a 1.7 GPA, and had about ten withdrawals, multiple F’s and C’s. He didn’t like who he saw in the mirror.

“That kind of failure really brought a lot of humility to me and really made me realize that life isn't just going to hand me things.” Click To Tweet

Working after he dropped out made him step back and work in that profession, allowing him to grow as an individual and grow as a professional by helping other people.

He was helping these guys a lot, but he sometimes feels that they help him even more. Even though theirs were not exactly identical issues, they were like a spitting image of where he was at, mentally and emotionally. 

He realized that for him to be able to do what he wanted to do in life, he had to start maturing. He had to grow up and realize where he was at fault in those situations.

A lot of it came down to the fact that he was arrogant in his younger years, thinking that you know everything at 18.

Aren thinks that he just grew out of it through failure.

[07:49] Going Back to School

Aren was 26 when he realized he wanted to go back to school so he could get into med school. He was a big researcher and found Dr. Ryan Gray’s podcast at that time.

While he was researching the web, he was having doubts if this was possible and if he could do this. He was really scared because he did not do well in high school chemistry. He obviously did not do well in his college classes and had even dropped out.

He was looking at this Mount Everest of things just to get into medical school. He is questioning if he had the mental aptitude, the discipline, and the perseverance to actually get into this. He says finding that podcast really helped him believe that he could do it.

“When people shine light on the difficulties and successes of who they are... inherently gives permission for other people to kind of do the same.”Click To Tweet

Having these people on these podcasts started to inspire him. He thought that even a 50-year-old person can even do it, or do multiple apps for that matter, so he can do it too. Questioning the construct of how he was living his life was part of his self-growth. Who he is now at 26, deciding to go back to medical school, is not the same person he was at 18. 

[10:14] Starting Off Easy with the Prereqs

Because his dad was a physician, Aren had a conversation with him before he decided to go back to school. His goal first off was to go back to school and to graduate undergrad without any debt. For that to happen, he needed his parents’ help in some ways.

Making that decision of going back to school made him feel that he needed to dive in 100% and commit to it. He did not want to have a plan B.

Throughout the whole process, he even considered PA and NP at his age. So even though he started the initial process with the intention of taking the full course load, he started off easy.

He took Intro to Chemistry class and started off with Algebra 1. He took Medical Terminology in his first semester. Academically, he was in a way dipping his toes back in, but it was a full course load. And he found it really invigorating when he got A’s in these three classes.

The next semester, he took four classes, which were genchem1 and bio1 and he easily got A’s. But he admits that even though he did not have a plan B, it was something that crept into his mind quite often.

[12:40] Fears from Past Struggles

Aren says those fears hit always at the beginning of the semester. He did well in his first semester of intro classes. He was invigorated and scared in a weird way. That acronym of fear –false evidence appearing real, was not accurate to his situation.

To help overcome those feelings, he consistently talks to people about it.

“Share your pain and cut it in half, or share your joy and double it.”Click To Tweet

The logistics of getting into medical school are out there. There are a thousand resources for how to get into medical school. But Aren thinks it is really a mental and emotional game. 

For him, the premed classes are weed-out courses. They weed people out more because of the mental strain and the stress and frustration that comes with it.

He went to a community college for his prereqs and the beautiful part about that was the interactions he had with his professors. His Ochem class was only about six people so he had a lot of interaction with his professor.

With all the professors he had, he was able to just walk in during office hours or walk in the office anytime and discuss with them what he was struggling with.

He gives a lot of credit to them and to his parents. It was not just him but he gives credit to other people in his life who supported him. They gave him feedback on whether he was doing well, and where he can improve, and told him he can do this.

[14:20] Community College as Prep for University

There is a stigma with community college as an instant rejection from medical school, especially for someone in Aren’s situation where he is trying to prove his academic ability after having dropped out of school once.

Aren says he was very much aware of the stigma. But one of the pieces of information he got from Dr. Ryan Gray’s podcast was that going into a community college is not going to set you back.

Aren also had the mindset that the MCAT is the even playing field of getting into medical school. And because he did not have a bachelor’s degree, he had the caveat of doing all his prereqs at community college with the intention of transferring to a four-year institution to get his bachelor’s degree. He ended up transferring to UCLA, a great institution, and maintained great grades there. That served as his buffer to show that he can handle a higher-level course.

[16:15] Interview Invites

Aren has 16 interview invites and he says not one of them brought up his community college. It was only when he was asked different questions that he was able to throw out his community college experience in terms of people who have mentored him like his professors.

But what every single one of them asked was what happened in between that period of his failure and success. They were very curious as to why he perceived it as a failure back here and then success over here.

And he thinks he was able to eloquently self-reflect on why exactly that happened, what he learned from it, and what he is doing now.

[17:50] The Way to Getting a Successful Application

Aren has one application cycle with 16 interviews. For him, dropping out of college was one of the most difficult times in his life when he was extremely depressed and anxious. But it ended up being one of the greatest things that could have ever happened to him.

Because of that, it led him into an arena of medicine that gave him so many outlets and so many positives that he could talk about in his application. He was able to get more time into his extracurriculars, doing things he enjoys.

He worked as a manager, as a counselor intern, as a wilderness guide – a lot of very interesting things. The longer route of his application process also allowed him to start a small auto detailing business during the pandemic. In a lot of ways that led to his success. 

He also keeps going back to this and would honestly say that he religiously listened to our podcasts. He also read his books. Because of that, he was able to construct who he was as a person in a “show, don’t tell way.”

Even though he did not have the greatest MCAT score and his prior GPA was not amazing, his upward trend was good. He was able to show through his personal statement the extracurriculars that reflected the maturity and development he had in those years off.

He would give a lot of credit to the medical students who read his personal statement and made it into what it is because it was awful when it started and he felt it was absolutely terrible. Aren says you just have to put pen to paper and just write it.

[20:10] Graduating College

When Aren dropped out, he had about 70 or 80 credits and then he took another 200 units. It took him eight years to graduate college. He did a lot of work, a lot of summer classes, and a lot of stuff to bring his GPA back up. He ended up with a 3.71 GPA.

He thinks it was just the nature of the life course and he knew that going in. He did so much research before diving in and he knew it was going to take him probably five years in order to get his bachelor’s degree. That was exhausting to think about but the time passes regardless.

“You are going to be 30, 40, 50 no matter what you do, so do something you want to do in your life.”Click To Tweet

[22:24] Turning His Struggles Around

Aren had 2,3 F’s, multiple C’s and 10 W’s. He struggled but turned it around completely. He applied to 39 schools – 31 MD, 8 DO. Out of those, he got 11 MD interview invites and 5 DO interview invites.

He thinks the common thing that sparked interest in most of those interviews is his personal statement. It was the stories from his various experiences that hooked them in. Aren was able to create this story thread because of his interest in psychiatry, all sections of family medicine, physiology and in a lot of different things. He was able to show this general story and thread through the extracurriculars too.

He also thinks it was the way he wrote and how he was able to express the dynamic nature of who we are. We are so complicated and there is so much to us.

When someone tells him that they don’t know what to write about or when they ask him what to do, he would tell them to just pursue the things they love and write about them. You can have other people edit them but there is so much to who you are and there is so much you have to share and to show.

For Aren, he was able to do that and he thinks it was what excited them in the interviews, to see that in writing and be able to talk to him about it.

[25:00] Past Academic Failures in the Personal Statement

Aren did not mention his past academic failures in his personal statement. Some secondaries give prompts that you can talk about any previous academic difficulty but he did not talk about it at all in his personal statement.

He had it in his first personal statement. Then he realized that took up way too much space trying to explain and defend his position. His extracurriculars and current upward trend already speak for itself so he felt that he doesn’t need to explain anymore when his current strengths are able to counteract that.

He felt it was more important to focus on the things he was doing and the things that are happening now and in the moment.

He had it before, he got rid of it and it is working in his favor.

[26:18] Being One of the Older Persons in Class

Aren was around 26 to 27 years old when he decided to go back to school. Being at that age, you become one of the older persons in the class.

Although at a community college sciences, there were a lot more older people. One of his good friends was actually 40 and going back to school. It was nice to be around that.

Maybe it was blissful ignorance but Aren says he never really identified himself as being older. He thinks that comes with a lot of strength once you figure out the why for something you can overcome any how and for him he knew why he was there. 

“Time gives you perspective.”Click To Tweet

Aren was able to harness and channel the discipline and the reason that he was there in order to go to medical school. He was going to learn as much as he can, not just about the subject in general. He was going to challenge himself on time management, showing up, asking questions, and just having that growth mindset. 

A lot of people saw that and they knew I was older. And since he was also a tutor at the community college, he had to explain to them how he got there which was because he failed tremendously and because he didn’t show up and didn’t study.

He explained to them that it was not natural for him but it came at a very high cost.

[28:06] MCAT Scores

Aren ended up his final practice tests with a 513 and was very happy with it. And then his actual test score was a 507, which is decent to average. He was pretty destroyed by that when he got it because that’s the six point drop from his last practice test. Being a California resident, he knew those UCs are really competitive and they were his top schools.

At the same time, he also felt that he was a lot more than just a number. Given his application or his background and non-traditional route, he thinks 507 was enough to get him into medical school. That also comes a lot from listening to Dr. Ryan Gray.

So he applied although he was considering retaking it. He figured he was just going to roll the dice.

[29:13] Interview Invites from UCs

None of the universities in California granted him an interview except for UC Davis which is his number one school right now. UCSF also sent him a secondary but so far, the rest of them all rejected him.

Somebody had reached out to him on Reddit and asked him if he felt that his MCAT score held him back.

To him, it was both a yes and a no. No, because he had so many opportunities. And yes because he could not help but think if he had a 515 or a 518, maybe San Diego or LA would have interviewed him.

Those were part of the pros and cons of having done it again, taking the test again, and maybe going to UC. But at the same time, at this stage of his life, he has given it up to something greater than himself, taken a step back and not tried to be in control of everything. 

“I just do the best I can and go from there.”Click To Tweet

There are still people out there who are very determined. They only want to go to UCLA or to UCSF. All people are different people. You just have to figure out what works for you and what you want.

[32:25] Advice He Gives to People

For people who are anxious about their clinical hours and GPAs and if those are going to get them into med school, Aren tells them to take a deep breath and that they are going to be okay.

He was one of those people who did not think he was getting any interviews. To him, you just have to focus on one step at a time.

For a lot of people, there is something else deeper that could be going on with them. Maybe it’s family pressure, maybe it’s social issues, or it’s something else that is telling them they are not enough and they need more.

Aren says the first step is to have compassion for them and some empathy for the fact that this process is hard. Sometimes we get caught up in this rat race of competitiveness just trying to get into medical school and it is a ridiculous process.

He tells people that this is really hard and it’s okay to feel stressed. At the same time, if they have those amazing stats, they are going to be okay. They are going to look back on this in 10, 15 years and just laugh at the fact that they thought they could not get in.

The realistic nature is that most people are re-applicants. Most people take two or three cycles to get into medical school. That can have an effect on our mental and emotional health. His biggest advice to people is to go and do something fun, go and help somebody else, or just talk to somebody. 

“The emotional and mental strain that this has on us is abysmal.” Click To Tweet

He wishes it was different but it isn’t. There are just not enough seats for all the people who want to get in. 

What Aren does is just try to be a listening empathetic ear to them, while also guiding them if they want suggestions. It is something he learned through time– “don’t offer a suggestion unless someone asks for it.” Be there to support them and realize that this is a really hard process.

[34:52] Fruit of Failure

We don’t celebrate failure enough in our society.

Aren failed the first time he went out and tried to do college. That initial failure has been everything to him. It provided him framework and foundation to build who he is today. 

Aren recalls that time when he was writing his personal statement, studying for the MCAT on top of four core classes, and doing extracurriculars and research. He was at the library for 12 hours a day doing a lot of different things. For him, it was so much fun and he found it to be so enjoyable because he was at a point in his life that was so depressing and miserable and he wanted a way out of that.

He was in a mental state of gratitude, acceptance, and fulfillment. He would not say he was always happy but he was always fulfilled. He was working towards something that he wanted to do. He felt so grateful to be at a great institution, to be studying towards a career that so many people would dream of, and to have parents and family and friends who support him.

“It's all about perspective, when you change the way you look at something, the thing you look at changes.”Click To Tweet

If you look at this thing as just a grind, where it is hard and just dark, then that’s what your experience is going to be. For Aren, having failed so badly before amazed him because everything he is dealing with now is nothing in comparison. The personal statement to him was truly a gift. That is not something you can just teach somebody, but something that he had to experience.

[36:53] Final Words of Wisdom

Failure comes with a gift that is growth.

Because of the number of gifts Aren received out of failing so hard, he almost would not want to change anything, even though it was really painful. It taught him a lot about how to grow up and how to be a person.

Talk to someone about it.

Many times we don’t want to show failure. Share your pain and cut it in half, share your joy and double it. Talk to somebody about it.

When we shine light on those parts of us, inherently it gives permission for other people to do the same.

You are not alone.

So many people are struggling with the same things. If you reach out to somebody, they open up to you, you can connect with them on that level.

You are not alone in this process. You may feel lonely, but you are not alone.


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