Today, let’s listen to Elizabeth’s journey through the premed and medical school application process. Elizabeth shares her experiences with cancer scares as a child and deciding to become a doctor. She also talks about struggles with the MCAT, choosing a medical school, and taking a leave of absence during her first year of medical school.
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Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.
Elizabeth’s Intersest in Becoming a Doctor
Elizabeth first realized she wanted to be a doctor when she was about nine years old. It started when her childhood best friend’s brother had brain cancer. She watched the progression of his illness over most of her childhood. After moving to America from France, her friend’s brother passed away from cancer.
Cancer Scares in Her Own Life
Elizabeth experienced some cancer scares in her own life starting from around age 15. A few years after moving to America, she discovered a tumor on her own thyroid. This caused a lot of concern as her mother had thyroid cancer when she was younger. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s tumor ended up being benign after they took her entire thyroid out. However, she has had to be on thyroid medication every day since she was 15 due to this.
The experience of having her own health scare involving potential cancer, on top of witnessing her friend’s brother’s battle with cancer, reinforced Elizabeth’s desire to pursue a career in medicine to help others avoid such situations and improve treatment.
Seeing the Good and the Bad
As to why she wanted to help people as a doctor, Elizabeth mentions seeing both the “good and the bad” in her experiences with the healthcare system. On the one hand, she saw “doctors that are incredible” that she wanted to emulate. However, she also saw doctors and situations where she felt “a specific marginalized population could be treated better.”
Having witnessed both excellent care as well as areas for improvement, Elizabeth was motivated to pursue medicine so she could both help people like the good doctors she saw, as well as work to enhance care for underserved groups based on her own observations.
The Hardest Parts of Being a Premed
According to Elizabeth, one of the hardest parts of being a pre-med student was taking the MCAT exam, which she ended up taking three times before getting her desired score. Specifically, she found the organic chemistry (OC) section to be challenging. When asked about OC, she said her first term of OC went well but her second term was difficult because she had overloaded her schedule that semester.
“I have so much impostor syndrome, and trouble believing in myself. And that was especially prevalent with the MCAT because I had that history of not doing well.”
Retaking the MCAT was also difficult for her due to imposter syndrome and lack of confidence in herself. Overall, preparing for and retaking the MCAT multiple times seemed to be one of the most difficult parts of her premed journey based on her comments. Elizabeth took the MCAT 3 times before getting her desired score. She struggled with imposter syndrome.
The Importance of a Tutor
Joining an MCAT prep program and working with a tutor helped her improve. Elizabeth says she thinks having a tutor was key to helping her approach the MCAT differently and ultimately get the score she wanted. She notes that the accountability of having a tutor made sure she got assignments done on time and kept her on track to do more practice tests.
Having a tutor helped address her issues with imposter syndrome and lack of self-belief. Having someone hold her accountable and guide her preparation seems to have made a big difference compared to when she took the MCAT on her own previously.
Crafting Her Application Narrative
When Elizabeth finally got the MCAT score she was confident in, she worked to thoughtfully craft her application narrative and materials. She mentions that she was fortunate to come on the Application Renovation podcast, where we completely tore apart her original personal statement. She then joined Application Academy, where she got help with structuring her personal statement in a much more personal way. It was more about focusing on telling her unique story, rather than just listing resume points. She also used the Premed Playbooks and subscribed fully to his application advice, which translated into a stronger application overall.
Embracing Her Queer Identity in the Application Process
Elizabeth openly discusses being part of the LGBTQIA+ community and how that shaped her medical school application. She knew from the beginning she wanted to be very vocal about her queer identity in her application.
She was heavily involved in her college’s LGBTQ club. She also included about a paragraph in her personal statement discussing an experience seeing a depressed patient who was being bullied for their LGBTQ identity.
Elizabeth wanted to highlight how the healthcare system can better treat and support all minority populations, especially the LGBTQ community important to her identity and values. This openness allowed schools to assess if they were supportive environments for her as a queer applicant.
Elizabeth discusses how her queer identity came up during her medical school interviews. She mentions that only one school directly asked if she identifies as queer and if she wanted to disclose that in her secondary application.
She appreciated that this school was openly trying to promote diversity. However, her identity did not explicitly come up much in other interviews. The school that asked was not the one she ultimately chose to attend. So it does not seem like her queer identity played a major role in most of her interview experiences.
Dealing with the Waiting Game
When asked how she dealt with the stressful waiting period of applying to medical school, Elizabeth said it was one of the worst parts of the process. As someone who applied in May but didn’t find out her fate until April, it was difficult to explain that timeline to others who wanted answers sooner.
The first cycle when she didn’t get any interviews was particularly tough, dreading each week and feeling sad every Friday without news. Her second time applying was easier because she moved in with her husband’s grandmother to keep her company after his grandfather passed away. Having someone to distract her from the waiting and provide support helped make the period more bearable.
When asked if she received any feedback from schools after her first application cycle, Elizabeth said she reached out to some but only got a generic response from one. They told her it was a competitive cycle with many incredible applicants, which she felt wasn’t very helpful or personalized feedback. This response didn’t give her clear guidance on how to improve for next time.
Strengthening Personal Statement Skills
Elizabeth provides some insightful perspective on how crafting an impactful personal statement can positively influence the interview process as well. As a non-traditional applicant with a unique background, she expected her varied experiences outside of academics would be well-suited for MMI interviews that explore different scenarios. However, she unexpectedly received more acceptance offers from schools with traditional interviews rather than MMIs.
Upon reflection, she believes learning to genuinely share her motivations and journey and “show not tell” through her personal statement. As guided by Application Academy, she unconsciously carried it over when she had to verbally tell her story in traditional interviews.
By learning the importance of narrative and authenticity in writing, she likely presented herself in a more three-dimensional and compelling manner during interviews that traditional interviewers responded well to. This shows how strengthening one’s application storytelling skills can enhance multiple aspects of the application beyond just the personal statement.
“Learning how to tell my story through my personal statement probably helped more than I realized with those traditional interviews.”
Getting the First Acceptance
Elizabeth describes getting her first acceptance as surreal and the best day, second only to getting married. She found out while with her grandmother-in-law and wanted to tell her husband first. When she told him she was going to be a doctor, it initially didn’t register with him since she often said that jokingly. But when it sunk in, they were both overjoyed.
She then had to decide between multiple acceptances, an incredible feeling after struggling through two application cycles and retaking the MCAT. Getting that initial acceptance was a huge relief and validation of all her hard work.
Deciding Among Multiple Acceptances
When faced with choosing between multiple acceptances, Elizabeth explains that location and finances ultimately factored into her decision. Both schools were DO programs with great reputations. But housing in the city where one school was located was significantly more affordable.
Additionally, graduating from one school would result in over $100,000 less debt than the other option. While she felt bad saying finances were a factor, Elizabeth acknowledged that debt load is an unfortunate reality. These pragmatic considerations helped her narrow down her choice to the school in the more affordable location that allowed her to minimize debt.
Choosing Between MD and DO
Elizabeth initially favored MD schools over DO for her first application due to an outdated view that MD was superior. However, for her second cycle she applied more equally to both MD and DO after realizing they provide essentially the same training.
Her priorities were location in a city where she and her transgender husband would feel safe and supported, as well as urban areas where she saw herself practicing. She wanted to attend a school in a community that embraced diversity and wouldn’t face as much potential discrimination. These factors, rather than MD vs DO distinction, guided her application choices.
Realizing the Need for a Medical Leave of Absence
Elizabeth realized she needed to take a break from medical school around September/October of her first year. This was when she began regularly vomiting blood 2-3 times per week. While not huge amounts, it was enough to impact her health, ability to study and sleep, and feel comfortable.
Her performance started declining due to the untreated medical issues. She failed to get help at the time and didn’t tell the school about the severity of her condition. By the end of her first year, she had failed a class and was advised by the school to take a leave of absence to focus on her health.
When Elizabeth returned from her medical leave of absence, the main condition was that she could not fail any more classes. This created an understandably stressful environment, but was the only stipulation. Otherwise, she was able to continue on in her studies as normal. So it functioned similar to a probationary period where one more misstep could have more serious consequences.
What Could Have Been Done Differently
When reflecting on her journey, Elizabeth shared a few things she could have done differently.
Taking the MCAT Seriously
Elizabeth’s experience with the MCAT and her first application cycle taught her valuable lessons about the importance of taking things seriously and seeking feedback. Initially, she underestimated the significance of the MCAT, assuming her natural intelligence would be enough to succeed. She could have taken the MCAT more seriously by doing more practice tests to better prepare.
However, she soon realized that success on the MCAT requires dedicated preparation and familiarity with the test format. Elizabeth acknowledged that taking more practice tests and postponing the exam if she didn’t feel adequately prepared would have resulted in a better performance.
“The MCAT is not all about how smart you are, it’s about how well you know how to take the MCAT.”
Crafting a Better Personal Statement
Reflecting on her first application cycle, Elizabeth recognized that her personal statement may have been a weak point. Feedback received during the application process suggested that her MCAT score was competitive enough for acceptance into medical school. However, it was her personal statement that potentially held her back.
Elizabeth understood the need for more feedback and multiple perspectives to refine her personal statement. She acknowledged the importance of showing rather than telling her qualities as a future physician through storytelling.
The Power of Honesty and Asking for Help
In her first year of medical school, Elizabeth learned the importance of honesty and seeking help when needed. Looking back, she wished she had been more upfront about her struggles and not attempted to power through sickness. Although it may not have prevented her leave of absence due to medical tests and appointments, being honest with her school earlier could have led to better support and guidance.
Final Words of Wisdom
For those with chronic illnesses, Elizabeth advises giving yourself grace and accepting your limitations, as your health may impact your ability to take on as much work compared to others. As long as you do your best each day, that is all that matters.
“Giving yourself grace to do the best you can and knowing that as long as you do the best you can at the end of the day – that’s all that matters.”
She also encourages LGBTQ premeds to put themselves first and not hide their identity to get into medical school. There are schools that will embrace diversity.
Her overall message is to be kind to yourself through the challenges, as health issues and self-doubt are common hurdles in this process. Maintaining perspective and doing your best is key.