It’s Okay to Start Over: Why I Chose Not to Apply to Medical School
It’s okay to start over.
My college experience taught me this several times, in many diverse and often painful ways. It is a lesson I hope to continue to bring with me through every stage of life. Because day to day it is really easy to forget that this is your life. If you don’t like the direction your life is headed, the people you have surrounded yourself with, your career, your major, you have the power to change it. Not only do you have the power in your mighty mighty hands, it is also your prerogative, your exclusive right and privilege, to alter your life to fit the life of your dreams.
When you find yourself in a rut, as we often do in certain seasons of our lives, take the time to reflect and ask yourself what is making you feel stuck and dissatisfied. Write it down. If nothing seems to be going right, write down a whole list of things that are making you unhappy.
Now, what can YOU do to change this?
Complacency is the biggest adversary to personal growth. It has gotten in my way countless times as I’m sure it has gotten in your way as well. I think especially as women, we feel compelled to “push through” and continue without complaint when truthfully it might just be time to take a leap of faith and pivot. It’s an extra chip on our shoulders to prove that we can be tough and resilient; that we can fit the societal mold and be strong yet poised, determined yet humble, revolutionary yet soft-spoken and well-mannered, hard-working yet abundant with energy.
I think these paradoxes are a load of crap. You can’t be all of those things, and that is OKAY!
This is all a long-winded introduction to a post I have been wanting to put on It’s Mich for quite some time: the reason I decided not to apply to medical school.
One great big terrifying decision.
My announcement to not apply to medical school was met with loaded controversy and suddenly opened the doors to entirely unwanted, unwarranted, and frankly sometimes unwise opinions from everyone I encountered.
Everyone else's opinion but my own
I was so unsure of my decision during its early stages that opinions from those who disagreed with my choice shook me more than I wish they had. And to make it clear, I am incredibly thankful for the friends, family, and mentors that truly know and understand me as a person. I appreciate their support and advice through these confusing times.
However, the particularly frustrating opinions were the ones offered by people who didn’t understand the nuances of my personal journey. It can be overwhelming to take in a million conflicting opinions about a decision you are unsure of. It frustrated me when I felt like I wasn’t being perceived as capable of figuring it out. Of course, that’s always been something I am overly sensitive to. It’s a trait that led me down the medical path for too long. I was always trying to prove something.
When I pumped the brakes on my career trajectory, I somehow briefly lost the ability to stand up for myself with my own voice. These are some of the honest thoughts I had when people that didn’t really know me gave me opinionated and unwarranted advice...
“Why not just go if you’re unsure?” That seems to be a waste of 10+ years of my life and roughly $300,000 in debt.
“Why not take the nursing route?” No thank you. I appreciate the offer, nursing is an admirable and extremely important profession but I cannot help but feel as if you are saying this only because I am a woman and believe me incapable of getting my MD. (When was the last time you think a stranger suggested a male go to nursing school instead of medical school?)
“Well, you should just go get your Ph.D. in Biochemistry then”. Thank you, but I personally would rather disintegrate then “just go” and spend 4-6 years of my life researching biochemical structures and pathways.
“Oh, so you really don’t know what you want to do?” Cross my heart and hope to die! Did you know exactly what you wanted to be during your senior year of college?
I want to preface all of this by saying this is my journey and my story. This is by no means prescriptive advice to change your career track or abandon your medical school aspirations. I just want to open the conversation up about acknowledging those icky gut feelings when a path isn’t for you.
This decision was difficult and made particularly difficult because of societal pressures. If you are reading this, I want you to know that your individual happiness and fulfillment might look different from what is societally encouraged, and that’s okay. If you want to be a doctor, be the best damn doctor there ever was. If you don’t want to be a doctor, and you’re afraid to tell your parents or your friends, then I will be the first one to say it’s all going to be okay. Follow your intuition and be true to yourself.
Starting in the eighth grade, I told all of my friends and family that I was going to be a doctor. That was it. From there, my decision was made.
I went full steam ahead. All of the AP classes possible, weekly volunteer at the hospital, researching the best medical schools in the country (for a 12-year-old, I had an awful lot of tenacity it's almost frightening).
In this journey, people often reminded me that getting into medical school is difficult, premed classes are hard, being a doctor is an all-consuming career it would be hard to have a family, medical school isn’t financially practical, I should just go to graduate school, the list of opinions never ends... These sentiments only fueled my fire to continue. One piece of my personality that is more than pertinent to this story is that I am stubborn as a mule. There is nothing that bothers me more than someone telling me in subtle or snide ways that they believe me incapable of doing something.
Women are so often talked out of medicine, and all powerful and demanding “male careers” for that matter. If these comments were gendered, personal, or even completely innocent, they all had the same effect on me. To give up on this path just because someone felt the need to warn me it would be “difficult” seemed like an enormous disservice to the dedication and intellect I knew I possessed.
And so as you can imagine, I continued barrelling down the pre-med path through my early education.
Eventually, I registered as a biochemistry major at my college, wrote down my four year plan, painstakingly adjusted previously referenced four year plan several times when life eventually veered of its “perfect path”, pulled several unnecessary all-nighters (time management and productivity errors is a story for another time), volunteered and overextended my time, etc.
I played the game, I jumped through hoops, I studied 400 hours and took the freakin MCAT. It was stressful and “they” were right, it was difficult. But like I always knew I could, I had played the game well.
The pre-med path is funny because you run the most obstacle-ridden rat race possible to get to certain milestones: volunteering as a community leader, acing your courses, performing high-level research, establishing “cool” and “unique” hobbies, studying and taking the MCAT. You do all of these things, yet you never feel like it has been enough.
I remember getting my MCAT score back (it takes one month for the results to come in after the exam) and I was happy with my score, but still a little disappointed. Which is REDICULOUS. I scored in the top 8% of all MCAT test takers but somehow that wasn’t good enough.
I felt like I needed to be in the top 5% to make up for the lack of “academic research” on my resume or something stupid like that. The amount of self-doubt and comparison on this path can be debilitating.
Fast forward to April of 2019
Roughly 8 years after I had declared myself a future doctor, I found myself sitting in my English literature classroom abroad in South Africa thinking about my incomplete application to medical school. I had roughly a month before I was supposed to submit the biggest application of my life and I had conveniently avoided it like the plague.
I hated talking about it. I didn’t feel I had jumped through enough of the hoops. I didn’t feel confident about who I would ask for letters of recommendation. I had no idea where to begin with my personal statement. I felt truly and utterly inadequate.
“Wow,” I thought to myself, “I really failed at creating the perfect pre-med portfolio”. EIGHT years of preparation, how did I let myself do that? Cue self-doubt spiral. This cycle of thoughts had been on repeat in my head during the past year of college.
Today was different though. For the first time in 8 years, I thought, “What if I don’t even want to go to medical school anymore?”. A revolutionary piece of self-thought, I know... It caught me off guard, but I also felt like I had just had an epiphany! I could take a … gap year? I wanted to jump around and tell everyone and their mother what I had just discovered. I felt like I was really onto something.
What if I wanted to look into design? Marketing? Freelance writing? Law? Software Engineering? Public health?
I suddenly felt the winds of sweet sweet freedom on my face instead of the crippling anxiety of self-doubt and predetermined career trajectory. Some of the career paths I began to open my mind to came with fewer social accolades and pats on the back. But when I sat down to think about it... who was I trying to impress? What did I have left to prove?
That day I ultimately decided I was going to take a gap year to explore other options. I wasn’t going to apply in the 2020 application cycle to medical school. I gave myself permission to take a pause and rethink what I really wanted for my life.
The short explanation
I had passions left unexplored.
If I had a dollar for every time a physician has said “If you can be happy doing something else, do it”, I would quite literally be rich. The medical profession is no joke. If that is what you feel called to do in life, then the commitment and sacrifice is worth every hour and penny. But if you could be happy doing something else? Now you have something to think about…
Every time I had allowed thoughts to creep into my head about other careers that “sounded nice” or people I looked up to in COMPLETELY different fields than the one I was pursuing, I had dismissed it quickly. No real thought was given to the fact that I felt a little out of place in the premed world and wasn’t very passionate about or fully interested in some of the things I should have been.
Shadowing doctors sounded interesting but you know what sounded a whole lot more fun? Starting a blog, learning to code, teaching myself calligraphy, creating a documentary, writing a book. Yet I conveniently ignored these thoughts each time.
The big picture reasons
It’s hard to give a quick answer and wrap up my reasoning into an easily understood story. There are so many reasons I chose not to apply to medical school. Each one is nuanced and personal; as all big life decisions are.
- I didn’t feel called to it. In my gut it didn't feel right. It felt forced. This took some serious reflection to admit to myself.
- I didn't want to waste the money and time to figure out that's not what I wanted. To give a quick estimate for you, average medical debt is around $232,000 after four years of medical college. Then there is an additional 3-7 years of residency where you make around $60,000 a year. So while your peers are building careers, getting pay raises, and starting 401ks you are forking out hundreds of thousands of dollars and every second of “free time” you could have had. Again, I want to reiterate, if this is your calling in life it is totally worth it. But is attending medical school the economic choice? Absolutely not. It is not a path anyone should enter lightly or in any exploratory fashion.
- I wanted to explore other career paths before going back to school. I love school, I always have and always will. The thought of medical school was appealing to me simply because of the academic challenge. But I realized a doctor's career didn't appeal to me... I knew this meant I need to take some time to explore other interests. Particularly, I have always had many creative interests that I never considered incorporating into a career.
- I had plenty of time to decide. My MCAT score is good for 3 years and I was only 20 at the time, so I guess what was the rush? There is so much pressure to have it all figured out by graduation that it is easy to forget these things take time. A career is a lifelong journey, not an instant achievement.
- I want more than my career in life. I want free time, I want hobbies. I want to raise my own kids. Seeking work-life balance is more important to me than climbing a ladder and I think that’s okay. It's not selling myself short, it's just what I know will fulfill me long term. While you can certainly find balance as a doctor, it is a lot more difficult than in other professions.
What originally held me back
Fear. What a universal and primitive human emotion. It was the most difficult part of making the decision not to apply to medical school.
Fear of disappointing loved ones.
Fear of selling myself short.
Fear of being looked down upon.
Fear of being valued less in society.
Fear of the unknown.
Fear of failure.
Eventually, fear of continuing on the path I was on outweighed the fear of jumping ship. Fear of stifling my true self and my true calling. Fear of mediocrity. These things were much scarier to me than taking a risk and hitting the reset button.
If you are looking for an excuse or sign to take a risk; this is it. Growth happens outside of your comfort zone my friend, it’s the only way we get to new places in life.
The opportunities that came my way after this decision
Free time and room for creative exploration. None of these things would have happened if I had stayed on the path to medicine.
- I applied and was chosen to be a 2020 Mayo Innovation Scholar. It was an incredible learning experience.
- I built my blog 2.0 (if you were around for Haute Latte during my freshman year, you are one of the real ones my sweet friend).
- I took an introductory media writing course, completely outside of my major and pre-med prerequisites.
- I worked as a CNA and loved it.
- I started writing for my school newspaper and loved that as well.
- I saved up money and went financially independent.
- I got a job at 3M.
- I spoke with many people about their careers and found a graduate program I am quite possibly interested in applying to. More on that soon…
Opportunities find you when you are open to them. My decision to not apply to medical school has been constantly reaffirmed through the flood of opportunities I found because of it.
How I cope with criticism and the stress of the unknown
When you say you decided not to go to medical school, people assume it's because you couldn't do it. It’s an unfortunate reality and something my boyfriend Austin (who is now in his first year of medical school) and I have talked about often.
I think something that has helped my pride and ego is emphasizing that this was a choice.
Again, cue chip on my shoulder of being a woman and having a long history of teachers and peers assuming I am unintelligent because of the way I look, speak, interact with others. This is becoming an old sappy, self-pity story that I am tired of allowing myself to live so she is dead after this post.
But hey quick side note, you can be many things in this world. You are not bound to one box that makes the most sense to those around you. It’s okay to cause others discomfort because you are multifaceted and outspoken.
My elevator pitch usually goes something like this “I was super set on being pre-med for my entire college experience, graduated with a biochemistry degree and all of the necessary pre-med prerequisites, studied hard for the MCAT and was very happy with my score. I sat down to write my personal statement and honestly could not put into words why I even wanted to be a doctor anymore. So now I am taking some time to gain new experiences and figure out what my next step is”.
There it is. My best attempt at making sure others understand that I was capable. If they don't understand, while I guess that is okay too. Because at this point, I know in my heart that the option was there, I just chose not to take it.
I don’t feel like I should be overly humble because then people don’t understand how hard I worked and the extent of my success in the field I had cast myself into. I don’t think there is anything wrong with talking about your success, especially as a woman. In my interviews after graduation, I proudly mentioned that I set a goal and achieved it by scoring somewhere within the top 90% of MCAT test-takers. I proudly discuss devoting much of my college time to community involvement such as tutoring young students from the Somali community of St. Joe or organizing an event and creating an educational seminar to empower young women to pursue careers in science. These are opportunities that shaped who I am and where I am going. It would be a shame to not share them.
Something I have learned
No one is going to boast your accomplishments when they don't even know what you have done. Be humble in the sense that there is much to learn from those around you and that you know a fraction of what you could. Be humble in your growth mindset. Be humble in knowing that there are people around you with 5x the intellect working double time. But don't downplay your hard-earned achievements, especially in an interview and networking setting.
My story isn’t perfectly linear and I didn’t end up on the path I thought I would, but that doesn’t negate the things I accomplished and worked hard for while I was still on the track to medical school.
I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
I think I am figuring it out though… and if things start coming together you guys will be the first to know.
I graduated from college without a plan. In a COVID-19 or a COVID-19-less world, I still wouldn’t have had a plan after graduation. In fact, my only plan was to not have a plan. So in many ways, this year took a lot of pressure off of me because suddenly many of my peers were forced into the same boat.
It’s scary. Societal pressures to have it all figured out once you get your diploma are tremendous. In reality, even if you think you know how your life is going to go after graduation, it probably still isn’t going to happen that way. Life is like that.
I think it has helped me to stay rooted in my values and just go from there. I knew I wanted to make my relationship work post-grad and was also up for some adventure and uncertainty. I decided I would move to wherever my boyfriend Austin was accepted into medical school.
That place just so happened to be Minnesota, but for a little bit there I thought it was Pennsylvania. In fact we were hours away from signing our lease in Hershey, PA when Austin got the call from the University of Minnesota.
So like I said... Life is like that.
Pre-Covid and Mid-Covid I had faith that an opportunity meant for me would come my way. I knew I could work as a CNA to pay rent in the meantime.
Flexibility, faith, and calculated risks. If I could embody three things, those three mantras are a pretty good place to start. Once I did get my post-grad job, my focus has been doing my work well and learning as much as I can from every person I encounter.
I have learned so much from speaking with kicka$$ women in leadership positions within my company. Their stories all share a common thread: being open to the unknown. The craziest opportunities find us when we are not set on a certain path.
It sounds a little hoaxy, but don’t be afraid to allow your intuition to guide you. Opportunities meant for you really do have a way of finding you when you need them.
If you feel complacent and unhappy, don’t be afraid to listen to your gut and make big decisions. Easier said than done, but a really life-changing philosophy.
I hope this post added value to your day and I hope you consider sitting down to assess your own life. I would love to hear from you about a time that you started over despite fear or societal pressures. Comment down below or shoot me an email, or Instagram dm :).
If you want to chat about a similar situation, I am always open to talk. No hesitation, please reach out.
Lots of love! You guys rock!