Non-Traditional Pre-Med with Low GPA to Neurosurgeon

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I was born overseas in Iran, where I lived for 6 years before immigrating to the United States. Growing up in a medically-oriented family led to me being introduced to medicine early. My parents, who are both physical therapists, cultivated an early desire in me to pursue a life-long career in medicine. Living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was surrounded by incredible opportunities to shadow doctors in multiple specialties as early as high school.

However, my route to medicine was not traditional. Having overburdened myself early on in my collegiate career at the University of Michigan – despite advice to the contrary from my advisors – I was faced with a difficult route to medical school with an unimpressive grade point average. Nevertheless, the road to being a doctor is not an easy one for anyone, and you’ll seldom find a physician who hasn’t overcome his or her own challenges at one point or another in their career.

Thus, despite the statistics telling me I wouldn’t make it into medical school, I chose to focus on the parts of my application that I could still improve. I took extra classes and raised my grades, simultaneously focusing heavily on the MCAT. While taking classes I took two research positions, one in a virology lab and one in the Department of Plastic Surgery. Heeding some important advice from my closest mentors, I took a year off to further improve my chances. In that year I bolstered my resume with publications and some much-needed work experience, allowing me to not only look better on paper, but also to better communicate with medical professionals during my interviews.

I was lucky to interview at a small handful of medical schools, and ultimately the University of Toledo College of Medicine took a chance on me as a non-traditional student. I wanted to make the most of the opportunity and worked hard early on in school to prepare myself for a surgical residency. I found my passion in Neurological Surgery, a field that was grounded in the care of some of the sickest patients, while remaining cutting-edge and research-heavy. Unfortunately, I was again met with the struggle of over-reaching, as matching into any surgical specialty is difficult, especially when coming from a school without its own residency training program in Neurosurgery and with my average test scores. Once more, I was fortunate to have the guidance of excellent mentors, who helped me bolster my CV with research, learn the field, and rotated at a number of hospitals with training programs to improve my chances. With their help, I was able to match at, and am currently halfway through my training at Albany Medical Center.

“Making it” in medicine is a challenge. No matter what your background is, every step is fraught with landmines where you can damage your chances for achieving your dreams and career aspirations. I have been fortunate to make it to where I want to be despite personal and professional setbacks. There are a few things that you should always consider when you’re faced with a challenge along this track:

  • Recognizing your chances at each stage is key. By being realistic about where you stand in comparison to your peers, you can better gauge where you should apply.
  • In tandem with the previous point, you should always prepare a backup plan. Be ready to fail, but don’t be afraid of it. Things may work out, and they may not. It may feel like the odds are stacked against you, but follow your heart. If you are prepared for the worst case scenario, then you won’t find yourself in a position of panic. That being said, give it your best shot and hope for the best.
  • Mentoring is key. Good, caring, compassionate, and caring mentors are the major difference for most people I’ve met along this path. They certainly have been for me.
  • You are your own worst enemy. Doubt and fear will always stand in your way. Working hard and remembering that you are a whole person – and not an individual test score or grade point average – will push you to strive for your goals, while not resting on your already-completed laurels.
  • Always push ahead. Even if you have accomplished your goals for the time being, look towards the next, and try to anticipate your future aspirations.

Over the last twelve years, since finishing high school and flowing along this great journey, I have had an incredible amount of luck on my side. It is important to remember, no matter what your goals and your path to them may be, that you remain humble and grounded. We are all in this for the same goals, to take care of others. If you maintain that passion, your caring for others will be your strongest asset throughout your path in medicine.

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