Tonic for a Derailed Premed

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As I’m writing this, we are reaching the end to the second month of quarantine of what is easily the most surreal international crisis of my lifetime. In this midst of all this uncertainty, I thought it would be the perfect time to reflect on this last Pre-med chapter of my life. My purpose in telling this story is as much for personal closure as it is in the hopes that some younger version of me might find some encouragement and glean a bit of guidance that will help them on their own journey. Considering I graduated college in 2017 with a 3.3 GPA, this would correctly be read as a case study in one person’s comeback.

 

My Backstory

To start off, I’ll say that this isn’t your typical kind of inspirational story — I’m not someone who had to overcome all odds or fight upstream against systemic oppression to be where I am today. Even though my family had our fair share of struggles, I’m lucky for having been educated in a school system that provided me with the type of quality education that prepared me for each and every step. I’d venture to say I’m probably pretty similar to most medical students who, as we know, disproportionately come from upper-middle-class backgrounds. Of note, more than 75% of American medical students originate from families with an annual household income of no less than 74K. Without trivializing the consequences of this lack of diversity among our future health care practitioners, these numbers suggest a substantial number of students can relate. My assumption is that, like me, there are many young pre-meds who hope to become doctors for all the right reasons — the love of science, the desire to help others, amongst others — but have similarly found themselves derailed. As someone who has recently been through the familiar ups and downs, I hope that my story can provide a little bit of perspective. 

While many students enter college without being adequately prepared for the rigor, this was not the case for me. I didn’t receive the shock to the system felt by so many incoming undergraduates and as a result, comfortably leaned on old study habits that had worked for me in the past. Without having to develop a new set of skills, I soon fell into the dangerous lull of complacency and tricked myself into believing I had academics covered. Even as the intensity eventually picked up, I clung to my old outdated habits and resisted change. By resting on my past laurels and checking-out whenever school got difficult, I protected my ego and convinced myself that my rapidly descending GPA wasn’t a true reflection of who I was. With this impressive combination of mental gymnastics, I was able to keep up this trend for years even while knowing that I wanted to pursue what is arguably THE most competitive profession. I’m still astounded at the incredible power of our minds, even when it works against us.

It would be easy to claim that I experienced a dramatic realization where the metaphorical light bulb just went off. But in truth, I was painfully slow to change and played these mental mind games until I simply couldn’t keep the ruse up any longer. It wasn’t until I reached my personal tipping point, where the person I had become was so far away from the person I pretended to be, that things finally began to unravel. As I continued to drift from the path of medicine in the latter half of college, I began having an unsettling feeling that I might not be able to find my way back. It felt like I was approaching a point where I had dug myself so deep into a hole that the path would forever be closed to me. Eventually, I just couldn’t keep the wool over my eyes any longer and pretend that my aspirations had even the slightest chance of coming to fruition. It wasn’t until near the end of undergrad that I was finally able to resolutely tell myself that it was time to make a change. It’s hard to describe exactly what I mean, but this inner dialogue was key — it’s true what they say about nobody being able to help you but yourself. Until I truly flipped the switch in my head, everything else was just pointless talk and feel-good contemplation. 

 

My Approach

Having spent the last four years going through the motions, I realized that I lacked the habits and systems that would let me build toward my goals. I knew that change didn’t happen overnight, but feeling desperately behind, I decided to take extreme ownership over my life. For me, this meant being physically healthy and professionally productive. I could break down these overarching themes further into academics, medical extracurriculars, diet, and exercise. Different people will have different priorities — these just happened to be the buckets in my life that I felt most compelled to address. 

To this end, I enrolled in my state Postbac and anchored my routine around my classes, meals, and workouts. I took this time to figure out what kinds of food were best suited for me — first trying keto but eventually settling on the low-carb diet that I currently practice. For exercise, I found that despite the steep conditioning curve, I favored cardio workouts because they left me feeling the most energized. Knowing the importance of starting off strong and possessing a temperament that responds well to extreme measures, I forced myself to exercise everyday by only allowing myself to shower at the gym. This way I was able to squeeze in some exercise even on the days I felt strong resistance which was still infinitely better than no exercise. Similarly, I banned myself from eating out and only bought whole foods that needed cooking to develop the culinary skillset necessary for eating healthy without breaking the bank. It didn’t take long before I learned to cook a set of dishes that I actually enjoyed. The key is to set up your environment and create rules that reinforce the habits you’re trying to foster. 

Once I got the basic principles of diet and exercise down, they became the cornerstones of my daily routine. Front-loading the work of setting this routine and automating these aspects into my day took away the struggle of having to think about them in the long run. Ultimately, this allowed me to save my precious brainpower and motivation reserve for the more nuanced professional development and academic enrichment tasks. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but part of the fun is honing in on a routine that works best for you.

Some might rightly question if it’s a good idea to try to address so many distinct areas all at once. What I can say is that I personally enjoyed the breadth of my goals because it meant that there was always something I could work on and improve in. On a more practical level, this also lowered the chance that I would drop the ball in every single category on any given day. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was an instrumental feature of the design because it allowed me to continue building momentum even on the days I just was not feeling it. Say I was having a bad day in my Postbac and comforted myself with some less than healthy foods — at the very least I would make sure to get a workout in before the day was over. Or, take another day where I caved on my low-carb diet with a pint of ice cream while also skipping leg day — I’ll make it my mission that night to be in the library for some meaningful work. This way, even on the bad days, I strived to always move the needle, however incremental. I can’t stress how important this was on a psychological level for me. Failures used to demoralize me for days and potentially weeks on end. By constantly moving the ball forward in some area, I learned to shrug off setbacks rather than being paralyzed by them because I knew that on the whole, I was steadily moving in a positive direction. 

Don’t be discouraged if it isn’t all one smooth climb to the top and be prepared for setbacks; in fact, learn to use them to your advantage. Knowing the right time to have a cheat meal will prevent you from having a full-blown relapse down the line. Though we may wish it to be the case, we can’t expect ourselves to be vigilant all of the time. That’s where having the proper systems come into play. Putting in the work upfront to create a thoughtful schedule that works for you means saving valuable motivational juice in the long term, especially as many of your day-to-day tasks become automated. At the same time, a good routine will also act as a buffer and absorb the inevitable slip-ups as you continue to accumulate wins by simply executing your agenda.

A helpful way to think about your progress is to imagine it as two steps forward, one step back. By being reasonable with yourself, you’ll be able to turn every slip-up into an opportunity to understand what went wrong, and ideally, adjust your systems to avoid the same thing from happening in the future. As you continue to move forward despite the occasional setback, you’ll only reinforce your commitment to your goals. You’ll be training the muscle in your mind that allows you to repeatedly get back on track and keep moving forward. Master this skill, and you’ll be surprised at what you’re capable of.

 

My Results

Just to be clear, I by no means, have everything figured out. At times, I still feel monstrously inefficient and constantly wonder what’s a better way of doing things. But at the same time, I no longer question whether I have what it takes because I know that as long as I continue to apply and practice my craft, I will get to where I need to be. For those of you who are more quantitatively inclined, I’ll just say that this methodology culminated in the best year I’ve had to date — a 4.0 in my Postbac and a 99th percentile MCAT score followed directly by applying to and being accepted into one of my top-choice medical schools. Even if your personal mileage may vary, I’m confident that you’ll reach your goals if you persist to steadily drive forward. 

If I had to leave you with one final piece of advice, it would be to trust in the process. Having read to this point, I’m willing to bet that in your heart of hearts, you’ve already decided that you want to be better. Please give yourself a proper shot. This means having a bit of faith in the beginning when you aren’t seeing improvements as quickly as you’d like. People often overestimate what they can do in a month and underestimate what they can accomplish in a year. Though I’m sure you’ve heard variations of this sentiment, I’ve actually found the underlying principle to be quite true. Trust in the process and before long, the things you once found difficult will become second nature. You’ll soon find yourself hungry for new challenges and itching to discover where the limits of your capabilities lie.

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