In my senior year of high school, I decided that I wanted to major in Biology in order to go to medical school in the future. The goal was to become a doctor.At the time, I had no idea what kind of doctor or what branch of medicine I wanted to pursue, but I knew medicine was the right choice for me. Going into college, I thought that the most important things to focus on would be my grades and retaining enough information to do well on my MCAT.

By my second year, I realized that I had been deeply mistaken. All throughout my freshman year of college, I avoided joining clubs and organization, even if they were pre-med related, because I felt that they were more like social gatherings than anything else. However, when it came time to start asking professors and mentors for letters of recommendation, I realized I hadn’t really gotten to know anyone and that those clubs were designed specifically to meet teachers and department heads, important people who I needed to form acquaintances with in order to get stellar letters of recommendation.

That was the first mistake of many on my still continuing journey to medical school. In efforts to quickly get to know some higher ups, I joined several clubs and associations. Most of my classmates were already part of these clubs and several had moved on to leadership positions. I also realized that in addition to becoming friendly with our professors, club members used the meetups as a way to network and meet doctors who they could then shadow, intern for, or volunteer under.

You Need to Have Hands on Experiences

Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized that I needed actual experience in the medical field to get into medical school. I thought that was the whole point of going to medical school, but of course, good grades, a good MCAT, and even good letters of recommendation were not enough. And to make matters worse, everyone was already ten steps ahead of me. Most of my friends had already shadowed several doctors, were scribing, or were working at a hospital.

I quickly jumped on the boat by getting a job as an assistant for a private clinician who I ended up working for for three and a half years. After my first year of working, I realized I wasn’t getting any hands on experience. I wanted to instead go to EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) school and become licensed to work as an EMT in my home state. Unfortunately, my dad didn’t think this was a good idea and so I got a position as a volunteer in the Surgery Waiting Room of the hospital that I worked at. I chose surgery because by now I had decided that I wanted to become a surgeon.

Volunteering was very fulfilling and looked good on a resume, and while it did allow me to get a more accurate understanding of a surgeon’s job description, I was still very far away from any hands on experience. Around this time, a close friend of mine mentioned to me that her club was planning another mission trip to medically underserved countries in Latin America. I had never been outside of the country or even outside of my state without a parent, but I thought to myself that if there was ever a good enough reason to travel alone, it would be to help others. This was a costly venture totaling at about $3500 after everything was said and done, however, it was one of the more worth-it experiences in terms of helping me decide if medicine was what I truly wanted to pursue and giving me that real hands-on experience that medical schools expected from me.

Shadowing is Important to a Certain Extent

Until I had shadowed my first doctor, I was dead set on becoming a neurosurgeon. Shadowing experience is required by many medical schools and it is not at all as easy to do as it sounds. You would think you could just ask any doctor if you could shadow them, but no. First you need permission from the hospital itself. After all, the doctor is just another employee. You need to fill out a million forms, prove you are immunized from earth to mars, attend several meetings on professionalism and company rules and in many cases, you have to pay the hospital for giving you this privilege and it is not cheap.

After shadowing, I am convinced that it is part of the money sucking system that medical schools are obliged to take part in because the hospitals are the employers. Not to say that the shadowing experience wasn’t valuable because I did end up figuring out that I did not want to become a neurosurgeon, but at the end of the day, it was still observation based. Neither the shadowing, nor my job as an assistant, nor my time as a volunteer had provided me with any true hands on learning or experience and yet all were seemingly expected by medical schools.

Do not be Discouraged by Rejection

By the end of my third year of working for a private clinician and after more than a year of volunteering, I had been rejected in my first round of medical school applications. I decided I needed to do something that would significantly change and add value to my resume. After moving to a new city, I applied to EMT school, got accepted, and have just completed the course. I learned so much new information, things that are really applicable in the field.

However, in addition to all of the textbook information and skills that I have acquired, one of the most important lessons that I learned was something that I had been privy to before, but hadn’t fully understood yet. During my two weeks of shadowing a cardiothoracic surgeon, I was lucky enough to meet many other employees of the hospital including other surgeons, general physicians, anesthesiologists, pulmonologists, scrub technicians, registered nurses, and other shadowers who were there to learn just like me.

After speaking with and learning from all of these different people including the surgeon whom I was shadowing, my biggest takeaway was that I really wasn’t behind and that I still was on the right path to going to medical school. I realized that there were people much older than me, a fact reinforced when I took the EMT course, who were also trying to pursue medical school. Some of my classmates hadn’t realized until much later in life that medicine was their passion. Others had spouses and children that had taken up time in their younger years and had only now found the time to take their MCATs and apply to medical school. And there were even students who had been rejected in their first cycle of applications and were in EMT school as a stepping stone to medical school, just like me.

Everyone’s Journey is Different

Most of my classmates from my EMT class were planning on becoming an EMT as a transition between becoming future doctors, PAs, nurses, and even firemen. Very few people wanted to pursue the field of emergency medicine as a career on its own. However, I did meet a gentleman who had progressed from an EMT to a paramedic to a flight medic to finally getting accepted to medical school at the age of 34. He had progressed through emergency medicine until he had achieved the highest rung on the ladder, and now he was ready for career part 2.

My point is this: it is easy to feel like you are falling behind when you forget to look at the bigger picture. The road is long and only the tenacious will make it. Medical schools these days are overly competitive and acceptance rates are at an all time low. It is important for us to follow our medical passions through any means possible. For me, that meant I needed to take several years away from re-applying with the same application over and over again, get some real in the field experience as an EMT, save some lives, retake my MCATs, and then try again.

Esma Arslan
March 2019