When you reach where you planned, people only see your final stop. They don’t see the detours, the wrong turns, the pit stops and the flat tires. Funnily enough, despite so many potholes along the way, the beginning still seems the hardest part. I set off on this path when nobody believed in me, least of all myself, constantly wondering if I was being unrealistic. Arguably, I still wouldn’t have made it, if I wasn’t so miserable where I was.
I was the kid ‘with potential’ – the quiet, nerdy one who can score well, but easily slip under people’s radar. This did not translate well when I moved to a different state and country for medical school, clearing competitive exams and ending up in a cut-throat environment. I let myself slide academically, left a sore impression on my professors and had all but lost interest in the medical field. It was a chance opportunity to volunteer with a team of physicians from the US that sparked life back into my dream and helped me settle on the specialty I wanted to be part of for the rest of my career.
The challenges were only beginning. My family was not keen on the time and money the task would take, and I would need their support to initiate it. I’d no mentors in my University to guide how to incorporate MLE-preparation into the regular syllabus. I did not know the importance of electives and research or have the opportunities. Most of all, just as I was getting ready to move on to the next phase of my career, my course got extended for unexplained reasons. I got further isolated from my small group of friends, and it took a major hit on my already-depleted confidence.
This time, I knew I deserved better. I wish I could say I dove right into academics, but after many a sputtered start, I cleared my exams in the next try, decided I wanted to be in a system where I have better opportunities, and slowly gathered information about the process of USMLE. It took me another year, till I finished my graduation, to know what to do, but I worked on several extracurricular activities related to my field of interest. It felt like I had to redo medical school for my step 1 – after a grueling year, preparing with other people just as self-built as I was trying to be, I got a score close to my target of 250, and I was content. What I did not realize was the slowly creeping anxiety that had accumulated over this time, which had started manifesting physically and taking away from my time for the next two steps. After wasting months, which included botching my first visa interview, I decided to keep my CK preparation on hold and apply for observerships and CS. Without much luck, thanks to one of the physicians I worked with earlier, I was able to get into one academic center. I was however only allowed two months at the port of entry, which meant squeezing in my clinical experience, CS and CK preparation to 60 days. Worse, I’d have to give CK soon after flying home, still jet lagged, to make it in time to apply. This turned out to be the worst idea of the year, as my percentile tanked to below 20th for CK. Two family members get diagnosed with serious illnesses around the time, leaving me conflicted as to apply at all or stay back to help my family. The last nail in the coffin was when I decide to go ahead as planned and it proved useless that I rushed my exam to get my ECFMG certificate and apply on time. Days before the coveted 15th of Sept, ECFMG tells me I need to resend my previously-approved documents to get my certificate. Documents which took 2 months to be approved last time. I pleaded to the ECFMG representative to do anything to not let my last two years’ efforts go to waste because of a late/incomplete application, but the poor man could do nothing.
It was too close for me to give up now. I took a red eye to my medical school, hoping they could speed things up. I decided a few km above sea level to do my part and accept my fate, whatever it be. I also realized that I had been letting anxiety and stress interfere with my functioning and it was time to address them. Perhaps it was that realization that turned things around, because within a week, ECFMG decided it can issue my certificate after all. I was able to apply just a week or two later than everyone else. I see a psychiatrist in the meantime, who helps me manage my symptoms acutely, and I decide to wait to see how things go.
The wait was mercifully short. I got my first interview in a week. Several more trickled in by mid-October. My first one, I was so nervous, constantly comparing myself to all the nameless, faceless wizards who post online. People could probably see right through me, I kept worrying. I walk to my first interviewer, who treats me like a royal guest, leafing through my application and paused on my LoR. It was beyond glowing and read out loud to me. I was “impressive and well-rounded”, and they would “love to have me there”. It took all of my strength to not lose my composure, hearing some kind of validation for a long and invisible struggle. It breathed life into me, and by the end of the season, I had close to 20 interviews, most of them positive. I learnt from others, what worked and what not to do. I joked with my interviewers. I was polite and respectful and confident. My answers were well-thought out and my questions more thoughtful. I had some invigorating discussions with my peers and interviewers, I learnt so much on the trail. I decided I did not want to be an anxiety-ridden, overbearing, underwhelming, misfit of an applicant anymore. It was self-awareness and the kindness of people that helped me proceed despite several setbacks.
Come March 11, I was back to being a nervous wreck. Despite having exhausted all my resources flying to every interview, I was worried visa-requiring me might end up without a spot. Due to divine grace, my efforts didn’t go unseen. I matched at one of my top choices, a place I did not think I’d even be considered.
My experience is hardly extraordinary, but it is the ordinary and the average person’s tale that often goes unnoticed. This is for every anxious, self-doubting applicant out there – no, I cannot tell you your chances, when I could hardly judge mine, but know this: you know yourself best, your strengths, exude them; your weaknesses, work on them; the things beyond your control, make peace with them; the things you can still change, don’t let fear of judgement, of rejection, of failure, stop you from trying. Do your research and be realistic, but don’t let the naysayers – there are infinite supplies of them – pull you down either. Those nights when things seem impossible and you wonder about the worst possible outcomes, just ask yourself, what if everything went right? There is also a lot of luck that plays into this process, but don’t overlook the many, many things within your control. Your profile is important, but your attitude is what carries you to the finish line.