By: Ryan Kelly
One of my favorite questions to ask pre-meds during interview prep is:
“What would you look for in a medical school candidate if you were in my shoes?”
What would you say? Leadership? Compassion? A candidate who is genuine and well-rounded? A lifelong learner with intellectual curiosity?
These are the most common answers I receive, and they’re all valid.
But there’s a quality that’s often overlooked, which underlies all of these other characteristics: resilience.
Pre-meds have to be successful to get into medical school: successful at school, on the MCAT, and outside the classroom. The idea of failing might seem foreign or taboo, so resilience is something that pre-meds don’t always realize, or admit, that they need.
In other words, they think that needing resilience is a sign of weakness in the first place.
The secret to success for most pre-meds who get into medical school is NOT that they don’t fail; it’s that they rebound from failure well.
It’s unrealistic to think that all of your pre-med endeavors will go swimmingly. You won’t get every research or TA position you apply for; you won’t complete every project and meet every deadline; you won’t get an A in every class or assignment (well, okay, maybe some of you will, but you’re bound to encounter your own obstacles).
You won’t be perfect all the time, so you’ll need to develop resilience for when things don’t go your way.
Some pre-meds tend to fear the worst. This pessimism might be a good defense mechanism, but it’s lousy for when you actually need to bounce back from a problem.
For example, imagine you get a C in biology. The pessimists would respond by internalizing the grade as a sign of their mediocrity, causing them to doubt whether they have “what it takes” for the pre-med path.
In contrast, the optimists would acknowledge the setback in a more hopeful way. They might view it as an important wake-up call that will help them develop better study habits for the future. Or they might embrace it as a test of their commitment to their dream. Either way, optimism allows for a forward-thinking approach, rather than wallowing in the present.
Speaking of wallowing, it’s a good idea to avoid pessimistic influences in your life, since you’re likely to adopt their same outlook. Dr. Steven Southwick, a professor at Yale Medical School, has noted that pessimism can be infectious. Whether it’s cynical pre-med peers, or comments from trolls on a pre-med blog, try to remove yourself from the negativity of naysayers.
When reflecting on mistakes, pre-meds often blame themselves. They hold themselves to a high standard, so when they screw up, they have a hard time moving past the shortcoming.
For example, pre-meds might fail when trying to organize a club on campus, and assume that they’re bad leaders, rather than celebrate their efforts to create something new. Perhaps the club failed due to a lack of resources or certain bureaucratic restrictions; there are a bevy of potential non-personal reasons, so students should avoid shouldering the blame entirely.
Other pre-meds might have uncomfortable altercations with aggressive patients, and then decide that they don’t have the interpersonal skills to be a doctor. But the reactions of patients can be based on many circumstances beyond a volunteer pre-med’s bedside manner.
If you personalize your mistakes, you might not be able to shake feelings of regret, which could hinder you in future pursuits. Pre-meds should remind themselves that a number of factors likely contributed to the problem, since almost no failure is completely individual. This will help them focus on what elements are in their control, and what steps they should take next.
Having a support system can help you be more resilient. But it turns out that you can actually boost your own resilience by offering support to others.
In a 2017 study of resilience among military veterans, resiliency correlated most closely to an individual’s level of gratitude, altruism, and sense of purpose.
According to Dr. Southwick, reaching out and helping others are ways of moving outside of yourself and enhancing your own inner strength. In his view, resilience means creating a life that is personally meaningful and purposeful.
“It doesn’t have to be a big mission,” he says. “It could be your family. As long as what you’re involved in has meaning to you, that can push you through all sorts of adversity.”
For some pre-meds, the best way to build resiliency will be to get involved in the community and help others in much greater need than themselves.
Stress is usually considered a bad thing. It can cause people to make careless mistakes or do things that are completely out of character. It’s also well-documented that stress leads to many negative health problems.
Unfortunately, you can’t avoid stress altogether, but you can change the way you perceive it.
“You have to invite stress into your life. A human being needs stress; the body and the mind want stress.” These are the words of Jack Groppel, who recently started offering a course on resilience at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute. “Stress is the stimulus for growth, and recovery is when the growth occurs. That’s how we build the resilience muscle.”
Instead of trying to eliminate stress from your life, find ways to let your body recover from the stress. It’s similar to when you rest your muscles between exercises at the gym. When you’re stressed out, take a few minutes to walk around the block, meditate, or grab food with a friend--anything to give your mind and body a chance to recharge.
Resilience develops as you overcome failures, but it’s also strengthened by the moments when you take risks and put yourself in vulnerable positions.
For example, pre-meds might feel anxious at the thought of giving a presentation to hundreds of researchers. But their best bet is to own that anxiety, and maybe even celebrate it. Anxiety (usually) means that something big and important is happening. Plus, it’s only one of the emotions involved. They need to consider the adrenaline rush of being on stage, and the feeling of elation when the presentation is met with applause.
Dr. Dennis Charney, a resilience researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, says that there are biological benefits to stepping out of your comfort zone: “Your stress hormone systems will become less responsive to stress so you can handle stress better. Live your life in a way that you get the skills that enable you to handle stress.”
Embrace your challenges! Shatter your comfort zones! Turn your failures into opportunities!
What we’re asking isn’t easy, but that’s the point. The path to becoming a doctor, not to mention the career itself, will undoubtedly push your limits and test your will.