I graduated from Balboa High School in the Panama Canal Zone in 1986, with a GPA of 3.91, and a long list of extracurricular activities. I was accepted to nearly every college I applied to, but since I wanted to be a doctor (and because they offered me a scholarship), I went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.
But I did not excel at Hopkins. In retrospect, I think it was due to culture shock; the fact that I thought of myself as American did not reconcile with the fact that I had lived in Panama since I was 2 years old. I withdrew from Hopkins in 1989 with a GPA of 2.08, knowing that this type of academic performance would not get me into medical school (and because tuition increased from 11,000 to 17,000 while my scholarship remained the same).
I moved to Washington DC with my boyfriend Ron, who was working as the National Program Director at Americans for Democratic Action. While in DC, I worked at various local theaters building sets and running lights. Yet as much as I love the theater, I always knew I couldn't give up on becoming a doctor. When I told Ron I was moving to California to go back to school (my parents had moved back to California in 1989, and I was a California resident), he asked me to marry him.
So, in January of 1993 we moved to San Francisco, a place neither of us had been before and where we knew no one. He entered the fledgling high-tech industry in Silicon Valley, I enrolled at City College of San
Francisco where I had a GPA of 3.51. In spring of 1995 I
transferred to San Francisco State Univerisity (SFSU), where I completed my BA in Biology in June 1997 with a GPA of 4.0.
I had taken the MCAT in August 1996 and
received scores of VR-09, PS-08, WS-R, BS-09 for a total of 26. I attributed this fairly low score to several things: 1) I am not the world's best multiple choice test taker, 2) I took a Kaplan review course and relied solely on class time for my review instead of completing practice tests at home, and 3) my mother died in January of 1996 after a decades-long fight with an
undiagnosable and untreatable auto-immune disorder.
When I applied to medical school for the first time in 1997, through a bureaucratic snafu San Francisco State University did not send out my (and several other people's) letters of recommendation until January of 1998. While all 15 of the schools I applied to did receive the letters prior to the deadline, it was so late in the cycle that I knew I had little chance of my file being seriously reviewed by anyone. In fact, Tulane even returned my application fee of $100, with a very nice letter stating that although my application had been completed in time, they were no longer reviewing new applications.
Now I was bitter and discouraged. I decided to take some postbac classes at SFSU while I tried to find a laboratory job at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). I was fortunate to be hired by a pediatric oncology lab as a Laboratory Assistant in 1998, and worked there for three years until I was ready to take the MCAT again and reapply to medical school. This time I enrolled in the Berkeley Review course and attended all of their classes as well as completing as many practice tests on my own as I possibly could. My August 2001 MCAT score was 30 (VR-11, PS-08, WS-N, BS-11).
This time I applied to 28 schools, including one school overseas, the
Ben Gurion University of the Negev MD Program in International Health and Medicine in
Collaboration with Columbia University Health Sciences. I got only one interview, with Ben Gurion. The interview was in February 2002 at Columbia in New York City (they don't make you fly to Israel for your interview). While I
preferred to attend a US medical school, Ben Gurion seemed like a slightly better choice than a
Carribbean school, because one of the directors of the program, Dr. Richard Deckelbaum, is also on staff at Columbia. If he is not in Israel, he personally meets briefly with all applicants. I was deeply impressed by both him and the Ben Gurion Program, and I was ecstatic when I was accepted into their class of 2006. I sent in my
acceptance forms and matriculation check immediately upon
receiving them in March.
But then in April, after the Passover bombings in Israel, my husband looked at me and said he couldn't move to Israel. During the ten years we spent in San Francisco, he had switched from being a political science geek to a computer geek, and with the increasing violence, high-tech companies were pulling out of Israel. This meant there were no jobs for him, and he simply couldn't face giving up a second career for me, and the prospect of being unable to get a work or student visa for four years.
So, I scrambled on the newly formed internet to find something to improve my academic credentials so I could make another try at getting into medical school. Lo and behold, I found two masters programs that seemed tailor-made for me, one at
Drexel and one at Georgetown (I later found out that there were others, see links below). These programs were designed specifically for students like me who had MCAT scores and/or GPA that were borderline, to let us take medical school courses to demonstrate that we can hack medical school.
I was accepted to Drexel after a phone interview, once again I sent in matriculation forms and a
check, and Ron and I made plans to move to Philadelphia. We packed up all of our stuff, had the moving company pick it up and hold it in storage, and proceeded to take all of July 2002 to drive cross-country and camp our way through the Canadian
Rockies. It was a fabulous trip, with only one flaw; I was still waiting to hear from Georgetown. We could check email at internet cafes and voice mail from handy pay phones. I had my phone interview at Georgetown from a pay phone at a gas station near Lake Louise in Canada's Banff National Park.
We arrived in Philadelphia the first weekend in August, with orientation at Drexel scheduled to begin on Monday, August 5. When I checked my email on Sunday night, I discovered I had been accepted to Georgetown. I called Drexel Monday morning to tell them I would not be attending their program, and we packed up and headed back to Washington DC to find a place to live (easier said than done). I was now a "physio", a member of the Georgetown University Special Masters in Physiology Class of 2003!
The SMP (aka Physio) program takes approximately 140 students, of whom approximately 60% will be accepted to medical school after one year, and another 25% (for a total of ~85%) will be accepted after two years. Georgetown University School of Medicine (GUSOM) typically accepts 20 to 25 students from the Physio Program each year, after interviewing approximately 50 people. I got an interview at GUSOM in April 2003, and I was accepted at the end of June. Amazingly, against all odds, I was now a medical student! (And as an added bonus, Ron gets to go back to the career he loves and gave up for my dream, nonprofit lobbyist.)
In putting my story up on the web, I am hoping to inspire other non-traditional premedical students to pursue their dream until they achieve it, to find a program that will make them a competitive applicant, and to keep applying until they get in. If I can get into medical school at the tender age of 35, anyone can do it, you just have to want it badly enough, to be unable to imagine yourself in any other career.
(Please note that the above was written in 2002, and current information about any of the programs mentioned can be found on their websites).