Seeking Opportunities for Growth: Fiora McRae's Story

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"After my service in the military, I struggled to find direction. I thought there was no way I could become a doctor given my background, but after shadowing a few physicians, there was a pivotal moment when I realized I could do the same thing."

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Fiora McRae

Medical School: Eastern Virginia Medical School, 2020 
Undergrad: University of Texas at San Antonio

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  • Born to a teen mom.
  • Raised in poverty.
  • Quit high school at age 14.
  • Military veteran.
  • Spent over 15 years completing her undergraduate degree.

MCAT® Score/GPA/Academics

When beginning to apply to medical school, Fiora was least confident in her GPA. She did not have a traditional undergraduate experience. Instead, as she explains, “I spent over 15 years piecing together my undergraduate degree. It is exceptionally difficult to modify an undergraduate GPA no matter how much you excel at the end of your collegiate career.”

Thankfully, this did not discourage her from applying. “At the beginning of my journey, I accessed the AAMC website, alongside other resources to better understand what inter- and intra-personal attributes were sought in competitive applicants. I evaluated what my strengths were and tackled my weaknesses.”

Fiora’s prehealth advisor, Dr. Alan Vince, provided her with journal articles about the holistic review of medical applicants, cultural competencies, and humanism in medicine. She pored over them, and then eventually, instead of viewing her GPA as a threat to her application, she began to view it as a reflection of challenges where she had grown and changed directions. Fiora learned that, as an applicant with a lower-than-average GPA, your trajectory becomes an important component. For example, if you made some mistakes initially but then steadily climbed upward, or if you finished strongly with multiple semesters of excellence, a low GPA does not automatically disqualify you. Because of this, Fiora knew medical school was an option. While she was behind the curve, with diligence and commitment, she could work hard to reach her fullest potential.

According to Susan Castora, Director of Admissions at Eastern Virginia Medical School, there were concerns about Fiora’s overall GPA, but many of these concerns were assuaged by her significant improvement in her later years of college. The admissions committee recognized that Fiora’s life story provided a strong rationale for her early struggles, as well as her ability to persevere and overcome these early obstacles. Her prehealth advisor remembers it this way: “Fiora was always honest and realistic about her past academic performance. Having worked over the years with many nontraditional applicants whose path to medical school reflects ups and downs, I would like to think that I never once discouraged Fiora from believing that she could realize her goal, one that she had only tentatively committed to: medical school.” Additionally, while her GPA was on the lower side, her MCAT® score was average for the matriculating students at her school. Her advisor said, “I did not have strong concerns because I do believe in holistic review, and I was convinced medical schools would recognize the person she is and whose grades trends, MCAT [score], and personal character were testaments to her suitability for medical school and a future as a physician.”


Fiora sums up her path to medical school as “circuitous and arduous,” but she’s thankful that it was. She spent three years putting one foot in front of the other until she had sculpted an application that made her proud.

Fiora also recognizes that being born to a teen mom and raised in a single parent household well below the federal poverty line significantly contributed to her emotional development and growth as a person. It was essential to her understanding of resiliency, adaptability, and personal improvement. Fiora says, “I witnessed my mom’s hard work as she persevered toward accomplishing her education and eventually became a nurse so that she could better provide for our family. When I got off track as a teenager and dropped out of high school, it was my mom’s influence which helped me improve and seek my GED, later joining the military and further growing as a young adult. My early background drove me to continually seek improvement and reminded me that you can overcome hardships with effort, hard work, and a little bit of time.” Not only were these lessons important to her growth as a medical school applicant, but Fiora is still finding value in them as a medical student when she reflects upon and shares her experiences with others.

When asked what experiences distinguished Fiora from other applicants, her pre-health advisor said, “Her maturity reflects her life journey which was facilitated through her time spent in military service.  There she acquired a strong sense of what it means to be a leader, and she discovered that she possesses those qualities in abundance.” Her prehealth advisor recognized that her life journey and path to medicine represented stages of reflection and self-awareness, personal growth and discovery, and foremost acquiring a belief in herself, and redirecting her life to realize her potential to contribute meaningfully in her professional life and work. A sense of integrity and ethical responsibility are at the core of who Fiora is and that was evident in her application.

Personal Statement

The opening line of Fiora’s personal statement reads: “Quitting high school at age 14 was the start of my journey towards medicine." As a nontraditional applicant, Fiora wanted to highlight how her early experiences shaped her and were important to her development and decision to become a physician. Throughout her journey, she realized that her unique life experiences were instrumental in developing her voice.

From an admissions perspective, Ms. Castora remarked, "Fiora’s capacity to self-reflect, to make meaning, and to learn and grow were evident in my interactions with her, and in her application. An important quality that was evident in Fiora’s essays and application was her sense of honesty about her path and who she is, which reflects her acceptance and sense of comfort with who she is and her life to that time."  

Fiora explains that she used the personal statement to tell her story — the good, the bad, the ugly — from quitting high school, to serving in the military, to being inspired by her mother who diligently pursued higher education so that their family could rise from poverty, to her own strengths that would lend me to be a compassionate physician. Fiora says, “I wanted my personal statement to paint a broad picture of who I am and how I became influenced to pursue medicine.” To highlight her skills and strengths, she provided personal anecdotes that spoke of her military service, volunteerism to underserved populations, and her support for organizations that she was passionate about, including her service as a volunteer buddy for children with physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities who want to participate in sports and recreational activities, as well as her volunteerism to running groups that helped spread the mission of health and exercise.

Fiora limited the review of her personal statement to three people: two who knew her well and one professional consult. The professional consult was a medical student whom she met at a medical school open house event. Fiora highly recommends having an unbiased, objective person read your personal statement. When her finished statement reached the desk of the admissions committee, it was clear that Fiora had faced some severe challenges during her life and she had met them head on and overcame each one of them. 

“I was most confident about the personal statement portion of the application … where I knew I would stand out. It is the part of the application where you can share what makes you unique and what personal adversities contributed to the whole person that you are trying to present to the committee.” In her statement, Fiora shared her 9-month commitment to providing a home-away-from-home to a Wounded Warrior during his convalescence after being injured in Afghanistan. She brought him to her house to enjoy the holidays and took him on outings while he healed. In the statement she was also able to demonstrate a “service orientation” by participating in public health fairs and screening and mentorship of at-risk youth at a detention school and tutoring at her undergraduate institution. On a practical level, Fiora demonstrated her own desire for" self-improvement and resiliency by returning to school to improve my academic record, taking on a research project in cardiology, and addressing what she perceived to be weak areas in her application. Lastly, she also highlighted various leadership roles to demonstrate her dedication to effective teamwork and communication, as well as her desire to be dependable to others.

Letters of Evaluation

Fiora selected writers for her letters of evaluation who knew her well and could speak to her personal attributes. In keeping with most committee letter requests, Fiora chose two professors, one science and one non-science, with whom she had established relationships, and two former supervisors who were both physicians.

When she requested that they write a letter of evaluation for her, Fiora reminded her professors of significant projects that she undertook while in their respective classes and the grades that she received. In addition to that, she provided her letter writers with her CV, an autobiographical sketch, a copy of her personal statement, and a professional photograph.


Fiora approached her medical school interview with an understanding that it is nothing more than a conversation between people. Fiora said, “I wanted to be genuine, and therefore, I did not do any real preparation outside of reading through my application the night before. I knew that whatever questions would be asked, I had spent my entire life developing my values and my understanding of the world in such a manner that I could draw an appropriate conclusion.”

Fiora’s interview was an opportunity for the medical school to learn more specific details of her challenges from joining the residential military school for at risk youth after dropping out of high school at 14, to achieving her GED, to serving her country for 6 years in the Air Force. Ms. Castora said this convinced the admissions committee of her efforts to achieve her true potential. During an interview, Fiora was asked a question that led to the opportunity for her to discuss how her background of quitting high school and college many times over was essential to her development, and without those experiences, she may not have pursued medicine. This allowed Fiora to address the committee’s possible concern that she may struggle with the commitment of attending medical school for four years since she had not done that during her undergraduate pursuits. “I reminded them that I understood commitment having served in the military and that my last several semesters demonstrated my ability and reaffirmed my commitment to pursuing higher education.”

Getting Off of the Waitlist

Following the application and interview process, Fiora provided two significant update letters directly to the Dean of Admissions at Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) since she was placed on their alternate list. In them, she highlighted her continued interest in attending their medical program and provided updates on her development as a competitive applicant. Fiora believes this was an essential component to her acceptance at EVMS because it demonstrated her drive and sincere interest in attending their medical school.

Fiora on Why She Chose EVMS

Eastern Virginia Medical School strives to be recognized as the most community-oriented school of medicine in America. Most of the students who walk through the doors of EVMS place high emphasis on making a positive difference in the lives of the people that they serve. Fiora shares, “This is one of the reasons I applied to EVMS, and I believe it is probably one of the top reasons many students apply to EVMS. In crafting my application and demonstrating that my values aligned with the mission of EVMS, I highlighted my commitment to serving others in many different capacities, whether through volunteer work, military service, or the various job positions I’ve held.”

Fiora adds, “As a medical student, I advocate for applicants and students by serving on my school’s Admissions Committee and Student Progress Committee. I seek opportunities to challenge my own assumptions and biases by discussing bioethical considerations within our book club and by serving within the HIV Service Learning Project. Through self-exploration and reflection, I work hard to turn my struggles into strengths. Most importantly, I’ve realized the impact each of us has in opening the doors for others to live rich and full lives.”

EVMS on Why They Chose Fiora

Despite the aforementioned concerns about her GPA, Ms. Castora shared that Fiora had an extremely strong application and an excellent interview.  The latter clearly identified Fiora as a great fit with the mission of EVMS.  In addition, to quote from the Diversity Statement of the EVMS Mission, Vision and Values Statement, “EVMS places a special emphasis on recruitment of women, traditionally underrepresented minorities, veterans, and individuals who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.”

An early recommendation to further strengthen her GPA was made to apply to the EVMS Medical Master’s Program. She was initially accepted into this program; however, it became a moot point since the Admissions Committee considered her overall outstanding application and upward trend in grades to warrant acceptance into the MD Program.

There are many attributes and characteristics that distinguished Fiora from other applicants. “Whether it was risking my own safety to rescue an indentured servant from a restaurant bathroom, spending time teaching my friend who is deaf to drive, serving my community through volunteerism, or cheering on my fellow running comrades in their own triumphs over distance and self-doubt, I have sought and enjoyed opportunities that encompass others’ needs and goals.”

Her advisor identified the following as well: Capacity for improvement, resilience and adaptability, scientific inquiry and a firm grasp of the significant of integrating the natural sciences in understanding the living system that is the human body, as well as the significance of human behavior.  

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Highlighted Competencies

Note: This section helps to illustrate how multiple competencies can be demonstrated across many experiences, activities, and parts of your application.

Icon of two hands holding a globe Service Orientation Service Orientation

Shows a commitment to something larger than oneself; demonstrates dedication to service and a commitment to making meaningful contributions that meet the needs of communities.

Community work and research experience among indigenous populations.

Icon of people in front of a globe Cultural Humility Cultural Humility

Seeks out and engages diverse and divergent perspectives with a desire to understand and willingness to adjust one’s mindset; understands a situation or idea from alternative viewpoints; reflects on one’s values, beliefs, and identities and how they may affect others; reflects on and addresses bias in oneself and others; and fosters a supportive environment that values inclusivity.

Lived experience, co-president of the Native Circle, research among indigenous populations.

Icon of three people talking Oral Communication Oral Communication

Effectively conveys information to others using spoken words and sentences; actively listens to understand the meaning and intent behind what others say; and recognizes potential communication barriers and adjusts approach or clarifies information as needed.

Interview, conference presentations, meetings with tribal leaders.

Icon of a scale Ethical Responsibility to Self and Others Ethical Responsibility to Self and Others Behaves with honesty and integrity; considers multiple and/or conflicting principles and values to inform decisions; adheres to ethical principles when carrying out professional obligations; resists pressure to engage in unethical behavior; and encourages others to behave honestly and ethically.

Extensive successful research experiences, successfully balanced multiple academic and personal responsibilities.

Icon of a person climbing stairs Resilience and Adaptability Resilience and Adaptability Perseveres in challenging, stressful, or ambiguous environments or situations by adjusting behavior or approach in response to new information, changing conditions, or unexpected obstacles, and recognizes and seeks help and support when needed; recovers from and reflects on setbacks; and balances personal well-being with responsibilities.

Distance traveled, overcame health challenges; overcame early academic challenges and inadequate study skills.

Icon of person standing in front of arrows Commitment to Learning and Growth Commitment to Learning and Growth

Practices continuous personal and professional growth for improvement, including setting and communicating goals for learning and development; reflects on successes, challenges, and mistakes; pursues opportunities to improve knowledge and understanding; and asks for and incorporates feedback to learn and grow.

Proactively sought and implemented guidance from faculty members and other mentors; consistently challenged herself with her coursework and research experience; demonstrated steady academic improvement, including significantly improving her study skills; successfully completed a rigorous post-bacc program.

Icon of lightbulb and gear Critical Thinking Critical Thinking

Uses logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions, or approaches to problems.

Extensive lab and field research experience; training in public and population health led to thinking differently and critically about science, medicine, and healthcare generally.

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Strongest Competencies

The student self-identified the following competencies as the strongest:

  • Icon of person standing in front of arrows
  • Icon of a person climbing stairs
  • Icon of two hands holding a globe
Fiora's Tips
  • "Ask an unbiased, objective person to read your personal statement."
  • "Only apply when you know you are ready. I spent 3 years strengthening my application before I applied."
  • "Continually seek opportunities for growth. Gain medical exposure, whether through scribing, shadowing, working in healthcare. The best way to gain perspective about what a physician does is to be around physicians!"
  • "Using self-reflection, it is important to identify qualities and characteristics within yourself that you saw in the physicians you know. Demonstrating medical exposure is essential for applicants."
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