Bouncing Back After Failure

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“When I got accepted to medical school, I felt that I was finally at the finish line. But actually, I was just beginning the race.” — Sehr Kahn

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The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“The hardest part about medical school is just getting in.” Those were my mom’s go-to words of comfort that coaxed me through medical school applications. As a physician, she was speaking from experience. When I got accepted to medical school, I felt that I was finally at the finish line. But actually, I was just beginning the race.

Fresh out of college and with my acceptance letter under my wings, I soared into my first year of medical school. During orientation, I felt connected to my peers. I mean, we were the lucky ones who made it this far … right? I’ll never forget how overwhelmed I felt during my first anatomy lecture and how I rewatched it three times before I was even able to write down all of the material. The detail was unrelenting. I spent the first part of medical school in a haze and unsure of how to address what lay before me.

Six weeks later, it was the first round of block exams and the longest week of my life. Immediately after submitting an exam, the score was displayed. “A new record,” I thought, “Four for four.” I had failed every single exam. Nothing during my 16 years of schooling could have prepared me for that failure and how completely alone I felt in it.

Imposter syndrome was in full effect. Not only did I feel like there was no way I could be a doctor, I didn’t even feel like I belonged at my school. I was convinced the admissions team made a mistake when they accepted me, that they must have overlooked something or mistaken me for someone else. There was a long road ahead of me. Failing first block exams put me at the bottom of a deep hole, with two more rounds of exams serving as a potential ladder to pull my grades, and myself, out of the trenches. I was juvenile in my thinking, mad and frustrated with the fact that I couldn’t handle the material alone like how I did in college.

“What just happened?” I said under my breath after lecture one day, not realizing anyone was listening. Thankfully, someone was listening and it created an opportunity for me to be more honest with some of my closer friends as to the extent of my struggles. Instead of making me feel incompetent, my friends met me with compassion and understanding. My success became their success. When I was in a funk and down on myself, they were the ones who called or texted me and bribed me with Starbucks to bring me to school and study. They were patient and ran through information countless times with me until I finally understood it. By the end of that first semester of medical school, I held onto the hands of my peers as I was pulled out of an academic hole and passed all of my classes. I knew enough this time to know that my hard work was just beginning, but this time I was armed with resilience and a support system that would help me maneuver through whatever medical school and my future career in medicine was going to throw at me next.

I’m now in my third year of medical school. Second year was filled with its own battles (Step 1, obviously). As hard as it was, I still made it through. I’ve learned that my own failure isn’t a reflection of who I am as a person; but rather all the opportunities that there are to stand back up and fight for success. Moreover, third year has been challenging in it’s own ways, but it has also been my most successful year of medical school thus far.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that I couldn’t address my failure alone. Concealed failure welcomes shame and hopelessness. Failure can be a dark and self-deprecating place when handling it alone, and for that reason, we all need a couple friends nearby to remind us to turn the light back on. For that reason, I’ve revised my mom’s advice. The hardest part about medical school is … medical school.

Sehr Kahn
Medical Student
Medical College of Wisconsin

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