“Am I smart enough to be a doctor” and “am I smart enough for medical school” are two questions nearly everyone with aspirations of donning the white coat will ask themselves at some point in their journey.
Growing up, we constantly hear about how smart you have to be to become a doctor. We hear about how hard medical school is. We hear about how much dedication is required to pursuing this career path.
Often, the ones who take the premed route are the high school superstars – they take AP & honors classes, they rock their ACTs and SATs, they’re the valedictorians, and they’re the students who did their homework every night, never received a detention, and have followed a perfect trajectory towards medical school since day one of kindergarten.
If these are the future doctors of the world, does the average student stand a chance?
I am here to tell you, from personal experience, the truth about how intelligent one must be to succeed in medical school and become a physician. If you’re a high schooler debating pursuing premed in college, a current college student on the premed track second-guessing if you have what it takes, or a first year medical student dismayed with your lack of early success – you need to read this post.
I’m not here to grade your stats. I don’t give a damn what your science GPA is, what you scored on the MCAT, or where your LizzyM score places you. Rather, I am writing this post to address the topic of whether or not you have the ability to succeed.
While anecdotal, I can proudly speak for those who don’t feel like they’re smart enough for medical school. I hated school my entire life. And finally, in medical school, the highest level of schooling I’ve experienced, I suddenly love it. As such, I feel the need to include my journey from lazy childhood slacker to successful medical student.
Here’s my story
Growing up, I detested school. I’d sit in class all day daydreaming about girls and sports. Instead of doing homework when I got home from school, I’d play outside, shoot hoops, message cuties on AIM, play Super Smash Bros on my GameCube, and indulge in my childhood joys. I was raised by a hardworking single mother, so I didn’t exactly have the parental sovereignty to ensure I did my work every night. I dreaded waking up every single morning. I’d haphazardly attempt to scribble my homework on the morning bus ride to school. I hated school so much that I faked sick constantly, and even devised elaborate schemes to prove my illness. All so that I could get out of school for a day or two.
In high school, my slacker ways didn’t really change. In fact, they probably got worse. I had no idea how to study, nor the desire to try. I’d show brief flashes and get an A here and there, but in general, I was not a good student. I got B’s in biology, C’s in chemistry, and never earned a single A in a science class during high school. I cared about football, lifting weights, music, my friends, and girls. Not school.
Things got worse as I progressed and started hanging with the wrong crowds. During my turbulent junior year, I started smoking weed and drinking. I earned a something like a 2.5 GPA during that fall semester, including a hideous D grade in precalculus. My parents were appalled. And I didn’t give a damn.
I’d try to convince my parents that I was not as smart as they wanted me to be. I wanted them to accept that I was a B/C student and leave me alone. Not simply because I wanted to be lazy, but because I believed it. I hated school and always had. I wasn’t a straight A student. Medicine wasn’t even a thought. Because: I’m not smart enough.
In the spring of my junior year, it all changed. My guardian angel appeared to me in the form a droopy-eyed, miserable, bitter, 70 year-old woman. She taught my school’s honors english classes and she had the reputation of Ilse Koch reincarnated as a high school teacher. But if there was one thing I did enjoy in high school, it was writing. We had our first drafts due of our big research paper. I wrote mine in a hurry of course (I think it was some sort of analysis of A Clockwork Orange). The day after turning them in, this English teacher addressed the class and presented my paper. She praised my writing and wanted all of my classmates to use it as an example of structure, theme, and style. She even showed it to her other classes.
And damn, would you look at that – I did something right for once. This is one of the first times in my life where I can remember being truly proud of an academic achievement. It filled me with joy and gave me a speck of self-esteem. Throughout the rest of the semester, I felt more inclined to answer questions and participate in class (a rarity for me). Towards the end, in front of the entire class, she said, “I’ve been doing this for forty years and I know it when I see it – Soze you are smart enough be a National Merit Finalist”. I was embarrassed and my face turned bright red. I didn’t even believe her, and she was wrong – I’m not that smart. But even if I didn’t believe her, it was the first time in my life where someone other than my parents believed in me. I know that sounds cheesy, but it had a deep effect on my own self-perception.
Most of my teachers in high school thought I was an air-headed moron (and I often am). But the most feared, villainous teacher in my high school thought I was smart. She knew I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. She knew I was lazy. And she knew I was better than my GPA indicated. She pulled me aside and counseled me often, usually telling me to get far away from the kids I hung out with. And for that, I owe her a debt that I can never repay.
She gave me confidence, but I was still an idiot. Until I took a trip in the summer before my senior year. On this trip, I had an epiphany – I vowed to quit smoking weed and to devote myself to school. Andre 3000’s words on ATLiens – “no drugs or alcohol so I can get the signal clear” – provided the theme to my new mission.
During my senior year, I earned straight A’s and scored highly on the ACT and SAT. I received a decent scholarship to a state university.
My momentum continued as I hit the ground running in college. I was the perfect student and the perfect premed. I got straight A’s for two straight years. I was involved with microbiology research. I was in the premedical club and racked up some volunteer hours. I had earned a full-ride scholarship. And I dreamed of the day I received an acceptance letter from a top-tier medical school.
What a wonderful story, huh?
Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. I knew I was capable of succeeding in school, but my motivation slipped by the day. In my junior and senior year, I progressively stopped caring about my classes. My GPA went from a 4.0 going into junior year to a 3.6 at the end – a scary downward trend, a bright red flag waving in the face of any admissions committee, a whiff of smoke coming from the burning forest fire of my irresponsibility as a student. Towards the end of undergrad, I choked harder than Golden State blowing a 3-1 lead.
I was simply burnt out. Once again, I was sick of school – the perpetual meaningless assignments, the hours spent studying facts that had zero real-world application or use in my future life, and the constantly elevating hoops that I had to jump through to get to the next level.
I couldn’t go to medical school. Not yet. I needed to take a year or three off. My heart was no longer in school, and I doubted that I even wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to read, to write, to get better at guitar, to travel, and to live life.
To appease my parents, I applied to one school maybe a week before their application deadline. I received an interview invite. Because I applied so late, the class was full and I was simply interviewing for the waitlist. I was placed on the waitlist. I received a call in the spring informing me that I had been accepted.
Yes, of course I was thrilled. I called my mom and dad. I had a drink to celebrate. After settling down, the feeling of impending doom started to creep its way into my brain. I was sick of school. I couldn’t commit to another four year right now. I had too much to do before beginning the medical marathon. I hadn’t even been to another continent. I only applied to appease my parents, but I was not strong enough to endure the stinging disappointment that would have followed my confession that I didn’t want to go to medical school.
To make a long story short, I was burned out from from college, my heart wasn’t in medicine, and I seriously debated rejecting my admissions offer.
And here we are. I am midway through my second year of medical school. I score in the top 20% or so on every exam. And I am doing everything I can to prepare for boards, because I have my eyes on a very competitive specialty. It took me about a semester to figure things out, but once I got my study methods down (read more on that here), medical school became fun. I really can’t imagine anything I’d rather be doing with my life.
Back to the original question – are you smart enough for medical school?
Judging by my pedestrian school performance growing up, my reckless habits, my delinquent behavior, my titanically sinking motivation towards the end of college, and my overall loathing of formal education, no one would think that I was smart enough for medical school. Hell, I didn’t even believe I was cut out for it.
But now, I can say this with certainty – lack of academic success does not mean that you are not smart enough for medical school. I was a classic “this class has no application towards my career or life so I don’t care about it” type of dude.
mostly love what I learn. I love diseases and drugs and the human body. I love reading a question and solving a problem. And that is why I have been successful in medical school. So, if you got a C in calculus because you usually didn’t do your homework, if you got a B in botany because you couldn’t bring yourself to master the plant’s life cycle, or if you simply didn’t get all A’s in undergrad because you didn’t care about what you were learning, you are still capable of doing well in medical school.
One of the most important points I can address is nature of intelligence. I do not believe everyone falls somewhere on the “smart spectrum”. You were not born into some sort of mental caste system. You can become smarter.
The first time you go for a run in two years, you’ll get winded after your first lap around the block. That doesn’t mean you can’t work your way up to 10 miles if you work hard. The first time you lie down on the bench press you’ll probably struggle to pump out ten reps at 135 pounds. That doesn’t mean you can’t bench press 250 pounds after a year or two of dedicated training. If you only ran once every two weeks, you’ll never run 10 miles with ease. If you only lifted once in a blue moon and ate a poor diet, your bench press will stay stagnant. If you only study once in a while, you won’t get any better at it.
In undergrad, most can perform decently on a test by studying for two days before the exam. In medical school, you need to study nearly every day. Guess what happens. You get better at studying. You learn to read quicker. You make associations in your brain that allow you to retrieve information with greater ease. You train your hippocampus and cerebral cortex to become highly functioning machines of excellence. In the span of a few months in medical school, your brain will go from a skinny guy who is 140 pounds soaking wet to a 200 pound bodybuilder with capped-out shoulders and bulging bicep veins.
You will become smarter. A major problem with high school & college education is that we were never taught how to study. Read the chapter! Go to class! Write everything in your college-ruled notebook until you get carpal tunnel! Yeah!
Screw that – download Anki, make Anki cards for the powerpoint slides, and watch youtube videos to clear up difficult topics, and get straight A’s with much less effort. Anki is pretty much an academic cheat code that I’d do heinous things to show myself in college.
And instead of studying being a monotonous, pointless chore, it will become a mission to you, because what you learn in your first two years of medical school will determine how well you do on Step 1, which in turn will play a major factor in what you end up doing for the next 30-50 years of your life.
You will rise to the challenge. And even if you are like me and hated school your entire life, that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy medical school. Imagine you were forced to read a boring novel assigned by your high school teacher. You concluded that you hated reading. Then one day for leisure you picked up a book on a fascinating topic, and you finished the book in a matter of days. You didn’t hate reading after all. You just hated the books they forced you to read. In the same sense, I hated studying because I hated the content that I was forced to study (geometric chemical shapes, vertebrate zoology, limits & derivatives, etc). And now that I am actually interested in what I study, I actually enjoy studying (except anatomy… I hate anatomy).
At the end of the day, if you’re smart enough to get into college, you’re smart enough to get good grades. If you’re smart enough to be accepted into medical school, you’re smart enough to succeed in medical school. And if you’re smart enough to succeed in medical school, you can look forward to the day you graduate and earn that title of “doctor” that once seemed so distant and unachievable.
It’s up to you.
To read more about my medical school study habits, click here.
To see a list of all my posts on medical school, check this out.
As always, to see the latest posting updates on Soze Media, follow me on Twitter: @JordanSoze
Coming up, I’ll write a post titled “How Hard is Medical School: Perspectives from Second Year”. In addition, I’ll be telling a story that explains my recent lack of activity when I find out the ending to that story next week. Stay tuned.
Oh and BTW, if you tend to doubt yourself now, you will very likely continue to do so, no matter how good you really are and going though medical education is not going to fix that either, instead you will find yourself torturing yourself over the fact that someone’s life and health depends on your decisions. I say this not to shame you for doubting yourself, but because I know so many good, hard working, knowledgeable docs who do doubt themselves. If they don’t doubt their medical decisions they often doubt their abilities because they are unable to chart in real time or to keep up their through times or keep up with their emails and labs.
Maybe the question should be: just because you are smart, should you be a doctor? Just because you are smart, should you dismiss jobs seen as “below you” in which you might be a whole lot happier, and richer like HVAC?
If you are overidentified with being smart, maybe take a step back and rethink this. Definitely get some professional career testing. Definitely examine your executive skills (read the book: smart but scattered) and emotional intelligence. If you have ADHD or Sensory processing problems the Electronic medical record systems can be a special hell. And really understand that American medicine is a Profoundly Broken System, such that what you imagine you might be doing and what you will really be doing are different.
Being a doctor is not going to get you deference or respect, or make you less socially awkward, not going to get the sexy partner, not going to fix your life in any way. If life is already hard for you this really will only make it harder. Medical education will not correct bad habits like procrastination, addiction, (to alcohol or food or media or love or approval) or mental health problems like anxiety or depression, but only make it a bigger problem for you.
If you think you are going to learn how to know what is going on with most patients by the text book, nuh-uh. If you think most patients’ disease is going to follow the text book and be clear ad well defined: If you think patients are going to be able to give a decent history or in any way take responsibility for (or afford) things like having insurance, having an advanced directive, knowing what medications they take or knowing what medical conditions they have or what surgeries they have had done, changing their lifestyles, refilling their meds, doing imaging studies, following up with specialists or even going to the ER when so advised, or go to the ER for classic stroke or heart attack symptoms or obviously BIG , BAD things, think again. They will save up their problems and bring hem do you in one giant, brown, tube shaped bundle at some 15 minute appointment, as a walk in, on an already maxxed out schedule. And who will get sued if something goes wrong? And don’t expect your employers to not throw you under the bus – what prevents you from being sued – charting well and taking time with your patients; what do employers prioritize -through times. What can you not do when scrambling for through times? Document well and spend time with your patients, Don’t expect to have your own practice, you will be a glorified retail clerk having to listen to Christmas music all day, because the building you work in has paper thin doors and HIPPA says “play music at so many decibels” and your revolving door entry level staff will revolt if it is not Christmas music all day. (again -get yourself evaluated for sensory processing issues or at least read up on it, because you will not have a nice quiet place to chart and you will be constantly interrupted while trying to use that glorious brain. Just because you are smart doesn’t mean you tolerate a lot of uncertainty, or a lot of brokeness in the system. Just because you are smart, doesn’t mean you are a non-physical person, would you be happier working with your hands somehow? Well hope this helps.
Recommend checking out ZDoggmd
Finally, consider being a medical scribe, because you will get your hands on electronic medical systems and see if they are painful for you to maneuver through and see how things work in the clinics. And don’t do this in a nice orthopedic office, but in the ER or Primary Care office.
It’s been a while since you wrote this, but what was the point of this reply?
The original post which I wrote many years ago was a message of hope for people to believe in themselves and understand that they are capable. It was nothing more than a motivational message of well-intentioned hope.
No career is without its own annoyances and pitfalls. I hate charting but I love what I do and I’m so thankful to be here.
Be well and spread positivity.
I’m in a very different boat, having a CC AS in Music (3.68) and a BA in Psych (3.50) from a mediocre private college, one year in local government, 4.5 difficult months across the country at an EMH company during Covid before quitting from stress. I was relating so hard with my childhood, but man did the second crash in your story hit close to home. Right down to the weed (although I was also post IV treatment for post acute Lyme; there’s some medicinal motive I swear). I’ve been plotting a DIY post-bacc. And this post just become my chicken noodle soup. Definitely going to look at the resources you provided too!
Thank you for this. I had been crying for about 30 minutes and the only thing that calmed me down was this post. I just felt so dejected today after realizing I’m going to get a C in Genetics, but I’ll just use it as motivation to do better. Thank you for your post!
This post is three years old… I was a freshman in a new high school with a new living situation that I didn’t like. Now I’m finishing my junior year of high school in this corona-filled mess (in another new school might I add) and I know that I did not handle most of what happened like I should’ve. I’m scared that I’m not even good enough to get into college, let alone medical school. My GPA doesn’t reflect what I am and SATs can’t be taken because we’re all in quarantine, but all I know is that medicine is the one thing I was ever dedicated to being in and I really needed this. Thanks!
I am strong and tough and don’t care what people say about me.
Thank you for the info but my parents are pros at this stuff so i think i will be fine. I am strong and tough and i don’t care what people say about me, i will win and pass my exams no matter what! 🙂👍🏻
I know this was written years ago but I would just like to let you know I enjoyed reading this, probably because I related a lot to it. Especially in the part where I applied to a single med school simply to appease my parents and managed to get in but doubted whether I wanted to nor should I. Thanks for this blog post and I hope you continue to do well! 🙂
Thanks, I really needed this. At first I was considering not continuing medicine because I felt extremely stupid compared to my colleagues. I still have some pending exams but after reading this, I’m going to give my all before the deadline line and be the best doctor I can be. Sometimes my ‘friends’ made me feel so dumb and I usually gave up on graduating with a diploma. Thanks for the advice
I really needed this, i am in my 2nd year in college and im not making the best grades as a bio- major. I have really felt stupid the past couple of months and have thought of dropping out of college because i felt like i wasn`t smart enough, but after reading this i know i can do this!
Thank you so much for this. I’m currently a year 10 who has the capability to be smart but doesn’t have the motivation, and this really made me think 🙂
Extremely extremely motivational. I need to develop that level of grit and determination… My brain tires out too easily when studying.
“To appease my parents, I applied to one school maybe a week before their application deadline. I received an interview invite. Because I applied so late, the class was full and I was simply interviewing for the waitlist. I was placed on the waitlist. I received a call in the spring informing me that I had been accepted.”
This probably is one of the best (if not THE BEST) application stories I have ever heard of. Great stuff! I’m loving your posts!
Thank you for this. I’m currently an undergrad and while I really want to go to med school this semester has left me so dejected and doubtful of my abilities. I can’t seem to get the hang of things and I find myself spending more and more time thinking of alternative paths rather than med school. But you’ve given me motivation to try again and I hope you find success wherever you go.
Great stuff man