Resilience – How My Experiences Shaped Me

Resilience. A quality that is pushed throughout medical school and for good reason.

A bit about me now

I am a few months into my second year now and I physically roll my eyes every time I see a seminar titled ‘Learning resilience’ or something along a similar track. Now this is not reflective of my attitude towards this trait – being able to deal with setbacks is vital in this career – but these qualities can’t be taught in a classroom. Nonetheless, resilience will often come up on your journey when applying to medical school.

Someone once described me as ‘hard as nails‘ and I took this as a compliment; although I didn’t think it really described me. My mum had always described me as overemotional, and as a child, I would get very indignant over something that I thought was unfair; teachers told me I needed to grow a thicker skin. I mulled over this description of me a little longer – perhaps I had changed more than I had realised in the last five years.

Thinking back over the past 5 years

I thought back through all the obstacles I had dealt with over the past few years. Witnessing and dealing with my mum’s battle with alcoholism; deteriorating health and dependence on pills. Then being removed from her care, moving country and schools in the middle of my exam years.

I thought I wasn’t going to finish school with GCSEs, let alone get to do an actual degree. Then, there were the mental health issues that came along with going through all of that. When I first brought up these stories with my friends it yielded raised eyebrows and looks of horror. They told me that my teenage years were far from healthy or typical.

I thought back through the obstacles I have faced over the last few years. My mum had a heavy dependency on alcohol, and my parent’s divorce spurred her to go to rehab. This led to a brief period of sobriety, where she decided to go on a soul-seeking journey across Europe, taking her thirteen-year-old daughter (me!) with her.

When she relapsed she fell hard. I was left to pick up the pieces on my own with very little support from anyone. When I talk about the things I was exposed to, that were my normal, my peers were horrified.

I was fifteen when I was removed from her care and moved back to the UK in the middle of my GCSE years. My world crumbled around me – I had lost my mum, my friends, and my school.

Everything I owned was packed into a single suitcase. I had to give up volunteering at my local stables which had been my lifeline throughout my difficulties. Part of me just wanted to give up; why should I even try at school?

School back in the UK

I was already on the backfoot having missed half of the curriculum and it took everything I had in me to actually try. I stayed in the school library until the caretaker kicked me out every evening, teaching myself from borrowed textbooks, pleading with teachers to mark extra practice essays that I had done off my own back. This is what gave me the work ethic that has enabled me to do medicine.

The mental toll all of this had taken finally caught up with me when I started my A levels. My grades suffered and I was constantly at the point of breaking.

My brother caught me in the middle of one of my breakdowns. He proceeded to then drag me along to the GP to get help. This resulted in a referral to local adolescent mental health services.

Reflecting back on my experiences

It was a long journey to deal with the trauma I had faced – but I did get to the other side. That being said, I don’t resent the experience I had growing up.

Building resilience through experiences.

The choices that were made by the people around me yielded such an unstable life. However, the experiences they gave me are the reason I am here today. This forced me to adapt to change and make me take on more responsibility than most at my age. My life has given me something that no amount of private tuition or nepotism could. Experiences that have set me up to deal with setbacks. It taught me resilience. I am in medicine because of the adversity I have faced, not in spite of it!

How this can help you?

For anyone else wanting to apply for medicine but think you don’t have the option because you didn’t go to private school, you aren’t the captain of the rugby team and your parents aren’t doctors (the stereotypical ‘gold standard’ for medicine applicants)– you absolutely can!

Utilise your lived experiences, and the skills you have learned from it.

Resilience when applying to medical school

Medical schools are looking for you to demonstrate a time when you were resilient. Linking this with your own past shows you can utilise (or reflect on) your past experiences and grow from them. This is something you should focus on when writing your personal statement and at the interview.

Some examples may include:

  • Did living in a low-income household mean you had to take on more roles in the family and grow up quicker than others?
  • Did you care for siblings or elderly relatives?
  • How did this teach you empathy?
  • Did you attend an underperforming school? Did this force you to be self-motivated to succeed?

Demonstrate how you have learned skills far beyond anything you could have been taught in school.

What setbacks have you faced in life, and how did you go beyond that to get to where you are now? You already have all the skills you need in your arsenal; you just need to demonstrate that to your interviewer!

In summary

  • Learning from the challenges you face is extremely important. They are what build you as a person and as a doctor.
  • Resilience is an extremely important skill in medicine and it is worth reflecting on how you have built yours when applying.
  • The interview and personal statement is the place for you to show off the skills you have developed. Medical Schools want to see them!
  • When applying to medical school, resilience is one of many skills assessed in the interview


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