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Failing in Medical School

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Failure is generally viewed as the opposite of success. This in itself isn’t incorrect but it’s a different perspective. If I only learned one thing in medical school, it is that failure is necessary and can happen to just about anybody. Ok, that’s two things LOL! No matter how much of a prim and proper student you might be, slipping up every now and then isn’t unusual.

I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying ~Michael Jordan

I’ve learned to view failure, not as the opposite of success, but instead as the gateway to success, and this is how I’ve managed to condition my mind well enough to accept failure whenever it happens, learn from it, re-prioritize, re-strategize and move on.

Failure is also relative. I’ve had friends mourn over things they “failed” at that I, till today, still can’t understand how those things could be regarded as failures. A typical example would be a medical student crying over 98% on a test, and another celebrating over 51% on the same test. The second med student is elated to have crossed the 50% “pass” border, while the high achieving medical student feels gutted that they didn’t meet her goal of 100%. My point here is, failure is what you make of it.

Do not be embarrassed by your failures. Learn from them and start again ~Richard Branson

Let me tell you about when I failed in medical school.

Once upon a time, I failed two courses in medical school and as trivial as it may seem, I didn’t react well to the situation because that was my first time experiencing such a thing; I had never failed any tests or exams before. It was in my second year, and I was on a roll in my pre-med and first med years, so I think it’s safe to say I was feeling myself and never imagined any exams could dare come in the way of my Honours grades. Boy! Was I wrong! I failed two modules.

I had just boarded a plane on my way back to my home country, and just as I was about to turn off my phone for takeoff, an email came in- I opened it and I saw my results. It was the eve of my birthday as well. I cried throughout the flight; you know like that silent cry with an unlimited downpour of tears. Long story short, I quickly became suicidal (no jokes!). I attempted jumping off the 12th floor of my hotel room but the windows were sealed closed; I attempted drowning in the tub but it was too shallow LOL! I can laugh about it now but it was far from funny at the time. I cried for hours on end. I’d take breaks but then just jump right back in.

I was drowned in self-pity, but at the same time I was beating myself up. I felt worthless and the least deserving of all I had been given. It was a devastating week and the worst part was I couldn’t get myself to tell anyone, not even family. Not even my dad who was a few rooms down the hall. I mean, being Nigerian, how do you walk up to your parents (who are paying international student school fees) and tell them you failed not one but TWO modules.

Where there is no struggle, there is no strength ~Oprah Winfrey

But hey, I made it yo! That was the last exam I ever failed. It wasn’t until that happened to me that I realized it was all part of the process, it was something I needed to experience to grow and boy! Did I grow! I am beyond grateful for the lessons and the experience. It humbled me and till date, it’s the fear of failure that keeps me working.

Here are a few tips on how to move on after failing at anything:

  • Open up to loved ones or people you trust: You know what they say about ‘a problem shared is a problem half solved’. Talking really does help, especially when your mental health becomes unstable. At the time I was suicidal, imagine if I actually harmed myself. I honestly believe that it wouldn’t have been so bad if I had picked up the phone and called someone to talk.
  • Reflect on the reason(s) for failure: It’s one thing to fail but it’s another thing to reflect on why you might have failed. Failure in itself is an experience, but you can’t learn from it if you don’t know why you failed in the first place. Give yourself time to mourn and be sober but also make out time for some self-reflection to figure out why the failure happened and how you can do better.
  • Accept fault where it was yours: I remember in high school I had classmates that would always blame the teacher or the school system for their low scores. ‘Mr. X doesn’t like me and that’s why he failed me’, ‘Mrs. Y didn’t teach us this topic and that’s why I failed’. Reflect and think about what happened that might have contributed to you failing and accept responsibility where it is yours. Be truthful to yourself, you deserve it.
  • Spirituality: This is a bit of a weird one but I honestly believe that everyone needs something to believe in. So whatever that something is for you, this is the time to hold on to it more than you ever have. From my experience, it really helped with my mental health at the time.
  • Make an action plan: In the process of re-prioritizing and re-strategizing, it’s important to make careful plans and set goals as to next steps and how best to go about them.
  • Remind yourself of who you are: Positive affirmations are key in these times. Take inventory of all the things you’re good at, and your accomplishments thus far. You can also ask others to write out what they admire about you. Put them on your wall and read them every single day.

On that note, always remember that you weren’t put in this world for nothing. You’re mos def here for something and failure is just a challenge to prepare you better and propel you further towards the amazing game changer you’re destined to be. Believe in you!

Success is not final. Failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts ~Winston Churchill

Have you ever failed at anything in medical school? Please share in the comments section below!

image credits: unsplash.com; doctorraman.com

Dr Wendy Evans-Uhegbu

The author Dr Wendy Evans-Uhegbu

Dr. Wendy Evans-Uhegbu is a graduate of The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, with experience in Connected Health, Medical Technology, Clinical Research, Medical Education, and Web Design. She is a member of the Medics Abroad team with the role of Chief Communications Officer. She also runs a Medical Communications, Book Writing, and Publishing business, and is the author of the newly published children's book series "The Things Around Me".

6 Comments

  1. Oh! what a beautiful way to put it. I remember when I failed My first subject in medical school, I was second year too I thought it was the end of my life, but thank God I had people I could talk to And talked back life into me. I studied for my retake, passed with flying colours and I’m final year now we need to share more of our downfalls with each other so the ones that come after us don’t feel like they are alone or are the first.

  2. Hi Aily, Glad you enjoyed reading the article. I can absolutely relate with how you must have felt when you failed that exam but look at you now 😀 Congrats on making it to final year and wishing you all the very best with your next set of exams. Yup, totally agree with you! We need to share more of our challenges with others to motivate them.

    Best regards,
    Wendy.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience. Reading your article gives me hope. I am finding myself in the exact same situation after failing my second year exam. I have never experienced failure and it was a hard pill to swallow at first. Once I talked about it to my mum and after reading your post I feel more positive about my future as a doctor. I had to endure many obstacles to get here and I guess this is just one of the many before I make it as a doctor.

  4. I’m glad and came into this page.. I have been thinking twice but I really want to be a doctor.. But I have been failing subjects.. I am now on my second year and I feel my grades will affect my board exam results.. I know I can make it and do it.. I am willing continue but I just need to know, Will it affect my board exam results?

  5. Hi Abbie, glad you made it through to the other side. And I’m also humbled by the fact that sharing my experience helped you feel positive. Yup the obstacles are plenty but the good thing is that your mindset is amazing and I’m pretty sure you’ll scale through whatever comes your way as you journey through to a career in medicine.
    Stay focused and I’m wishing you all the very best!
    Don’t hesitate to reach out anytime.

    Best regards,
    Dr. Wendy.

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