Here is something not a lot of people who have made it through will tell you: It. Was. Hard.
There. I said it out loud and nothing bad happened.
I am still typing. I am still a doctor. And, I am assuming that those three words did not change anyone reading’s opinion of me or my skill set. At least not yet.
The problem is that even just by writing those words, it seems like I am breaking a code of academic excellence silence and busting through the “pretend schooling and training was easy, that you loved every minute of it, and now you are KILLING it” image we were repeatedly told to (or implicitly modeled to) cultivate. By stating the facts (“it wasn’t easy, I didn’t love every minute, and I only sometimes am killing it”), I make myself vulnerable to being “found out” as an imposter. That, in itself, does not feel good and I typically try to avoid those feelings (like the rest of you) by pretending that everything is awesome all of the time.
But, I do not want to do that anymore and neither should you. We need to instead pull back the curtains in front of the “Great Wizard of Oz” and see just the regular person, who is struggling and doing the best they can to survive their hard classes and overwhelming pressure to succeed. If we all could just expose our own fears and feelings, we really could change the expectation of what is “normal” or “successful”. I mean, you can’t be an imposter if the crowd is full of other imposters, right?
With that said, I suggest we start by being honest with each other about how hard things actually are and start to ask for help when we need it. To truly do as I say, I will go first. Here is a real story of what it is like to be a premed.
It was my freshman year of college at the University of Pennsylvania and I was taking both introduction to biology and introduction to chemistry classes (plus labs!) that were requirements for medical school admission. I found out both of my finals were not just on the same day, but were about one hour apart. After I got over the initial shock, I started studying, but I knew that these classes both had too much information in them to possibly learn it all for one day. I needed to choose one to focus on and as I had been doing better in chemistry, I put more effort into studying for biology.
Fast forward to the first test, my biology exam, that was absolutely horrible. As just one example for why it was so bad, the professor had said we did not need to memorize the amino acids or their structures, but then proceeded to have an entire section of fill-in-the-blank questions asking us to label them. I left that entire section blank and walked out of that test feeling utterly defeated and worried that I should have just studied more for chemistry and at least done well on what I was doing better at anyway. Even knowing curves exist, and no one would have actually done well on that section, did not make me feel better. If a 60 was an A or B, I still only knew 60 percent of the material. When you take a test like that, you still do feel like you are failing (probably because you technically did) and you never used to do that before.
After that experience, I tried to clear my mind and enter my chemistry exam with a blank slate. I opened the test booklet and read the first question. I had absolutely no idea how to do it. I flipped to the next one, and again, same thing. I then catastrophically began believing that I must, then, know nothing. I began to panic and started tearing up while taking the test in the back of the room. Yes, I CRIED during an EXAM in COLLEGE in a class with hundreds of people in it.
It might’ve been OK if I was a more discrete crier, but I knew people noticed because a few friends turned around to check on me. I also know I was not subtle because the TA saw me and came up to ask what was going on. I explained my whole situation in between deep stressful breaths (including that I just came from biology). She responded with perhaps the most validating thing anyone could have told me in the moment. It went something like: “He made it hard on purpose because everyone was doing too well in the class. No one will do well on this exam, so just answer as much as you can, you absolutely know enough to do fine on this”. I heard her and my breathing slowed down, but I remained skeptical and anxious. Instead of walking away and leaving me to fail (or hopefully compose myself on my own), do you know what she did next? She had me turn to the last question in the booklet and walked me through answering it. She asked me questions along the way, breaking the question down into doable chunks, and I slowly realized I could answer every single one of them. In doing so, she allowed me to prove to myself that I, in fact, knew a lot more than my brain was telling me I did. Because of her stopping to help me, even though I would never have asked for it myself at the time, I knew I would be fine.
So, why I am I telling you this story? It certainly is not to re-hash what remains an embarrassing memory in my life. It is not to point out to you that I didn’t fail either one of my exams that day (and someone still let me become a doctor), either. Instead, I am sharing it to say something I wish I could have said when I was in college: the truth. School and training is challenging, even unfairly at times, and there are moments when you need help from other people (like a TA, a friend, Habif Health and Wellness). As not just a provider myself now, but a person who gets it from her own experiences, I just wanted you to know that it is more than OK to feel like that and need and ask for help. Just because no one else is screaming it out does not mean it is not the truth. In fact, it is completely common, typical, routine, and normal, we just have to stop being so quiet about it.
That is also why I am creating this column. I am hoping it can be a place where we can talk about issues that are important to you and I can answer any and all questions you have about mental health, coping, and stress. If you think mental health is confusing or scary, or you don’t know what to do, how it works, or what to say to a friend, you are not alone. I hope to lessen the other barrier for asking for help by helping to provide you with more knowledge. I can’t provide treatment advice, that you have to actually go to Habif Health and Wellness for, but I can answer those questions you always wanted to ask someone, but never felt comfortable doing.
So, please send me your questions at [email protected]. I look forward to answering them and respecting your anonymity in doing so. And, if you want to send me your stories of college actually being a lot harder than we let on…I will post those anonymously, too.
I am hoping together we can figure out how to tell our actual truths and feel comfortable asking for help before we start crying in class, not after.
More about Solid Gold Advice
In this monthly column in Student Health 101, Solid Gold Advice, Dr. Jessica (Jessi) Gold, M.D. M.S. will answer students’ questions about everything that has to do with mental health and stress/coping on campus. You’re also welcome to submit your own story of life “actually being hard” in college.
Interested in submitting a question or story to Solid Gold Advice? Send an email to (). Only Dr. Gold will check this account. No identifying information will be used in the response.
NOTE: It is important that you do not share your private health information or anything urgent. This is not a form of health care and will only be checked a few times a week. Dr. Gold will not publish your name or any identifying information in her response.
Mental Health Resources
To seek mental health care on campus, visit habif.wustl.edu to set up an appointment. For a mental health emergency during business hours, please call 314-935-6695 and identify the situation as an emergency.
Anyone needing emergency care while the Habif Health and Wellness Center is closed should call campus police (if on campus) at 935-5555 or 911 if off campus and go to the nearest emergency room.
You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.