A 13-Year Dream Turned Reality
By: Bryan Torres
My name is Bryan S. Torres, and my journey from being a statistic to now, a newly-admitted and rising first-year medical student, has measured my character and will-power more times than I can count. I am the culmination of the community that forged the person I am today and the physician I aspire to be, the numbers that try but do not define us, and the fire inside me that burns brighter than the fire around me. My inconceivable dream of becoming a physician started 13 years ago and after 10 years on this journey, 3 application cycles, 5 MCAT attempts, an undergraduate science GPA of 2.69, a master’s degree, 8 med school interviews, and 3 WL, I finally received the life-changing acceptance in November 2020. I am going to become a student-doctor soon and one day a physician.
But behind every “success story,” there are countless battles we have had to face to get here. When it appears that light has ceased to exist, there is always hope despite the trials and tribulation. Thus, I am writing my story here today because I know what it is like to be in the darkest of places, compare ourselves to others, think we are not good enough because our metrics are not on par with our counterparts, and the demons we face by thinking how could we accomplish such a feat without seeing someone who looks like us to ever do it. I hope that my story serves as a beacon of hope for at least one person who is facing similar battles of where I used to be regardless of your field or identity. It is possible. You are capable. And when life tests you, NEVER fold.
Upbringing and Seed:
As a Latinx and first-generation American from a Spanish-speaking and low-income household of a single mother, I began to question my role at a young age. My early exposure to racism, social injustices, and health inequities in Maryvale, AZ, a predominantly minority and redlined community in West Valley Phoenix, led me to question how Latinx like me fit in. Our household was uninsured and access to health care resources did not adequately serve the area. I can’t recall a time seeing a pediatrician until I was a teenager. When ill, my family visited our local “Curandero.” The nearest facility, Maryvale Hospital, failed to provide optimal care as its low-budget and repeated bankruptcies from three different health systems, shut its doors many times over the years. Of the patients that were treated, the largest population were gunshot wounds and teenagers who were prematurely fostered into parenthood. The remainder faced health inequalities and low awareness due to living in a community riddled with people afraid to seek medical help at the risk of deportation. Collectively, low health literacy and insufficient healthcare severely affected everyone's well-being. Thus, my lack of interactions with doctors who looked like me or came from my social and racial background, made me question if my cultural class was equipped for certain societal roles. Additionally, coming from a community where more liquor stores and loan businesses were present than schools, I grew up devoid of positive role models and many of us fell victim to gun violence, drugs, and incarceration. My high school was not “college-bound” and I was statistically more likely to drop out than to graduate.
Out of my graduating class of 650 students, only a handful of us attended a four-year University. To date, only 2.2% and 0.7% of my community hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree, respectively. Thus, my greatest fear as I grew up in this poverty-stricken environment, was that I too, would become another statistic. It was in these moments that I decided that I wanted to create a more meaningful destiny for others and myself. Specifically, as I grew up, I began to understand and witness firsthand how resilient my community was, despite the inequities and constant battles we faced, ultimately, inspiring me to pursue a path that few venture: to seek a degree in medicine. Thereafter, despite the insurmountable odds, I became many firsts for both my family and community. Now, the culmination of my upbringing and the significance of my identity in medicine has led me on a life-long commitment to addressing the health, social, and educational inequities that afflict us.
However, although the fuel, vision, and work ethic were there to help get me from where I was, to where I wanted to be, it was not until I attended college that I began to understand the academic gaps I possessed relative to my peers. I worked hard to not only comprehend textbooks and lectures, but to catch myself up in basic academic skills. Additionally, as part of my merit- and need-based scholarships, I had to hold down a full-time work-study job in school, working for a catering company on campus, cleaning tables and washing dishes, while many of my peers focused on their courses. As a result, I struggled my first few years but refused to ask for help. As a first-generation student studying bioengineering and pre-medicine, and one of a handful from my community and first in my entire family name, I didn’t have any upperclassmen or mentors to ask for guidance, nor did I think I was even allowed to ask for help. I was afraid that if I did ask, then I would be dropped from the university (I know, I know, but so I thought).
So I took the courses as they came without ever letting up and as I progressed through my courses, I started to notice the low representation of minorities in the sciences. Oftentimes I found myself to be the only minority in labs or classes and realized the significance of my identity in the sciences. This drove me to take ownership of my shortcomings, acknowledge my limitations, and recognized when to ask for help to build the necessary study habits to thrive. I sought out tutoring services, visited office hours, and built a support system of peers and mentors. Thereafter, I found improvement in my grades for upper-divisions (and later in post-baccalaureate and graduate coursework), but was only able to secure a science and cumulative GPA of ~2.5 and 2.9, respectively. But getting through college was only a small chapter of what was yet to come because it wasn't until after I graduated from college in 2015 that I truly started to learn about what it actually takes to get to medical school, one of which was the MCAT.
Life Post College. My journey to medicine started in 2010 but it wasn’t until 2015 that I truly learned about what it took. 2x MCAT (486 and 490).
The first time I started to prepare for this exam was in 2014 with a Kaplan course but I didn’t find the course too helpful. It was too general and I needed to focus on the things I was weak in. I didn't even take the MCAT at the time. My first official attempt at the MCAT was Fall 2015. I didn't take any practice tests and the results showed. I scored a 486. I didn’t even know an ounce of what I know now and I wish someone would have stopped me or told me more about how much of a beast this exam was. Being the first person in my entire family to go to college and first to pursue the medical profession, I did not have any mentors or support as we have now with social media. The only test prep company I know about was Kaplan and I don’t think NextStep existed yet (UWorld for MCAT sure didn't). This would have made a world of difference. But regardless, I carried on. I didn’t apply to med school and rather started to take science courses at my local community college as a DIY post-bac and build my clinical experience by volunteering at 3 hospitals simultaneously and working as a pharm tech.
Circa 2016. First SMP-linkage Interview.
My second attempt at the MCAT was in 2016. But yet again, didn’t take any practice tests. I was now working full time as an MA, Mon-Fri from 8a-5pm with hour-long commutes every day and then part-time as a scribe on the weekends. Two 12-hour shifts Saturday and Sunday. I did both of these jobs for ~10 months straight, no days off. It was one of the most challenging times but also rewarding to be at the bedside ranging from private clinic setting, OR, and ER. But all that to say that going into this 2nd MCAT attempt, I told myself reviewing content was good enough, maybe the first attempt was a fluke. Fall 2016, I scored a 490. Devastated. Again, I didn’t apply to medical school but I did apply to a 5-year MD, MS linkage program offered by my state’s medical school for state residents and was fortunate to be one of 30 applicants from a pool of 400ish to interview. It was humbling to finally be allowed to share my journey and aspirations. However, I fell short and didn’t get accepted. So I reflected on my academic, personal, and professional shortcomings, ultimately, weighing my options for post-bac/SMP/or master’s and opted for a research-intensive M.S at my local med school.
Circa 2017. Master’s Degree, Basic, Translational, and Clinical Research. First AMCAS application cycle (2018-2019) with Dr. Gray and 3rd MCAT.
In early 2017, I started my MS while continuing to work as an ER scribe. Between the graduate coursework, overnight shifts in the ER, and lab bench experiments throughout the day, this was a tough time. But thankfully by the end of 2017, I had completed the courses (19 science credit hours with a 3.50+) and now as I neared 2 years as an ER scribe, I decided to transition into something new. I started 2018 finalizing my lab bench research as part of my thesis while concurrently working in clinical research at my local university hospital.
I preface with this because it was during this time that I finally felt whole enough to shoot my shot and apply to medical school for the first time in the 2018 - 2019 cycle. But if I wanted to do it right for my third MCAT attempt and first application cycle, I knew I had to invest in professional help and hired a NextStep MCAT Tutor, as I truly figured out my life up until that point and why I was here. This is the first time that I truly started to be introspective with the culmination of my academic, professional, and personal life experiences that made me into the person I was. I knew that because I did not have the “perfect” grades or MCAT scores to fall back on and get me through the doors of admissions committee members in a pool of 7,000 - 13,000 applicants and into a secondary or interview, I had to use every space available to me on my Primary AMCAS application to share my story from where I started to where I was. And so I did, while concurrently still working, finalizing my lab bench research, and preparing for my third MCAT attempt.
With my Nextstep Tutor - we built a study plan that accounted for both my work schedule at the hospital and lab duties in a 2-3 month summer prep (Sept 2018 Test Date). I put in the work to follow the plan and benchmarks as much as possible but it wasn’t until night time that I started studying for the MCAT. Additionally, and as a result, I had issues delivering on the expectations set before me. For example, we met weekly and had a plan for what I needed to do every day, end of the week, etc., but I would only do half, or I wouldn’t fully review my exam or questions. A full day at the hospital working, coupled with lab experiments afterwards, drained me by the time I even sat down to study. But I carried on. I took about 12 practice tests with scores ranging from 490 - 502 and let those scores get to me. It is common to measure our performance by the scores the screen kicks back at us, but what I failed to understand (and later discovered) was that it was not about the score nor the number of exams. It was about the quality of review and identifying where you went wrong in the reasoning. Specifically — what is the question asking? Can I answer it before looking at the answer choices? Secondly, which answer choices can I eliminate and why? Thirdly, which is the answer I picked and why is it correct or incorrect. If I got it right, did I get it right because I actually know why it’s right, or did I just get lucky? If I got it wrong, why did I eliminate the right answer and why is my answer the incorrect one. I didn’t know that at the time. My NextStep tutor would tell me these things but it didn’t click.
First App Cycle. AMCAS 2018 - 2019. MD Interview with MCAT 492.
So at the end of our MCAT prep, I decided to still move forward and take it in Sept 2018. I scored a 492. I only went up to 2 points. I was so defeated. I remember the day clearly. It was a Monday morning when my score was released. I spent the following two days defeated and reflecting until I took ownership of it all. At this time, I had only added 3 schools to my AMCAS Primary (my two-state MD schools and another MD out of state) but given the outcome of my score, I decided to not move forward with secondaries. I felt no school would interview me with such a low score. So I closed the figurative chapter of the cycle. However, at the end of that same week in October, I received an email with an invitation to interview in early 2019 for the school out of state that didn’t require a secondary. I couldn’t believe it. I wept.
This was the first time in my life that I was thousands of miles away from home pursuing my dreams. It felt so surreal for lil ‘ol me to be living such a feeling. Something I would not have imagined to be possible coming as a first-gen Latino from a low-income and single mother household in an area where I was statistically more likely to drop out, let alone become a doctor. I remember the night before the interview, I called my mom, all my aunts and uncles, and my closest friends so that they could live the experience with me. The day of the interview felt like a dream, walking on campus was so different from what I was accustomed to and surrounded with such inspiring people, each of us with our own stories. But I did feel out of place because of my lil’ 492 MCAT and seeing everyone’s badge relative to my state school.
Nonetheless, I was so humbled and grateful for the privilege to even be there regardless of the outcome. It was what I had been praying for and working towards and there I was. Thereafter, I remember calling my mom after the interview to tell her how it went and how grateful I was for all the sacrifices she made to bring me to this world and moving to an unfamiliar country, so that my opportunities were better than what she endured. My grandparents raised my mother and eight other children in a house made of scrap metal in the ranches of Mexico. They would share a liter of milk between all of them and start selling newspapers at the age of five. To think that one day I would come to this world and have the privilege to walk the halls of a world-renowned U.S. medical institution in hopes to join the noble profession of becoming a physician, made my heart so full of gratitude. If this was as far as my journey came, I was fulfilled.
2nd App Cycle. 2019 - 2020 AMCAS Application. 4th MCAT (497). UC-Davis/AAMC Conference.
Fast-FWD, as the 2018 - 2019 cycle neared its end, I got the school’s final decision. I was not admitted because of the competitiveness of the MCAT scores in the interview pool.
But again, I was eternally grateful to the school because they had given me an opportunity not awarded to many, let alone inconceivable to someone like me. Now, transitioning into the 2019 - 2020 cycle, I needed to do it all alone. I knew that if I took the MCAT a fourth time, then I needed to apply all the things I learned, reflecting on to self-study so that only I could keep myself accountable. No one else. Additionally, I also had to make the tough decision to take a step back from some of my responsibilities. Something had to give so that MCAT wasn’t the last task of the day, it needed to be the first.
Thus, I dedicated Summer 2019 to study for my fourth retake in Sept 2019 while revamping my AMCAS application. With a late MCAT, I had decided from the beginning of my prep to only apply to the same 3 schools from 2018-2019. In October 2019, I got my score back - 497. Didn’t increase as much as I wanted but I was damn proud because I had put in so much work. Specifically, I was very proud because during this time I had gone to war with the man in the mirror. I needed to dig deep and remind myself of my “why.” From this, I realized that I no longer wanted to live for the future, rather, I wanted to start to live for the now. For so long I felt I had to wait to become a doctor or student-doctor to do the things I was passionate about, but I wasn’t going to limit myself from serving others any longer. Witnessing educational, social, and health inequities for the entirety of my life, I wanted to do what I could with what I had for others regardless of how big or small it was. And so I did, which helped forge me into the person I am today. The culmination of it all led me to envision who I am, who I aspire to be, and the physician I NEED to become. Thus, I was no longer waiting on the future me, accolades, or accomplishments to define me. I was living whole-heartedly in the now and I let that all show in my everyday actions for both others and myself.
Because of this I now had clarity and decided to research and apply to medical schools that I knew would help me get to where I aspire to and NEED to be. I was no longer trying to paint myself for them, rather, I began to choose the schools I knew would help me become that person and future physician. I shifted my mindset and school choice from where I wanted to be to where I NEEDED to be, and as such, I made sure I showcased that in my secondaries and every interaction that followed thereafter.
As a result, I applied to 25 medical schools upon receipt of my score in October and completed all of their secondaries that same week before heading to the UC-Davis Pre-Health and AAMC Minority Student Medical Conferences. Here, I put myself in front of Admissions members for schools I was strongly interested in to put a face to both my application as well as their school. I wanted them to know that despite the numbers on paper, they do not define me because if so, I would have thrown the towel in long ago. From this, I was able to meet inspiring admissions members who also work tirelessly to help break barriers and help shape the future generation of physicians that one day will care for them and their loved ones.
“Late” into the 2019 - 2020 AMCAS Application with my MCAT 497, I landed 4 MD Interviews with 2 WL.
In November 2019, I got my first invitation to interview for the cycle for Jan 2020. I was re-interviewing at the same place that had previously granted me the privilege. I was determined to go back more prepared than the first time, stronger and better. In December, I received my second interview for January 2020 as well. At this point, I had considered a success cycle regardless of the outcome. My heart was full. However, in January, as I landed in the city the day before my first interview of the cycle, I took my phone off airplane mode and checked my email. At this point, I had already started to see some rejections but this one was different because I had received a third interview for Feb 2020. Y’all, I cried. Grown man tears in my seat. I did not even bother to get off the plane cause I sat there and took it all in. I had been praying for and working towards these opportunities for 4 years strong. But eventually, I had to get off the plane and get ready for my re-interview. This time around I felt even better because I knew myself and left it all on the table with regards to who I was, who I aspire to be, and who I need to become.
I returned home after my interview and a few days later received my 4th interview of the cycle. Now, y’all know I cried again. But the most surreal thing about it was that this school had rejected me the month before, so I thought maybe it was a glitch. Maybe I was being played by the application system. So I logged in and saw that the interview date was 7 days away. I called admissions and was informed that it was real. The committee had reconsidered me out of a pool of 10,000+ applicants. The gratitude that I had was so overwhelming because I would have never thought that a fourth retaker of the MCAT with a 497 (121 CARS) coupled with a 2.69 BCPM GPA and the very late date of completion of October would lead me to 4 MD interviews, at schools where I was nowhere near their averages, medians, or metrics. I was a whole point away. Not 0.1 or 0.3, a whole “1.0+.” But yet here I was, fighting to make my dreams become a reality. Within the 4-6 weeks of January and February, I had 4 interviews. I once again got to roam campuses I once dreamt of, meet amazing applicants and mentors/friends, who helped me prepare for the interview, and envision the life I one day hope to bring to fruition.
By Mid-March I received a committee on admissions decision that I was waitlisted at two of the schools. Yes, there was nothing more that I wanted than the official acceptance letter after a long 10-year journey. But the fact is, I was so grateful and honored to interview, and still be in the consideration as a WL/Alternate. I joked with some of my class friends that I was going to offer to bring my own chair or offer to stand since there were “no more seats.” I sent in three updates/LOI’s by the end of the cycle, hoping, praying, and working towards getting that official “A.” I could not let off the throttle, I was so close. But again, being in love with the journey and my growth and development, I never stopped keeping in contact with the schools that also rejected me. I had a genuine interest in every school I applied to because they would allow me to become the person and physician I NEED to be. In all, I kept in touch with every school while preparing for my master’s defense, building on other projects/initiatives, revamping my now 2020 - 2021 AMCAS application, and yes, preparing for my fifth MCAT retake, which brings me to why I write this today. Reflecting on my shortcomings from the 2019 - 2020 cycle, I knew that two main factors were the date of completion of my application (October) as well as breaking that 500+ MCAT.
3rd App Cycle. 2020 - 2021 AMCAS. 5th MCAT Retake and Score Release on 9/1/2020.
July 1st, 2020 I submitted my 2020 - 2021 AMCAS. Thereafter, I dedicated a solid six weeks preparing for my fifth MCAT retake on August 14th with a focus on practice and review coupled with UWorld and Anki. Although my scores don’t support it, I’ve come to understand that the MCAT is not a content exam per se, it is an “application,” exam. How can we use the information we are given to apply it to the situation or question being asked. There is more to it but that is not the purpose of this post, it is to highlight that I worked tirelessly to focus on my biggest weaknesses at first (CARS, C/P) and then solidify my strengths (B/B and P/S). I started with a 493 on BluePrint’s Diagnostic and the highest I scored was ~511 on AAMC Sample. I received my official score on Sept 1st, and I received a 497, again. Trust me when I say that it did hurt, especially as I saw my CARS stay the same at 121 despite my highest being 126 and mastering 75% of the CARS QPack Vol. 2. But my science increased to a record high with B/B as my highest at 127.
This hurt but I am honestly grateful that my overall score did not decrease and that my strong science scores hopefully reaffirm to the admissions committee that the early undergraduate shortcomings that are heavily influenced by BCPM GPA, do not define my academic readiness for medical education. I have been working hard for years to excel in my upper-division, DIY post-bac, and graduate courses to defeat the stigma of these early grades as a first-gen biomedical engineering major and pre-med. Additionally, I am also aware that some med schools do super scores (taking the highest of each section from multiple attempts). In all, I am now leaving it to the medical schools I am applying to this cycle to decide if my MCAT supports but not define me in my overall candidacy. If an institution is where you are meant to be, time will show you. In this journey, there are two outcomes, either we fold or they do. And I have yet to do so as I will continue to place my application on their desk.
November 20th, 2020. Accepted.
At this point in the post, the aforementioned words you have read above were all written in my testimony 2 months before I was accepted. Following my 5th MCAT score release, I received my first interview invite of this new cycle around Mid September, at one of the schools I had just previously interviewed for and was placed on the waitlist, except this time it was way earlier. Additionally, I received my second one at the end of October for a school I had previously applied to the last 3 cycles but was rejected without an interview. Thus, this was a first, and truth be told I almost did not apply a third time but I persisted in informing admissions members of my interest as to why I needed (not want) to be at their institution. As I had mentioned before, I always followed up with every school I applied to after their final decision to ask for feedback. Regardless of the outcome of the cycle or how confident I felt it would work out, I always asked for feedback on identifying shortcomings for my personal growth and development. As a result, a feedback session that was scheduled to occur in March 2020 was postponed due to the pandemic.
By the time, I heard back from the admissions team,( it was August 2020), while I awaited the outcome of my fifth MCAT score. Thankfully, my score was good enough for me to shoot my shot and a couple of weeks later I received the interview. By now you should know that although I was filled with gratitude for an interview, it was difficult to allow myself to be happy or overly optimistic because I had been in this position before. It was hard to believe this is it when regardless of how much you prepared, know yourself and your why, and/or feel you performed coupled with positive reinforcement from Directors of Admissions, you still can't let yourself let up. Thus, I went into this interview more ready than ever and for the first time in my life, I went the roles switch in that my interviewers were genuinely interested in me and my journey, while previously I had always felt I needed to prove myself as worthy for medicine. From that day forward until now, I could say it was the best interview experience of my life (a grown man almost cried in sharing it all during the interview). And two weeks later, the final decision email came through at 2:54 AM. I woke up, read the subject line, took a deep breath, and visualized everything up until that moment as I finally opened and read the words “Congratulations!”
For thirteen years I had to see the invisible and work at the impossible despite the personal, academic, familial, social, and professional obstacles that tested me more times than I can count. Although all of these things wounded me to the ground, I am eternally grateful for the scar tissue as it helped to forge the person I am today and the physician I one day aspire to be: healing, educating, and empowering - the ill, vulnerable, and marginalized. My cycle is still not over as I am awaiting final decisions from other schools, but regardless of where I go, I am going to be a doctor. If you have made it to the end of this post, I want to thank you for taking the time to read and hope that whatever you choose to do next, you know YOU ARE CAPABLE.
METRICS DO NOT DEFINE YOU. YOUR HEART, WORK ETHIC, AND CHARACTER DO.