Back to school, as a working adult

The writer signed up to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), the first step toward applying for a post-graduate medical degree. PHOTOS: LISABEL TING

About two months ago, for reasons that are too complicated to explain, I decided to pursue a career as a doctor.

Very little of my life thus far has prepared me for this decision. I studied psychology in university, and the closest I've come to medical experience is prescribing myself some Panadol.

Still, I signed up to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), the first step toward applying for a post-graduate medical degree.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, MCAT candidates are expected to demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, sociology and psychology, over four papers that last a total of six hours.


But, I reasoned, it could not be that difficult. After all, in my younger days, I spent hours in the school library wrapped up in a windbreaker, painstakingly making notes and drawing mind maps. Going back to mugging shouldn't be a problem, right?


In May, I picked up some materials from a friend who took the MCAT last year. He spent four months preparing full-time for his exam, and wished he had more time. Three months, while working? "Good luck," he told me, as he helped load books and files into my car.

The look on his face was my first real warning that this wasn't gonna be a walk in the park. It said that what I needed wasn't luck, what I needed was a miracle.

And he was right. I've taken plenty of major exams before, but somehow, taking one as a working adult is a horrifically different creature.

For one thing, it is turning out to be much harder than I thought getting the engine started again. After leaving school for five years, I feel slower to grasp concepts, and my mind is less agile when dealing with complexities.

It's not just skills, but dusting off old knowledge as well. Last week, I found myself stuck on a chemistry problem, and the explanation just refused to make sense. It turns out that the answer referenced logarithmic rules, which I learned when I was 15 then promptly forgot.

Coffee is my drug.

Time management has also been unimaginably difficult. When I studied full-time, the only distractions were of my own making -- video games, shopping or just hanging out with friends. But now, everything has to be meticulously scheduled around actual adult obligations.

Most of my day is spent in the office, and I'm glued to my table or the library when I get pockets of free time. I've stopped going to capoeira classes, and I've physically moved my gaming rig at home aside for more precious table space. My colleagues from other departments hardly see me anymore, because instead of going out for lunch, I dapao food from the canteen and go back to cramming.

But the most difficult part about all this is how strangely lonely the process is.

In school, you have coursemates struggling alongside you, and when you have questions, help is just a text away. Now? I have no-one to turn to, except my new best friend: Google. As a consequence, my web history has gone from frivolous to frighteningly boring.

This is my life now.

All this studying means a lot of stress. With stress also comes a lot of frustration. Sometimes, I try to get rid of it by sending people pictures of my textbook with stupid captions:

At other times, sit at my table alone, on the verge of tears, wondering why I'm putting myself through all this. When that happens, something as small as doing poorly on a practice exam is enough to send me into a spiral of self-doubt.

Yet, through all the tension headaches and suffering, there are some strange ways in which my adult self is enjoying the exam-mugging process.

Now, as I'm teaching myself about the Krebs cycle, I'm also teaching myself to love the process of learning and the frustration that comes along with it.

This kind of perspective is something I never had when I was younger. Back then, school was just a chore, and not a choice. It was all about the end result, and not the process.

That's still true to some extent, but somehow now - maybe because I'm doing this on my own volition - it's a lot easier to find some sort of satisfaction in the whole affair. I didn't see it when I was younger, but being in school is the only time that you get to devote all your effort to improving yourself.

So come August 19, however the exam ultimately goes, I honestly think I'd be at peace with it. If I do well, I will look forward to approaching my future studies with the perspective I've gained over the last few months.

If I fail, I'm glad I had the chance to learn, test and push myself.

Still, I'd probably think twice about doing it all over again, because no matter how you frame it, one thing still holds -- mugging really sucks.

This is what amuses me now.

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