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How to support your student and move forward after failing Boards

By: Anonymous

After two grueling years of never ending tests, quizzes, SPs, labs, and all the other acronyms and examinations that onslaught our students during the first two years of medical school, nothing quite prepares them (and us) for the rigour and intensity of studying and taking their first Boards Exams. Not even the MCAT felt nearly this difficult. Then after (for most RVU students, since my students year had to take both the MD and DO Boards) two days of 8 hour exams, you finally feel like you’ve gotten to the end of the tunnel. You’ve heard from so many third and fourth years students and significant others how wonderful third and fourth year is. They finally get to feel like they are becoming doctors, and not just students. They get to delve into, and experience the type of doctor they would like to become, and they only need to take about one test a month. What a dream! Some of the rotations, you're told, are super chill and they get to be home more. It all sounds so wonderful, and right at your fingertips. Then, your student opens that email, and finds out they didn’t pass one or both of their boards exams.

When this happened to us, it felt like we were strolling down a sunny path, with this bright future laid out before us, and then, out of nowhere, a storm appears and causes a landslide right under our feet. We were left with so many questions, so many uncertainties, and so many feelings of sadness and fear. The worst was how isolated we felt. We guessed we weren’t the only ones going through this, and as the years have passed and more people have talked about their experiences, we now know that we definitely weren’t the only ones. In that moment, though, no one wants to advertise, let alone admit to anyone else that they didn’t pass. So then, it’s basically just your family and the school that are aware of it, and so you just have to wait while the school helps you to figure out how you’re going to move forward.

For us, we had to use the first month of third year as a study rotation for my student to study and retake boards. We didn’t even know if they had passed when they started their first rotation. We were two weeks into the first rotation when we opened the email telling us they had passed and we felt like we could finally breathe. That all seems like it was so easy now that I’m looking back on it, but it was really hard. Yes, they had to study again, and I actually ended up leaving for the last two weeks to go stay with family so they could completely focus, but the real hard part, for me at least, was having to deal with my feelings on my own. I know I didn’t need to do that, and my student would have loved to have been able to comfort me, but it felt like I wasn’t allowed to ask for comfort. After all, I wasn’t the student, I wasn’t the one who had put in all that work, only to find out they had failed and would have to do it all over again. I wasn’t the one who was feeling like a failure, and most of all, I didn’t want to make that feeling worse by letting them know how sad I was. So the whole experience felt even more isolating. All I could do was sit on the sidelines, cheering on my student, being the supportive spouse, while quietly crying in the shower so they couldn’t hear me. When I went to visit family for the last two weeks, I wished I had done that sooner. I could talk to my family, and feel their support. They made sure to keep me entertained with lots of distractions while I was there, and I felt a lot better when I came home.

Wait! Isn’t this supposed to be a blog with advice on how to support your student after failing boards? So, what I’m telling you is to just suck it up for your student, cry alone, and leave for a bit? No!!! I know now that that was not the way to do it, because I finally know now why I felt so sad. I was grieving all the plans I had made in my head, and being forced to face the unknown, and just walk off a cliff. I was sad that while seemingly everyone else was enjoying their summer with their student and getting to start the fabled wonderful third year, I had to watch them in silence. I was scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen next, let alone the terror of having absolutely no control over the outcome.

So, this is where I tell you how not do that. Well, kind of. We had another situation recently that felt like the floor had been ripped out from under us, and I promised myself I wouldn’t do that again. I wouldn’t suffer in silence. When we got the bad news, I cried, I screamed, I went through the whole mourning process, and didn’t care if my student knew or not. In fact, they appreciated me showing how sad and angry I felt, because it made them feel like we were in this together. So then we cried and screamed together. We told our families and talked to them, and they all had such amazing advice and support that I wish we would have had when we had experienced failing boards. This time the feelings got processed, instead of repressed. This time we didn’t feel so alone, and instead we felt supported and loved. You may not be religious, but I can’t deny that I felt some higher power in my life in that moment. It felt like even though we were walking through fog (and still feel like that most of the time) that there is someone taking us by the hand and leading us through.

So, here’s the advice. Cry! SCREAM! Be angry and sad. Acknowledge that you’re terrified because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Then, after letting all of that out, and that might take a while, then you can dust yourselves off and properly process how to move forward. Contact someone at the school so they can give you more information and guidance. They’ve been through this with tons of students, so just admit they know more than you and your student, and let them help you. Make a game plan of how you’re going to pass the next time, and address anything that may have been getting in the way. Maybe it was that they didn’t get enough time to study, or they didn’t have a good place to study. Maybe there are some unaddressed learning difficulties or health issues getting in the way. Maybe there was a crisis or big change that they were dealing with while they were studying. All of these things, and more can be addressed, and should be. Failure is not life’s way of telling us to give up. It’s life’s way of telling us that something is wrong and needs to change!

I’m here to tell you that you do move forward. Your student will become a doctor, and their experience of not passing will actually be an amazing story of perseverance and determination. Of how they didn’t give up and didn’t let that failure define them. Of how they didn’t waste that opportunity, and instead used it to address an issue and become better. I’m also here to tell you that these moments of hardship and failure don’t stop. They’re going to keep popping up in a myriad of ways. How we handle them and become stronger at the end will make it so that when you face an even harder situation in the future, which you will, it won’t become a roadblock, and instead just some difficult terrain. The best people in the world, and the best doctors, are not the ones who had it easy. They’re the ones who faced failure and didn’t give up. So, neither are you, because you’re the best!

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