What I Learnt from Sitting a Supp
It’s the bane of any medical student, the nightmares haunting their dreams, it lurks, it preys, it’s the boogie man – it’s the supplemental exam.
But like the archetypal horror story, those who see it, never seem to tell of it. Until now.
A couple of weeks ago, I was taking my lunch break on Monash Uni’s lemon scented lawn, enjoying my smoothie and watching 10 Things I Hate About You. I was practicing mindfulness and relishing just how good life is post-exams. However, the moment’s simplistic bliss was abruptly interrupted by a harsh vibration coming from my pocket.
Up until now, my university life had run more or less smoothly. Over the past three years I had somehow passed all my medical school exams, and I was feeling quite confident about my most recent tests too, even with COVID throwing the biggest of spanners into the works.
My confidence, however, was immediately shattered when I grabbed my phone from my pocket and saw an email from faculty. Even before I read it I knew what it was going to say.
My heart sank.
I am writing to confirm recommendations arising from the Year 4C Results Review Committee. Following review of your performance, the recommendation of the Committee is that you undertake Part 2 MONSCE assessments.”
In my head I read that eloquent, bureaucratic message as , ‘you f*%ked up’. The faculty had decided that it was unclear whether I was safe enough to progress onto the next year, however, further examinations would sufficiently decide the matter.
While sitting supplementals isn’t strictly a fail, I cannot begin to stress how much it feels like that. I felt like I had let myself down. I felt like I had let my mentors down. Hell, I even felt like I let my family down.
But most of all I felt lonely. I felt inadequate. I felt that over the past year I had convinced myself that maybe I was better than I actually was, and the imposter syndrome I had been dealing with, even getting over, had come knocking back.
As I sat there on that bench, feeling a dark cloud brewing over the sunlight that I had only just started to feel, I decided to tell my closest friends. I say ‘tell’, I sent a tasteful snapchat of myself going “guess who has to sit supps” with my eyes rolling into the back of my skull hoping the humour would lighten the situation...
A plethora of responses followed:
“Not you yeah?”
“No! If you need a hand please let me know and I’ll come over and we’ll smash this!”
But the support I was seeking from friends by sending that snapchat did little to alleviate my mood and over the next few days this black cloud would continue to follow me.
Although it took me some time to embrace the consolation, I would like to emphasise the following: reaching out to my friends was quite literally the best thing I could have done. As the day passed, I was flooded with messages of support and righteous indignation from friends saying that they wanted to help, saying that they too could not believe that I was sitting supps, and that they wished me all the best.
So while the dark cloud formed by my own devices haunted me night and day, it was a little easier knowing I could rely on my friends for help.
Over the next week, from getting the email on Monday to sitting the supplementals on Friday, I dealt with a lot of trying emotions and had a few thoughts that I would like to share here.
At that point I just felt so alone. I didn’t know who had been in this position. It just felt like it was something that shouldn’t be talked about. And that’s when it sunk in.
What I learnt
The first thing I had to come to terms with was what was emerging to be an acute on chronic flare of imposter syndrome. Over that week I was very much questioning whether I was even good enough for medicine anymore. I tried to reassure myself in saying that I personally don’t do well in OSCEs in comparison to real life practice, and that eight minutes isn’t sufficient time for me to prove that I know the content. Regardless, the sense of being a fraud was still there.
Another emotion I was dealing with was shame. When I first saw that email, one of the first thoughts that came to my mind was, “How do I even tell my father about this?” I only like to give my dad good news. I only want to share with him my successes. And maybe I didn’t want to tell him because I didn’t want to face the possible reprimand that I hadn’t studied nearly enough as I should have. This was magnified by the fact that I had started studying, in earnest, for these November exams, in September, and I was putting in consistent OSCE practice over the entire year. Through all of that study, how did I still ‘fail’? That was the heart of my shame. But perhaps that shame came through too much false pride, I thought. I had set up the illusion that perhaps I was better than I was, and reality had come to poke at the fragility of the matter. Or not. My friends and close acquaintances will tell you that is not the case. But who knows really.
In the end though, my dad was quite supportive of the matter, and, always with a reliable quote on hand, (specifically Forrest Gump this time), said, “shit happens.”
All in all, there was still one thing about this set of events that I didn’t truly appreciate until I was right in the middle of it. Stigma.
Over my three years of medical school, I knew that supplementals were a ‘thing’.
Some people sat them, but not anyone I knew of.
As the years went on, I had never heard of anyone outright failing, but I would hear whispers here and there, that apparently this person sat supplementals. But it wasn’t something I had to deal with, so it was something I acknowledged and didn’t think too much about.
Until I had to sit a supp.
And at that point I just felt so alone. I didn’t know who had been in this position.
It just felt like it was something that shouldn’t be talked about. And that’s when it sunk in.
Writing this article has been a way for me to address that stigma. If I share my story, then maybe in the future, people can understand how much they are not alone. Because the more this isn’t talked about, the more the concept of perfectionism will run rampant among medical students and even junior doctor culture. It is okay to not succeed in everything on your first go. I know that lesson quite personally after being rejected from medical schools three times.
It is okay to sit supplementals. It’s okay to reach out to friends to talk about it. It’s okay to not keep silent. It’s okay to ask for a hand.
I have two last things to share before ending this piece.
First, if you find yourself in a situation where you have to sit supplementals, tell your friends, if they’re true friends they will drop whatever they’re doing (if they can) and will help you. They want you to succeed. And if your parents raised you right, you will do the same if a friend asks you for help.
Second is a little quote that I have stuck up on my pinboard next to my desk. I put it there after failing to get into medicine the second time in 2016. It’s a Star Trek quote which hits quite close to home, by Sir Patrick Stewart playing Jean-Luc Picard:
“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.”
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