PROFILES

How I Sobered Up to Ace One of the Toughest Exams in the World

Some 85 percent of students fail the Graduate Medical School Admissions Test. Seven years sober, Michael got an all-time high score.
January 8, 2021, 3:24am
From left: Michael with his son and Michael's heavily decorated back. All images supplied​​​

Michael Sunderland has blazed an unconventional path to success. He doesn’t necessarily look like a medical exam aficionado, but at just 28 years of age he’s recently nailed the highest ever score in the written component of Australia’s primary postgraduate medical exam—and one of the highest ever scores overall.

For the uninitiated, the GAMSAT, or “Graduate Medical School Admissions Test”, is one of the most difficult academic exams a person can take in Australia or the UK. The four-plus-hour test—broken up into a humanities section, a written communication section, and a two-hour biology and physics section—is designed to assess an individual’s analytical and critical thinking skills, as well as how they organise and communicate their ideas. Around 30,000 people sit the GAMSAT every six months; about 85 percent of those fail.

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But Michael—who several years ago was dozing with water buffaloes in an opium haze on the Mekong—didn’t just pass the exam; he shattered records. Between sessions of his new GAMSAT mentoring business “90plusgamsat”, VICE sat down with him to discuss his peculiar history and how he, of all people, managed to get one of the highest scores ever.

VICE: Hey Michael, we heard you got some high scores on the GAMSAT. How high are we talking?
Michael:
Well for context, a score of 67 is usually enough to get into the best medical schools, and 75 puts you in the 98th percentile. I got:

Section I - 69
Section II - 91 (the highest ever)
Section III - 84
And overall - 82 (which was the 100th percentile of students in the United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland).

What’s your secret?
Basically I’ve spent 10 years focussing on little else besides personal development. I’ve worked hard at refining my approach to succeeding at what I put my mind to, and I have a somewhat obsessive focus on whatever the task at hand is. I put in 14 to 18 hours a day leading up to the exam. Outside my time with my son, I lived and breathed it. I think this is in part the reason for my score.

There are some things that can only be understood experientially: by making hard decisions, or sitting in discomfort, sometimes even grief or trauma and investigating it for whatever riches it might yield. I've sat in my pain, I’ve gotten sober; I haven’t had a drop of alcohol or any drugs in seven years. I consciously build my sexual energy through periods of abstinence and celibacy, often six months in length, which I picked up from my time as a monk. I push myself, I absorb like a sponge, I integrate and apply relentlessly. 

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Sounds intense. To understand what you’re talking about, let’s go back to the start. Tell us about your childhood.
I don’t remember a great deal of the early years; a lot is blocked out. They say the mind does this to keep us safe. I spent a lot of time being passed between my separated mum and dad, and most of what I remember is from time with my mother: happy memories. My father, not so much.

I was mostly bored at school. I had an affection for learning, but it wasn’t stimulating. Mum pulled me out of school around this time and took care of my education herself, in between running her business. I had tutors and studied booklets of maths and english at the factories that produced her products while she worked.

Then somewhere along the line, around Grade 6, I ended up back at school—a private school this time. It was tough. I don’t remember much about the teaching but the kids were brutal. There was something about me that viscerally agitated popular kids; I spent years being tripped by other students whenever I didn’t mind my feet, I was hit in the head with a hockey stick, and I had a brick thrown at my face from a distance which landed me in hospital. It felt like I was the object of hatred of the whole school and I have been grateful every day since that I am no longer in school.

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Michael, while traveling

How did that experience motivate you to travel?
After school I hit the road; I wanted to get as far away as I could. I had some savings so I got a ticket to Europe. I grew dreadlocks, and started with a Contiki tour to get a brief sense of the various parts of Europe. After that I followed the wind. I had never really partied or drunk or had sex until then. My first time was in Paris. 

I had developed by now my proclivity for doing things in the extreme, so with drinking and partying I went full steam ahead. It was contextually appropriate during the Contiki, and after that I became a bohemian and just wandered from city to city.

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I continued drinking and taking drugs quite a lot, although it never really caused problems during this period—I was happy, enthusiastic, and finally among people who celebrated me for my difference. But I think that lack of it being a problem in my life was the problem. With no consequences, I didn’t see it as an issue and continued in my usual manner: very intensely.

Shortly after I settled in Laos. This was the height of my drugging and drinking. I would sleep with three people a day, and wasn’t sober once in six months. I woke up high from the night before and immediately continued; I would sit and journal in a haze of opium, on an island called Don Det. I woke up on my first night there with a live water buffalo curled sleeping next to me, which at that point didn’t even register as particularly eventful. After this I realised I needed to rein it in if I was ever going to contribute meaningfully to others.

I think in large part the sensational adventures were my way of postponing addressing my childhood. The more fascinating the adventure, the less I had to contend with my history. But when I returned, there was nowhere to go and it came crashing down hard. The next year of my life was transcendentally, exquisitely, traumatically painful. I felt like my guts were hanging open; I would sometimes sink to my knees in public under the weight of it all; I would neurotically rub my foot on my ankle in my bed for hours on end. I felt as if a blackness had swallowed me whole—it was incredibly disorienting. Eventually I found a way out when it occurred to me that no matter how lost I was, if I took enough consecutive steps in a consistently positive direction I would have to get out eventually.

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The biggest positive step I took was getting sober. It happened the morning after nearly hanging myself in a drunken haze. I remember googling “suicide” that night and reading that suicide happens when pain exceed resources for coping with pain. I was at the precipice of feeling that my hand was being forced, so my only option was to expand my resources for coping. It scared me enough that when I woke, I went straight to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. I have been sober ever since. 

I became a vegan during this period, which lasted for five years, and started bodybuilding to continue to take positive daily steps. I also started meditating a lot and becoming more invested in spirituality and self-development. In the years that followed I spent around $50,000 on improving myself.

What led you to wanting to become a doctor?
When I was younger, I thought what I had would make me great rather than who I was. I thought owning a nice car, a Rolex, that kind of thing, would make me happy.

When I hit 25, I had started and sold a business; I owned the Rolex, the car. It was cool to begin with—but it became really empty. Around this time I had my son, and my sister, who is a nurse, was called to London to look after a friend, whose dying wish was to be nursed to death by her. I was suddenly struck by the gravity and significance of what she was professionally capable of, and I looked at what I was doing and realised that my son didn't care about how much money I had—having things doesn't make you great. I’ve now come to understand that it's not what you do for yourself that makes you great, but what you do for others.

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Michael today, playing with his son

How do you think your unique experiences impacted you to get the score that you did?
I actually felt as though those experiences were detrimental in a sense because the things I experienced were actually quite difficult to put down on paper. My early essays were obscured by what I'd been through as they were not relatable to the marker. But I think my experiences helped me learn and discover what a perfect response to the written component of the exam looked like—and that is teachable and shareable to other students of all abilities.

I eventually learned to write more in terms of things that are relatable to readers; I stopped writing as if my opinion was superior, and began to acknowledge the limits to my own perception. My score subsequently rose from a 60 to a 91.

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If you were to give any advice to others sitting the exam, or any exam, what would it be?
The exam itself isn’t important. It means nothing. You are either needed as a doctor or you are needed elsewhere. If you are needed as a doctor you will pass the exam. If you are not, it would have made you miserable anyway. 

The advice I have applies as much to the GAMSAT as it does to anything you need to do successfully: firstly, relax. What you think is important, is not. The passage of time dissolves all significance. It takes seeing everything you hold dear fall away to realise that there is life and green pastures on the other side of what you tightly clutched to. 

The greatest things in your life will fall away so that what you next consider to be the greatest things may come—and they, too, will fall away. Your cup will forever be emptied to be replenished. Do not resist it. You do not have the advantage of distance from the things happening in your life, but if you did, you would see a divine shuffling which consistently positions you exactly where you need to be, though not always where you want to be.

Do not try to find yourself; you are standing right there, in your shoes. Do not go seeking; everything you need is right here. Everything of worth is right where you are. Trust your intuition.

And lastly: love lights the way. You do not need to go seeking love when it is where you come from.

Interview by Georgia Drake