A LITTLE OVER a year from now I will sit for the Medical College Admission Test, better known by its haunting acronym, the MCAT.
This seven-hour test will be a large determinant of the course of the rest of my life, dictating where I attend medical school and the strength of the residency program I enter. No pressure.
The MCAT, however, is not the be-all end-all for med school acceptance. On average, admissions committees rate the following aspects of an application as being of the “highest importance”:
- Cumulative GPA (with special consideration given to GPA in science/math courses)
- MCAT score
- Interview assessment
- Letters of recommendation (at least three from professors in varying departments)
- Upward/downward grade trend
- Personal statement
- Volunteer/community service experience
- Experience with underserved populations
- Competitiveness of undergraduate institution
In the coming months I will pour over prep books from the likes of the Princeton Review and Kaplan. Thousands of flashcards will be created. My life will be consumed by the Friedel-Crafts acylation reaction and the Krebs cycle.
Already countless hours have been spent taking the “core four”– general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, and physics– that make up a pre-med student’s required curriculum. Completing research projects, doing volunteer work, and taking part in quirky extracurriculars eats up any remaining time.
I am exhausted at the end of most days, faced with the siren song of my bedroom amidst mounds of homework and essays awaiting me in the library. For want of motivation I hang a sheet of paper directly above my bed, a practice that started my freshman year. It reads,
Be the hardest working student at Wesleyan
If that sentence is the last thing I see before I fall asleep and the first upon waking, I believe it will eventually become true:
I will continually be the last student to leave the library; I will stay in every weekend while my friends attend concerts, parties, and plays; I will shirk off the responsibility of calling home in order to study more and get ahead in all of my courses.
Recently I realized that I should never want that edict to come true. It presupposes a paradoxical mix of narcissism and masochism that would envelope my life.
With care only taken for my own goals and aspirations, friendships would wither and family members become estranged. While some amount of pleasure can be derived from the subjective experience of pain, especially when such effort leads to a reward or contains a greater purpose, it is unsustainable in the long term.
In contrast, the most consistent message I receive from alumni and pre-health advisors is that medical schools care about balance.
All students who work without play places themselves on a precarious course. Any triumphs we achieve are worthless if we have no one with whom to share them. Life is rendered dull and tasteless if all one does is work and toil away.
Surely Dylan Thomas’ famous words ring true– “Those who seek rest find boredom. Those who seek work find rest.” After a certain point, however, there comes an upper bound by which working increasingly harder permits no additional benefits. A life worth living takes precedent over a life worth having.
None of this is to say that pre-med students shouldn’t work hard or place the utmost importance on academics. Instead, that effort should be placed firmly in context.
I recently attended a talk by the pre-med advisor at my university. She was blunt: “The majority of you will not get into your first choice medical school.”
Indeed, admission rates at top tier medical colleges are disheartening low. Harvard Medical School, for instance, accepted just 2.7% of applicants in 2015. The University of Michigan’s med school– once thought of as my safety– is marginally better with a 2.9% admission rate.
I, along with every other pre-med student, have to accept the possibility of rejection in the face of four years of hard work, with all those endless nights in the library and a growing addiction to caffeine.
That our futures can be dictated by the capricious, albeit “holistic”, decision of an admissions committee is at once laughable and demoralizing. No matter how many As are earned or volunteer hours completed, we still might not be good enough for Harvard, UMich, or a whole host of other medical colleges.
We must recognize that likelihood of that depressing prospect, but resolve to keep fighting and put the whole of our energy, within reason of course, into becoming the perfect candidates.
While the path to the medical profession is one of the most extensive and strenuous within human society, the rewards waiting at the end are unmatched. No other position in human society, not even that of the President, holds such power to instantaneously change human life.
Life often hangs in the balance of a doctor’s tried hands. In donning that ethereal white coat in the face of calamity, they become God, able to ameliorate suffering or trigger its continuation.
As I glance at my hands and hear the sputtering of each keystroke, I imagine how they’ll one day mend a wound or redirect blood flow around a clogged artery. In just ten years’ time, these bits of bone and flesh could learn how to forestall death and bring new life into the world.
In devoting their existence to healing, curing, and comforting, medical doctors become servants of humanity. One’s own needs and desires seem to dissipate in the face of the enormous good that can be provided to other human beings.
Everything I accomplish in my life– earning good grades, finishing marathons, impressing women with my vocabulary– pales in comparison to the solace I might one day provide to a child in the throes of chemotherapy.
With this reminder, every hour spent holed up in the library is given new purpose. Every line of text to read or biological process to memorize forms another leg in the bridge that spans the chasm between a life of meager influence and one of unparalleled impact and service.
Just the prospect that my actions may directly save a human life fills me with resolve and connects me to a higher purpose that rivals those found in religion.
The thought, then, that those seven hours spent taking the MCAT could help me save lives brings me comfort. Indeed, the test is just another step towards a fulfilling and meaningful life.