“For half a dozen years after 1955, American medical schools were concerned by a slow, ominously steady decline in the number of medical school applicants.”
So begins a 1965 Harvard Crimson article, “Med School Admissions: Pitfalls and Myths,” that I stumbled upon one sunny, dreary day last year in the science library. It’s funny because when I found the article, written by one A. Douglas Mathews (who upon further clicking through the site, I find, co-wrote a bunch of college newspaper pieces with the now-New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg), I didn’t realize it was from 1965 (and on the heels of an article quoting RFK and Ted Kennedy on building the beginnings of a Kennedy library at Harvard).
But yes, 48 years ago, the topic of medical school admissions was ripe.
And it’s still ripe, of course. Yet I didn’t expect so many nuggets—the exacting description of course requirements, the deploring of grade-grubbers, and the bemoaning of “organic”—to ring familiar from an article written in a college newspaper nearly half a century ago.
Here are some choice quotes from his article, which seemed like from a time capsule buried yesterday that got opened too early:
On grade-grubbers and “wonks”:
The members of admissions committees are quite wise to the ways of the world, and patent attempts to build up med school brownie points are usually detected with an eye as jaundiced as it is sharp.
Exactly what the term “wonk” signifies, of course varies with who uses the word…Generally speaking, the term applies to a sort of drab toiler of limited cosmic vision, whose main concern in life is his academic grade average.
On Orgo (and still, grade-grubbers):
Much is said about how important a good grade in “organic” is, and horrible tales are told of grade-grubbing souls who audit lectures the year before they take the course and sabotage labs in the hopes of scrambling up the Almighty Curve over the bodies of fallen brethren.
Although one doctor claims that “A” students in organic “worry” him, unfortunately he is an exception.
Some students seek to mitigate the trauma of organic chemistry by taking it in summer when it is supposedly easier. (It is not so, incidently, unless you thrive on two hours of class and six of lab every day).
On unfounded rumors about medical specialty stereotypes:
Another much circulated tip is aimed at those interested in psychiatry. Such students, the word is, should not evince any interest in the subject within earshot of medical school walls because schools shy away from their kind on the general principle that “it takes one to know one.” What to tell them, this tale continues, is that you are unsure but lean towards “research.”
On how it’s just so expensive:
“When you ask some of these fellows how they propose to finance their education, they mumble blandly about ‘scholarship’ and ‘loans,’ or say they haven’t really considered it yet, but they’re confident that ‘some way’ will be found to meet the costs,” one official complained.
On staying grounded:
If a graduate has done poorly in a prestige school, he is not apt to gain such a residency…With the burgeoning number of applicants, it is simply not possible for most premedical students to attend a medical school among their first choices. Today’s snob might not get to be tomorrow’s doctor.
And most potently:
Take more science–it will kill you or cure you.
(I like this last quote because I’ve found, while studying for my post-bacc pre-med classes, that immersing yourself in science, even for just an hour between you and a problem-set, is like immersion in a language when studying abroad—an elixir that you’ve drunk without realizing it).
Forty-eight years later, and yet this article still reads in parts as if it were written yesterday. So much so, in fact, that a post-bacc student commented online 3 months ago about how much the article allayed her current fears about her medical school candidacy. I can’t tell if she realized how old the article was—or if she simply found solace in the fact that the worries of yesteryear remain the worries of next year.
Sometimes it’s crazy to think about how well-trodden this journey is, an exacting pilgrimage made faithfully by students for so many decades. In 1965, the advice for applying to law school or business school would be vastly different than now—and that makes sense. It was nearly half a century ago! The times were different! But for medical school, the process is presented as a sometimes frustratingly “textbook” science, even though there are many who say it is no longer the case, or are trying to make it not so. The feeling of rote actions, even if not the actuality, causes many undergrads to defect away from pre-med life. But in a way, even if relatively inert, the process becomes a timeless noble rite of passage, a high honor in its own right—walking in the same footsteps, pushing the same electrons from the same oxygen lone pair, connecting the same circuit, dissecting (okay, not the same) rat. Within medical schools, let alone their application processes, there will always seem to exist this tension between preserving the hallowed, tried-and-true old and the riskier new. I can’t speak to what’s better, as I feel like my current status (finishing up pre-med requirements) puts me with my toes inching over the edge of a high-dive that others have experienced—still on the brink of something tremendous that maybe only experience can give me enough authority to comment on. But I am interested to find out.
Luckily, here’s something that hopefully has vanished: punishing a candidate who was once a patient. Mathews writes:
There is another factor also: the attitude of medical schools towards applicants who have themselves had treatment. Many schools ask outright on their application forms. What effect this has on a student’s chances varies with the school; but nowhere, certainly, does a record of psychiatric consultation help a candidate…such students are usually required to have a little chat with the medical school psychiatrist.
This line of thinking runs blatantly awry from the line of thinking we’d hope all doctors possess today. In the interim, empathy stepped in. Empathy is one thing not noted in this article from 1965, and it’s becoming an increasingly important intangible in med school applications, according to physicians who have noticed an emotional burnout in aspiring doctors even before they get their MDs. Perhaps an increased focus on empathy can serve as an extra science in the mix; one more cure for the pre-med soul.