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Columbia Spectator Staff

There's a feeling among premeds that we're on an assembly line for medical school—that college is just a series of classes to take in preparation for the basic science years of medical school, that clinical volunteering and research are the only valuable extracurriculars, and that if we're not the best within this set of parameters, then we won't be able to get into medical school. But where does this feeling come from? It's misinformation—a prescriptive standard of medical admissions taken from the Student Doctor Network (and other online repositories of applicants with 4.0 GPAs and a thousand community service hours) and passed around by word-of-mouth until it became the standard that we aspire to.

In all reality, medical school admissions officers are more understanding than we give them credit for. Are GPA, MCAT scores, and certain extracurriculars important? Absolutely. Clinical volunteering, for example, proves that we looked inside of medicine and liked what we saw. But aren't we more than just medical school applications? Is there more than one path to medical school? What we as premeds sometimes forget is that the answer to that question is a loud and resounding "Yes."

This forgetfulness fosters the kind of competitive attitude that makes people dislike premeds. It makes many of us feel like we need to be the best in every class because all an admissions committee will see is a letter grade on an application, and it's easy to feel like that's all that matters. That feeling, that focus on grades, makes it very easy to forget where we are. We forget that we're members of a community, a community that could lend a helping hand to someone who needs it, that could band together through the difficult path to medical school instead of dividing over a bell curve.

When we isolate ourselves from this community, we remove ourselves from a support network, and the path to medical school becomes a solitary march, forced and grueling, instead of the road trip it should be. It's a corny metaphor, but it works: The path to medical school should not consist of a series of classes taken because they are required, or of a group of extracurriculars that we cram in because they look good on an application. Premed groups on campus should not be a way of padding our résumés, but instead a place for us to band together, help each other, and figure out who we want to be as doctors. We should be willing to meander sometimes, to take a risk, to take a class that's just interesting, not to worry about which Global Core is an easy A, and to participate in extracurriculars that are just fun. We should be willing to hang out with friends on a Friday night. This is what should happen—but it's not what is going on.

Recently, while speaking in Hamilton Hall, the dean of admissions of Duke's School of Medicine said that she was looking for students who were willing to fail, students who could get up after they stumbled. Admittedly, many of us already stumble and fall in our basic premed sciences—but too many of us are afraid to get back up.

This doesn't mean that we should go and fail a class intentionally just so we can show how awesome we are when we get an A in it the next semester.  Instead, this means that we need to be willing to take risks. If you want to be a music major, be a music major. If you want to take that internship with an advertising company downtown, do it! And if you want to do research in a lab, be a bio major, or do anything that we call "traditional," the more power to you.

It's become somewhat of a cliché to say that admissions processes are holistic—I went on a lot of college tours, and not a single one told me, "We only look at your GPA and SAT scores." However, holism is something that we as premeds too often forget about: We compartmentalize learning biology and taking Art Hum, but they're not so different. All of these classes that we're taking develops the same ability to analyze, to communicate, and to do all of the things that, hopefully, will make us good doctors someday. Not just competent doctors, not just knowledgeable, but doctors able to communicate effectively with patients and share a connection with them. And that's something every doctor should be able to do.

The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in art history.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

Medical School pre-med students stress competitiveness
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