In this post, I thought I’d take a moment to speak to pre-med and high school students interested in medicine. I wanted to share how pursuing your passions outside of (or including) the basic sciences can be an asset for a career in medicine.
One of the most common questions I hear from high school, college, and post-baccalaureate students is of course “How do I get into medical school?” It’s an important question because the process of applying and being accepted to medical school is challenging, and making sure you have established yourself as the best applicant possible is important. But I would argue the more important question to ask yourself is “Why do I want to go to medical school?” This is the more important question because what medical schools seek in applicants are people who are passionate and capable leaders. The key to doing that is focusing your efforts on what you want to contribute and achieve, rather than focusing on what the admissions committee want.
Applicants often assume that the only thing medical schools care about is that students are rock stars in science. If your passion is science you should absolutely pursue it, but having sat on admissions committees, the undergraduate major is less important than the impact and that student has demonstrated. Don’t get me wrong, students still need to have mastery of the sciences in their undergraduate coursework and standardized tests. This is because biology and science really is the language of medicine, and to be a good physician you need to be able to speak the language. But medical schools look for applicants with a diversity of passions, and physicians who have explored beyond the boundaries of clinical care and science are some of our most important change-makers on a national and global scale.
If you look in the humanities, physician-authors like Abraham Verghese or Atul Gawande have written both in fiction and non-fiction national best-sellers. Verghese has used the practice of medicine as a tool to shed light on the human condition through fiction. Gawande, in addition to his books, has written key articles in The New Yorker on quality improvement and reducing human error in medicine that have opened the eyes of the public to a discussion that had previously taken place only in medical circles. For those unfamiliar with his work I’d recommend reading The Checklist, which changed how I thought about health care improvement.
If you look in public policy, physicians were crucial in the getting the Affordable Care Act through congress. And if you look to areas of social justice, physicians like Paul Farmer and Jim Kim (who was selected to head the World Bank last year) have led the charge on global health and improving the lives of poor people in the US and around the world. Their organization Partners in Health is worth learning about for anyone interested in medicine, and you can read about Farmer in the easy to read book Mountains Beyond Mountains.
I mention these non-traditional physicians because as you think about applying to medical school, it’s important to think about who you are as a person, and see how you can best succeed in what you are passionate about. Each of the above physicians are, I would imagine, wonderful doctors. But each of the above people has also brought something exciting and positive to medicine by embracing what they are passionate about.
As you think about whether you’d like to be a physician, it’s important not to try too hard to fit yourself into a box that you think medical schools want to see. I don’t mean to imply that you can brush off your science courses or early patient interaction experiences. Those are critical to an application. But it’s also important that you follow your passions and talents, and when you do that it’s amazing what you achieve. And just as importantly, you feel good about yourself and what you are doing. In the next blog post I’ll try to share a little bit more about why I want to become a physician and also try to share some of my classmates’ stories.
About the Artwork: The image above is a poster designed by a talented fellow med student, Michael Nedelman, for a symposium on the intersection between the humanities and medicine.