Thursday, November 26, 2020

Advice U can use when applying to medical schools

I’ve been The State News’ graduate columnist for a while now, but I’ve written precious little about graduate school. This is primarily because I write to occupy some of my time in a non-medical way, but besides that, there just isn’t anything that’s worth writing about. I have 1,000 words to fill, and I studied for 60 hours this week. Even with, “And then we had an exam, after which everybody got drunk and passed out,” I’ve still got 986 words left.

But now is that time of year when seniors are applying to medical school. You’ve seen them around. They excuse themselves with half-muttered phrases like “secondaries.” When they do go out, they usually end up challenging anyone around them to an interview: “Go on, ask me about the nine weeks I spent researching gap junctions. What, you chicken?” It’s the time of year when they start hoarding stamps. More importantly, it’s that time of year when those people who have been hurtling toward medicine for the better part of four years have to stop and write out why on Earth they would voluntarily take organic chemistry.

When you decide to go to medical school, you join about 45,000 other Americans in competing for about 15,000 spots. About 40,000 of those applicants are Nobel Laureates. Under that kind of pressure, you have two options in applying: Invent a time machine, go back to freshman year and relive your college experience with a renewed focus and drive, or lie.

You’re going to lie. That’s OK, because the kind of lying you’re going to do is very American. You’re not going to invent, but you are going to embellish and interpret. The visits to your grandmother are going to warp within your memory until you honestly believe that you were volunteering at the nursing home, and you were doing it because you love old people. Remember the summer you spent washing beakers and proofreading grant applications? By the time you finish writing about it, you’ll wonder why you’re not the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. And if you write that you were co-chairman of Amnesty International, who’s going to know that you accidentally walked into one meeting thinking it was your econ recitation section?

As I’ve written, this kind of ethical haze is understandable and standard. There isn’t a white-collar job in all capitalism that’s weight doesn’t rest on these fibs. You’ll crawl through this part of the application without too much sin. What remains is the difficult part.

You will be asked to relate, either in writing or in person, your motivation to become a physician. It will be taken for granted that you are aware of the sacrifices in time, money and sleep that you will have to make, and you will be asked what justifies those sacrifices. And, once again, you will lie.

You will lie in a manner not seen since the Nuremberg Trials. You will create out of thin air a personality so complete and so removed from reality that you will start to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, even if you’re not Christian. You will amaze yourself. You will lie so well and so voluminously that I believe admissions to medical and law schools should be awarded simultaneously. In the end, every one of you will say with a deep and abiding conviction that you just want to help people.

This might be true, of course, but it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is something that you will discover while you go through the application process and will keep secret, because it sounds so shameful or ridiculous that the admissions committee will cut off your thumbs if they ever knew. And it will burn, captive, within your breast, torturing you for the remainder of your days.

Unless, of course, you become a newspaper columnist once you’ve been admitted. If that’s the case, you can blather on as long as you want and tell everybody. When I applied, I told anyone who approached that I wanted to become a physician because I wanted to help people and because I saw a poetry in physiology. Both of these are true. Neither is the whole truth.

I want to become a doctor because I really don’t like people as a whole. Don’t misunderstand me - I love individuals. There isn’t a person alive not worth the time it takes to get to know them. But as I saw my friends interning at investment banks and consulting firms, I realized I don’t like our civilization.

I don’t think I’m alone on this. I’m sure everyone experiences a moment in which he or she is overwhelmed by the improbability and beauty of his or her life. This is inevitably followed by deep dissatisfaction with what people, as a whole, have actually done with their beautiful and improbable lives.

We’ve managed to build a world that operates as if being alive wasn’t anything to get excited about. We think human life is quantifiable and are willing to exchange it for money. We build our cities and think there is nothing in creation as glorious as our skyscrapers. There is someone out there who considers his design of a box of toilet bowl cleaner to be the greatest thing he has ever done. This is the kind of thing that undoubtedly makes God wonder why he even bothered.

As I’ve said, this isn’t an original thought. Some people see this and disappear into a cloud of marijuana smoke. Some become creepy drifters. Some play a lot of hackey sac. Some campaign for Ralph Nader. I went to medical school.

I want to become a doctor because I am as much a participant in the perversion of life as I am sick of it. I want to become a doctor because I love life and I want to spend my time as close to its fundamentals as I can. I want to become a doctor so that I can transcend the garbage of humanity, even if it’s only for a few minutes at a time. I want to become a doctor because I love people; not what they do or build or write but what they are from the moment they are born. I want to become a doctor because if I don’t, I will eventually take my life for granted.

I am barely into my second year. Next year I start in the hospitals, and it’s perfectly possible that I will gain that hip, grinning cynicism that makes medicine indistinguishable from investment banking. I hope not, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I was able to tell you the real reason I once wanted to become a doctor. Good luck to you all.

Rishi Kundi is the State News graduate columnist. His column appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at


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