Until very recently, I subscribed to the belief that persistence and tenacity were the most essential character traits of the future healthcare providers of America.
In 2013, I joined the ranks of nearly fifty thousand other medical school hopefuls, applicants ranging in age from 19 to over 40, drafting responses and essays that left no doubt as to my absolute, unflagging determination to become a physician. It would not do to even hint at the possibility that I would accept another career for myself. Any prompt of, "What will you do if you are not accepted to medical school?" was answered with a variation on the theme of, Try again, and again, and again, until I am.
On the surface, such a dogged pursuit of medicine seemed to make sense. Good physicians, after all, need to have the mental stamina to push through the long years of schooling and residency, especially when the nearly quarter million dollars of debt begins to rear its ugly head.
Despite the fact that American medical schools have increased their first-year class sizes by over twenty percent since 2002, only two out of every five applicants will clinch one of those coveted white coats each year. Considering that the average undergraduate GPA of all of those applicants topped the charts at 3.54 in 2013 (with matriculants' average GPAs even higher at 3.69), I reasoned that any application written with anything short of tireless resolve must immediately go to the bottom of the application pile.
(Perhaps this is actually the case in medical school admissions. Unfortunately, as a mere applicant back then, my knowledge of what goes on behind those chrome-plated Admissions Office doors was limited to speculation and hitting the refresh button on Student Doctor Network forums).
Last year, however, after a particularly stressful bout of solitary travel through NYC during the heart of the interview cycle, my jumble of post-interview thoughts and the slightly manic, Hermione Granger-esque mental review of the whirlwind eleven med schools I had visited by then suddenly coalesced into a staggering epiphany, one that captivated me so entirely that I accidentally got off the subway two stops early.
The truth that I had failed to understand up until that point was deceptively simple. It was a truth that all medical schools happen to have prominently displayed on their admissions websites: some permutation of the phrase, We want to determine if you are a correct fit for our school.
During my preliminary research of each school, I had glanced at each version of that sentence, chalked up "correct fit" to mean something along the lines of, "GPA and MCAT scores no more than one standard deviation below our means," and proceeded elsewhere. Two solid weeks alone with my own thoughts and the same black pantsuit, however, had finally showed me how shortsighted my own drive to succeed had left me.
Applying to medical school, I realized, is just like falling in love.
That was it. All of a sudden, the whole mind-numbingly exhaustive application process made sense. Medical schools aren't only searching for the best and brightest, or else they would just create numerical cutoffs and accept the top few percent.
They are looking for a group of people with whom they will somehow become more than the sum of their parts once they are connected, individuals whose personalities and personal goals align symbiotically with their own: men and women with whom their mission, goals, and values are fundamentally compatible.
At the beginning of the interview cycle, one of the receptionists at my first medical school visit had dryly likened the interview process to speed dating. The other fifteen applicants and I had laughed haltingly, nervously, preoccupied with trying to remember how to best package and market ourselves, focused only on getting into the best possible schools that we could.
Perhaps if we had actually listened to her advice, we would have realized that attempting to sell yourself and your aggressively well-rounded list of accomplishments during real speed dating works about as well as handing your date a copy of your CV and expecting them to propose.
In the viciously cutthroat environment of medical school admissions, where 4.0 applicants are routinely turned away, there is so much intrinsic value and even relief to be found when one realizes that the admissions process was never designed to be a one-way street. Sometimes, recognizing that the best medical school on paper might not be the one for you, just like that one person you know who is great in every way except for with you, is a fundamental lesson in love.
It may take a lot of bitter days before we learn to let go: of things, people, schools that aren't meant for us, not because we are somehow inadequate or insufficient for them, but because we simply weren't meant for each other. I personally am optimistic to a fault, always waging an internal war with myself over whether I should persist or desist in the face of situations that I am reluctant to admit I cannot control.
Until the pressure of interview season, I had dismissed any kind of "letting go" as a sign of weakness, as a clear indicator that whoever had resigned themselves to their fate was relinquishing an opportunity to pursue their own success.
But falling in love, like applying to medical school, requires a different sort of strength. It is a frightening, potentially cataclysmic leap of faith, one that could either yield exquisite or grimly embarrassing results.
For my fifty thousand compatriots and I, many of us spent the better part of last year waiting on tenterhooks, teetering on the edge of a springboard, waiting to hear the outcomes of our springboard vault into the world of medicine. We were waiting much like nervous people who have just asked someone out on a date, waiting through those agonizing fractions of seconds that seem to stretch into months, hoping against hope that something good will come of it.
Indeed, even though "traditional" medical school applicants (that is, people who come directly from undergrad) should by definition be in the majority, the last application cycle saw almost 60% "nontraditionals," applicants who had taken at least one year off in between, usually to bolster their application with additional experiences. In my hazy traveling stupor, I felt inexplicably that this trend mirrored the ever-later ages at which people are deciding to get married: they want to wait longer to see if medical school, or their partner, is truly right for them.
What I realized on the train that day was something that I myself admit I still don't fully understand. As of yet, the victor of my visceral battle between indefatigable persistence and learning when something is not meant for me is still very much up in the air. It is a testament to my implacable stubbornness that it took me four solid months of medical school interviews to understand that the most important things in life can only truly be found once we stop looking for them.
Anyone who has ever accidentally found anything once thought lost can recall that precise, exquisite moment. Something that was assumed to have evaporated into thin air suddenly catches your eye while you're absentmindedly straightening couch cushions, twinkling innocently, as if to say, Hey, silly, I was here all along.
Perhaps the right medical school - and the right person - is waiting there in plain sight: waiting for us to stop looking in all the wrong places.