Applicants across the country now await decisions from the medical schools that interviewed them. They spent thousands of hours, dollars, unquantifiable effort, and thought applying to medical school. In return, they yearn for a simple “yes” or “no.” I was inspired to write this article after receiving a very thoughtful request for advice from a reader who is currently in his third application cycle. I have wanted to write about “waiting” for some time, and now I will wait no longer.
I applied to and was waitlisted at three top-ten schools in three years. Two of those years, I was accepted nowhere. In April of the third cycle after being waitlisted at four of the five schools that interviewed me, I was finally accepted by UCLA two days before their “second look” weekend. For me, this story has a happy ending, however, I do not forget the agony of waiting. I believe that the psychological toll on applicants deserves some discussion.
||Read Emotional Intelligence in Medicine||
According to AAMC, in 2013 there were a total of 690,281 applications to medical school, resulting in matriculation for 20,055 students. Assuming, on average, that each student applied to 20 schools, there were approximately 34,500 applicants. This means that at least 40 percent of applicants did not matriculate into the class of 2017 at any one of the country’s 141 medical schools. (In fact, I have heard that as many as 50 percent of applicants are not offered even a single acceptance). When you look at your chances for getting into any particular school, the numbers become grimmer: one of the most competitive schools is Boston University with an acceptance rate of 1.4%, while far less competitive is South Dakota, which accepts a whopping 12.7% of its applicants.
||Read What Happens if I Get Waitlisted?||
I am reporting these numbers to remind you that the medical school admissions process is more challenging and competitive than anyone imagines, and, until you have gone through it, you may find it difficult to appreciate the full scope. If you are still waiting, give yourself a break and do not despair – you are in good company.
After my first failed attempt, I identified weaknesses in the content and timing of my submissions. After the second, other people started looking for holes in my application, and I began searching for personal deficits of character. The most devastating comment I received during this time was from a loved one: “If this doesn’t work out, then maybe it’s for the best and you will discover that you were meant to do something else – maybe this is not your dream.” I felt utterly inadequate as I watched peers get into competitive business and law schools. They were moving on and growing academically and professionally while I was stagnating in limbo. I was certain, however, that medicine was still, and would always be, my dream.
While waiting, I felt my self-confidence receding. Paradoxically, it became more important but substantially more difficult to accept constructive criticism without taking it personally – projecting my own waning belief in myself onto those who were trying to help me improve my essays and prepare for interviews. I was afraid that my cheerleaders had grown weary after so many OTs, having been expecting a win by the end of regulation.
As my own cheerleader, it was hardest to rally for the next round of applications while still waiting to learn the outcome of the previous one. A waitlist that I was placed on in January would extend until classes started in August, while the next year’s application cycle would begin in June. I began reapplying, but the waitlist was a constant distraction, and getting accepted off the waitlist after reapplying would have meant that I had wasted time and money on the new submissions. I was ready to pick up and move for whatever school accepted me at the drop of a hat, take on incredible debt, and scrub the toilets of the admissions office if it meant that I would matriculate.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine going through that process again. I can only think of violent language to describe the waiting: I was “held hostage” by the admissions committees; I was “brutalized,” “demoralized,” and “worn down” by the delayed rejections I received as classes commenced at the schools for which I was still holding out hope. I nonetheless continued to hope, submitting application after application in cycle after cycle, and in the process I became more steadfast in my conviction to become a doctor.
||Read How to Get Off the Waitlist||
I wish I could say that waiting taught me patience, but in reality I simply had no choice but to wait. I was impatient and anxious, and if I became any less of either it likely had more to do with getting older. What I did acquire from this whole awful process however was the ability to bounce back after repeated failures – some might call it “grit.” When you consider qualities that you would like in your doctor, “grit” might not immediately come to mind. Framing it differently – you might relate better to a physician who understands what it feels like to struggle with and fail at something. You might also appreciate your doctor’s resolve not to give up in the face of hardship, especially if she is treating you for an aggressive recalcitrant disease.
For those of us that don’t make it the first time, grit is the desirable quality that emerges as an unintended outcome of medical school admissions. While the numbers seem to indicate that getting accepted is also an unintended consequence of the whole process, I am glad that I stuck with it. In the end, it was worth the wait.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ProspectiveDoctor. Follow ProspectiveDoctor on Twitter @ProspectiveDr